Call of Duty: Black Ops benefits from a large screen. The bigger the screen the better, I learned last week. That is because Call of Duty games are giant acts of detonation.
We are no longer storming Normandy Beach in Call of Duty. We are no longer one of many against an overhwelming force. From what I saw of Black Ops, the transition of the franchise continues: We are the overwhelming force.
It all starts, as Brian Crecente wrote in his spring preview of Black Ops, with the player riding in the cockpit of an SR-71 Blackbird as it takes off and jets toward the roof of the atmosphere.
You're up there so that you can look all the way down, via a surveillance scope, to a snowy scene where you — in an instant — are now in control of a soldier, skulking in cover as an enemy patrol marches by. Call of Duty games run on a monster of a graphics engine that renders and lights the realistic settings with some of the closest to photorealistic detail I've seen in a game. That's likely the only way I can use "realistic" in a line about what Treyarch is doing in Black Ops, because their style of action is more Hollywood. The player's character doesn't crouch in the snow for long. Soon they are firing a crossbow, rappelling down a building (with a first-person perspective of the cable dangling down their side as they slide), smashing through a window to take out some bad guys in dramatic slow-mo and... not realistic I said, tagging enemies with arrows that brand their target with a blinking green light a second before they blows him and his buddies around him up.
The big Black Ops showpiece of E3 2010 was the Payback mission, which has the player and a computer-controlled buddy stealing a Russian helicopter and then blitzing Vietnamese camps/bases/villages with hordes of rockets. The screenshot up top shows you the look. To get a sense of the pace and energy of the action, load up the one flight mission in Black Ops studio Treyarch's previous Call of Duty, World at War. Lots of stuff blows up, including enemy helicopters. The scene is played with a mix of AI control and player control of the flight and the fight.
Treyarch chief Mark Lamia told me that the helicopter scene isn't the only bit of flight action in the game, but he didn't want to give anything else away. He assured me that the development team is going for high action, using the rich variety of locales and armament available to their Cold Wars late-60s setting. He also gave an interesting hint at maybe a smarter type of Call of Duty game by mentioning that the trucks you can take out with a chopper in the helicopter level will, if destroyed, fail to deploy soldiers later in that level. That's a more dynamic flow of action than I expect from the series.
Lamia showed me a bit of one last level, as part of an effort to display how far the studio is going with a you-are-there focus on the men in Black Ops combat. The scene was Khe Sanh in Vietnam. All I got was an intro bit, a non-interactive Jeep ride that begins with a few characters taking a ride through an army base but turns into a too-close witnessing of an attack on the base. Bodies fly past the jeep, as does a wing of the plane. It was intense. It was big. It's spectacle. That's Call of Duty. And that's Black Ops, with Treyarch making this series as outrageous as it has ever been — as big-screen-worthy a game as I'd seen at E3.
For the record, Treyarch was not talking about or showing any Black Ops multiplayer. The game will include co-op, but not in the main campaign. And as for narrative connections to earlier COD games, I expect that to be light. Lamia noted that one character from World at War, Reznov, appears in a sewer level shown at E3, but didn't present Black Ops as anything like a full-fledged storyline successor (or predecessor) to any other game in the series.