Oh, Treyarch. How I've come to love you so.

After the close-but-not-quite release of Call of Duty 3 back in 2007, Treyarch's subsequent releases in the Call of Duty series, Call of Duty: World at War (2009) and this year's Call of Duty: Black Ops have been unqualified blockbusters, releases that improve on their Infinity Ward-created predecessors in important ways. Black Ops, in particular, is a high water mark of sorts in first person shooters.

No, there's nothing dramatically new or innovative in Black Ops. If you were expecting a rethinking of the console shooter, or dramatic new game types, this isn't it. Instead, what we get is a Windows 7-style refinement of what came before, with tons of little changes. And these changes, when added up together, result in a game that is, very clearly, the best Call of Duty version ever. It is quite possibly the single best shooter I've ever played.

The improvements are everywhere, from the longer-than-usual single player campaign that can't be completed in a single afternoon as with other recent COD entries, to the well-flushed-out (if a bit complex) multiplayer. And Zombies are back. What's not to like?

Single player campaign

While Call of Duty: Modern Warfare and Modern Warfare 2 are absolutely stellar games, the single player campaign in each suffered dramatically, when compared with previous COD titles, in two important ways. First, the games were simply too short, offering very little in the way of replay value or long-term interest. Second, the games took place in an imaginary alternate reality, where the US and Russia are goaded into a war that, among other things, destroys Washington DC. Because these stories are made up, they lack the historical punch and reality of the previous WWII-based titles.

Where Treyarch returned to WWII for one last time in COD: World at War, this time around they've opted for a brilliant, best of both worlds approach. So we get a game that is actually quite involved and lengthy, with plenty of in-game achievements spread out over 13 long levels. And the game provides the same historical reality as a backdrop as the WWII games, though this time that backdrop is spread out over the course of the Cold War, from pre-Vietnam days to the more modern Iraq wars. This gives it an instant familiarity and a reality that really does make a difference. The net effect is that the Black Ops single player is superior to anything in the previous two MW titles.

(There's also an interesting "flashback" to the WWII era stuff right in the middle of the game, where you get to run around with all the familiar WWII-era weapons from the early games, hunt down Nazis, and so on. It's a nice nod to the past, but it's a bit jarring leaving the Viet-Nam war, spending a few episodes in Russia during WWII, and then heading right back to Viet-Nam again.)

Black Ops isn't perfect, of course. The checkpoints are way, way too far apart, which is especially true if you play on the hardest skill level, Veteran, as I am doing. This is a Treyarch hallmark, albeit of the wrong kind. And Black Ops doesn't provide any particularly notable graphics or audio milestones over previous games, as did, say, Medal of Honor, though it is a brighter and more colorful game than MW2. This, too, is a Treyarch hallmark: World at War offered a similar colorization benefit over its own predecessor.

The biggest problem with single player, though, is the story structure. A veteran of the Cold War, you're being tortured by ... someone ... who's interested in some numbers you can't get out of your head. (Shades of "Lost," sort of.) The scenes in which you jolt in and out between the actual gameplay and the torture sequences is annoying, and a pretty poor way to tell a story. It's vaguely similar to the parts of Assassin's Creed where you move in and out of the past.

Also, I made the (maybe poor) decision to slog through the single player campaign on Veteran, so I'm only a bit over halfway done with it as I write this. There are some incredibly difficult sequences in this game, and in at least one case, I spent over 90 minutes re-doing the same section again and again and again until I figured out what was expected of me and then completed it to the game's satisfaction. It was frustrating, but I suspect this won't be as much of an issue on the lower skill levels.

Multiplayer

A year ago, in my review of Modern Warfare 2, I noted that I expected to be playing that game for the following year. And that's exactly what happened: In fact, I played it for the last time the day before Black Ops came out. The reason for MW2's longevity, of course, is multiplayer. And the simplest way to describe Black Ops multiplayer is that it's everything that was right about MW2 multiplayer with many unique improvements tossed in. Suffice to say, I expect to be playing this game for the next year. And multiplayer is the reason.

Black Ops multiplayer is like MW2 multiplayer turned up to 11. Whether the changes just add complexity or do in fact make the experience more balanced, as is clearly the goal, remains to be seen. It's certainly harder to figure out than any previous multiplayer shooter, with a bizarre myriad of options. And can't imagine how this would look to someone just approaching Call of Duty for the first time. But if you've been moving along with the series, especially since COD4, you should be OK.

What we get this time around is more, more, more, and then some more thrown in on top of that. There are player matches (i.e. normal multiplayer out on the public Xbox LIVE system), private matches, new wager matches that let you gamble the also-new COD points (kind of like in-game money) against your performance in games against other players, bot-based training, and even a new theater mode where you can make and watch in-game movies, a capability that previously required expensive and complex hardware and software, and a PC.

As for match types, there are core and hardcore like before, but also new bare bones and prestige types (the latter of which is unlocked when you "prestige up" at level 50). Within each of these, you can choose between many different game modes: Team Deathmatch, Mercenary, Free For All, Domination, Demolition, Ground War, Sabotage, Headquarters, Capture the Flag, Search and Destroy, and Team Tactical. Whew!

Where the previous MW (and WaW) games offered leveling up, massive load-out customizations, prestige levels, kill streaks, perks, challenges, and so on, again, Black Ops turns all of it up to 11. All that stuff is there, albeit sometimes in different forms. The basics are the same, but now guns and other things--many of which, like face paint, weapon camo and emblem, and more--is brand new. In addition to locking certain items until higher classes, everything is now afforded a COD point value too, and as you gain more experience and do more things in the game (like complete challenges), you get more COD points, which you can then apply to "purchasing" in game items. It's all very complicated, as promised.

Because of all the additions, all of the player customization, including the weapon load-outs, perks, and so on occurs inside a new playercard area, where the playercard is sort of like a Black Ops-specific version of your Xbox LIVE gamercard. (Kill streaks, curiously, are still global, and the one set of kill streaks you get apply to all load-outs.)

While there is a lot going on here--I've really only scratched the surface--Treyarch has also made some important and immediately obvious improvements over MW2 multiplayer.  Multi-value assists are back, thankfully, so if you do a lot of damage to an enemy and someone else finishes him off, you'll get more points. (Treyarch had previously done the same in WaW too, but Infinity Ward reverted the system in MW2, foolishly.)

The multiplayer maps are far more bright and colorful than the relatively drag MW2 maps. That's nice, but even better is that all the unfair stuff from MW2 has been removed or detuned in Black Ops, creating a far more balanced game. Helicopter attacks are no longer so brutal and unstoppable. Nukes? Gone. Too-powerful noob tubes? De-tuned. In fact, you can no longer tie a noob tube together with any other weapon attachment, which is a much-needed improvement. These things will only make sense to die-hard COD fans, but that's the point: If there was something wrong with multiplayer in MW2, chances are Treyarch fixed it here.

There are new kill streaks, including the awesome and always hilarious remote control car, complete with triggerable bomb. There are now 15 prestige levels, instead of 10. On and on it goes. There's just so much.

Final thoughts

Reviewing any Call of Duty game is, by this point, almost fruitless. You're going to get it or you're not. But if you're into shooters as I am, this is the ultimate experience so far, even though there are no truly groundbreaking changes, just a slew of small but very important changes that make the overall experience the best yet. This is a great game, and one that I expect will have the same staying power as its predecessors. It's no tour-de-force. But it is absolutely the best game I've played so far this year. See you online!