The hot game "Call of Duty: Black Ops" is set during the Cold War. It begins with a mission at the Bay of Pigs (try to assassinate Castro, good luck with that), then you progress into the muck of Vietnam and all that muddy quagmire.
I'm going to skip right to the bottom line, since this is the biggest release of the holiday shopping season. (It even co-stars voice acting by Sam Worthington, Ed Harris, Gary Oldman, Ice Cube and Topher Grace.)
This is a solid, familiar "Call of Duty" outing. The solo adventure blends a movielike experience (a story about a very special POW) with a typical shooting game. (Although, surprisingly, the solo missions aren't as realistic or as thrilling as the latest "Medal of Honor.")
But -- and this is a big but -- the "Black Ops" multiplayer is one of the three best online shooters this year.
So first, let's look at the solo missions. They are echoes of previous movies, TV shows and video games.
When "Black Ops" begins, you are a POW strapped to a chair while a mysterious man with a mechanically altered low voice interrogates you (an echo of the movie "Saw").
He keeps asking you to divulge a series of numbers that often flash in your brain, though you don't know what they mean. (Sound like "Lost" yet?)
As the story line moves along, you have flashbacks of Vietnam battles. This is where the game kicks in. You play as a supersoldier in those flashbacks.
In an early flashback, you saunter around a central intelligence office (an echo of the show "24"), as the TV screen breaks into different camera images (just as "24" did).
You hallucinate that you're pointing a gun at John F. Kennedy (an echo of "The Manchurian Candidate").
Before you know it, you are stuck in a different playable flashback, on a river in Southeast Asia, where you're riding a nasty boat, shooting bad guys on riverbanks, while a Rolling Stones song plays. (Hello, "Apocalypse Now.")
I thoroughly enjoy this solo game. It's prettily drawn. It's intuitive to figure out what to accomplish/shoot next. And there are some funny bonus levels: Kill Nazi zombies! As JFK!
I'm more excited about the online multiplayer modes. They are nearly flawless. However, the flaws are slightly off-putting.
Online battlefields are too vertical. This leads to gamers camping out atop buildings and in office windows, sniping at everyone, which is old-hat.
Online battlegrounds are cluttered with war detritus, making them clunky to navigate. But those are two acceptable complaints.
My real complaint is the physics of killing. Sometimes grenades don't go off. Sometimes, I shoot enemies three times in the face with a powerful shotgun and they don't die. Sometimes, I shoot them twice in the foot with a wimpy pistol and they keel over.
Something has to be done about the bullet physics of online shooters. How can I properly kill fake people if my fake bullets are so wishy-washy?
("Call of Duty: Black Ops" by Activision retails for $60 for Xbox 360, PS 3 and PC; $50 for Wii; $30 for DS -- Plays quite fun, and even better in online multiplayer. Looks great. Rated "M" for blood, gore, intense violence, strong language. Four out of four stars.)
Contact Doug Elfman at firstname.lastname@example.org. He blogs at reviewjournal.com/elfman.