Black Ops

Campaign spoilers for Black Ops.

Black Ops started brilliantly.  However, the constant large-scale battles desensitised me to the action.  By the end, most of the levels blurred together, and my most vivid memories of the final chapters were of cut scenes and narrative, not gameplay

I approached Black Ops with cynicism.  I had heard some bad things about it, was unimpressed with the demo, and was generally a bit shootered out.  But the first two levels of the game blew me away.  Cuba quickly became great fun, and the jailbreak level is a masterpiece.  Sadly, Black Ops never again quite recaptured the thrill of these first two missions.

Where Black Ops succeeds is in rendering the madness of battle.  Or, at least, my civilian idea of it.  It takes full advantage of the ever-improving technical power of game technology to create chaos.  Enemies appear from all sides, at times in large numbers.  All around you NPCs shoot and melee each other.  Black Ops could be criticised for some ropey AI; occasionally an enemy will flank you, completely ignored by your comrade.  This seems to be a by-product of creating such a battle-filled world, the programming of your team’s defensive intelligence not being able to hold up to the attacks all around it.  Black Ops does its best to create a world in which you’re just one piece, a pawn in the war game.  Ultimately, of course, the battle doesn’t end until you reach yours, yet you still feel like one of many.  It’s ambitious, and if that causes a few minor glitches, so be it.  Treyarch built an immersive environment.  I’ll gladly accept some minor bugs just now if it means improved battles in their next iteration.

When the game begins it feels small, and much like a Modern Warfare clone.  It only seems unique because of its minimal tutorial.  Whereas Modern Warfares give you a shooting range or training level to show you the ropes, Black Ops throws you straight into a mission, with just a few prompts to ensure you don’t immediately die.  As the level unfolds, the scale expands, the wilder and grander the battles get, and the more thrilling the experience becomes.  As you get closer to killing Castro (yes, that Castro),  enemies pop up from a multitude of points, doors and windows crack open from a storm, solders cover and lob grenades while others rush to melee you.  Cuba is crazy.

The jail break level is fantastic, a tutorial in engaging level design.  Your goal is to escape from prison while extracting bloody revenge on the guards.  Your comrade Reznov is the team-leader, explaining your goal as broken down into six parts.  You feel motivated by these tasks, and as part of a bloodthirsty group of prisoners, there’s a strange sense of community, the slaves taking revenge on their oppressors.  You don’t feel like you’re simply moving checkpoint to checkpoint, although that’s exactly what you are doing.  There’s almost a sense that you could fail, that there’s a narrative alternative to completing the level.  You could be sent back into the Gulag for the rest of your miserable life.  It’s a nonsensical idea of course, but it exists for me when I’m caught up in the rush of the level.  This is Treyarch’s ultimate accomplishment.

The atmosphere is as good, if not better, than anything in either Modern Warfare game.  I got a knife and joined the group of escapees, thirsty for blood.  Any guard I saw was going down.  I saw three in a corner, battling with inmates.  I ran in, knifed them, and took off again.  I then realised that I could’ve ignored them entirely.  I had stopped running to glance to the side, on the off-chance that something was happening.   I then started to pass some enormous, muscle-bound man who had a guard in headlock.  I stopped to watch as he broke the guard.  This is Sergei, Reznov explained.  If I had kept running, would I have never gotten this introduction?  Potentially unseen events happening in a Call of Duty game?  What else could I have missed?  These are all things that add to the believability of a fictional world.  The dialogue and voice acting of Reznov is great too.

You start with a stone.  You move onto a knife, then a pistol, machine gun, catapult, awesome Gatling gun, then finally wield a shotgun while driving a motorbike.  Weapon swapping feels like levelling up, another accomplishment.  You go from barely surviving, having to rush armed guards, to holding your own with an AK, to a Gatling gun and a feeling of sheer dominance.  Unfortunately, the catapult and particularly the shotgun feel too easy to aim with.  All the catapult needs is a little alignment and a full force throw to hit its distant target.  It’s a good and original addition, but could’ve done with feeling more realistic.  The level ends with you and Reznov making a final break for freedom.  You drive motorbikes towards a train.  Guards give chase, overtake, and try to slow you down.  You try to pick them off with your shotgun, swinging it to reload like John Wayne in True Grit.  I say try, you almost always hit; the shotgun requiring so little aiming to hit its target.  For all the many joys of the level, it feels more like cheat mode, detracting from the fun.  Okay, shooting a speeding guard on a motorbike with a shotgun would be difficult, but find another way to make it work, don’t give us a magical weapon.  The shotties are too accurate throughout the game, but its much more obvious in this situation.

Where Black Ops fails, sadly, is with what I stupidly call ‘bang fatigue’.  Treyarch have taken all the big moments of Activision’s Modern Warfare games and magnified them.  However, they give so little time between them for the gamer to decompress that you eventually become inured to the action.  We don’t need much of a break between massive action scenes, but Black Ops only really gives cut scenes and brief moments of quiet before it’s back to the explosions.  I’ve read of bodyguards being trained by being repeatedly shot, or set upon by dogs (while wearing the necessary protection of course).  After repeating the process, their adrenaline levels don’t spike as high and they can think rationally, something which is practically impossible during a ‘fight or flight’ response.  They become accustomed, relatively, to being bitten and shot.  Black Ops is the digital version of this, with your passivity being the very opposite of the intended effect.  Black Ops is Treyarch screaming in your face for seven hours, then wanting you to jump at the sound of a suppressed fart.  Imagine a Lord Of The Rings film with all the quiet, character moments taken out.  Just battle after battle.  The action wouldn’t be half as effective.  That’s what went wrong here.  This is not to say that Black Ops is a bad game, merely not the great game it could’ve been.

I still can’t get use to Ice Cube’s voice acting.  It would be more acceptable in a modern setting, I don’t have a problem with him being a modern soldier, but hearing a voice associated with 80s and 90s hip-hop during the Vietnam War feels anachronistic.

Speaking of good ol’ Nam, I repeatedly failed at a particularly frustrating point.  The objective is to sneak up on two VCs in a boat, and slice one.  I managed to arse it up a few times and got spotted.  Failure frenzy.  I finally clocked that the game wants you to hit the melee button while you’re many feet below the boat, letting it take control of all the movement, the swimming up, climbing the boat and slitting a throat.  Here I realised a particular bugbear of mine: dialogue immediately after a checkpoint.  A save point loads, some lines are reeled off, you die/fail seconds later.  Repeat this again and again and you’ll realise how annoying the dialogue becomes.  I’m a bad gamer, this happens to me a lot.  So the checkpoint loads, I listen to Ice Cube tell a character that it’s good to hear from him, I fail the task, repeat rewind repeat.

I don’t know what the perfect solution for this is.  Game narrative will at times require that dialogue starts where a new mission does, so placing the speech elsewhere isn’t an option.  It would also be a waste to have the dialogue only play once, but maybe the game could recognise when you’ve failed at the same thing numerous times, and having the speech always play is becoming more frustrating than the failure itself.  Despite the great sound design of Black Ops I muted the TV after a few attempts.

Another gaming annoyance is the placement of savepoints before tasks that require little skill, meaning that if you die you have to replay some inane moment.  Black Ops has one level (some icy mountain effort) with some badly placed checkpoints.  I work through a mountain base, disconnect some cables, exit, fail to make a jump and die.  The game restarts.  I’m back in the base, and again have to disconnect the cables.  I exit again, and fail again (I hesitated when I was told to throw myself off a cliff.  Imagine).  And again, the bloody cables need pulled out.  The only skill required for the goddam cables is to know how to work a controller.  I shouldn’t have to show that I can complete this task again and again.

Despite the quality of Black Ops, Call of Duty games are becoming a parody of themselves.  Nowhere is this more obvious than in the numerous slo-mo fall/stun/near-death moments.  Both Modern Warfares used this to good effect, using the first-person viewpoint to enhance dramatic moments (falling off of a mountain, jumping from a rooftop).  Black Ops, however, takes it too far.  It seems that every level has a moment like this, from sliding off of a roof, to falling through a floor, to watching helplessly as an ally saves you from near-death.  Repeated use of these moments only serves to underpin how immortal you are.  It’s a game; when you die it’s your own fault.  With the very rare exception, you won’t die in a moment you have no control over.  You know, ‘cos that wouldn’t be much fun.  So every time I fall or an explosion rocks me and a comrade shouts my name and tries to save me from death’s jaws, I know he’ll succeed.  Modern Warfare took advantage of the gamer’s relative unfamiliarity with this, but now it has become passe.  The first Matrix film used slo-mo and rotational camera panning to great effect.  The sequels ruined them through overuse.  Sadly, I think Call of Duty may do the same with these moments.  I fully expect this to appear regularly in Modern Warfare 3.

Black Ops may have mostly failed to provide drama with this mechanic, but it does manage to incorporate tension in various other ways.  It’s very cinematic, maybe more so than both Modern Warfares.  To their credit, it seem like Treyarch made a list of cool things to do and managed to put them all in the game.  The Washington moment where you make your way from helicopter to limo to the White House to a seat beside JFK is, yes, cool.  It’s also a good example of the graphic capabilities of both game and console.  People you pass aren’t just part of a static background; they’re moving, working, sometimes reacting to you.  It’s a drawn-out scene, like the driving scene early in MW1, and it’s particularly effective in establishing the scale of your mission and rousing your patriotism (and I’m Scottish).

Speaking of JFK,  it’s worth mentioning that Black Ops makes some bold political moves with its narrative.  I won’t say ‘political comment’, because this game isn’t the place for foreign policy critique (though earlier Call of Duty games tried to comment, using quotes on the pointlessness of war, a feature now removed).  The inclusion of Kennedy, Castro, Nixon and Robert McNamara will most fondly be remembered by fans for being playable characters in Zombie mode, and for the hilarious cut-scene which precedes it.  But hopefully fans won’t forget that this is a game which starts with you trying to kill Castro, which later had you take assassination orders from Kennedy (and visualising killing him).  This is bold territory for a game to venture into, especially a big, violent juggernaut like Call of Duty.

Despite my comment that Black Ops is all big bangs and explosions, it does include some quieter, atmospheric moments, just ones not used enough.  You control Reznov as he works his way through an abandoned ship.  With just a flashlight and a pistol, it feels more like a level from an Indiana Jones game than a shooter.  While playing it, I couldn’t shift the idea that it would soon turn from suspenseful to shoot-frenzy, and sure enough it did, predictably giving you a machine gun and a load of enemies to dispense.

The tunnel level in Nam does have its tense moments; I jumped a few times as an enraged enemy appeared around a corner.  Treyarch didn’t have the confidence, or feel the need, to develop true tension in this level, however, and too regularly had enemies appear.  I would’ve preferred a longer time between enemies, escalating the tension.  Also, why do people in tunnels have their faces rip apart when you shoot them?  I shot plenty of people close-up in other levels, and their faces didn’t tear like that.  These two levels were places where something new could’ve been done with the franchise.  Solve some puzzles to find your way out, or some difficult navigation.  But that would be asking a Call of Duty game to stop doing what makes it so Call of Dutyish.

One level of Black Ops used an airborne, heat-sensor aspect of gameplay, but strangely completely underused it.  While the controls weren’t great, the feature had potential.  You could direct troops on the ground, instructing them on where to go, when to attack enemies, when to dig in and hide.  You’d then drop down and join the fight.  The idea here is good, but the game gives up on it too quickly.  It’s as if Treyarch didn’t have time to finish implementing it.

As with the inclusion of political figures, Black Ops is bold and ambitious in its storyline.  The narrative is much more developed than in either Modern Warfare game.  Does it work?  Compared to the subtleties of film and TV storytelling, no.  Compared to the blunt-force stories of most games, then yes, definitely.  I did suspect that Reznov was mostly imaginary a while before it was revealed, but I was proud to have noticed it.  It only became obvious one level before the reveal, in some heavy-handed and overt line of dialogue (which I’ve now forgotten).  Game storylines have been criticised for their lack of foreshadowing.  While Black Ops was a little too full-on with this, it deserves respect for trying.  The interrogation scenes were quite cliched and reminiscent of Black.  But the levels mostly held together as part of a coherent narrative.  Some may comment that the Black Ops story is simply Fight Club (an alternate personality) plus Lost (the numbers).  I think it’s brave, not derivative, to use both these devices.  Many Lost fans would be quick to connect the Black Ops numbers with the show.  Given that Lost only finished fairly recently it’s hard to ignore, but Treyarch deserve credit for using this regardless.  Years from now I feel that I’ll remember the characters of Modern Warfare more clearly, but the story of Black Ops will be the one that sticks.

Zombie mode is also worth mentioning.  It shows a humour to Black Ops.  Call of Duty games take themselves very seriously, and Black Ops seems like the worst offender.  But the inclusion of a mode in which four real-life political figures defend the White House from a zombie attack shows that Treyarch know how to have fun.  The opening cut scene is funny, and all characters’ dialogue is deliberately cheesy.  The other zombie map is enjoyable, and retro shooter Dead Ops shows a respect for old-school gaming, though t lacks replay value.

All in all, Treyarch did an admirable job, especially as they’re considered the inferior Call of Duty developer.  If they could learn to break up the big battle moments with moments of stealth or relative quiet (think the farm level in Modern Warfare 1) then their next attempt at a Call of Duty could be very good.  Their attempts at engaging moments and narrative are very respectable.

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