If you cast your mind back to the 1960's, as developers Treyarch are imploring you to with the latest Call of Duty, there are a number of really great war films that stand out.
The Great Escape. The Dirty Dozen. Von Ryan's Express. Steve McQueen, Telly Savalas, Sinatra. Moonlit nights, secret plots, high action and pure class; talk softly and carry a large gun. Damn those Nazi swine.
Unfortunately, by the 1980's, we ended up with Private Benjamin, Stripes, and Born on the Fourth of July. The themes had been presented, the audience knew what to expect and all that was required of movie studios was to pad out the details, perhaps swapping the setting from Nazi-infused France to malaria-happy Vietnam in the process. What can you present to your audience that hasn't already been thrashed out in a hundred different movies?
Treyarch, having leapfrogged to the head of Activision's Call of Duty release list based on nothing but sheer attrition, have no such qualms about presenting a campaign mode bereft of any real innovation whatsoever. The gaming industry, after all, is a Red Giant compared to the White Dwarf that is film; burning up its creative juices before spewing them into the interstellar medium where they coalesce into familiar patterns of, to quote Denby Grace, "gay space marines".
Keen star-gazers, therefore, will be able to write the next paragraph themselves. Black Ops shudders from one frenetic set piece to another, tasking the player with repelling incoming hordes of enemy soldiers that seem strangely attached to operating in tightly-knit groups behind conveniently located steel drums. As a baseline first-person-shooter then, it's got you covered.
The plot sets up the action from the hallucinatory musings of protagonist Alex Mason, CIA operative, who has been incarcerated in a detention facility and forced to live out his past by means of a montage masquerading as the game in which you'll participate.
Beginning with the disastrous Cuban Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961, the intent is to reveal what kind of nefarious activities the uber-elite Black Ops teams have thus far gotten away with. Curiously, for a strategic team usually associated with guerilla activities, there's an awful lot of not-so-subtle encounters. It's hard to imagine anyone within a twenty kilometre radius not spotting a large experimental ballistic missile being shot down by a shoulder-mounted rocket launcher. Or, indeed, a rooftop gun battle in Hong Kong culminating with a helicopter crashing into a building and exploding onto the street below.
Maintaining the suspension of belief necessary to make it through the campaign requires a herculean effort. The action is overwhelming at times, with the occasional auditory and visual overload disorienting your progression until you can move to the next trigger, which promptly cues another incoming wave of troops more hell-bent on suicide than a legion of homeless lemmings. It could have been entitled "Call of Duty: Somme" and nobody would have batted an eyelid. Cuban, Vietnamese, Russian, German or English, if they're blocking the next checkpoint, they're going to get shot by any one of a staggering number of weapons on offer, most of which have a prodigious amount of ammunition available.
For all that the series bills itself as an authentic recreation of war and is sponsored by a house-trained veteran, creative license abounds. You’ll regularly trot about with more than 500 rounds of spare ammunition and enough grenades to be the envy of compound-dwelling militia everywhere. I can understand plenty of AK-47's on offer throughout Havana, Vietnam - well, pretty much anywhere really: After all, they've made 75 million of them. But near-silent crossbows shooting bolts equipped with flashing lights and exploding heads? Rocket-propelled camera-guided anti-tank missiles in late-sixties Vietnam? Really?
The whack-a-mole shooting gallery experience so central to Black Ops would be made more tolerable if the set encounters required a modicum of effort on the players’ behalf to initiate. After all, jumping from a truck on to a train, or wrenching Vietcong out of a boat and cutting their throats are admirable pastimes we'd all like to perfect. But again, the mechanism requires nothing more than a casually timed button press to succeed. Even when Black Ops tasks you with doing anything tricky that doesn't involve firing a weapon, you'll find yourself plummeting to your death after missing a small gap between two rooftops that you wrongly assumed the game would take care of for you.
After six or seven hours of combat that makes Stalingrad look like a loose rabble of Boy Scouts attempting to get their smallbore badges, you might question exactly what the point of it all was. Much like every Call of Duty since Modern Warfare, there isn't one, because the real value in Black Ops is in the multiplayer.
There are a number of changes introduced by Black Ops, possibly the most significant being that progression now requires "COD points" to purchase any of the new weapons, hardware and perks you happen to unlock. This allows your character to specialise in weapon load-outs rather than presenting you with a bunch of kit that you're probably never going to use. This, together with the fourteen new multiplayer maps, provides a point of differentiation for the jaded Modern Warfare 2 masses yearning for a new challenge.
COD points can also be gambled in a new "Wager Match", which allows you to bet a portion of your points on the chance of placing within the top three in the round. Those that do place divvy up the pool of points on offer, those that don't learn a harsh lesson in humility. It's a concept currently proving popular with the abundant online population. To keep things interesting and variable, Wager Matches are free-for-all games played in a number of modes, the most popular of which are Gun Game and One in the Chamber.
Gun Game, essentially lifted from the popular Counter Strike mod, sees everyone starting out with a pistol. Make a kill and you’ll advance to the next weapon, be killed with a knife and you’ll revert to the previous weapon. It may sound like taking the early lead will ensure victory but the weapons are ordered in such a way that it can become difficult to sustain your position.
One in the Chamber equips every player with a knife, a pistol with a single round and three lives. Kill a player to earn another bullet. These matches are much slower, quieter, more considered and more intense.
But without a robust matchmaking service that pairs players based on skill, it’s possible to imagine a future wherein Wager Matches are the province of an atrophied elite who carelessly gamble away their vast wealth as if they were the sole heir to a pet rock fortune, whilst permanently residing in a Monacan casino.
The COD currency implementation doesn't end with Wager Matches, however. You can also purchase contracts with your COD points, which task you with the requirement to complete a particular achievement within a set time frame. Achievements vary on a rotational basis, and consist of tasks such as performing a number of headshots or melee kills.
Another clever addition is the Combat Training mode which allows players to practice against AI or with friends, ranking up in comfort before the jumping into the frenetic gameplay and wearisome pubescent squealing that accompanies your typical round of Call of Duty on Xbox LIVE.
Nazi Zombies make a welcome return, depending on your preference for the undead. There's no real difference to the four set maps available in World at War, and the action is the same - kill zombies, patch up walls, shoot dogs, collect tokens and most importantly, always die eventually.
Black Ops’ greatest success in the online sphere is its sheer variety, however. All the usual game modes are here, Team Deathmatch, Search and Destroy, Capture the Flag, Sabotage and so on, in addition to customisable games and a levelling system that is a step forward for the series. In spite of our passing concerns for the distant future of Wager system, as it stands, the concept is solid and it certainly won't run out of appeal any time soon. But what Black Ops lacks is a sense of propulsion or real innovation. Playing it, you very much get the feeling that you're partaking in another iteration of a game that you've been playing for years.
For Call of Duty's legions of fans, perhaps that's enough, but if the series is to have any further longevity innovation must be injected with the next release.