Call of Duty: Black Ops Review for Mac OS X

First released in 2010, Black Ops was the best-selling video game of all time, (in fact, beating its own predecessor, Modern Warfare 2, and later being beaten by the next instalment  Modern Warfare 3).

The first thing to note is the system requirements (see below). Unlike most other games, Black Ops simply will not run well on certain systems, particularly Nvidia-based Macs. On our souped-up Mac Pro it did not run particularly smoothly, although iMac users are reporting that it runs well.

Considering the story is an almost superficial layer on top of the gameplay, it’s actually one of the game’s strong points. You play as one Alex Mason, enlisted operative for the CIA in the late 1960s. As with most good spy thrillers, Mason travels the world whilst embroiled in a plot filled with intrigue. But yes, ultimately that plot is the foundation to show you explosions, give you guns, and let you shoot other people with guns.

The firefights are relentless, so much so, that they can occasionally become tiresome, especially when you’re facing waves of enemies that keep respawning until you figure out what you need to do to trigger the next sequence (for example, having to kick a barrel that’s impervious to explosions and gunfire). Though there is frequent checkpointing, you’ll hear the same dialogue over and over on tougher sections, and that gets old very fast. The gunplay itself doesn’t have a particularly punchy feel to it, and one of the problems with the Call of Duty series (and imitated by other games) is that it doesn’t give you any information as to what the strengths and weaknesses of a particular gun are. So you have to remember that a “Dragon’s Breath” is a pretty powerful shotgun, and a “202” (actually an M202 “Grim Reaper”) is a rocket launcher.

The main challenge in the game is having to time when to reload more than anything else. There’s no real shortage of ammunition or grenades (at least on normal difficulty), and although you regenerate health when in cover, you can quickly get torn to shreds by the constant barrage of gunfire in most sequences. That said, it’s possible on many sequences to just race to the next checkpoint and ignore all the fighting. The pacing is actually quite good, with breaks for cutscenes and pointless bits of gameplay like platforming, following people and crouching under things for prolonged periods. There are also silly “stealth” sections where you have to avoid detection, but Deus Ex this is not.

The game is violent, as you’d probably expect, but even so there are some genuinely brutal moments throughout the game, with one scene in particular seeing you torture someone in order to proceed. The action is always hectic, so much so that it’s easy to miss crucial dialogue or objectives, and somewhat counter to the purpose of the game, you are free to wander about in search of collectible “intel” scattered about. There are a lot of scripted moments that wrestle the controls away from you, so if you prefer a more sandbox or freeform experience, this is not the game for you.

It’s also an expensive game. It helps that the first DLC pack is included in the price, but with Black Ops 2 already on its way to Windows, the price point could leave a bitter taste in people’s mouths, (although the price is the same as the current retail price for the Windows version on Steam). Note that unlike other Steam games, having the Windows version will not automatically get you the Mac version.

Overall, Treyarch have clearly tried to make a blockbuster movie first and a game second, and to some extent they’ve succeeded, but let’s face it, you already know if you’re going to get it.

Multiplayer

Many Call of Duty fans only get it for the multiplayer aspect, but here they might be somewhat disappointed. The biggest concern is that the Mac version can only play against other Mac versions, so there’s no possibility to play against anyone who only owns the Windows version of the game. It’s a questionable decision on Aspyr’s part (assuming it was a decision and not a technical limitation), but there you have it. That said, at the time of writing, there are several Aspyr-run servers active, with a decent population on them. The other downside is that due to the low population overall, don’t expect decent matchmaking. At this point in time, most of the active players are pretty experienced.

In multiplayer, you accrue experience points (that are kept between sessions) that allow you to unlock new perks that affect gameplay, as well as traits to modify your character’s appearance. There’s also a training mode where you can get to grips with the different gameplay skills needed. There are many, many modes available in multiplayer, so there should be plenty of longevity there (assuming there will be enough people to play with, of course).

UPDATE: You can read Aspyr’s comments on why the game is not SteamPlay enabled, and why these decisions were made with the multiplayer component.

Zombies

Black Ops includes a “Zombies” mode, which in many ways is superior to the base game. Each level is themed around a place and time (such as 1960s in the Pentagon, or in a World War II-era theatre) and the idea is you have to defend against waves of zombies that are trying to break in (and ultimately eat your brains). Killing zombies and building reinforcements will earn cash with which to buy weapons and ammunition, and unlock other parts of the map. It’s a ton of fun, and probably should be available as a separate game.

Zombies can be played solo or co-operatively.

Performance & Quality

Initially we had severe issues with performance on Nvidia hardware. To be fair, the game does warn you that you need to have the latest drivers, and to make sure you’re running the latest version of OS X. If you’re using Nvidia hardware, you can verify the correct driver is installed via the CUDA Preferences in System Preferences (it should be driver 304.00.00f20 or higher). You should also read this official support notice on the subject.

However, even with the drivers up to date, the performance is still very poor. It’s roughly on a par with running the Windows version via Parallels, and heavy firefights (and multiplayer) can see the frame rate drop dramatically. By all accounts, the game runs perfectly fine on ATI hardware though, so as always, your mileage may vary.

The somewhat obscure “Shader Warming” option in particular needs to be enabled, this will add significantly to the loading times for each level, but it will greatly reduce frame drop on entering new areas.

The Steam overlay didn’t seem to work in-game, which is not a big deal (unless of course you’re relying on its chat or voice functionality for multiplayer. Supposedly the Xbox 360 wired controller should work, but we have not found this to be the case.

DLC

The original First Strike DLC is included as part of the Mac version, which adds some multi-player maps and a Zombies level.

The second DLC, Rezurrection, is available via in-app purchase in the Mac App Store version, or on Steam or Gamersgate, and adds 5 new Zombies maps.

Other DLC has been announced and will be available later in the year.

Gameplay Video

Your thoughts on this?