Impressions: Call of Duty: Black Ops

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I know what you’re thinking: Ugh, another Call of Duty. I’m not quite with you, but I do get it. Thankfully, what I saw of Treyarch’s latest, Call of Duty: Black Ops, looks absolutely fantastic. More importantly, it looks to be different enough to actually stand out among all the other CoD titles. No, really.

These impressions come from a session that was hands-off, mind you. But know that we did see quite a bit of game play, and our impressions will beat the hell out of watching a short teaser trailer and trying to pause the video to see all the details. We give you a full play-by-play, leaving no detail of Activision’s demo to the imagination.

Read on for our first impressions of Call of Duty: Black Ops.

First, know that Call of Duty: Black Ops takes place during the Vietnam war, and the game is staged in all the areas related to the war. You’ll play as the Elite Special Forces, and will take part in missions that have been kept under wraps, using weapons that have been heavily modified to get the job done. Knowing these things going in, I had a mental picture of what I expected the game to look like. Boy, was I totally off base!

A cinematic (real-time!) starts off at Beale Air Force Base in California. Air Force crew is working around the famed SR-71 “Blackbird” stealth craft. A man in a pilot’s helmet, Maj. Thomas, takes seat in the SR-71, and the game switches to a first-person cockpit view. A very loud roar (Activision set up a fantastic sound system for this demo) comes from the engines and then the Blackbird takes off. And you’ll control the flight here — fly with the left stick, pull back to increase altitude — and go up to some beautiful near-space visuals.

A bit further into this opening you’ll find yourself inside the Blackbird, looking at a screen showing some terrain, complete with a target indicator. You’re providing guidance to a squad on the ground with the right stick of the controller, with a nifty first-person view of hands working the plane’s controls all the while. You see troops move toward a residential home. The enemy looks to be pulling up in front of the house in vehicles; just in time, you inform your squad to take cover behind the house.

The screen fades to white and comes back with a first-person view of the grounds, as you’re now looking through the eyes of one of the squad members on the ground. You and several other men are holding on the ground, crouched in some of the most lovely videogame snow I’ve ever seen. One of the enemies comes up a hill on foot as snow falls heavily around him. In the background it looks close to blizzard conditions.

As the enemies pass by you, you set out with a crossbow equipped. The snow seems to have lessened and some beautiful lighting effects are in play here as sunlight shines through leafless trees, casting some very realistic shadows on the ground. You crawl to a guardhouse up the way, and as you do this the game kicks into high action. Suddenly you’re running through the deep snow, and then halting and diving into it for quick cover as you see one enemy that stayed in the guardhouse. You put your crossbow away for a sniper rifle. Looking through the scope, the one remaining enemy passes.

At this point in the game, it’s clear that Treyarch has really worked things out in the visual department. There’s some stunning work in this opening, to be sure. I watched on as snow was lightly picked up by a wind, pulling it off the ground and into a light and shiny fog. As you and your men secure the structure, you’ll look out over a vast valley where you can see miles of snow-capped mountains, lit by soft, cloudy sunlight.

You find that you’ll have to rappel down a hillside to progress. The game switches into a first-person view as you look over your shoulder, down at the ground to where your land point would be. I want to be clear on how scary this looks! The developers did a great job at making this look intimidating. You’ll hold the left trigger to push off the side of the cliff and rappel, and then hold RT to brake. And it’s not that easy to do, apparently, as the demonstrator slid down too fast, hit the ground too hard, and ended up dying. Back to the checkpoint!

After a successful try, you’ll rappel down into a window of an HQ that sits directly below your landing point. You plunge into the window in slow motion with your other men, guns a-blazing. After taking this sub-station you’ll make your way down a steep hillside with some even steeper stairs, all the way down the hill. A wind picks up and suddenly that’s all you hear as you head down toward a radar dish deeper in the valley. Again, some graphical muscle is shown here as sun shines through trees that are capped with snow, giving some glimpses of some almost photo-realistic settings.

Some Russians are chopping wood at the bottom of the hill, so you snipe them out. Coming closer to the radar dish’s base, you’ll use a crossbow to take out enemies to keep things quiet. The same crossbow makes a huge gas tank an easy and quiet target…until it explodes loudly. Because of this, Russians come pouring over a hillside with massive gunfire. Blood splatters on the snow as you run for cover, with the booowheep of the radar constantly sounding in the background. You eventually make your way into the radar dish station and clean it out, giving you the opportunity to disable the station and complete your objective.

Just when you start to relax, you hear something very loud approaching from over the hill. The ground rumbles but the camera never looks back to see what it is. You can only run forward, and that brings you to a cliff. You have to jump off, and so you do, free falling, with your first-person goggle view freezing around the sides.

A second, shorter segment of the demo takes place in Hue City, Vietnam, in 1968, in a stage that Treyarch calls “Slaughterhouse.” You begin in a helicopter, flying through a sky that is an unsettling red and orange, lit with explosions, bombs, and machine gun fire. Again, the rappelling control comes into play as you jump out of the chopper, working to avoid enemy fire. The chopper gets hit as you try to escape it, and it crashes into a building’s window, dropping you right inside the war that is taking place on the ground.

Inside what looks to be some kind of office overrun with Vietnamese soldiers, you find one of the game’s new weapons, an incendiary gun that uses “Dragon’s Breath” shells. The massive power of these shells makes it pretty easy to make your way through this burning building. As you progress you hear an announcement in Vietnamese. Translated, it says that they’re rounding up civilians for execution.

You make your way into very, very heavy gunfire and explosions, forcing you to fight and defend yourself in tight quarters. Some of the explosions (and your shots) are so large that they blow holes through walls. Fluorescent office lights sway from the roofs as you shoot over to a heavily overrun second story clearing. Making your way outside, you’ll fight to approach a landing zone. That’s easier said than done, because the gunfire is insanely dense.

You find a soldier in a ditch and take his radio to call in a helicopter strike on the side of the building you’ve just exited. Helicopter machine guns rip the side of this building to shreds in an amazing display. Soon you hear the rumble of a tank rolling behind the low-flying copter. The tank shows its spray-painted nickname, “Bottom Feeder,” as it rolls through Hue City, slowly demolishing the city street alongside the helicopter.

Even if you’ve had your fill of Call of Duty games or even first-person war games in general, it’s hard to imagine the gameplay we saw not impressing. Other than the setting, what’s most notable is that the weapons and combat approaches are unconventional when compared to your typical war setting. Being that you’re following the story of the Elite Special Forces in the Vietnam war in this game, the tone seems to lean more towards getting things done in whatever way possible, and this means modified weapons and more stealthy approaches.

We need to see much more of Black Ops to make a solid call, but I have no problem saying that what we did see was very impressive. War has never looked so inviting to me.


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