You can’t keep Black Ops out from under the microscope after the high-profile departure of the creative minds that drove the Call of Duty franchise at Infinity Ward earlier this year. Can Treyarch come through with a blockbuster hit in the vein of Modern Warfare, not just a by-the-numbers off-year title like the studio has churned out in the past? Yes and no, but Black Ops is the best game Treyarch has made, and a hell of a good time no matter how you slice it.

The series has always hung its single-player hat on creating spectacular moments that players remember for years. It didn’t matter if you couldn’t remember the name of the faceless Army Ranger you’re playing as, because oh my god they just dropped an EMP on the White House! Black Ops flips this equation around. The story is coherent, and the characters are more than cardboard cutouts. I wanted to keep playing to find out how the plot ends up, not just to see what crazy situation is around the next corner. On the other hand, as Black Ops makes gains in characterization and storytelling, it loses spectacle. Outside of the excellent prison break level, the “wow” moments fall flat. Even blowing up what appeared to be half of Vietnam with an attack chopper failed to elicit much of a response from me beyond making me swear at the controls. Far too much of the roughly seven-hour campaign is spent running through the same pop-and-shoot motions we’ve been doing for years. At least my companions were less interested in running directly into my line of fire this time. Be sure to stick around after the credits, though – the best bit of the game is hidden there.

The campaign puts players neck deep in the close-up brutality of combat. Limbs shatter disgustingly as bullets rip apart flesh and bone. Gore flies in all directions as combatants are popped like meat balloons by the vicious weaponry of the ‘60s. In one uncomfortable sequence, the player has to torture a restrained prisoner. This is an emphatically mature game (in the ESRB sense, anyway). Everyone should make their own judgment on what they are comfortable with, but Black Ops crossed my personal line in its bloody depictions of violence, particularly the torture sequence. I wasn’t able to compartmentalize it as enjoyable cartoon violence like I have with so many games over the years. Call me a wuss if you want, but the realistic gore is distasteful in the absence of a discussion of what should be a careful decision to employ lethal force. I realize that Treyarch isn’t trying to put on a morality play here, but Black Ops pushes the lines of good taste.

None of this carries over to online play, where the faster pace fosters a certain detachment from the violence. For my money, Treyarch has crafted the finest Call of Duty multiplayer game to date. The maps are fantastic and offer great variety in size, aesthetics, verticality, and paths. The core design is largely unchanged; it features the same modes, perks, and a similar arsenal to Modern Warfare. The action is as responsive, technically impressive, and engrossing as it has been since Infinity Ward pioneered it three years ago. However, Treyarch has made a ton of improvements in the margins. Unlocking new perks in the order you want rather than a pre-set sequence is just the start.

Wager matches exist parallel to the standard XP-based progression. These lethal six-player free-for-all matches are throwbacks to the old days of Quake deathmatches in a lot of ways. All of the game types (each of which has unusual rules that work exceptionally well, like forced weapon cycling or one-shot kills with extremely limited ammo) put a huge emphasis on each kill. This breeds an intensity I haven’t felt since playing free-for-all railgun-only Quake. The titular wagering of the in-game currency that you use to buy weapon attachments, perks, and emblem elements only adds to the tension. The only knock is that wager matches are by nature incredibly lag-sensitive. If you get stuck with a bad host or your connection is being Comcastic, get ready for some frustration.

Contracts are unlocked early on, and allow you to purchase a challenge that remains active for a certain amount of time while playing. A simple contract might ask you to knife a dude in the back, while a more expensive, higher-level one might call for a dozen headshots with a specific pistol. Succeed and you can triple (or better) your money; fail and those points are gone. Treyarch will regularly cycle the pool of contracts available for purchase, and you can only take a shot at any given one once in a specified time period (in the case of the contracts I tried, one real-life day). I have mixed feelings about the system. On the one hand, the new challenges spice up the gameplay and encourage players to try different tactics. That said, I’m going to blow a gasket when my team gets torn apart because half of our players are gunning for some dumb contract instead of trying to win the match. Did we learn nothing from the Halo 3 online achievement debacle?

The fan-favorite Zombies mode returns as well, with players cooperating against the undead hordes on two vastly different maps. It works well enough, but Zombies is far down on my co-op FPS list. The objectives and strategies are so far removed from making intuitive sense that I can’t get into it, though segments of the community obviously feel differently. I do love the secret zombie-themed minigame – Geometry Wars with zombies, more or less – and its four-player online co-op, though.

I can’t wait to see what the community creates with the new theater. The ability to save matches, review them from any point of view, detach the camera for free-flying shots, edit clips together, and then share them as a movie all from within the game is incredible. This is a great learning tool as well, since you can see your accuracy chart on a paper doll as well as the heat map of deaths overlaid on the level.

It’s tough to hate on something as skillfully executed as Black Ops. Call of Duty remains the smoothest, most approachable first-person shooter out there, and I had a blast playing it. On the other hand, it’s disappointing that Treyarch’s much-hyped huge-budget entry in the franchise feels like Modern Warfare 2.5. Activision hasn’t Tony Hawked Call of Duty yet, though, and I’m happy to get a refined update. This year, anyway.