Like other Call of Duty games, Black Ops is rated M for Mature, but that rating doesn't cut it anymore. Just as in Modern Warfare 2, you must verify at the outset that you're ready for some truly graphic content. If you comply, you'll watch someone getting "interrogated" — that is, being force-fed glass and punched in the face.
That's not the only controversial content. When Cuba heard that Black Ops includes an assassination attempt on Fidel Castro, the website CubaDebate asserted that the game would turn Americans into "sociopaths." That's creepily correct: protagonist Alex Mason is indeed a sociopath, complete with the Stones' "Sympathy for the Devil" as his in-game jam.
It all begins with mysterious men using an electric chair to lubricate their examination of Mason. As Mason answers questions about his past work with a specialized Black Ops team, his captors learn that the man's memory has more holes in it than Swiss cheese. Oh, and from time to time he fantasizes about murdering President Kennedy. Nothing suspicious about that.
Although it draws its inspiration from actual Cold War covert operations, Black Ops isn't afraid to take a few liberties. The SPAS-12 shotgun wasn't invented until 1979, but here you get to start firing it in the '60s. Mason's fantastical brainwashing plot seems equally unconcerned with historical accuracy. The Manchurian-Candidate-meets-Fight-Club twist comes with a bit too much foreshadowing, but it's a more ambitious story than past CoDs have attempted.
Playing a mind-controlled character becomes a clever (but likely unintentional) metaphor for Black Ops. If you don't perform objectives precisely, you'll have to restart the level, and it's not always clear what the game wants from you. I ended up mired in Vietnam for hours because I couldn't figure out how to win. I doubt Treyarch intended that to be some clever history joke. When you do discover what you're supposed to do, the game plays like a ballet — visually stunning, but rigorously choreographed.
The graphics and stellar voice acting will help you forgive the oppressively scripted battles. Many cutscenes look almost good enough to pass for live action, and the game supplements the story with stock historical footage.
As for multi-player, the game-breaking "Commando" melee perk has been removed, and you can now make bets on matches with in-game money. The maps are new, but the physics engine and most of the weapons will look familiar if you played Modern Warfare 2. It's clear that the developers didn't make the online multi-player their priority.
Black Ops also continues Call of Duty's tradition of offering separate zombie missions (which include a hidden arcade-style zombie game) and an unlockable Pentagon map that lets you play as Kennedy, Castro, Nixon, and McNamara. Watching Nixon do his best bad-ass pose and listening to JFK's quips surpasses all the attempts at adrenaline-pumping narrative. Alex Mason sociopaths are a dime a dozen, but a zombie-fighting Nixon? You don't see that every day! Activision should stop worrying about how to make CoD's Mature rating even more torturously mature and ask itself whether that's really the best way to shake up the war-games paradigm. More blood doesn't mean more heart.