For most gamers, any discussion about Call of Duty starts and ends with multiplayer, but Call of Duty: Black Ops features a surprisingly competent single-player campaign that features the most cohesive CoD narrative yet.

Call of Duty: Black Ops' core plot isn't nearly as original or as inventive as it could have been, relying as it does on several well-worn twists 'borrowed' from various movies, and it suffers from a few issues. Certain plot points are clumsily handled; there are still moments where you have to brute-force your way to a checkpoint to trigger the next area; and they beat you over the head with the final reveal, as if they didn't trust the average gamer to understand what was going on.

Still, Call of Duty: Black Ops is a solid effort overall whose tone and spirit adequately captures the culture of paranoia that resulted from the tense 60s era cold war between the United States and Russia, the Cuban missile crisis, and the Vietnam War. The superior voice acting and motion capture work make it easy to enjoy the seven to eight hour story as it unfolds. It's especially worth playing because it unlocks a neat little surprise that's a nice bit of fan service.

Call of Duty: Black Ops multiplayer options

The term 'fan service' is also a good way to describe the approach Treyarch took with Call of Duty: Black Ops' multiplayer modes: it's obvious that the developers set out to make this installment the definitive online Call of Duty experience, and it helps that such a solid framework had been laid by the previous titles. All the expected mutliplayer modes are here - Team Deathmatch, Domination, Search and Destroy, Headquarters and so on - and for the most part, they play exactly as you'd expect, with the new map layouts, weapons, and perks having a strong effect on strategy and game flow.

Call of Duty: Black Ops

The new Nova 6 grenade is a useful piece of equipment in any online mode with set capture points like Sabotage (Xbox 360 version)

For instance, the new Nova 6 grenade saturates an area with a nerve gas that disorients players and slowly saps health, rendering it a useful item to have in modes involving set capture points. Perks have also been reordered - Marathon, for example, is now tiered with Ninja, meaning you have to pick one or the other, putting an end to one of my favourite, albeit abused, perk combinations. Treyarch also brings back is popular Zombie mode, which will no doubt please gamers who enjoyed it in World at War. I was dismayed, however, that they chose to remove the highly underrated Spec-Ops mode from Call of Duty: Black Ops, and I sincerely hope it's offered down the line as a DLC add-on.

But the biggest tweak to the multiplayer is, of course, the currency system, which replaces XP in terms of unlocking weapons and attachments. Everything in the game, from perks to equipment, has to be purchased, and while the periodic feeling of hitting a jackpot found in previous CoD games is gone - DING DING DING, here's another trinket! - the currency system makes it easier for established fans to customise their gear to their liking.

You still have to achieve leveling milestones to unlock specific items in Call of Duty: Black Ops, but you don't have to grind levels just to get a silencer or a scope - you just dip into your bank account and purchase it outright. It's a sensible evolution because most gamers have logged enough online hours to know what their preferences are, so empowering them to customise their loadout makes a lot of sense.

The new Wager Matches are an interesting twist as well, letting you bet credits against your own performance; rank in the top three and you earn credits, rank anywhere else and you lose credits. These matches will no doubt be dominated by high level players the way poker games are usually dominated by card sharks, but even amateur gamblers can have fun thanks to the three tiers of betting. The lowest tier, Ante Up, only requires a 10 credit buy in, which is a modest enough entry fee to entice anyone to give it a try; the modes themselves are fun, with One in the Chamber and Gun Game topping my own personal list, and even though I never felt particularly thrilled by the gambling aspect, ending a round 'in the money' does lend a nice element of accomplishment to the experience.

Call of Duty: Black Ops extras

Treyarch also included a lot of extras that round out the overall experience and helps bring CoD up to date with contemporary franchises such as Halo. Theater mode, for example, isn't anything new, but it is smartly implemented, with each kill and death mapped as bookmarks on the timeline, letting you easily warp to a moment of triumph or defeat. Combat Training is also a worthwhile addition, especially for anyone who's been afraid to jump into the snarky, chaotic online environment; it's a closed environment where you can set up matches with your friends and bots to familiarise yourself with competitive play.

I was disappointed to find that Team Deathmatch and Free-for-All were the only modes available, but the bots do a decent job of replicating some of the behaviour you often see online - sniper camping, for instance. I also have to mention the character customisation features like emblems and clan tags as well as the ability to set up private matches with custom settings that the hardcore online community will no doubt appreciate.

Next page: More extras, testing methods and our expert verdict >>

See also:

Download games, PC games reviews and news

Games reviews

Call of Duty: World at War review

Microsoft Kinect for Xbox 360 review

Then there are the unlockable extras that Treyarch hid throughout Call of Duty: Black Ops; I won't discuss them in detail here because I don't want to ruin the surprise (other sites have already reported on some of the extras, so Google around if you want), but let's just say that there are clever little extras that add a geniune sense of value. That, by the way, is Black Ops' true strength: it offers up so many things to do that you can't help feel as if you're getting your money's worth.

Call of Duty: Black Ops

Look at the barrel of the gun and you can see a custom clan tag as well as an emblem (PS3 version)

But as was the case when I reviewed Modern Warfare 2, I played Call of Duty: Black Ops under ideal circumstances, so it'll be interesting to not only see how the community reacts to the game, but how I'll feel about it after investing multiple hours into the multiplayer. There are valid questions I just can't answer at this point, such as will gamers embrace the currency system or reject it, and what sorts of idiotic and game-breaking behaviour will the community come up with - snipers camping Domination maps to get nukes in MW2 ruined many a match for me, for example.

And yet, despite those misgivings, I also can't deny the level of polish and value inherent in Call of Duty: Black Ops. It's an all-encompassing package that is easy to recommend to fans of the series. Besides, console shooter fans will no doubt flock to it in droves as it's already breaking pre-order records, so you almost have to buy it if you regularly play online because it's the game most of your friends will no doubt be playing.

The good news is that Call of Duty: Black Ops is absolutely worth the investment, and even if you find yourself disagreeing with some of the changes Treyarch instituted or you run into a bunch of morons who are hell-bent on ruining a particular mode for you, you have plenty of other options to keep you engaged for a good long time.

Call of Duty: Black Ops

The Crossbow is a deadly weapon for stealthy wetworks; it also has a starring role in the Sticks and Stones Wager Match variant (PS3 version)

How we tested

In the interest of full disclosure, I wanted to describe the conditions under which I reviewed Black Ops. Two weeks before the game’s launch, I was flown from San Francisco to LAX; from there, I was driven to Santa Monica airport where I was given a flight helmet customised with my gamertag. I was then put into a helicopter and flown to Ojai, California, a small town about two hours north of Los Angeles. After landing in a field, I was driven to the Ojai Valley Inn and Spa, where I was given a posh suite to stay in for three days. The suite contained a big-screen Samsung 3D HDTV, a 5.1 surround sound system, and an Xbox 360 console. I was also given a Mad Catz Call of Duty Black Ops branded headset. A ballroom equipped with 30 or so stations was also made available for multiplayer sessions. At the end of the trip, I was allowed to keep the flight helmet and the Mad Catz headset. All travel and accomodations, including food, were covered by Activision.

I was given access to Call of Duty: Black Ops’ 3D mode and found the effect to be fairly impressive. The level of depth does add positively to the overall experience, but it doesn’t impart any tactical advantage, at least from what I could tell.

I will note that it did cause noticeable eye strain as well as some discomfort (I wear prescription specs, so wearing glasses on top of glasses is not fun at all), but that’s not something I can fault Treyarch for - it’s my own fault for having defective eyes, after all - and they clearly went through a lot of trouble to make sure the mode works - I was told that they went out and bought a 3D set from every major manufacturer just to ensure maximum compatibility. While I’m not completely sold on the technology just yet, Black Ops and 3D-compatible titles like the upcoming Killzone 3 represent a major leap of progress for 3D becoming an established standard, and it certainly does bear watching in the near future. And hey, if you have the necessary hardware, it’s a nice bonus to have.

Next page: Our expert verdict >>

See also:

Download games, PC games reviews and news

Games reviews

Call of Duty: World at War review

Microsoft Kinect for Xbox 360 review

Call of Duty: Black Ops: Specs

  • PC version: Intel Core 2 Duo E6600 or AMD Phenom X3 8750 or better
  • Windows Vista/XP/7
  • 2GB RAM
  • Shader 3.0 or better graphics hardware
  • 256MB nVidia GeForce 8600GT/ATI Radeon X1950Pro or better
  • DirectX 9.0c-compatible sound hardware. Console versions require PS3 or Xbox 360
  • PC version: Intel Core 2 Duo E6600 or AMD Phenom X3 8750 or better
  • Windows Vista/XP/7
  • 2GB RAM
  • Shader 3.0 or better graphics hardware
  • 256MB nVidia GeForce 8600GT/ATI Radeon X1950Pro or better
  • DirectX 9.0c-compatible sound hardware. Console versions require PS3 or Xbox 360

OUR VERDICT

This polished refinement of the Call of Duty formula offers a bevy of content that covers almost every expected base. Single-player campaign is satisfying, and the multiplayer has enough depth to keep fans engaged for a long time. But the single-player plot can be clumsy at times and they still haven't completely eliminated those taxing moments where you have to throw lives away just to reach a specific checkpoint (they are relatively rare this time around, though).

Find the best price