Version tested: Xbox 360
Hi Eurogamer! Last time we looked at an inevitable and overpriced map pack for Call of Duty: Black Ops together, we met Dave, my future brother-in-law. Dave and other (but not all) Daves are the reason that Activision can charge 1200 Microsoft Points for five maps while maintaining direct eye contact and avoiding a tell-tale blush.
Dave is new to gaming, and his 360 is almost exclusively a Call of Duty machine, only occasionally gasping for fresh air on the pitches of FIFA. In terms of the hours of play he'll get from it, the best part of a tenner doesn't seem much to refresh the COD man-shoot experience.
Dave doesn't realise it, but a battle for his immortal soul is about to rage in the gaming heavens. EA is sharpening a trident imbued with runes that spell out Battlefield 3, Activision is feeding raw lightning into the machine that powers the COD conveyor belt and THQ has lit a tealight and whispered a few sad words in front of post-it note on which someone has scribbled 'Homefront!' in red felt-tip.
Just who will win that cataclysmic battle is as yet unknown, but for now, Dave sits firmly in Bobby Kotick's pocket (balancing delicately on the tip of a cigar, sleeping in a fold of hundred dollar bills and forever in fear of being crushed by a small lady revolver). He downloaded Escalation the second it was out, so I rang him for his review. "Yeah. It's alright, I suppose." Score out of ten? "Erm. Seven?" And, don't you know, he's right.
As with First Strike, there are four multiplayer maps here this time veering even further towards players who favour more exotic gameplay flavours than habitual Team Deathmatch. All the maps are large; there's no map like First Strike's Stadium, where bullets are sprayed so frequently they form a fine mist. As such, even with a full server, TDM can feel a little lonely, while Contract killcounts won't tot up as fast as many would like.
The maps are also a little more complicated than normal. Hidey-holes and snipe spots are often far less obvious than in pre-existing maps, while there are more cover points liberally scattered through levels. It will take time for people to evolve fresh tactics, three days at least, so if you jump in right now, your kill/death ratio could come as a pleasant surprise.
Convoy is built around a fairly familiar crossroads setup: its centrepiece is a broken motorway bridge that's crumbled into the road that passes below it. It's a textbook spot for Domination, HeadQuarters and whatnot, with many points of entry and a sniper's alley up above.
There's a neat touch outside the gas station: a lead that makes a bell ring when cars or soldiers pass over it. This, clearly, leads to a lot of blood being spilt and a fair few naked flames getting close to the petrol pumps. At first, you feel lost in Convoy, but it soon develops into an excellent nuts-and-bolts exercise in point capture and area protection.
Stockpile, meanwhile, is a journeyman affair. A World at War virgin, I was last night reliably informed by a man from Newcastle that it's similar to the elderly Outskirts so perhaps Treyarch fans (wherever they're hiding) will be happier with it.
It's a Russian village with a central WMD storage depot, a large multi-gantried affair with a vast number of internal windows which mean that guarding its entry points can prove tense and tactical. Aiding and abetting this, meanwhile, are two garage doors that can be shut (accompanied by a loud horn sound) to funnel enemies elsewhere. A decent level, but not one that shall be writ large in the COD history books.
Next up is Hotel, a rooftop map built with Capture The Flag in mind and hugely reminiscent of Modern Warfare 2's High Rise. (Then again, any map drawn from the model of Team Fortress' 2Fort or Unreal Tournament's Opposing Worlds is going to feel a little familiar). Visually, this is the most interesting level, complete with pool, steamy sauna, casino and a vault that's been busted open leaving high-denomination dollar bills floating on the breeze.
It's a little on the large side but provides a multitude of interesting pathways, as well as those ever-popular opposing snipe ledges. Fun for five minutes, meanwhile, are lifts you can call and if you're hilarious plant a claymore in for the unsuspecting. In a map pack that's far lower on patchy gimmicks than First Strike, these are sadly very much a patchy gimmick.
Last on the list is Zoo, with initial and striking similarities to the Modern Warfare 2 Resurgence pack's Carnival. The setting might be similar, but in time you realise that it's an unfair comparison. There's a better and more circular flow through this level tighter channels, intelligent short-cuts and far fewer backwater annexes.
Not only is the monorail it features a neat pathway to capture points, but you can't help but be amused by the bodies that tumble down around you as you scoot along below it. Whatever gameplay mode that's been spat out by the Mosh Pit, Zoo seems to fit easily making it the best all-rounder of the new maps.
And so, just before we wrap up proceedings and plunge into comment anarchy, we come to Call of the Dead. This is a rather unique zombie map that stars the likenesses and glib comments of Sarah Michelle Gellar, Robert Englund, Danny Trejo and Michael Rooker (who's in The Walking Dead, apparently no, I didn't know him either).
The idea is that a George Romero movie, being filmed in the snowy wastes of Siberia near an ominous shipwreck, has gone wrong. The man himself has become a roaming uber-boss, bashing those who dare to shoot at him with a lighting rig while wave upon wave of zombies flood into a vast level that your team gradually unlocks.
It's nothing but a pleasure to be chased round and round a gloomy lighthouse by a giant septuagenarian Hollywood icon shouting 'Let's do lunch!' while you're trying to board up deadhead entry points. Escaping zombie rushes by sliding down wires gives more pace and movement to gameplay and results in some great moments when you accidentally leave a member of your crew behind.
The enraged George can seemingly only be calmed down by leading him into icy water, so there's always a heightened degree of back-and-forth as rounds roll on and forever the distant and tantalising prospect of being powerful enough to take the almighty bearded bastard down.
It must be said, however, that the premise of the trailer that of the B-Movie gone wrong is one that suits Escalation's marketing far more than the map itself. For a zombie map built to venerate Romero, it seems a little strange that it takes place in a frozen wasteland rather than the shopping malls and small-town Americana that made the man famous.
The celebrity faces and voices that make up the cast, meanwhile, never become the Left 4 Dead foursome you dearly wish they were, their repetitive chitter-chatter rarely raising a half-smile. It's a great map and a great premise, chock-full of the secrets that the COD zombie community adore, but it very much feels like the map concept came first, and the Romero overlay second.
In conclusion: another good map pack. The Daves (and, as you might have guessed, muggins here) will get their money's worth. There is, however, a twist to this tale.
Over the weekend we were discussing the ructions after his first Eurogamer appearance, during which everything kicked off. Not everyone was keen on Dave as a human being, while others questioned the inference that Dave's taste in games automatically meant that he was the type to frequent the local branch of Liquid and Envy ogling women, his left hand clutching a bottle of blue WKD and his right suspiciously deep in his pocket. (In fact, Dave generally drinks lager.)
Having scrolled through the pro- and anti-Dave comments and scratched his balls a little, Dave's reaction was: "People are weird, aren't they? You've got to worry about people on the internet." Then, though, he dropped a bombshell. "Thing is, I'm going to give up on this Black Ops lark once L.A. Noire is out."
Ladies and gentlemen, behold Darwin's evolution at work. The sea slug is about to crawl out of the ocean, the monkey is poised to climb down from his tree and the Neanderthal is about to sort out the crick in his neck. Through the gateway drug of Blops (and an article he read in Nuts), Dave is about to enter a deeper and more meaningful world. Sorry Activision, this one's getting ready to fly the nest.
7 / 10