Wot I Think: Call Of Duty Black Ops

By Alec Meer on November 9th, 2010 at 11:29 pm.

When I close my eyes, I see exploding limbs. More so than usual, I mean. There’s only been one story in gamesworld today, and while RPS is a site that celebrates and promotes the wildest outliers, it would be remiss of us to ignore this most mainstream of all games. So: after a day mainlining Black Ops’ campaign, I’m ready to KILL YOU SHOOT YOU MAIM YOU DIE DIE DIE. Uh, I mean tell you my thoughts on it. Yes, that’s it.

Note: I could say a report on the multiplayer will follow, but that would be a lie. While I have a very, very good sense of what it is (a tweaked and boosted take on the last COD’s multiplayer), because I haven’t made Modern Warfare 1 and 2’s multiplayer a central part of my life for the last couple of years, I simply don’t feel qualified to discuss what this gets right or wrong. I might as well review boilers, or snow mobiles. I have and will continue to dabble in it, but I’m pretty sure anyone whose primary interest in this game is for the multiplayer has made their mind up about it long before they played it. There’s little sense in playing King Canute here. That said, I understand the new RC bombs are excitingly disruptive and the amount of airborne menaces has been toned down, which is making it a bit more universal a playground than before. Anyway: on with the singleplayer. Thoughts on the Nixontastic zombie mode will follow on Friday.

I didn’t hate it. It’s important to say that up front. I can’t pretend I went into CODBlops with an entirely open mind – I went into it with one unimpressed by the disgusting arrogance and vacant pseudo-profundity of Modern Warfare 2 and made wary by the tedium and frustration of World at War, but nonetheless fond enough of earlier CODs to be curious.

There’s something to be said for low expectations. A pessimist is never disappointed, but he can be pleasantly surprised. There are a thousand delicate places I could put the boot into Black Ops, whose single player game probably breaks records in terms of both amount of scripting and lack of choice. But I didn’t hate it.

Primarily, it’s because it pulls back from the brink of Modern Warfare 2’s blithering excess and self-importance – this finds a narrative focus and it doesn’t have too many ideas above its station. Its tale of macho spies and history-spanning conspiracies remains very much another world compared to the peculiarly restrained war stories of trad-COD, but outside of a surprisingly twisted coda, it’s not interested in being much other than an action movie.

There’s also some psychological melodrama that, by this series’ standards, is fairly ambitious – I’d like to discuss its inspirations, but by doing so would immediately risk spoilers. It’s the meatheaded monster stretching itself a little, but make no mistake: despite a couple of unweildy staggers into Bioshock territory, it never sheds its Big Dumb Blockbuster skin. Attempts at emotional resonance end up ludicrous, though broadly entertainingly so. Unfortunately, the sheer amount of patronisingly reiterated exposition hung around the major revelations somewhat dents their impact. Yes, we get it. Another painstaking replay of a key earlier moment and a looped soundbyte going round and round and round really isn’t necessary to hammer the simple point home.

Still, this is a story game as well as a gun game – and much more so than COD has ever been before. Unlike the shifting narratives of CODs to date, it’s hung almost entirely around the tale and destiny of just one chap, US soldier/spy Alex Mason – fundamentally as personality-free as any other FPS reticule/forearms combo, but granted something like character development due to the echoed agonies of repeated kidnap and torture. It’s not that you care about Mason, not even slightly, but there is a curiosity as to what happened to make him like this and what it’s going to lead to. If you’re looking at CODBlops in the context of great game stories, it has no hope of being anything other than pond life – but in the context of pre-Christmas mega-budget shooters designed to hoover up money, it’s got more than you’d expect going on narratively-speaking.

Oft-leaden dialogue – especially the gamut of rather forced-sounding naughty-swears – and some exceptionally poorly-timed and jarring crap-rock background music threatens to undo this, but some core to the game struggles manfully on, determined to be something like memorable even through enough clichés to fill thirty years’ of Jack Reacher novels.

It’s helped enormously by the art direction – or, to give its proper title, “millions of dollars.” CODBlop’s eyewatering budget means this is an almost comically lavish game at times, presenting sights of a scale and splendour very little else can touch. Neither can you, of course, as you’re bolted tightly to the prescribed path at almost all times, but that doesn’t mean you’re not entitled to be a little dazzled now and again.

Being the little snark that I am, I can’t help but look for the shortcuts in such events – sure, there’s a giant digging machine there or a towering space shuttle launch platform here, but the game’s been able to pour all its graphical clout into such eye-catchers by making half the clothing or wall textures lower-res than a Game & Watch.

It’s not a game that stands up well to close scrutiny. It’s a game all about the bigger picture, and if you play it I’d advise you to only treat it as such. Close inspection reveals, as well as mucky textures and forty-eight million scripted events per second, a constant undercurrent of logic collapse. From the absurdly convoluted, science-fictional nature of the baddies’ plans, to finding that shotguns are as effective as sniper rifles in moments where it decides a shotgun should be your main weapon, to a single pistol shot somehow severing a leg and hurling it 20 metres away, it’s all over the place.

Brutish 80s action movie logic presides, but if you can treat it solely on those terms you’ll be okay with it. It’s full of grand sights, and its characters’ mo-capped facial animations are genuinely impressive. The walls of the uncanny valley remain far too steep to climb out of, but CODBlops does its best to make your stay there a superficially engrossing one. The campaign took me about seven hours by the way: I have no idea what the people talking about it lasting four hours are on about, but jolly well done them if they really did do that.

As a shooting game, it is a largely relentless ever-forward push against massed foes, in the COD idiom – but it does suffer for enemies that never surprise and for the heights of its tactics only ever encompassing reaching the next brazenly-highlighted waypoint. As with MW2, there’s no particular pride to be had from any kill – it’s Space Invaders stuff, enemies nothing more than pop-up targets, able to overwhelm only by sheer weight of numbers rather than any signs of strategic sentience. Played, as it was for me, in the course of one day, the bulk of its levels seemed interchangeable, something to be carved through to get to the next visit from Basil Exposition. A few bravura moments are interspersed, however – a prison escape in the second level, and an impressive piece of technical show-offery involving a spyplane and a ground attack force. I often felt that there was something bolder struggling to get out, and occasionally it really shows itself.

Puzzlingly, however, the weapons were so crazily plentiful that it seemed impossible to become excited by any particular pickup: so many varieties, even down to variations within a model type (e.g. clip size, scope, grenade launcher). I get that this is a game about gun porn, but in this case it’s a skinflick that almost immediately stuffs so many dangly bits into so many different orifices that any possible excitement rapidly turns into seen-it-all boredom. I just didn’t care about which gun I had, as long as it had enough bullets. They all seemed to kill people pretty well.

I’d also say it’s unnecessarily nasty, crossing the line between gritty realism to teenage salivation over unconvincing gruesomeness. Cutscene and scripted deaths are lingered on and rewarded with pantomime animations and cavernous wounds, and again there’s that sense that no kill matters, there’s no pride in the achievement. It’s not artful in its violence, merely noisy. There’s little to no subtlety in Black Ops, but I’m pretty sure it could have introduced some without negatively impacting the supermacho experience it so doggedly wants to create.

Similarly, its reliance on many, many traditional, fixed-observer cutscenes seems unnecessary and cludgy, given the game elsewhere demonstrates has the tools to tell its tale whilst still allowing you some action. Then again, it is a tale told mostly in flashbacks, with your character’s present largely spent strapped to a chair. Modern Warfare 1 did a stand-up job of reconciling control, scripting and storytelling, but Black Ops seems too artless to reverse engineer that formula.

Again though: despite its handholding gloss and underlying crudity, I didn’t hate it. Once I settled into treating it as nothing more than a well-painted rollecoaster, it became relatively easy to wave away the buzzing hive of concerns. It’s incredibly stupid for sure, but unlike MW2 it isn’t too obnoxious with it. It wants to be straightforward entertainment for a worldwide collective of men who want to live the Arnie fantasy: no more no less.

I find myself theorising whether the reason for Black Ops being relatively unobjectionable is the difference between Infinity Ward feeling as though they owned the world after MW1’s unexpected mega-success and Treyarch feeling desperate to prove to themselves after a parade of mediocrity, but I suspect that’s bollocks. It’s about Activision spending enough money to end worldwide poverty on an annual shooter sequel made by a thoroughly internal studio. It’s Treyarch’s best game in a long time, but there’s still a sense it’s a game made by committee.

That said, there’s a certain prideful backbone to it. Spanning as it does the Cold War, Vietnam and World War II (thanks to a flashback-heavy narrative structure), it quietly puts the boot into all previous – and perhaps even future – CODs. Black Ops does all the wars, and I can’t help but read that as a forceful statement of “Call of Duty is ours now.” Even though the gutted corpse of Infinity Ward is surely working on Modern Warfare 3 even as we speak, Treyarch are probably right. At last, they’re not the guys who got Call of Duty wrong – they’re the ones who pulled it back from the brink of hatefulness.

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161 Comments »

  1. Kryopsis says:

    This has to be the best opinion piece I ever read on Rock, Paper, Shotgun.
    Thank you for an enjoyable and insightful article, Mr. Meer.

  2. PaulOHara says:

    I probably will delve into the single-player campaign this weekend, but here’s something I want answered, that being why hasn’t a new engine been used yet for any CoD game since Modern Warfare, and even then it’s probably based off the Quake 3 engine. I want something that’ll tax my system, not effortlessly run it at 100+ FPS with a Radeon 5870.

    • Seth says:

      Because the PC is not the lead platform for these titles and console hardware specs have not improved.

    • DH says:

      Because the engine works fine and has the potential to look just fine, and there’s no point in taxing a system just for the sake of taxing a system? Would it make you feel better if the game just hogged a portion of processor power for no reason other than to stroke your ego when you look at your computer’s performance?

      Granted, this game doesn’t look great, but that’s more the fault of poor texture artists and animators and whoever programming the lighting effects than it is the fault of the game engine.

    • KillahMate says:

      But it is interesting that, given what was for all intents and purposes all the money in the world Treyarch chose to spend it on lighting programmers etc, rather than a new, better engine (which would have surely saved them quite a bit of tweaking work in the long run).

  3. DevilSShadoW says:

    almost five hours for the single player campaign…
    REALLY? And they’re charging 60€ for this crap? You’d have to be batshit insane to buy a heavily scripted explosionfest that lasts just a bit more than portal and has absolutely 0 replayability (talking about the campaign)
    I was shocked when i checked my clocked time at the end of the campaign…

    • Alaric says:

      It’s a multiplayer game. The campaign is thrown in for free.

    • Tyshalle says:

      If it’s a multiplayer game, then I don’t see how it’s worth $60, as the multiplayer is essentially a mild tweak of past CoD multiplayer modes.

    • Henry says:

      If you like the cod series then the multiplayer is easily different enough to be worth your money and you’ll get enough play out of it. It’s pretty different to MW2 and has a lot of changes people want.

      If yo udon’t like cod and you think they’re all the same then I don’t know why you’d be buying this anyway.

  4. Tyshalle says:

    I thought this game was boring as hell. And I loved MW2, for what it’s worth. The best part about Black Ops is the menu screen. Haven’t tried the multiplayer yet, but I’m sure it will be mostly identical to every other CoD game, and thus I will be underwhelmed.

    I don’t know what this talk is about backbone in this game. Say what you want about MW2 being arrogant or whatever, but they at least knew how to pace a game, and how to use music to affect tension. That was one polished game. This one is not nearly as sophisticated in any of those regards. I see myself going back to MW2 for a fourth and fifth playthrough long before I ever play Black Ops a second time.

  5. Henry says:

    I wish I could play this game. I’m one of the many sufferers of the stuttering up and freezing issue. Ruining hte gmae for me and a load of my friends who have it online.

    Unfortunately I also have the memory leak issue in SP as well so I can’t play the game at all. :/ Major disappointment. Terrible that they could let something this big through whatever testing they did.

    I found MW’s campaign great and MW2 had good bits in a mongst the rubbish at least. I’m mainly a multiplayer person myself though.

    sigh :(

  6. air palin says:

    For what it’s worth, this is the first Call of Duty in a while that I believe doesn’t have an “endlessly-respawning-enemies-until-you-run-forward” sequence, and also the first Call of Duty ever to not have a shitty second act — granted, they pretty much did it by cutting out the second act entirely, but that’s preferable to having an additional two hours of crap.

    I mean, seriously, CoD1 had the British missions, CoD2 had… the British missions, CoD4 had most of the missions in Iraq and the few SAS missions in the middle where you had to rescue that Russian guy, and MW2 had pretty much every mission where you are in America fighting in suburbia. I’m ignoring the other Treyarch games because I didn’t play them, so maybe they don’t have the pacing issues that the IW games had.

    • Tyshalle says:

      Yeah, I pretty much agree that the shitty missions running around fast food stands and stuff sucked. I didn’t mind the stuff in DC though.

      However, I’m pretty sure that MW2 didn’t have endlessly respawning enemies. But I’m pretty positive that this one does. There were several situations where I’d sit on top of a hill or a building and try to snipe the enemies to whittle down their numbers, but new bad guys kept running up to the same spots. A big example seems to be the now infamous Battle of Khe Sanh.

    • air palin says:

      Yeah, but that one was more of a puzzle than anything.

    • air palin says:

      Actually now that I remember, MW2 had the most egregious example. You remember the shower stalls in the prison, how you couldn’t stay in one place or you’d eventually die because all of the enemies you shot were replaced, but if you moved into a new position you’d probably die immediately?

  7. thermo says:

    “Unfortunately, the sheer amount of patronisingly reiterated exposition hung around the major revelations somewhat dents their impact. Yes, we get it. Another painstaking replay of a key earlier moment and a looped soundbyte going round and round and round really isn’t necessary to hammer the simple point home.”

    I KNOW UGGHH that was so painful

  8. Thoroughly Annoyed says:

    I actually felt that it’s insane arsenal COULD have been one if it’s strong points, had they not cut their own penis off by limiting weapon slots.
    WHAT IS IT WITH LIMITING WEAPON SLOTS!!!!
    In my eyes, limited pickup has cripped otherwise bearable to fun games like Far Cry/Crysis/Fear and is set to ruin the Duke as well.

    I simply could not be more annoyed than to find myself in a gun candyshop of wonders, and then be told “Two items checkout max sir, sorry, sir.”.
    Quite frankly, at times I was close to hitting my TFT in frustration that every other enemy and item resting against the wall was a new, shiny toy, yet the game refused to let me play..WHEN IT WAS ABOUT THAT VERY THING!

    A shooty game that disallows you to shoot with everything in it. How fricking stupid has game developer logic gotten? Seriously?
    To whom does it make sense to spend years on constructing a game about killing stuff in a variety of ways, only to then say “Oh, but let’s not make it too fun or varied, they might actually enjoy it.”.

    Stupid, stupid, stupid modern day design choices. Games are at times meant to be F U N.

    • Alistar says:

      I personally enjoyed the limited weapon slots. Honest to god, I play Fallout New Vegas on Hardcore, and restrict myself to carrying one pistol and one rifle at all times (unless I’m out on a scavenging run specifically). That and I limit all the rest of my inventory of food and water, while using cache’s around the world and never EVER using quick travel.

      All of that, and I find myself having immensely more fun than my “carry 400 weapons of every kind and infinite amounts of ammo” games.

      I really think a touch of realism (ie: you have two arms, and a backpack not big enough to fit a mini nuke launcher and twelve shotguns) goes a long way in some cases. Those cases being shooters depicting “real” soldiers in “real” places doing “real” operations.

      In conclusion, Call of Duty ≠ Serious Sam.

  9. RoTapper says:

    Every single fps game gets released with a broken server browser. I don’t get it. Its not like its new technology and they have to reinvent the wheel every time they make another game.

    I’m enjoying the mp when it works. My only gripe is the jumping insta-prone, iron-sighted, spinning death spray o doom. Otherwise its pretty good.

  10. Alistar says:

    No review on the multiplayer? Seriously?

    In my opinion it’s where the game shines (and fails) the most. It brought some real innovation to the online FPS. It’s also the real reason a large amount of people bought it. Myself and my 30+ CoD Steam-friends haven’t even played the single player once yet. I realize I’m not everyone… but it’s the multiplayer that keeps a game like CoD selling past the first month, and should be at least given a footnote in a review of the game.

  11. Frye says:

    Nice review. Good stuff.

    I rage-quit about 30 minutes in the SP campaign when the game actually went ahead and KILLED me for being more than 30 ft away from my team.

    Really looking forward to multiplayer though. This sort of game is perfect for reviving old counter-strike clans.

    I would have liked to read more about the multiplayer bit. A lot of people really consider the SP campaign as icing on the cake rather than the actual game. Or the training stage if you like.

  12. Daves 1.1 says:

    Just finished the SP….Not bad, enjoyed it in a ‘that’s batshit mental’ kinda way.

    Mp is ok, Bit laggy but an improvement on the last one, a compination of BLOPS customisation and Cod4′s feel would be perfect.

    As an aside, the only time a game has truly got my hackles up (in a good way) was one of the old Cod’s, on the Pegasus bridge mission. First run through I didn’t die once, the way the music swelled as I grimly hung on to virtual life was a genuine punch the air moment. Nothing has replicated that. It even had the effect of making a real life visit that much more humbling as I’d had a teeny, tiny glimpse into it.

    • fugo says:

      Ha, I went there a few years ago and had a huge deja vu moment until I realised it was because I’d died defending it.. several times. I had exactly the same feeling.. it was so much more real to me because i’d ‘experienced’ it. Its cool to know someone else had the same moment!

  13. Iain says:

    It seems so much like Soldier of Fortune…

  14. fugo says:

    Firstly, I didn’t hate it either.

    Secondly, it compared favourably to MW2′s singleplayer?! The plot in this was more ridiculous than MW2′s ridiculous plot. And at least MW2′s plot gave you motivation and the joy of seeing America get invaded by someone. And it didn’t cut to annoying mid-mission cutscenes badly. Sure, Black Ops made an effort with backdrops but the playable areas didn’t have MW2′s quality. The ‘stealth’ bits felt like bad copies of MW1 & 2.

    Guns in MW2 actually feel powerful. There wasn’t any gun in Black Ops that was fun to use because none of them had that ‘feel’. Even the shotguns felt like you were shooting paintballs.

    Each to their own, but in singleplayer terms, this was well below the par set by Infinity Ward.

    Also, I don’t get why people are so into the Zombie mode thing? Its okay i guess but even playing with 3 buddies it loses it’s appeal in 15 minutes.

    But yea I didn’t hate it. I did prefer MOH though and would say if you only buy one ‘real world’ shooter this quater, get MOH over Black Ops.

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