Wot I Think: Call Of Duty Black Ops

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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