Potential spoilers ahead, so read with caution:
I appreciate your passion for the experience that Black Ops delivered, but I ultimately must disagree with your defense of it.
Firstly, I do think that the Game of the Year requires some degree of innovation. Graphics are not a requirement, but I would say that gameplay is. You want the Game of the Year to be an, ultimately, fun affair. It needs to be engaging. It needs to bring you into its world and make you want to come back for more. Graphics certainly help in this, but it's the gameplay that makes you want to come back for more, ultimately. As we can all recall, the original Crysis, while decently fun and beautiful, wasn't really an award winner.
When I think back on previous GOTY-worthy games, I immediately think of Portal. It was a game that came out of nowhere to win hearts and minds. The game itself was well thought out. The story was captivating—the dark humor with which the narrative was told won over many and amused the rest. The graphics were fantastic (those textures) and, more importantly, it was innovative. It really brought to the table an experience that was altogether new and interesting—and this was really unexpected, as it was a "pack-in" game. A "tech-demo" as Valve calls it now.
When I look at Call of Duty: Black Ops—a game that was no dark horse in ANY sense—I don't see much of this at all. I see Call of Duty 4, World at War, Modern Warfare 2—all reflected in this one game, but not really expanded upon.
The Story for Call of Duty wasn't something I would call polished. I wouldn't really even call it good. What Treyarch did with Black Ops was to take the cinematic adventure that Modern Warfare 2 tried to bring—and blow it up. Make it MORE adventurous. Have MORE plot twists. Add MORE crazy-insane explosion scenes.
It was a bit like watching a Michael Bay movie with a controller in your hand. And much like a Michael Bay movie, as I played, I found that I hadn't really begun to develop any sort of connection with with the main character—the character I was supposed to be.
That bothered me.
Modern Warfare 1 killed my character. And that really did hit me as something strong. I saw the nuclear doom approaching. I attempted to trudge through a playground after the nuclear fallout had hit. I realized that my character was going to die, so I decided to give him a proper end. My last act was to attempt to jump on the slide. A little bit of child-like joy for a dying/dead man. He was going to meet his end going down a slide.
What a way to go, huh?
Modern Warfare 2 added more to the formula, (though it did it in a regretably small package)—it added a more intricate story and added plot twists. You are lit on fire and you watch as yourself and your partner are burned to death. But the twist that happens here—that made the death memorable. Because you were angry. You wanted revenge.
The twists in Black Ops—I felt nothing. My character was crazy. Brainwashed. But I didn't feel for him, because I had never become attached to him. I played as him simply because it was the only option I had—to play the game.
When you take the reigns of Reznov, some of that feeling returns. You are stuck in a hopeless situation and you watch your comrades helplessly. That was an effective image. But the main protagonist? Nothing of that sort from him.
I found it impossible to buy into the illusion because of this. The experience never really hit me. And maybe it's because it falls into the cliches that Ashcraft talks about. It has Fight Club, Manchurian Candidate, Conspiracy Theory, Vietnam, Cold-War—elements from all these things tied into one game—but none of it is really done well, when it comes to it.
And you can say that RDR is also a cliche-fest—but ultimately, you're okay with it, because it does it well. It gives you characters that you can buy into and that helps you take in the story and those cliches without a second thought. RDR crafted a story WITH me and, while I played, it made me consider my protagonist as a real person—I reacted like I thought HE would. An "honorable" man, such as he was presented to me.
The Multiplayer of Black Ops is undeniably fun, but I see no real advancement over Modern Warfare, to be honest. Sure, it added things—but that's to be expected. There was no sense of real innovation to it. Nothing that was unexpected from ANOTHER Call of Duty game. Change the weapons. Add more ranks. Change around the perks. Add a few extra things here and there. Add gambling.
But the differences between Black Ops and, say, Modern Warfare 2 or Modern Warfare 1? Passable. Many of my friends have stuck with MW2, in fact. I know a bunch of PC gamers who stick to MW1. All very fun experiences in their own right, without the extra cost.
Zombies—I won't really go into. I'm not a Nazi-Zombies kind of guy, to be honest. Different strokes, of course, but I prefer Left 4 Dead's Versus mode to its Survival mode and, similarly, I prefer Deathmatch-style Call of Duty to Zombie-related Call of Duty. Personal taste, honestly.
So what it boils down to for me is this:
Is Black Ops worth the upgrade ONLY for the Multiplayer? No. You can get similarly fun experiences with Modern Warfares 1 and 2. The community for MW2 is still pretty large...and it costs a heck of a lot less. (I'm a college gamer. Budgeting is always a consideration for me, so I'll include that in my thoughts.)
Is Black Ops worth the upgrade for the Singleplayer? Not in my experience, no.
So is it worth it? For me, it isn't. But there are those that buy Madden religiously—and there are those that buy Call of Duty religiously. I'm obviously not going to influence their decisions. I can only say why it wasn't worth it for me, in the end, and why I don't think it should be Game of the Year—which I hope I've done clearly enough here.
On twitter, you asked for MY choice, Brian. I'm not very good at playing favorites. I usually run through it by genre and pick them like that.
So I'm not going to decide between my two favorite games of this year: Mass Effect 2 and Red Dead Redemption. Picking between the two would require me to play through both of them again and turn a very critical eye to them.
Mass Effect 2 is a sequel, but it does the original justice and THEN some, a victory in its own right. The game itself was fantastic, needless to say, and I burned through it quicker than I care to mention.
Red Dead Redemption is the matured product of the open-world genre and Rockstar's own backlog and the first Western-themed game I've enjoyed since Shotgun Sunrise.
Both are fun in their own right and in different ways, and I'd hate to have to pick between the two. That's /your/ job.
Potential spoilers ahead, so read with caution: