Dinca: Surveying Art and Culture

Thoughts on Call of Duty: Black Ops

Another game, another war, and more of the same

by Jack Kentala

The Call of Duty franchise, ever since the template-setting Call of Duty 2, has taken most of its cues from Hollywood war movies. You’re steered down a path of ultimate linearity, and besides all the player-controlled, stop-and-pop shooting, you’re just following the action-flick script laid out by developer Treyarch.

But there’s really nothing wrong with that. Hell, considering that, if you number the main installments, this is Call of Duty 7, the formula has proven itself durable enough to get this far. Game-wise, it’s a straightforward first-person shooter without a cover system, relying on a two-weapons system (first swiped from Halo), grenades, and levels filled with cover-like objects, in which the objective is usually to push forward enough to trigger the next sequence.

The unfortunate byproduct of this is how easy it is to “break” the game and, as a result, rip out the artifice that you’re really battling through a dynamic environment. Sprint past enemy lines (easy to accomplish on the friendlier difficulty settings) and you’ll trigger your squadmates to give up the fight behind and move forward, often opening an unopenable door for you to proceed. Another game-breaker comes in the form of collectable “intel” hidden in each level (which, sadly, yields no bonuses other than a mere Achievement if you get them all; contrast this to the in-game cheats and bonuses in Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare like infinite ammo, perpetual slow-motion, and fun stuff like the sped-up, old-movie filter of “Ragtime Warfare”), which are hidden so well that you have to scour each area. You end up running into invisible walls and hitting dead-end passages that reveal the men behind the curtain. Well, if the game actually let you get behind the curtain, or a rock, or away from your squad, or up a stairway blocked by an overturned chair.

But, as I’ll keep saying, this is Call of Duty, and any fan of the series knows full well what they’re signing up for. The tight game mechanics are, ultimately, what draw players to the game. COD is a shooter down to its bones, and it just feels good to shoot in COD, especially versus its clones, such as the COD-cribbing GoldenEye 007 remake for the Wii that doesn’t quite feel right. COD goes back to the old game-design addage that a game should basically be the same five minutes of fun gameplay stretched out over the course of the whole game. (Whereas something like the masterful Super Mario Galaxy and its sequel keep inventing new mechanics and… well, that gets into a dialog about why Shigeru Miyamoto is the best living game designer and how Nintendo’s in-house developers are drinking some fantastic Kool-Aid that they’ll never share.)

There’s also the online multiplayer, which I, for full disclosure, have to admit that I don’t have an Xbox Live Gold account and no internet connection for my 360, leaving me only to judge the game based on its campaign. Not that I’ve ever been much a fan of getting yelled at by compressed 11-year-old voices and getting literally stabbed in the back without any fucking clue what happened. Oh, right: It’s called getting “owned” because I only have enough free time to play a game for about two hours a day instead of twelve.

So with all that out of the way, I think I have to actually talk about what separates Black Ops from the rest of the series. Call of Duty has traditionally been a series of World War II shooters – from Call of Duty “Classic” to Call of Duty 2, then Call of Duty 3, and Call of Duty: World At War. Recently, though, Modern Warfare and Modern Warfare 2 shook things up a bit by having a few levels in an unnamed-but-obviously Saudi Arabia (itself passed off as a poor-man’s Iraq) and Afghanistan.

Call of Duty has never been about strong, identifiable characters, so as you progress you find yourself fighting as different, usually-mute soldiers on different fronts. Call of Duty 2 had a Soviet, British, and American campaign, placing you in three separate sets of boots. Later installments still had multiple playable characters, and both Modern Warfare and its sequel had the at-first surprising and then later outright-annoying habit of killing off your guy. Especially in Modern Warfare 2 after getting suddenly shot after fighting through a pretty hairy situation.

As with COD 2, this was necessary to get to fight on all three fronts: Russia to Berlin as a Soviet; North Africa as a Brit; and the beaches of Normandy and pastoral France as a Yank. Black Ops does its best to keep things anchored to one character. The story starts with you, Mason, being interrogated by what quickly becomes clear is an American agency. The playable missions are framed as Mason’s flashbacks, and they span from the Bay of Pigs invasion in Cuba through the Tet Offensive in Vietnam and finally to some made-up finale that yet again sates the developer’s permanent boner for casting Russians as the ultimate villains in pretty much every COD.

There’s a sort of meta-narrative involving Mason being brainwashed while in a Soviet POW camp. It all revolves around a sequence of repeating numbers that torture Mason, and, given they don’t have any more importance than serving as a big MacGuffin, it only comes off as a really bad LOST rip-off. There’s also a twist near the end you can see a mile away, and a denouement (no, not the one about zombies) that either sets the stage for a Black Ops 2 (as Modern Warfare 2 made it permissible to make a sequel within a franchise) or just makes a dumb comment about a popular conspiracy theory.

Story has never been a strong point in the COD series; it, frankly, never is for about 90% of videogames, which are meant to be played rather than watched. In the World War II-set games, the end objective was usually the end of the war, whereas the Modern Warfare series had to manufacture stories. Modern Warfare 2, in particular, was ridiculed for its plot, in which the Russians invade the US and a large chunk of the game involves fighting through the wreckage of Washington, D.C., and the White House (“Whiskey Hotel” in the Marines’ phonetic alphabet). Again, casting the Russians as the Bad Guys in a modern game seems utterly ridiculous, and Black Ops gets somewhat of a free pass since it takes place entirely during the Cold War. I don’t apply that same leeway to turning the last few CODs into shlocky, bad-movie storylines that would probably evoke a guffaw from Michael Bay.

What is downright unforgivable is the series’ “homages” to movies that are actually just straight plagiarism. I’m surprised no lawsuits have been filed. In Call of Duty 2, immediately upon landing on the beach at Normandy, you get “shell shocked,” fall to your side, look left and see a lander dump its GIs, only to have a flamethrower-wielding soldier blow up and cause his squad to catch on fire. The rest of the D-Day level basically copies Saving Private Ryan’s iconic scene beat-by-beat, minus any nonsense about bangalore torpedoes, which probably just would’ve been confusing to code. World At War started as an Enemy At The Gates rip-off in Stalingrad. Modern Warfare 2 copied, word for word, a dialog from the book and HBO miniseries Generation Kill. And in Black Ops, in a Vietcong POW camp, you get forced to – guess what – play Russian roulette. The Deer Hunter plagiarism is not appreciated by this gamer, especially when every Vietnam POW ever confirmed that Russian roulette was never forced upon them.

There are also some points where developer Treyarch gets their facts dead wrong. One level puts you in the American base of Khe Sanh in Vietnam, which becomes completely overrun with NVA infantry. While Khe Sanh, in reality, was victim to shelling and occasional infiltration attempts, it was never fully under breached. Is it too much to ask to get history right?

One disappointment about the game is that it only leaves behind continuity for a single mission, in which you go back to 1945 and take a German stronghold at the tail-end of WWII. Probably the most memorable mission in any COD was Modern Warfare’s “Ghillies In The Mist,” in which you go to post-meltdown Chernobyl for a stealth/sniper mission that is one of the high points of the series.

There also aren’t any “surprise” missions, like Modern Warfare’s showstopping “Death From Above,” which put you in an AC-130 gunship to rain down explosions on little white dots (enemies) far below, with the background of dull chatter among your clinical shipmates creates a somewhat disturbing disconnect amid all that death. While the developer – Infinity Ward, who switches off with Treyarch every other year to develop a new COD – plead ignorance for the cerebral aspect of the mission, it opened up one of the better debates about videogames-as-art. People who’ve seen actual AC-130 footage say it looks like a videogame, and then Modern Warfare, a videogame, makes an extremely realistic AC-130 level. The whole thing came full circle and was also immensely fun to play.

Infinity Ward tried to one-up themselves with the controversial “No Russian” level in Modern Warfare 2, in which you play a deep-cover CIA agent on a team of heavily-armed Russian terrorists who massacre civilians in an airport. While it earned such a reputation that at the beginning of the game you had the option to, without penalty, completely skip the mission, it didn’t really pack much of an emotional punch. The only real choice you had in the mission was whether or not to kill civilians; you could pass it without firing a single bullet, though you were certainly accessory to the chaos, and your team mows down innocents anyway.

COD is made up of moments which make the relatively-short campaign memorable. These are severely lacking in Black Ops, mostly since you’re locked into a cinematic sequence when something dramatic happens. The game tries to start out strong with the Bay of Pigs level, which includes an assassination attempt on Fidel Castro in a plantation bedroom. It seems like you could just be shooting anyone; it would’ve been much more interesting if you had to, say, snipe him among throngs of onlookers at a parade and then escape through a crowded Havana. The escape from the Soviet POW camp turns into a rote level once you ditch your knife and pistol and get serious firepower, only to end the level with on-rails shooting (far too much of which happens in the game: both on-rails shooting and poorly-controllable vehicle missions.) Sure, it’s interesting to meet a digitized Defense Secretary Robert McNamara at the Pentagon, but then you sit down with a polygonal JFK voiced by a terrible impersonator. A mission near the end of the game puts you in a hazmat suit to avoid toxic gas, and you can only take finite damage before your suit punctures and you die, but given the series’ trademark of recoverable health, it just becomes extremely annoying instead of tense and interesting.

It’s pretty clear that I don’t yet have a definitive stance on Black Ops. It’s Call of Duty, which are always fun to play because of their high level of polish and rock-solid shooting mechanics. But then again, it’s also Call of Duty, with its very-short single-player campaign (which leaves Xbox Live-less gamers like me shit out of luck [and sixty bucks] when I set it down) that comes without anything as fun as Modern Warfare’s Arcade Mode or MW 2’s Spec Ops; the hellish, more-luck-than-skill-based near-impossible Veteran difficulty (which, to my nerdishness, I’ve completed for every COD, including World At War, which probably has the hardest Veteran campaign of all the CODs); the unnecessary complexity of an overwrought story with those damn Ruskies, yet again, playing the part of the Bad Guys; and the massive restrictions of what you can and can’t do and where you can go and can’t go in a level.

So all that is what people love and what people hate. And given the enormous sales of nearly every title in the series (complete with one of the biggest advertising blitzes I have ever seen for Black Ops), we’ll get to love and hate another entry to the series next year.

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