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Right off the bat, a player familiar with the Call of Duty franchise will feel at home with Black Ops. The main menu is a little different, but there's a reason for that; you're strapped to a chair, but you can break free. Therein lie some easter eggs, so that's all I'll say on that.
One small enhancement that you might notice if your habitual first stop is the options menu, is the ability to specify Multiplayer as the screen your game starts up to see. No more wasting those precious six seconds to go from the main menu to the main multiplayer menu. It's the little things like that which add a polished feel to the game.
Playing the game feels just like it has in MW2 and other Call of Duty games; low leveled, can't create a class, can't purchase killstreaks, can't do much of anything. All the maps are fresh and no one quite knows what to do yet, but that'll change over time. The first few levels come quickly; it's easy to get the create a class ability after one or two matches.
One new addition is the Call of Duty COD Points, the currency you earn through the game. Level and EXP count for little, now. Your level determines what weapons you can buy, but the limiting factor is always COD points. Thankfully, they're plentiful, if you set yourself to one play style, or focus on certain challenges. Set three perks, get a good weapon or two, and work on the challenges for those; soon you'll be rolling in more points than you can spend. The down side is, if you want to experiment, try out different weapons, then you'll be perpetually broke.
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Graphics - Models
The graphics in this new Call of Duty are, well, not the greatest. Compared to the detail that Modern Warfare 2 gave you, Treyarch's designs seem blocky. It's not enough to affect gameplay seriously, but it's the little things. S ometimes you'll face an entire enemy team using the same Perk 1, and it looks like an army of clones. That's one interesting aspect to the graphics, however; your first perk slot chooses your character model. No longer is your sniper rifle giving you a ghille suit automatically; you need the Ghost perk for that.
On the other hand, the gun models are solid and the camo selection is varied and interesting. Gold camo is back, though it'll take quite a while for anyone to reach the 14th prestige to unlock it. The customization available through changing your red dot or reflex sights allows you to make every gun your own, and the ability to etch your emblem and clan tag into the gun make it even more unique.
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Graphics - Environments
The environments are much brighter than in MW2. The landscapes don't seem as muddled and samey, and actually fit the areas. Nuketown is brightly colored and fake-looking, which is fitting for what it is. There aren't any dark and rainy maps like Storm was. Many of the areas have a lot of detail, whether it's the bottles placed on railings in Villa, or the nicely rendered jungle in Jungle.
The only time the environment graphics seem wonky is when you fly in on a Chopper Gunner or a Gunship. Nuketown especially; the large dual rainbows that look so idyllic from the ground suddenly look flat and painted. And as with any FPS, occasionally models will clip through walls, or debris won't act quite right, but that's par for the course.
In general the graphics suit the game, at least, and that's all we really need.
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First off, let me say this; Treyarch is trying to discourage sound whoring. Sound whoring is when you have a high powered sound system, be it a good headset or a dolby surround system, and you use the audio to give you an advantage over other players. They are discouraging this by making everything louder. All maps have ambient noise; one even has a train pass through at regular intervals. The announcers are speaking almost constantly with killstreak announcements.
Gun sounds are at once better and worse than MW2. Some of them sound very "clicky" like they're firing on empty over and over. Others, meanwhile, sound like actual tiny explosions, which is what they are. Each gun has a reasonably distinctive sound, and you can often identify what guns are being used by that alone.
Music in lobbies and menus is unintrusive and won't likely get on your nerves, given the amount of time the average player is spending in lobbies these days. There's no real sound effect for when players join your party, though, so if you're using to using that when you're knee-deep in menus to know when your party is full, you'll be left without that indicator.
For the most part, though, the sound direction is solid. You really do feel like you're in a war zone, with the constant gunfire going off around you. The only sounds that stand out as odd are things like the RCXD killstreak; a racecar driving around is somewhat out of place. Oh, and there's not as awesome a sound for completing challenges this time around.
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Controls and Interface
Overall, Treyarch has made a solid game here. There's much to be liked about Call of Duty Black Ops, and while it's a different game from Modern Warfare, fans of the genre can and will adapt to the newness until it's just as familiar.
Menu design is possibly the biggest change. There's a lot more stat tracking than there was in MW2, and it's sometimes hard to find specific bits of data you're looking for. Heatmaps, KDRs with individual guns, the number of times you've been killed with particular weapons, or used particular killstreaks -- it's a lot to keep track of. Still, it's quite interesting to be able to see just where you tend to shoot people.
Some new features are helpful. The ability to join a party without being invited is invaluable for recollecting a dropped party, and the ability for the party leader to "back out with party" means no longer do you have to worry about someone leaving their console and getting left behind.
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Callsigns are more detailed, in that your emblem is insanely customizable. You can unlock a dozen layers to play with, and every shape can me rotated, flipped, and color swapped. Your "titles" are more limited, as backgrounds for your callsign, but they only unlock per level and COD points. You don't get titles or emblems through completing challenges in this game.
Gameplay itself feels at once faster and slower. Compared to Modern Warfare 2, movement speed seems a little slower, aiming and shooting a little stickier, kills a little slower because there's no stopping power, and that sort of thing. On the other hand, objective modes cap a lot faster; domination is no longer a game of "whoever takes B spawncamps and wins" but rather a rotating give and take. Games can be won without ever taking B. Don't expect to hear "losing A!" and make it halfway across the map in time. Overall, the gameplay is solid and enjoyable. If you go into it thinking it'll be MW2 with new skins, you'll be disappointed, but as a stand-alone game it's solid.
Did I miss anything? Something you want touched on but I left out? Drop me a line in the comments!
List of reviews for Call of Duty: Black Ops on various consoles as well as some custom Black Ops related hardware.