Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 is the 4192nd Call of Duty Game, and as such predominantly requires you to run forwards while firing a machinegun and following an indestructible friendly NPC whose main purpose is to open doors. It's developed by Treyarch rather than Modern Warfare-makers Infinity Ward, and it's the direct sequel to the Cold War-set Black Ops 1. This time, the setting switches between the Cold War and a new war on terror in 2025, as starring the son of Black Ops' protagonist Alex Mason.
It came out on Tuesday, and I blitzed through the singleplayer yesterday. (I probably won't write about the multiplayer because, not being terribly well-versed in the fine detail of the earlier ones, I can't say anything useful about it. Also I don't want to.)
At times, it's like a nightmare, not an adventure. Both friend and foe pummel my ears with shouted obscenities, I'm shot at from what feels like a hundred directions at once while random bits of scenery explode for no clear reason, and shooting I'm crazily back at whoever it is wherever they are with one of the two dozen guns with complicated names lying around me within a six foot radius. Or perhaps the wide, war-torn street I'm in is suddenly beset by a tidal wave, or a relentless series of prompts to press F to to do this or that pop up arbitrarily, or maybe the game just outright seizes control of my actions. Other times, I die and die and instantly die because I didn't press exactly the right button at exactly the right time. And through it all, insipid techno plays and plays and plays and plays and plays and I look at the amazingly well-rendered faces of people I'm supposed to care about and people I'm supposed to hate but I don't because all their personality is in their anger and so nothing means anything and I just run onwards, onwards, onwards doing what I'm told, a mute, anxious slave to my entertainment product.
But I stay. I keep playing because yes, it can be exciting when it relaxes its oppressively scripted hand just a little and lets me get on with the business of shooting men with great precision. And, most of all, because it's painting some of the most spectacular scenes I've ever seen on my monitor. This is what game artists can do when given an ostensibly unlimited budget and attendant manpower: these incredible environments such as futuristic mega-resorts, a nightclub housing hundreds of dancers illuminated by a sci-fi light-show, a perfectly trite faux-US suburb set up for army forces stationed in Panama, a sweeping desert filled with ancient ruins and herds of horses, a vast aircraft carrier under siege, a breakneck drive down an exploding freeway, a visibly humid, luscious jungle... This is a PC COD that's done the work, graphically at least, and it's paid off hugely.
There's this oft-repeated claim that Call of Duty games' singleplayer are mere throwaway nothings, simply box-ticking to help encourage more punters into the annual $60 purchase of an ever-more refined but never truly changed multiplayer mode. I see what CODBLOPS does with its single player, the magnitude of what it builds even if it all as surface, and I know that claim is dead wrong. Every time this game switches to a new location, I feel as though I've just watched a few million dollars burn away on my screen. Only a fraction of what was built for singleplayer will appear in multiplayer: these 8-10 hours of breathless blockbuster frenzy were clearly a huge and expensive project, not a routine one.
Amazing things have been made, and the people who crafted these scenes deserve our respect. But then I find all I can do within these scenes is run forward in a more-or-less straight line while shooting a machinegun I can't even remember the name of. It feels like absurd wastage, so much built and then only used as hoardings along the side of Black Ops 2's ever-exploding road. At one point, having just shown off a breathtaking fully-modelled aerial view the aforementioned future mega-resort, the game then immediately drags you into the boring, pop-up baddie-filled maintenance tunnels underneath it, so your view of this awesome structure lasts mere seconds. I feel sad that this grand building was created but then used only in cameo.
Then, even more sadly, I think of all those other, less bullet-crazed games that could do so many things with vast, awe-inspiring environments like these, not simply pen the player into an alley. They will never have even a fraction of it, of course, because they are not the world's best-selling videogame series. Oh, for a game in the vein of Vampire Bloodlines or Deus Ex to have had the nightclub level that this does. It would have made it into a maze of conversations and challenges and strangeness, but all this does with its vast, multi-tier space and legions of gyrating bodies is have you walk up to a door at the other end. It's like someone spending years designing and building the Colosseum but then just using it as a coffee shop.
There are so many little touches too, signs of a visual design team free to indulge themselves, creating deft micro-ideas that there's every chance the vast majority of players won't even notice through the storm of blood and bullets and blind fury. Much of the game is set in 2025, so during a scene in an airport approaching one of the many billboards for fragrances and watches sees the face of the man in them replaced by that of whoever's looking at them - specifically, the character you control at that point, Commander David 'Section' Mason. Minority Report stuff, yeah, but I'm amazed that they stuck such a tiny thing in there, this little breathe of cleverness within a game that is consciously obnoxious and mindless in so many other ways. Similarly, a 2025 jeep has a tiny, self-updating HUD on the corner of its windscreen detailing its emmissions, MPG and that sort of thing - a deft little reflection of what car culture might have become after another decade of a half of climate change fear and technological evolution. You pretty much have to squint to see it, but it's there because someone made it even though it has nothing to do with the running and shooting and running and shooting.
Then, on the other hand, is the rampant, unchecked mood and depiction of brutality and hate. There are three nauseatingly graphic scenes of people burning to death in the first couple of hours of the game, the first level, putting you in the shoes of an essentially invulnerable man who attacks a horde of black guys with a machete, is as sinister as it is ridiculous, and after that comes a steady stream of horrific mutilations and lingering, distressingly well-rendered looks at the results thereof.
For such a beautiful looking game, it sure is ugly. It does not have a good heart. It has a twisted, cruel, exploitative one whose sole concept of warm sentiment towards humanity is that the more hyper-aggressive and snarling an American soldier is the more heroic they surely must be.
I even struggled to follow the plot, which is certainly not the kind of thing I, as a not entirely stupid grown man, really want to be saying about yet another tale of GI Joe vs The Nasty Foreigners. Partly the confusion stems from the game presuming you know and 100% remember CODBLOPS 1's spasmodic saga of brain-washing, double-dealing and one-man-genocide in the 1970s and 1980s and thus can drop seamlessly into a story largely set around 40 years later, and partly it's because it wheels on a giddying parade of characters old and new without actually introducing them, usually before brutally killing them off moments later.
Admittedly, it calms down a bit in the second half of the game as the main antagonist Scarface McForeign finally comes up with a proper evil scheme that needs concerted stopping, as opposed to the preceding rapid perspective-switching, arbitrary use of flashbacks and a sense of purpose that's basically 'aha! You shall not defeat my army full of men! Oh you have defeated my army full of men, well here's another one then'. There's a sense of it being something a little more focused that the prior cavalcade of amazing-but-pointless settings and sudden executions of people whose names you didn't quite catch. Don't let me oversell it though - to achieve this second half focus the plot plunges into a preposterous, paranoid Clancy-fantasy that's like watching eight series of 24 simultaneously, but with added robots.
Also, it features a couple of short sequences from Scarface McForeign's perspective that do serve to explain him ever so slightly. He's not in any danger of escaping panto villain status, and there's a hilarious segment where he basically Hulks out and goes on an indestructible rampage that's less convincing than the Beserk power-up from the original Doom , but hell, I did feel the tiniest scrap of sympathy for him, which is more than I can say about 99% of the growly-sweary all-American heroes.
I've not actually played Modern Warfare 3, which I'm given to understand offered the worst excesses of the COD series to date, but I'm nonetheless fairly sure that Treyarch's latest effort here is doing its damnedest to outdo their own internal rival. As I say it looks amazing, while the rapid-fire setpieces, procession of disposable near-future military toys and sustained air of epic destruction could lay some legitimate claim to being Bigger Than Anything Else Ever. For that, I do wind up having a grudging respect for it, for how hard it tries and how much it manages to include, even while simultaneously feeling it's the empty-headed, mean-spirited death of popular culture. And, while I'd very much hesitate to leave the word 'innovation' anywhere within a 30-mile radius of CODBLOPS 2, it does try to do a little more than the now-traditional Keep Your Hands Inside The Rollercoaster At All Times high-speed rail journey to nowhere.
There are optional side missions which entail the lightest touch of strategy - using an overhead interface, you order small squads of men around a map with assorted capture/defence points, and can elect to take control of any one of them, Dungeon Keeper style. There is a branching plot with moral choices, some of which are overtly sign-posted as such and others of which genuinely require independent thought and have unexpected consequences much further down the line. This being COD and as such only truly concerned with wanton violence, the choices do not involve conversation or charity donations - KILL or WOUND is a relevant example.
I appreciate that it tries though, and I appreciate that I could actually have a conversation with someone else about what they did and what happened as a result. COD games haven't given themselves to anecdotes for a long, long time, unless your friends are somehow satisfied by such epic tales as "and then I shot another man and then another and then another and then another", but this is taking baby steps towards an experience that's reactive, not purely prescriptive.
So, for this and for the amazing environments, I'm not going to feel comfortable with hearing the usual dismissals of CODBLOPS 2 as the usual rubbish. It is a game at war with itself. The thoughtfulness of the environments and small visual touches and the attempt at choice and consequences is struggling to be heard over the unchecked, ever-shouting, raw nastiness of the game proper, and as such I am certainly not recommending it should be purchased by those who've found any or all of the last half-decade of CODs to be objectionable, stupid or objectionably stupid. It's an unpleasant game, it really is. But underneath all the hatred, sadism and jingoism there are telltale and fascinating signs of something more going on - and I hope they can be nurtured and built upon in the inevitable future CODs.