Treyarch takes the reins on the Call of Duty franchise once more…and delivers the game of the series.

What is it?
A first person shooter set during the cold war period, developed by the team behind Call of Duty: World at War.

What we like
The complex but satisfying plot and evocative cold war setting; explosive set pieces and non-stop action; fantastic environments, motion-capture and voice-acting; the deep and fresh-feeling multiplayer.

What we don’t like
The scripted, linear missions won’t be to everyone’s taste. Vehicles are sometimes difficult to control while shooting.

Call of Duty: Black Ops sees Treyarch finally step out of Infinity Ward’s shadow, delivering a game that looks beautiful, is heart-stoppingly intense to play and offers an expansive multi-player mode to boot.

Peace, love and rock and roll – that’s what the 60s were all about, right? Not if you were a member of a top-secret CIA squad. The life of a black operations specialist revolved around covert missions in Cuba, Russia and Southeast Asia, where the communist threat was repelled with all manner of fearsome weaponry. Records relating to their activities were strictly classified.

This bloody underside of the hippie era forms the setting for Call of Duty: Black Ops, Treyarch’s follow-up to 2008’s World at War. Alex Mason, a member of the CIA’s Studies and Observation Group, is your character for the majority of the game’s 15 single-player missions.

The game opens with you strapped in a chair in a shadowy interrogation room, surrounded by monitors flashing random numbers. After administering a little electric shock treatment, your captors force you to describe some of your former missions. It is these memories that make up the game’s single-player campaign.

This clever framing device lets the developers explore a wide-range of settings, from the steamy jungles of Laos to the frozen wastes of the Ural Mountains. The MacGuffin driving the plot is a substance called Nova-6, a deadly chemical weapon that Russian terrorist Dragovitch hopes to unleash upon the West.

The action jumps through time and countries almost in the blink of an eye as Mason and his CIA colleagues chase Dragovitch around the world, yet the narrative remains coherent and enjoyable throughout – a definite improvement on previous entries in the series.

Enemy action
Enemies come at you thick and fast from the outset, spitting bullets with ferocious accuracy. They’ll dive out of the way of your return fire, turn over tables and pop the snout of their gun over the top. Taking them down requires liberal use of cover, grenades and other tactical options. Their demise is often horrifically gory. Shotguns tear limbs to bloody stumps, the wounded enemy staggering around in shock before you finish them off.

Get in close and you can instigate a melee kill, usually involving your knife, their jugular and plenty of the red stuff. Brutal, certainly. But the violence feels horribly real rather than simply gratuitous.

Call of Duty: Black Ops(Activision)

Bombastic but hugely enjoyable set pieces are a hallmark of the Call of Duty series, and Black Ops doesn’t disappoint. For example, one mission starts with you trapped inside a crashed helicopter slowly sinking to the bottom of a lake, while another sees you rappel through the window of an enemy base in slow-mo, cap the bad guys, then base jump from a cliff in order to avoid an avalanche. It’s all a serious work out for your adrenal glands.

Weapons wise you’re spoilt for choice: a huge roster of guns is available. The scoped crossbow, which can fire explosive arrows that stick to enemies, is particularly brilliant, while a SPAS-12 shotgun equipped with Dragon’s Breath shells proves scarily destructive during the ‘Crash Site’ mission, set in Hue City, Vietnam, at the height of the Tet Offensive.

On the move
Vehicular combat has also been tuned up in Black Ops. In ‘Payback’ you escape from a game of Russian Roulette, steal a Hind helicopter, and take to the skies for some fully controllable air combat, launching missiles at command towers, gun turrets and enemy helicopters.

A Motorcycle prison escape also features, as does a patrol boat cruise down the Mekong Delta, Sympathy For The Devil playing as you strafe enemy encampments – very Apocalypse Now. The controls during these vehicle sections can feel slightly awkward; it’s sometimes tricky to shoot and manoeuvre accurately. But overall they’re well integrated into the core run-and-gun action.

Call of Duty: Black Ops(Activision)

The graphics are some of the best we’ve seen on this generation of consoles. Every location is vivid and distinct, brought to life by a multitude of tiny details. In frozen Russia the breath of soldiers on the back of a truck mists as it leaves their mouths, and in Laos freshwater snakes weave past your teammate’s ankles as he swims toward a Vietcong boat. Treyarch has polished this game until it shines.

Character models and motion capture are particularly impressive. Faces are amazingly detailed and expressive, lined with tiny wrinkles and pockmarks. Some superb voice acting helps bring them to life, with Ed Harris as Jason Hudson, Mason’s CIA colleague, and Gary Oldman as Viktor Reznov, your Russian brother-in-arms.

At points throughout the game you’ll play as both these characters, as well as an SR-71 Blackbird pilot during a virtuoso mission that sees you setting waypoints for troops on the ground from the cockpit, then zooming in to play through the orders you’ve just issued.

Treyarch has obviously worked hard to make the multiplayer as good as the single-player missions. All the standard modes one would expect are included, such as capture the flag, team deathmatch, etc. But the brilliant new wager matches are the real highlight.

They enable you to bet COD Points, an in-game currency earned by completing contracts, on their outcome. Place in the top three and more money will be yours to spend on weapons and upgrades; fall outside and you’ll be handing over hard-earned points to the other players.

Call of Duty: Black Ops(Activision)

Different emblems can be unlocked and purchased with your COD Points to make a unique player card. Points can also be used to purchase face paints, weapon camo, and over 40 different recticles, making Black Ops multiplayer ideal for customisation nuts.

Fans of the ‘Zombies’ survival mode from World at War are also in for a treat. Beating the game in campaign mode unlocks a map set inside the pentagon, with up to four players taking on the roles of JFK, Nixon, Castro and Robert McNamara and fighting off wave after wave of the undead. It’s great fun and hugely addictive.

In the past Infinity Ward’s instalments in the Call of Duty franchise have tended to garner the most praise and the biggest fan base, with Treyarch’s efforts putting in respectable if less stellar showings. Not any more. Black Ops is an outstanding achievement that easily measures up to, and in many respects outstrips, the Modern Warfare titles. If you’re a fan of first person shooters it’s an essential purchase.