It's fair to expect bombast from the biggest video game of the year.
"Call of Duty: Black Ops" gets hyperactive with its heft, from its most fiery explosions to the tiniest bits of brain matter floating in slow motion from the heads of the game's several-hundred casualties. Developer Treyarch, a veteran of the "Call of Duty" series, now follows the footsteps of smash "Modern Warfare" studio Infinity Ward like a timid private tailing his commander along a Vietnamese jungle path. The result isn't groundbreaking for the military first-person shooter genre, but plenty of fun.
The campaign takes place during a time untouched by the "Call of Duty" series: the Cold War. It flashes back to the early 1960s, when special forces operative Alex Mason is captured following a failed attempt on Fidel Castro's life during the Bay of Pigs coup. (An inventive scene suggests "Black Ops" will exist in an alternate timeline, but alas, the United States still blows the invasion.)
Mason is hand-delivered to the Soviets and locked in a gulag. He escapes with the help of a Russian named Reznov and deploys to Vietnam, but his account of events is questioned during present-day interrogation scenes with anonymous torturers. Seeing wild hallucinations and cryptic strings of numbers from Mason's point of view plants more doubt in the player's head about the reality of the events they're experiencing.
Treyarch bolsters the "Black Ops" campaign with many stealth and vehicular warfare segments for a balanced campaign that changes pace well before it gets wearisome. Players can pilot Hind helicopters, silently stick guards with a crossbow or tomahawk, lay waste to riverside Vietnamese huts from a gunboat, and torch a roomful of Russians with a flamethrower. The polished controls and AI reflect the years of refinement "Call of Duty" has undergone in the hands of both Treyarch and Infinity Ward.
The "Black Ops" developer's only recurring stumble is occasionally dropping the player into firefights with no clear direction out. During a hillside battle in Vietnam, a fellow officer mumbles something about drums of napalm. Until players brave the gunfire of dozens of North Vietnamese Army soldiers to approach the drums, they won't know the napalm can be kicked downhill to fry the trenches and repel the enemy. This breakthrough will likely be preceded by several vain tries to advance after picking off endless hordes of soldiers.
"Black Ops" unabashedly bares its ambitions to be the most momentous entry in the "Call of Duty" series, and though it's not short on bluster, it doesn't top either "Modern Warfare" in epic sweep. It boasts no missions quite as compelling as "Death From Above" in "Modern Warfare" or "No Russian" in "Modern Warfare 2." The sights of the North Vietnamese Army swarming the hills at Khe Sanh and Mason blowing a space rocket out of the sky in the Kazakh SSR will stick with players, though not as vividly as the scorched Washington D.C. of "Modern Warfare 2" or the daunting cliffs of Pointe du Hoc in "Call of Duty 2."
For all Treyarch's deference to Infinity Ward's success with the series, it can't clone the "Modern Warfare" developer's instinct for leaving the player spellbound by what they see. The story and settings of "Black Ops" never engage the player to the degree Treyarch clearly, desperately wants. From its film homages ("The Deer Hunter," "Apocalypse Now," "Hamburger Hill," even "Forrest Gump") and all-star voice cast (Sam Worthington, Ed Harris) to the predictable twist ending written by "The Dark Knight" story writer David Goyer, the game stays enjoyable to play but unremarkable to watch.
Treyarch left its biggest departures from "Modern Warfare" for the multiplayer, where a new currency system replaces the level-locked weaponry of the previous "Call of Duty." Some game modes and privileges remain unavailable until players gain experience, but guns, attachments and perks can be bought with CoD Points to give players quicker access to their ideal loadouts. A new Combat Training mode, in which players battle in team deathmatches and free-for-alls with AI opponents, can ease the transition for offline players intimidated by the online war zone. High-stakes players can bet their points on uniquely ruled matches, such as One in the Chamber, a free-for-all battle in which everyone starts with one bullet in their pistol.
For all its tweaks to "Call of Duty" multiplayer, Treyarch still wears Infinity Ward's influence on its sleeve. The multiplayer menus and displays look almost identical to "Modern Warfare 2" and little like Treyarch's last effort in the series, "World at War." The aesthetic marks a smooth transition into another addictive online shooter arena, this time with maps ranging from the squeezed suburban Nuketown to the lavish sprawl of Castro's Cuban villa. Multiplayer has long been "Call of Duty" players' motivation for purchase, and "Black Ops" again proves why.
And just to reinforce its kitchen-sink approach to pleasing players, Treyarch has also included four-player zombie survival mode in "Black Ops." Because if you want to go big, you have to add zombies.