There is an entire subset of the Call of Duty fanbase – arguably the largest subset – that could not possibly care less about the singleplayer campaign and just wants to spend time shooting other people in the face online. Our Editor-in-Chief Russ Pitts had some harsh words to say about the campaign in Call of Duty: Black Ops, noting that while the game had flashes of momentary fun, it kept on getting in its own way. Thankfully, there are no such obstacles lurking in the multiplayer portion of the game. In fact, it might be accurate to say that the multiplayer could well be the series’ best.

Treyarch knows that Call of Duty fans have very specific expectations about their multiplayer, and the core backbone of the online gunplay hasn’t really changed from previous games in the series – why tamper with a formula that has proven itself so wildly successful? Black Ops multiplayer is still a breathtakingly fast-paced effort that revolves around aiming down iron sights, gunning down your enemies in short bursts, and quickly respawning upon death to do it all over again. All the necessary pieces are in place to make fans of the series feel comfortable with diving right in headfirst; Treyarch doesn’t rock this boat unnecessarily.

The developer makes one crucial change that seems small at first, but winds up feeling pretty significant. As in previous COD games, you unlock new weaponry and equipment for your character as you level up (by shooting other people in the face), which gives players the opportunity to customize their characters to fit their playstyle of choice. Black Ops spins this tried-and-true concept around and ties the whole thing to a currency system: As you play the game, you accrue credits in the form of “COD Points,” and you can’t equip a weapon, weapon modification, or gadget until you’ve spent your cold hard not-quite-cash.

To some, this might sound like an unnecessary second hurdle on the road to having a character that’s fully kitted out in every way. In practice, it lets players customize their classes at their own pace, buying the things that they find most appealing first and saving the rest for later. Most importantly, however, it encourages players to take advantage of the various methods Treyarch offers to get rich quick.

In Black Ops, you can purchase Contracts that effectively function as little miniature achievements, asking you to accomplish a certain task in-game. It can be something as simple as “win a round of Team Deathmatch,” or it can be something more difficult like “get five headshots with (Gun X) without dying.” Complete your Contract and you get a bonus payout – the riskier or more complicated the Contract, the bigger the payout – but if you fail to succeed within the time limit (that is, time spent alive in a match), you’re out the money you spent on the Contract in the first place. Watching those last few minutes on your Contract tick down as you try frantically to get the kill streak you need is a tension and sense of urgency that just hasn’t been there in previous games in the series.

There’s also an entire gameplay mode dedicated to putting your money where your mouth is. In Wager Matches, every single round requires a buy-in that can range from the marginal to the exorbitant (depending on your risk tolerance and confidence). Prevail, and you’ll get your money back and then some. Lose, and you’re that much further from your shiny new gun.

Not only does the very concept of the Wager Match inject some Vegas-style excitement into the mix, but the game types are some of the most clever and most entertaining we’ve seen in a COD yet. There’s a mode where ever player has a pistol and just one bullet – do you trust in your aim, or do you try to close in for a guaranteed knife kill? There’s a mode where everybody’s weapon randomly cycles every 45 seconds, where a sniper duel can suddenly turn into a lethal hailstorm of minigun rounds. Another mode gives you a better weapon every time you kill somebody, and the first person to make it through all the weapons wins.

Even if these new match types weren’t as entertaining as they genuinely were, there’s a hidden benefit: The Wager Matches and Contracts encourage players to try something new. There’s a tendency to get comfortable with your favorite gun and loadout – I love my Red Dot FAMAS – but by putting random guns in players’ hands and enticing them to mix it up in the hopes of scoring it big, Black Ops does its best to encourage its online warriors to branch out from their comfort zone in the interest of keeping things fresh.

Another great change is the deemphasizing of kill-death ratios. In previous games in the series, your KDR was the only hard indication of how well you were playing, and its prominence encouraged people to try to maximize their combat performance to the exclusion of any other objectives. In Black Ops, your KDR is only emphasized in the modes where it matters – that is, Deathmatch – which hopefully will encourage players to capture and defend objectives instead of playing Rambo.

The maps are well designed with plenty of twists and set pieces for heart-pounding shootouts, and Treyarch has to be commended for their visual diversity. You’ll fight through ruined industrial plants, the Vietnamese jungles, snowbound research stations and even a mock-1950s’ American suburb used for nuclear testing (think that scene in the fourth Indiana Jones without the stupid fridge).

Black Ops ditches some of the most frustrating perk combinations and killstreak rewards from its predecessors, though it adds some new ones to grind players’ teeth in frustration. The remote-control-car bomb is great fun to use, but less fun when you’re on the receiving end, and it feels like the helicopter gunship is a bit too powerful this time around.

The guns and gadgets, though, strike a nice balance between the high-tech weaponry of Modern Warfare and the antiques seen in the series’ World War II installments – the exploding crossbow is particularly entertaining. If you want to spend your hard-earned cash on customizing your gear with special paint jobs, you can do so, and while it’s a small thing in the long run it ultimately makes your gun of choice feel more like your gun of choice. It also makes it a tad more rewarding to gun an enemy down and pick up a weapon with a cool attachment or paint scheme you hadn’t seen yet.

Ultimately, the multiplayer in Call of Duty: Black Ops doesn’t depart too drastically from the conventions of games in the series that came before it. If you’re a fan of COD multiplayer, you’ll have a blast, but if it hasn’t been up your alley so far, this installment won’t win you over.

With its brilliantly-designed credits system that encourages players to try new things, some great maps and some hilariously creative game types, though, it’s safe to say that the multiplayer in Treyarch’s Black Ops is easily as fun as the series has ever been – perhaps even more so.

John Funk blames that one death on lag. No, he blames all of them on lag.

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