Call of Duty is obsessed with fear. But while Modern Warfare and its sequel exist as a paean to America's current socio-political nightmares, Black Ops chooses to tap into the nation's Sixties terrors: Cuba, the Vietnam War and, primarily, the ever-looming threat of Soviet conflict.
Part of Treyarch's current problem, then, is the format's inherent need for escalation. In a series defined by its rigid spectacle, and one that's already detonated a nuclear missile in your face and had you squeeze the trigger during a controversial airport massacre, there was always going to be a certain onus on the developer to come up with the next headline-grabbing scenario. And they certainly give it their all: within thirty minutes of Black Ops' start you've already shot a slow-mo bullet through Fidel Castro's noggin and escaped a Russian gulag. The series' most precious tactic is to whip its audience into stimuli overload with ceaseless audio-visual spectacles; while Black Ops offers up its own distinctive take on the formula, it's ultimately no different.
It comes as no surprise that the game leads you with gusto through its artificial scenarios, with mid-mission cutscenes herding you from each meticulously designed set-piece to the next while avoiding - though briefly acknowledging on occasion- the dramatic constraints of things like commuting, or the unpalatable taste of moments where things aren't exploding.
Treyarch manages to successfully avoid the jarring disconnection endemic of its previous work by, ironically, focusing on the same whooshing cinematic segues which World at War employed with such abandon. But where World at War's cast were lifeless husks for the player to fleetingly inhabit, its cutscenes far more concerned with style over any tangible substance, Black Ops revolves around a small cast of characters, going to extreme lengths to burn their names and faces into the minds of the player.
Most of the campaign is set in 1968, though events are primarily told via the flashback sequences of protagonist super-soldier Alex Mason, who in turn spends the game strapped to a chair while being pumped full of experimental drug cocktails. Briefing screens have been replaced with a grisly-voiced mystery interrogator barking questions at Mason, who then promptly recounts the sequence for him and, by extension, the player.
Much like the rudimentary stove I used throughout most of university, Black Ops' 15-level campaign takes a fair while to heat up - with some rote corridor-blasting exemplifying the initial stages - but it's also blistering hot when it hits its stride. Perhaps most interesting are the seeds of doubt Treyarch plants: Mason's skewed take on events are shown as foggy and imprecise, and his unreliable narration convinces neither the mystery interrogator nor the player. Unlocking the actuality of Mason's situation becomes the thrust of the experience, and when the curtain is finally lifted the conclusion is satisfying though predictable.
The supporting cast features Ed Harris as spooky spook Hudson, who at one point actually puts on a pair of sunglasses to show that it's time for action, and there's also the excellent return of Gary Oldman's beleaguered and world-weary Viktor Reznov - the requisite decent-ish Russian character to prove they're Not All Bad. This neatly brings us to the pantomime villains of the piece: a pair of (surprise, surprise) nasty Russians - Dragovich and Kravtchenko - and an unrepentant Nazi.
Though many of its narrative progressions are absurd, anchoring the proceedings to an identifiable protagonist helps to ferry the story onwards. Mason and his frequent travelling companion, Woods, are routinely subjected to torturous events: dangerous scenarios slice open muddied skin, knees buckle under the strain of exertion and blunt trauma is applied with alarming regularity, all accompanied with performance-captured expressions of pain and audible grunts. Their pain is definitely felt.
In forcefully unlocking the secrets buried within Mason's head (including the most important string of numbers since Lost ended) the game, like its politically-charged ancestry, actively trades in sentiments the USA would often rather not think about. Vietnam is a major stop-off point, for instance, and while the startling sights and sounds of a burning Hue city are remarkably impressive, those shocking images can't quite muster up the same evocative weight of Modern Warfare 2's suburban America reduced to rubble.