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Call of Duty: Black Ops

Can Treyarch really step up to the plate?

Pressure. It's not something Treyarch has had to deal with in previous Call of Duty games, thanks to its role as the courier of stop-gap entries in one of gaming's biggest series. While Infinity Ward's team flexed their muscles and high-fived each other after each release, Treyarch was left to hold the fort and keep fans happy until the next 'proper' Call of Duty rolled around.

But oh, how time changes things. The notorious 'No Russian' mission and the huge number of multiplayer glitches in Modern Warfare 2 saw the fanbase rebel against its idols for the first time. Even though the game was brilliant, fans seemed to expect more - a pressure that has now fallen to Treyarch. Can there be too much of a good thing?

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It's to Treyarch's credit that Call of Duty: Black Ops manages to postpone that question for at least another outing. Even more credit is due for it putting an ear to the ground and hearing the grumbles and moans from fans of the series following Modern Warfare 2.

Although Treyarch has unsurprisingly avoided direct mention of that game, there are obvious signs that it has at least noticed the strident and much-discussed backlash. The most obvious example is the fact that the plot of Black Ops is leagues above Modern Warfare 2's hyperactive tale of action movie lunacy and incoherence.

Numbers game
You play as Mason, strapped into a chair in a darkened interrogation room with TV monitors all around you flashing up numbers. Between jolting you with electricity, you're asked what the numbers mean. Like Mason, you have no idea. And thus, Black Ops leads you on a series of flashbacks that bring you to the point where you're strapped into the chair while explaining why.

Even though the narrative jumps into the shoes of another character, it only does so to help colour in Mason's backstory, while explaining the motives of other characters related to him. It doesn't feel disjointed or bitty, nor do your eyes have to reluctantly drift to the names at bottom of the screen so you can work out who you're controlling.

It feels natural as the narrative flows from that interrogation room through to the end credits without any obvious breaks or seams. While a good plot isn't essential to the success of a good FPS - hell, Valve is only just bothering to do one now for Left 4 Dead - Black Ops shows what a difference a strong storyline makes.

There's a sting in Black Ops' tale that will get people talking but it's not a 'No Russian'-style ambush but rather, the eventual reveal of the initial grey area - what those damn numbers mean. The slow build-up is peppered with clues and the ending demands you revisit the storyline again, armed with the new knowledge to see how everything falls into place.

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It's also a good excuse for the art team to really show off what it can do. Black Ops is visually dense with detail, as you'd expect from a Call of Duty game, but it has an unpredictable variety that shows Treyarch has really kicked on since the days of its grey-Russia-brown-Japan World at War outing.

Whether it's a gorgeous orange sky in Khe Sanh that's stuffed with helicopters while Vietcong swarm towards you or a cracked, frozen ship that towers above you in icy Russia, you end up almost as eager to see what's next as you are to unravel the mystery.

The gameplay remains classic CoD territory. You enter new areas, slowly clear out threats and follow the marked leader, with variety punched in via the odd gimmick - clearing out darkened tunnels with a revolver, shooting out support beams, ensuring your hazmat suit stays intact and so on. Black Ops has maintained the series' standards for polished, accessible gameplay. Even when you're kicked into the seat of a helicopter or behind the handlebars of a motorbike, it never loses its focus on accessibility. It takes only a few seconds to familiarise yourself with the new controls before you're sailing up Vietnam rivers chewing up soldiers from your gunboat while Sympathy For The Devil rings out

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