Version tested: Xbox 360
"Remember, no Russian." When the dust settled, Modern Warfare 2 took as much of a shoeing from critics as it did from politicians for its controversial terrorist smashup in an airport terminal, but while Call of Duty: Black Ops has the potential to cause even more offence blending real and fictional events during the Cold War, even impersonating JFK and Robert McNamara to add gravitas the closest it comes is during a pre-credits cut-scene revelation that is more "gotcha!" than grisly.
Instead, finally freed from the shadow of Infinity Ward (albeit by something of a PR mushroom cloud), Treyarch takes us back to the sixties for the birth of the US Special Forces. The action jumps between a few characters, but the story is about Alex Mason, a CIA operative who ended up in a Russian labour camp following the Bay of Pigs fiasco, which saw him captured and handed over to villainous bad guy Nikita Dragovich by Fidel Castro.
At the start of the game, Mason wakes up strapped to a chair being tortured by unknown silhouettes hiding behind frosted glass windows, and through this interrogation you relive various chapters of his adventures and those of his handler, sunglasses-loving iceman Jason Hudson, who is voiced well by a throaty Ed Harris. Mason's recollections take you through Cuba and his pivotal spell in prison, to a Russian space centre and all over East Asia as you hunt Dragovich while the game reveals his ghastly plan.
We may be deep behind enemy lines, but the scriptwriters do their best to leave no clichι behind as we leap from moving trucks to speeding trains, float down jungle rivers listening to the Stones and stealthily infiltrate mountainside communication outposts. There isn't much character to latch onto in Mason, Hudson and company, and occasionally the game is so blatant about lifting things from spy stories and Vietnam films that you develop your own thousand-yard stare. Still, at least you understand who everyone is this time, and the final reveal is confident enough even though you see it coming, the writers can't help ramming it home five times in a row, and it's been done before on numerous occasions.
But of course none of this is the point. The point is that you have to shoot a large number of people in the face to advance along a linear path while all hell breaks loose around you, and in this regard Black Ops is as good as expected and Treyarch is just as qualified to fill your peripheral vision with supersonic flybys, doors being blown off hinges, armies surging over hills, rockets taking off and napalm lighting up tree lines as Infinity Ward ever was.
Call of Duty arguably laid itself bare with the original Modern Warfare training level aboard a wooden ship and its pop-up cardboard enemies the irony being it was very effective training for a game where enemies won't ever do much more to block your path than merely pop up. Black Ops doesn't try to break free of this model. Enemies (Russian, Vietnamese, Nazis, even British commandos at one point it doesn't make any difference) take up positions behind cover and it's up to you to iron-sight them to death. If you fail it's because of your impatience or lack of observation rather than their tactics.
It's incredibly slick and spectacular, and you're always surrounded by comrades running in the right direction and yellow objective cursors to drive you where you need to go. The one occasion where the game does a poor job of signposting your next move, failing to notify you that you can kick over some napalm barrels, only stands out because it's the single exception to the golden rule: never leave the player in any doubt what to do next.
But while the campaign is little more than a very nicely decorated corridor, there are lots of fun things to do inside it. There's the Dragon's Breath shotgun with incendiary shells, shooting enemies off motorbikes with a shotgun and cocking it one-handed while jumping over a ridge, a snowy stealth section where you have to avoid detection and silently eliminate patrolling soldiers with a crossbow, and even a sequence where Black Ops almost resembles a strategy game for a few minutes. Forget the setting, the JFK impersonator and the birth of the black ops Call of Duty is about shooting fast, dying often and watching a good-looking set-piece, and on that level Black Ops unquestionably delivers.
It's not just about that though; it's also about leaving a long-lasting multiplayer legacy, and Treyarch goes a lot further to achieve that than it did with Call of Duty: World at War. Firstly, the Horde-style Zombies mode is back with three expansive, secret-filled new levels (one featuring Nazis, one set in the Pentagon and one we'd rather not spoil) and should keep you and up to three well-drilled friends busy for many hours.
There's also the traditional range of modes familiar to those who answered recent Calls of Duty, including old favourites like Search and Destroy. The progression system now relies on COD Points rather than raw experience, and the range of unlockable perks, killstreaks and modifications is staggering. Maps are visually and spatially varied, and Treyarch is keen that you're always exposed from multiple angles whether you're sneaking around a hotel in Havana, trudging along mud tracks and over rope bridges in the jungle, or darting in between fuel tanks in a missile launch centre.
Mindful that Call of Duty is contested rather ferociously online, there's even a Combat Training mode where you play against computer-controlled adversaries, allowing you to get a taste of every mode and ability before you head online and start playing for real.
Black Ops' great revelation, though, is Wager Matches, where you gamble COD Points in a series of free-for-all modes. Sharpshooter, where everyone uses the same weapon and it changes randomly at intervals, is rather perfunctory, but the others are gems. Sticks and Stones gives you a crossbow with explosive bolts, a tomahawk and a knife, and the result is carnage, while One in the Chamber gives everyone a pistol with one bullet, a knife and three lives, and the tension isn't so much palpable as saturating.
Gun Game is the big favourite, however. Players start with a pistol and receive a new weapon with each kill, although being knifed will knock you back to the previous one. On paper it sounds as though the early leader should prosper while those stuck with the pistol for longer than a few seconds flounder, but in practice the order you move through weapons creates helpful changes in pace, as the leaders struggle with sniper rifles just as the chasing pack come up through shotguns, SMGs and assault rifles.
Call of Duty has long since settled into an enormously successful rhythm, and the good news for Activision is that Black Ops does little to disrupt it. The campaign is relentlessly aggressive and spectacular a Jerry Bruckheimer tribute act stuck in permanent encore while the multiplayer modes are a mixture of smart tweaks to working formulas, as focused on protecting that guaranteed bottom line as the campaign's yellow objective cursor is on making sure you never falter. The results are never less than entertaining whatever you choose to do, then, but not exactly brave and bold either. Say what you like about No Russian - at least it was something different.
8 / 10