It's right about the time you're shooting a well known communist leader in the head that it all clicks into place. Here we are in Call of Duty land again, where insane Boy's Own battle action and precise historical detail weirdly conjoin. This long-running series of million selling military shooters is essentially the Inglourious Basterds of the gaming world a strange, ridiculous, entertaining, fanciful and bloody celebration of man's interest in violence. And it still works. By some considerable margin, Black Ops works.
For the campaign mode, you play almost exclusively as Alex Mason a special operations veteran caught up in the Bay of Pigs invasion and then cast into a covert war that quickly descends into a fraught psychological odyssey. As the action ping pongs between Cuba, Vietnam and Russia, an interesting tale plays out concerning dodgy CIA dealings, Nazi experiments and communist expansionism, all bubbling beneath the accepted "facts" of the era. It's similar to the Modern Warfare titles in that it actually boils down to a classic manhunt in the end, but while some elements get lost in the rush, this is easily the most cogent and well-constructed story we've seen from this franchise in a number of years. Although it's not quite the time travelling psychedelic drug orgy some were expecting, there are several well handled plot twists that make Modern Warfare's narrative battering ram look even more brutish and incoherent.
Splattered across the game's expansive Cold War canvas is a very familiar Call of Duty experience. Once again, we're shooting our way along linear paths, more often than not following a lone indestructible character as he barks out orders. Navigational options are kept to an absolute minimum, a straitjacket that feels almost suffocating at times, especially when we're shown astoundingly rich and detailed environments like Vietnamese jungles and the inner chambers of the Pentagon only to be told we can't go anywhere.
But this is the CoD way, and operating within the constraints of the series, Black Ops is a master work. Whether you're busting out of a hellish Russian prison camp or creeping through Viet Cong tunnels with just a flashlight and a revolver, Treyarch knows how to grapple the drama and spectacle out of every choreographed encounter. What this game is, in fact, is a ceaseless barrage of brain pulverising set-pieces. There is Hue City on fire, with US choppers strafing overhead like monstrous dragon flies; there is the raid on the Russian launch site, its towering rocket looming beneath a sickly orange sky; and there is the shootout on the rooftops of Kowloon city, with jumbo jets scorching close overhead as bullets fly. Black Ops doesn't so much capture your attention as bludgeon it into bruised acquiescence.
Within the cacophony of each mission, you will find the usual buffet table of interesting weapons. There are the faithful regulars of course, including the M16, the FAMAS, AK47 and Skorpion machine pistol, but Treyarch has also trawled the archives to find some fascinating contemporary rarities, including the box-like G11 and the powerful but slow H510 shotgun. Enemy AI is decent, too, especially the Russian spec-ops forces who roll and leap around the screen like circus athletes but circus athletes with semi automatic rifles. If they get close enough, they'll rush at you with savage speed and purpose, a rare behaviour for computer-controlled fighters and a welcome respite from the usual peeking-out-from-behind-cover behaviours.
Part of the success of the game, though, has nothing to do with its relentless action: the comparatively authentic characterisation is vital. None of the people in Black Ops are as interesting