Call of Duty: Black Ops is the third unnumbered entry in the CoD series, and the third developed by Treyarch. It also happens to be the best in the series, besting Infinity Ward’s attempts at both singleplayer and multiplayer. Treyarch takes CoD to the next level by shifting the focus in storytelling from war to covert operations. Set during the Cold War and Vietnam War, the plot revolves around Alex Mason, held captive in an interrogation room. The story in Black Ops is advanced by Mason’s flashbacks, and takes us all over East Asia. Players of previous CoDs will also find a few surprises in store here. At first glance, the campaign in Black Ops plays out just like its predecessors: full of non-stop shooting and intense action. Treyarch breaks this repetitive (but mostly fun) cycle by sprinkling quite a few twists and introducing new mechanics, along with the intense scripted sequences that CoD is known for.

The pacing is nothing but fantastic, dotted throughout are suspenseful scenes or calmer-than-usual moments of exploration. Zombies makes a welcome return, although only two maps are included on the disc (one is unlocked by default). The gameplay in Zombies is nearly identical to the over-the-top World at War downloadable content, featuring weapon upgrades and auto-revives. An aspect that’s been toned down, however, is multiplayer. This is not to say it’s disappointing or any worse than previous titles; in fact, this is the best multiplayer the series has ever seen. Players of Modern Warfare 2 know about the issues present in the multiplayer of the game: chopper gunners are too effective, spawn system is awkward, boosters cheat their way to ridiculous XP margin, etc. Treyarch has knocked out many of these MW2 imbalances by introducing new gameplay mechanics instead of relying on tweaks.

The latest step-up for the console versions include a Halo-like split-screen for online play. On the PC side of things, you can expect to be reacquainted with the “server browser”. Items are no longer earned from leveling up; they are now made available for purchase by leveling up, and are bought by in-game cash accrued from playing online. All perks are available for purchase from the beginning of the game; the interaction between equipment and perks has been rebalanced. Multiplayer is much more fun to play as a result. Instead of working endlessly to get that grenade launcher kill to unlock the Masterkey attachment, players can just purchase it outright, making the game much more accessible from the very start. Content is no longer exclusive to the players who have the most amount of time on their hands. Another contributor to the overall fun factor are the new challenge types, Contracts. Contracts are missions or challenges players can buy, and upon completion returns a large sum of cash.

Wager Matches are another addition revolving around the in-game economy: they’re matches with bizarre rules, where other players’ money is on the line. These new features add a new level of play to the game, and make it that much more fun. Graphically, Black Ops stands out in many regards. The 360 version of the game is beautiful, and is visually superior to the PS3 version, utilizing a much prettier version of their HDR shaders and bests the PS3 version with what looks like higher resolution textures. Moreover, the framerate takes an occasional hit on the PS3, as well as several annoying visual bugs happening. (I’m a victim of Black Ops locking up my PS3, actually.) In the sound department, the audio portion is superb, but lacks oomph when it needs it, specifically in important cutscenes, where tinny sound effects ruin what would have been otherwise be epic moments. There are also audio-related bugs, such as certain guns not playing their native tunes when fired (a problem that doesn’t disappear for an entire campaign level). Despite this technicalities, Black Ops is the best Call of Duty to date, hands down! Treyarch reminds us of their expertise in balanced multiplayer and well-crafted and paced singleplayer. On any platform it’s played, Black Ops is a great game.