I salute the meld of pop-culture character and video game with a look at Call of Duty: Black Ops Prestige Edition (from Activision, reviewed for Xbox 360, rated M for mature, $149.99).
Players explore a 1960s world plunged into the Cold War in this demanding first-person shooter. Through a solo campaign and multiplayer possibilities, the massive conspiracy delivers a nonstop roller-coaster ride of plot twists and cinematic action.
What's the story? From the product literature: CIA operative and member of the Operation 40 squad Capt. Alex Mason relives his missions from around the globe while strapped to a chair under a mysterious interrogation. Is he hallucinating? Was he really at the Bay of Pigs? What do those numbers mean? Mason must escape from his captors and hunt down Russian Gen. Nikita Dragovich before madness consumes him.
Play the role: Under the solo-player campaign, the player acts mainly as Alex Mason but will briefly assume the roles of CIA Agent Jason Hudson, Red Army squad leader Sgt. Viktor Reznov and SR-71 Blackbird pilot Capt. Mosely as he joins secret-operations teams in China, Vietnam, the Soviet Union and Cuba.
As he travels around the globe, he'll interact with historical figures such as President Kennedy, Fidel Castro and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara while escaping from a gulag, fighting in Vietnam's jungles, infiltrating a Soviet lab and searching for a Nazi scientist in the Arctic Circle.
Highlights of his adventures include a harrowing motorcycle chase, a free fall through an avalanche off the Yamantau Mountain, a swift boat trip down the Mekong River and a helicopter caper in the Gulf of Mexico.
Get to the action: The player has access to an incredible array of customizable weaponry as he works through the campaign, not limited to varieties of assault rifles, submachine guns, shotguns, light machine guns, sniper rifles, pistols, rocket launchers, grenades, knives and a crossbow.
He can carry two heavy arms at a time and acquires plenty of ammo and new weapons from fallen enemies and comrades along his journey.
Firepower at one's command includes attack helicopters that can be called in for air strikes during a fierce street battle in Hue City, Vietnam; a Soviet anti-aircraft gun used to blast trucks off a Cuban airfield so a plane can take off; and a Strela 3 heat-seeking rocket launcher to pick off helicopters.
Memorable moments (in no particular order): Guiding TOW rockets to destroy tanks, unloading incendiary rounds from a SPAS-12 semiautomatic shotgun on feisty Vietnamese soldiers, having a slow-motion encounter with Fidel Castro, destroying a Soyuz 2 rocket midflight, watching the unpredictable results of napalm and swimming under murky water while sunbeams trickle down upon passing sea creatures.
Violent encounters: Although I have never been in the middle of a firefight on an open battlefield, I have to believe it is as horrifying as witnessed in this game.
Take the instance of Mason trying to defend the village of Khe Sahn and clear the trenches while floods of Viet Cong soldiers aggressively race toward him. The player quickly finds a China Lake grenade launcher and begins blowing virtual humans to bits. It's a sobering and graphic representation of what metal shells and fragments can do to a body.
Graphic details continue throughout, as seen in the blood that spurts when an enemy takes a knife to the throat or when a soldier is heavily wounded (meaning appendages missing), rolling on the ground, screaming in agony (with the option to put him out of his misery).
The bloody, butchering nature of the carnage is disturbing and almost too realistic in the solo campaign for the average gamer, so developer Treyarch offers an option to turn down the level of violence at any time. Still, only mature players of sound mind need take part.
Multiplayer: I can guarantee fans of the latest Call of Duty will spend months locked in online battles as they tackle nine team-goal variations and explore 14 maps. Changes this year include buying unlocked weapons through a point system, recording game action and a training level for newbies.
Kill streaks are back and reward players for causing successive enemy deaths during one life with such intricate applications as spy planes, napalm strikes, a pack of attack dogs and the RC-XD (an exploding radio-controlled vehicle).
Especially creepy among the maps is fighting in Nuketown think the beginning of "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" where our hero hangs out in a fake town set up to study the effects of a nuclear bomb attack.
In addition, and better yet, let's dive into the return of the joyous four-player cooperative mode Nazi Zombies (not seen since Call of Duty: World at War), complete with fiery hellhounds, weapons-rich mystery boxes and teleportation chambers.
Among the four maps available in the mode, the most twisted variation, called Five, finds players assuming the roles of McNamara, Fidel Castro, Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy as they survive against the undead. It's about as twisted a scenario as one might ever find in video games to watch Vice President Nixon wielding an AK-47 and screaming, "A man is not finished when he is defeated. He is finished when he quits."
Read all about it: DC Comics' imprint Wildstorm Productions published a six-issue series tied to the 2009 Call of Duty game, now available in trade paperback, called Modern Warfare 2: Ghost ($17.99). It features the origins and early adventures of an elite Task Force 141 soldier, Lt. Simon "Ghost" Riley, who wears a skull design on his balaclava.
More important, grab BradyGames' hardcover Prestige Edition Strategy Guide ($34.99) for an overview of the missions, access to game secrets and a healthy amount of intel on the multiplayer challenges, especially the maps.
Pixel-popping scale: 9.0 out of 10. The characters' facial expressions and movements are near lifelike during the combat scenarios in particular, making "The Expendables" or "Saving Private Ryan" look like kiddie cartoons. Hollywood should shake in its collective boots when games with this much depth and visual intensity come along.
Star power: The superb voice-over cast includes Sam Worthington as Alex Mason, Gary Oldman as Sgt. Reznov, Ed Harris as Special Agent Hudson and Topher Grace as Special Agent Harris.
Unlockables and extras: The Prestige Edition includes codes to download all of the older Nazi Zombie maps, and a real Black Ops medal suitable for framing.
Better yet, owners of this edition get a 12-inch-long radio-controlled vehicle replicating the game's RC-XD that's strapped with fake explosives and used in the multiplayer action.
The vehicle features an onboard microphone and video camera that sends feeds back to the pistol-grip-shaped remote so viewers can hear chatter via its speaker or view action via its 2-square-inch, backlit TFT color screen. The remote also features a rotary dial as a steering wheel, high or low speed and battery strength indicators, volume control, and throttle trigger.
The worst feature of the vehicle and remote set are the required 12 AA batteries, which make the RC-XD a very cool, but potentially very costly, collectible.
What's it worth? Although the pressure must have been crushing for Treyarch to deliver another blockbuster hit within a year of its last, it managed to execute with flying colors. A riveting solo-player campaign melds with the massively time-consuming multiplayer modes, and let's again remember those Nazi Zombies, to give players a not-soon-to-be-forgotten, combat-rich gaming experience.
So should the average fan dump the money into the Prestige Edition of the game? Although the RC vehicle is cool, it's a bit too pricey, so stick with the Hardened Edition ($99.99) for the extra maps. Those looking for a special holiday gift for their hard-core gaming pal, however, would be hard-pressed to find a more perfect and prestigious choice.
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