Simple modifications to the established formula have a profound impact on the end result. Deathstreaks are gone. Killstreaks no longer count towards further killstreaks, and the new CoD Points currency - doled out at about a tenth of accrued XP, and required to purchase items after being unlocked - allows you to buy that red dot sight as soon as you obtain your next weapon. Anyone worried about those bloody dogs will also be relieved to know they've been bumped up to an 11-kill streak, which turns them into an occasional horror instead of a frustrating plague. Alternatively, 11 kills can also buy you access to a pilotable Hind helicopter, so don't expect to see the mutts too often.
On top of that, regular attack helicopters now only patrol a (user-selectable) spot of the map, as opposed to dominating the entire level. The skies are, on average, far less occupied than before, but a barebones playlist is now available for those who'd prefer to be rid of them entirely.
Perks are, as always, split over three tiers and are mostly recognisable (with the odd name change) from their MW2 incarnations - the only all-new addition being Tactical Mask, which protects you from the new Nova grenade. More significant, perhaps, is the non-inclusion of Stopping Power and the massively contentious Commando and One Man Army. The remaining lot - running faster with Lightweight, holding your breath longer with Scout, reloading quicker with Sleight of Hand and so on - are now transmogrified into their Pro version, which confers a further bonus by accomplishing multiple challenges.
This seemingly never-ending trail of rewards and unlocks remains compulsive, though the slight changes are evidently geared towards refinement rather than revolution. The devil is in the details: the MP5K has considerably less recoil and bounce than its Modern Warfare 2 iteration, for instance, though its still duff at long range. You've also got weapons like the G11, which is an absolute monster but finds itself crippled in reload speed and available attachments.
On top of this, Treyarch has added a major suite of community-building features to reward dedicated players. Playercards are now almost entirely customisable by the user, so if you've ever fancied turning your red dot sight into a smiley face, well, now's your chance. Theatre mode, perhaps more usefully, allows people to preserve their finest moments and share them online. But the most exciting and immediate addition is Contracts, which allow you to bet CoD points on strictly-timed challenges - win x amount of games, get y amount of headshots - that you set for yourself.
If you’ve got a taste for taking such risks, you'll probably also love the new Wager Match mode. Here you gamble amassed CoD Points, instead of receiving XP, to potentially win big (or small; there's a mode where you gamble mere pennies) from a novelty 6-player free for all game; only the top three players will walk away with a share of the money. Modes are even selected randomly on bigger bets. One in the Chamber gives you three lives, a single bullet and a knife; Sticks and Stones dishes out explosive crossbows with aplomb, while also letting players "bankrupt" each other with tomahawks (Black Ops' take on the throwing knife); and Gun Game and Sharpshooter play around with a wider arsenal. The latter has everyone using the same random weapon for 45-second bursts, whereas the former has you incrementally progress through 20 weapons, changing your gun after each kill.
Wager Match is unlikely to dethrone Team Deathmatch as the series' premiere multiplayer mode, but that's clearly not its intention: this is a meticulously developed way to play some novelty games, and one that will prove invaluable for burning through some time while you wait for your friends to show up online.
Zombies mode makes its ever-controversial return, but once you get over the raucous tonal incongruity of headshotting the walking dead as JFK and Nixon, it exists as a self-contained co-operative survival mode - albeit one where you're constructing barricades and earning credits for new weapons while trapped in the Pentagon. Two maps are supplied on the disc, one with the aforementioned political figures and another which heralds the return of undead Nazis. The zombies don't stop until you're dead, and despite your eventual demise it's still a surprisingly enjoyable romp. A third map turns the game into a top-down twin-stick shooter, but while the gimmick is initially entertaining, the mode doesn't really have the legs to stand as anything other than a temporary diversion.
Treyarch isn't trying to reinvent the formula which made Modern Warfare 2 the most successful video game of all time, but it has laid down solid multiplayer foundations while adding a series of necessary and intelligent tweaks - which should be music to the ears of the game's many fans. A spectacular but silly single-player campaign rounds off the package, and while it comes without Modern Warfare 2's ambitious (but unsuccessful) attempt at carving out a political message, Black Ops offers its own thoroughly enjoyable romp through some entertaining set-pieces. I've considered myself a Call of Duty fan for many years, and I've held a deep-seated distrust of Treyarch since Call of Duty 3. No longer.