Call of Duty: Black Ops
Call of Duty: Black Ops takes us back through time or, more specifically, to one particular stretch: the Cold War. It's another case of history being told through the eyes of videogame designers, with military vignettes being picked out and displayed on account of their raw violence. Real life soldiers don't have checkpoints, but let's not worry about that.
From the get-go, Black Ops looks to be doing what Call of Duty does best - bombastic scenes told with explosive relish, scripted down to the very last tree trunk. The two levels on show at Activision's pre-E3 press conference confirm the series' age-old mantra of if it can explode, it will explode. And things certainly do explode.
The first level, WMD, takes us to the snow-kissed peaks of soviet Russia, with an elite black ops squadron (wait - that's the name of the game!) named Kilo One tasked with infiltrating a dodgy weapons lab. Seeing as this is Call of Duty, 'infiltrate' loosely translates to 'roughly shoot everyone in the face, jab them with pointy blades and toss them off mountains'. Who's not down with that?
Before, though, you nip into the perspective of a pilot, complete with the shiny visor and audible deep breathing, as he climbs into a SR-71 Blackbird and takes to the skies. You see the engines come to life from the first-person, observe your crew around you and hear flight control barking orders into your headset. It's all building up to something but the moment of truth, liftoff, is shown in the third-person.
It feels a little bit like a copout for a series that's always shown its most significant moments from the view of the player - such the explosion of the nuclear bomb in Call of Duty 4, or the planes falling from the sky in Modern Warfare 2 - and it's a bit of a shame, even if my sadness is short-lived, to be denied the visual rush of a first-person take off in the SR-71. Boo.
Once you're up, up and away it's time to fiddle with some knobs and dials - the game, in a very rare moment of restraint, has you providing visual reconnaissance for Kilo One. Enemy forces are converging on their position, and it's your job to guide them into cover. A simple click of the right analog stick has them scurrying off to the location you've pointed out, the moment playing out like an RTS game where you're not allowed to attack.
Dodge the enemy forces for a bit and control is changed to the men on the ground - plonking us into that comforting first-person perspective armed with a chuffing big gun. The Russian patrol walks up, metres away from the hidden squad, but their commanding officer decides to move on. It's a close call, but you probably could have had them anyway - you've got a crossbow, for crying out loud. People with crossbows are guaranteed badasses, and you quickly go from hunted to hunter.
Whereas the Ural mountain range looked imposing moments before, frosty and dangerous, once you're in full swing it becomes a victim to the power of recharging health bars and the fact you've got a blooming massive crossbow.
It's a beautiful scene, mind. An icy blue sky sits on the horizon and a gentle downhill slope helps to convey the sense you're coming up to a jagged cliff face with sharp, pointy rocks at the bottom, and your descent is made a little more exciting by frequent smatterings of enemies, pocketed neatly into the areas where they'll be the most fun to shoot.
Progressing down the mountain is standard enemy-dispatching stuff, with the occasional twisty corner for some baddies to hide behind - just the kind of deadly antics your elite squad of super soldiers were trained for. Signs of staging are everywhere, and the level design is metered, precise and focused. You'd almost expect to bump into a camera crew and a boom mic if you accidentally spun around at the wrong time.
Combat feels brutal, and your squad move around with more poise than the rat-a-tat-tat military machismo antics of TF-141 - although I'm sure we'll bump into some of that down the line. The unassuming plink of the crossbow does wonders for the quiet and deadly approach on the initial target of a Russian substation, although changing to explosive tips means you can blow up a nearby munitions dump and blast everyone away as them come scurrying over to inspect. It had to happen.
Then it's time to rappel down the cliff-side, smashing through the windows of the relay station in brief gusts of concentrated murder: the parka-clad Russian mooks inside never see it coming, and your CPU allies do most of the flashy kills. You're left with the odd straggler to shotgun in the chest, though much of your time will be spent watching the scenes of stylised murder unfold. Grisly stuff.
Before long you're back on the offensive, taking out attackers and ducking behind chunky computer banks, thick monitors and giant rolls of tape. You've been rumbled, although jamming your knife into the all-important relay controls probably didn't help. As you head back outside and start to dash across a flimsy gantry it's - who didn't see it coming - hit by a rocket, and your squad is forced into a desperate and perilous scramble out of danger.
It's a familiar bit of action: everything crumbles during the escape. Even the mountain itself is happy to oblige, and the level ends with you making an impromptu dive off the cliff as everything comes down around you. Unlike the Blackbird lift-off it's kept in the first-person, and it looks very exciting.
So, too, does the next level. Slaughterhouse is exactly that, a devastating turkey-shoot through the densely packed streets of Vietnam's Hue City. It sets the tone in its opening seconds, with you rappelling out of a helicopter that gets hit by another rocket. Whoever's firing these has brilliant aim. Blimey.
The helicopter spins out of control, and you and another soldier are left feeling a bit queasy as you dangle off the end of the rappel wire before being flung into a building through a glass window.
The level's clearly been picked out to serve as the antithesis of what came before: Hue City is beaming white spotlights penetrating through billows of red smoke coloured by the burning skies. The Americans are attacking en masse, choppers dotting the sky, and the military is pushing its way through the devastated city.
Back inside the house, you get to your feet as an enemy soldier bursts into the room and becomes a meatshield for your colleague. His SPAS-12 is used to blast away a few enemies before being thrown into your hands, and you both set off to carve a path through the frenzied destruction.
The shotgun packs a punch, and emits a noise so loud each copy of Black Ops will probably have to ship with ear buds. Its devastating spread of buckshot seems wide enough to take out two or three enemies with a single blast, and it almost feels unfair as enemies spring out from their hiding places and run at you. They don't stand a chance.
Throughout the level you weave in and out of buildings and edge down city streets, routinely taking out enemy soldiers as you go. The most shocking moments come from bumping into civilians, who are understandably desperate to get out of the warzone: one is trying to jump out of a window, another is cowering in the corner as your blast a door off its hinges.
The chaos is visually maddening but the level is precisely designed. The destruction is carefully organised so it forms a neat and tidy path for you to progress from A to B, with sudden explosions creating paths out of dead-ends in just enough time to make sure you're never unclear about where to go.
Enemy opposition is high but you're given access to some beefy ordinance in the form of an attack chopper, which turns fortified houses into dilapidated coffins. The sound of its high-calibre minigun spinning up and unleashing a payload is inline with the shotgun - really quite loud indeed. As the demo ends, it's busy shooting through a building and exploding an enemy tank.
Treyarch stress Call of Duty: Black Ops will take the series in exciting new directions, and there's no reason to doubt their claims - these are the same designers who had the last laugh when it came to zombie Nazis, after all.
WMD and Slaughterhouse, though, look like Call of Duty doing what it does best. And that's not such a bad thing when you stop and think about it. At the very worst you're going to be getting a very exciting six-hour jaunt through some tightly controlled noisy explosions. I'm just looking forward to getting my hands on that crossbow.