Thursday, 17 March 2011

Call of Duty: Black Ops - Not a review... A TREATISE!!!

*I have had been writing this piece off and on since the game's release. It started as a review, but I then realised how futile it was voicing my opinions on whether you should buy this game so I began to ranting. I didn't stop. It is over 4000 words, so if your not into games or COD, this is probably not what you should be spending your precious life reading. I had to stop writing about it at some point...

When I was at school, I used to play rugby. I was never very good, but I was big so the collected wisdom of the school’s council of PE teachers placed me in the second row of the B-team. It was quite a sweet gig for a time. On some afternoons, we were taken out of classes to play away fixtures, where we would usually get our arses kicked. But still, after a hard day’s losing we would get hot dogs and orange juice. Nobody really expected anything from us because we were hopeless, never tackling at the right opportunity, accidentally throwing the ball forward, the backs never supporting the forwards and vice versa. On those rare occasions when we did win, or at least put up a ‘good fight’ we were patted on the back and made examples of, especially when the A-team got hammered in their game. The point that I am trying to make of course, is that I know how it feels to be Treyarch studios, developers of Call of Duty: Black Ops, the seventh game in the phenomenally successful series. 

Usually written off as Activision’s B-team, Treyarch are the second unit who churn out a Call of Duty title in the off year when the A-team at Infinity Ward develop the Call of Duty game. Be it through the monumental move from World War 2 to Modern Warfare with COD4 in 2007, through to the addictive point accumulation that defines the multiplayer which is undoubtedly the key to COD’s success and sky rocketing popularity, Infinity Ward are the guys who made COD what it is, it has always been their baby. After the jump to modern warfare with COD4, Treyarch produced World at War a year later, which felt like it was mostly treading water with its World War 2 setting. There were a few changes, the multiplayer was updated in line with the parameters of COD4 and there was the ability to play the campaign with four friends and the amusing co-op zombie mode as well as a more graphic display of violence and dismemberment. It wasn’t a bad game by any means, there were moments of brilliance, the level in which you had to snipe a German officer for example, but it wasn’t a great game either. Of course, as any follower of the industry will know, Infinity Ward have taken a bit of a hammering in the last year, with the dismissal of studio head Frank Zampella and Jason West and their subsequent deflection to EA and the formation of Respawn Entertainment. Underdogs Treyarch, on the other hand seem stronger than ever, probably gaining the most out of the circumstances surrounding Infinity Ward. Black Ops has already been very successful. Reviews have been mostly full of praise and more importantly to Activision first day sales have already surpassed the records set by last year’s MW2. The biggest entertainment release in history. Time will tell, whether Black Ops will sell the staggering amount of units that MW2 has, there is no reason to think that it won’t.   

Part of the appeal of Black Ops or BLOPS as it is now known, is that it ditches the exhausted battlefields of World War 2 and locates itself within the world of espionage of the 1960s Cold War. It is the first time Treyarch have been given creative control over the direction of the game. It is still the same old formula, Black Ops is still very much a period piece, but it is one that has broken free of the historical shackles that accompanied World War 2. Instead taking a gleeful sense of liberty globe trotting around various Cold War hot spots including The Bay of Pigs, Vietnam as well as more hypothetical ‘what if’ scenarios, it is clear that Treyarch are no longer just the B-team.    

BLOPS puts more emphasis on narrative than any Call of Duty game that has gone before it. You play as Alex Mason, uncharacteristically for a Call of Duty game actually unmuted and voiced by badass of the moment Sam Worthington, hot on the heels of the monolithic success of Avatar and erm… Clash of the Titans? Terminator Salvation? Anyway, Worthington is quickly becoming typecast as, a lowly grunt or warrior, skilled in the art of war and maiming, who is usually against his own will put into a situation that involves further war and maiming, but a situation where he eventually gains enlightenment and clarity of mind, learning the error of his warlike ways and directing his talent for maiming towards the true enemy, the evil puppet masters who have previously held dominion over him and everybody else. Conveniently this is pretty much the gist of Black Ops. The game begins with you strapped to a chair in some basement being tortured, a masked voice in the style of Deepthroat demanding you give the meaning behind a set of mysterious numbers, not to be confused with the numbers from Lost. What follows are a series of flashbacks where you fight through the levels, slowly but surely unlocking the truth to the numbers. In the grand scheme of story telling, its nothing special, but for a video game its pretty good. You actually feel motivated by the narrative to play through the game. 

Black Ops, now with MOAR helicopters.
The first level, is set on the eve of the Bay of Pigs incident and we are sitting in a moody bar in Cuba. You are introduced to your buddy Woods and another character voiced by Ice Cube.  As you mutter about something, talk is interrupted when Cuban authorities waltz into the bar, like they own the place, I guess they sort of do. After manhandling an innocent dancing girl – bastards - they proceed to yell at you simple bar flies demanding proof of identity or something. It doesn’t matter, within seconds, Woods has knived the guy’s hand to the counter and bottled him in the face. I have blown away another Cuban guard with a pistol and am thrown an assault rifle by the bartender, a more apt weapon for the wholesale slaughter of communists. Fighting my way outside and down the street, I am inundated with police cars, which I casually blow up with my under barrel grenade launcher. Ducking down into a street, I come to a car and am told to get into the driver’s seat. I unnecessarily get excited at the prospect, could Treyarch actually have implemented an actual driving sequence in an actual car?  Well no, it’s just the first of many quick time events, I am instructed to pull the left trigger, which lurches my car backward into some hapless goon and strategically placed cardboard boxes. Thereafter, I am prompted by another prompt, and promptly squeeze the right trigger, where my car launches forward like it’s the Delorian from Back to the Future, plowing through people, cars and the obligatory slow motion sequence.  Everywhere, there is noise, gunfire and swearing and whilst it is different from the obligatory target range training level it does occurs to me that I am playing a Treyarch game.

This is not a particularly bad thing. Treyarch are certainly fully capable of making first person shooters better than the majority of their competitors, but compared to Infinity Ward they are still the B-team. Aspects of Black Ops are very good, such as the story, the set pieces, the changes to multiplayer in the form of balances and interesting new game modes. Other aspects, however do feel like a downgrade from Modern Warfare 2.

Oh this is going to be a very lengthy review indeed…

It says pwn, my gun wrapped in bondage...
Playing Call of Duty games on veteran is sort of my thing. In all likelihood, I will never play the campaign at least more than twice, and being something of a veteran when it comes to first person shooters, I relish the challenge and more importantly the achievements that come at the end. Playing previous Call of Duty titles on veteran is usually an exercise in extreme frustration, grenade spamming and hyper sensitive enemies, who can put you down before you even see them. The last level in Treyarch’s last effort, World of War, where you played as a Russian soldier storming Berlin with your comrades, almost had me stamp my xbox in sheer anger, which I am quite ashamed to admit. Me in my little room getting angry at a video game based in World War 2, a real life global catastrophe where millions actually did die. I’m over thinking it perhaps. But it is the sheer unfairness that is weighed against you; people would argue, well war isn’t fair. It wasn’t fair during the trenches, it isn’t fair on today’s frontlines.  I accept all this to be true.  But am I actually fighting a war or am I just playing a video game?

With all this considered, Infinity Ward managed to get the difficulty right in Modern Warfare 2. I managed to complete the campaign on veteran in a single sitting. This wasn’t to say that the game was a breeze.  Fighting down that hill after leaving the mansion where you the Makarov was supposed to be hiding was an annoying sticking point for sure, and especially when the narrative killed your character off anyway when you reached the bottom of that god forsaken hill (f*cking Lance Henrikson). The majority of the time, however, the game always felt fair and I always felt like I had control. Black Ops does not adopt this approach. Treyarch revert back to the intense frustration of World at War. Whilst there is thankfully less grenades miraculously appearing before your feet, there are infinite waves of enemies at some points that will put you down in three shots or less before you even have a chance to register their existence. At a couple of junctures throughout the game, I found myself stuck at various checkpoints, and it became very annoying. Put simply, it was becoming a chore and I wasn’t having fun. Perhaps I was a little ambitious playing it on veteran first time out of the box? Regardless. I did it. But I didn’t enjoy it, not nearly as much as I did with MW2.

Added to Treyarch’s approach to difficulty is its approach to violence. Call of Duty: Black Ops is, in my humble, unnecessarily gratuitous in regard to violence and cursing. Whilst, I’m aware that this makes me sound like an overly concerned parent, it is more a question of taste. Blops contains various scenes of torture in particular, one where you force a scientist to swallow shards of broken glass through quick time events. Treyarch, will say and have said that they wanted to make an adult experience for a mature audience despite the fact that a lot of its sales will undoubtedly be generated by children and teenagers aged well below the 18 certificate. I’m not condemning the game or its players for this. If I was 15, I would almost definitely have found a way to get my hands on Blops. I experienced many violent games and movies in my childhood, as most boys do. Witnessing scenes of made up violence was a kind of badge of honour in the sense that you weren’t considered a real man until you had seen Robocop or Alien or used the Cerebral Bore in Turok 2: Seeds of Evil for the N64. I look back on it now and I can say it was just a phase, a rite of passage. Today, I am not drawn to violence in the same way that I was in my adolescence. That’s not to say that I don’t relish in the cartooniness and profound satisfaction of chainsawing up legions of boogeymen in Gears of War or gleefully disemboweling malevolent centaurs in the God of War series. But all the violence within those games, without sounding too much like a psychopath was cathartic, it added to the tone and experience of the game.

In contrast, the violence in Cod Blops does not have this kind of energy. It just felt like the Saw movies. Violence for the sake of violence, to shock and nothing more. Modern Warfare 1 and 2 didn’t need violence to assert itself. Just a ping to assert that you made a successful headshot. I guess there were a couple of scenes of drawn out violence, the bit where you repel down upon an unsuspecting guard and knife him in the neck, seeing the life disappear from his eyes but COD BLOPS is stuffed full of them. Strangulation with wire as you savour the spittle projecting from his dying breath. Pulling VietCong out of boats and stabbing them till dead. Burying a hatchet in the head of another oblivious guard.  I actually replayed this scene a few times because I kept getting caught out by the searchlight, and the whole sequence gets old very quickly.

I do love my QTE torture sequences
The narrative of Blops as I have said before is perhaps Treyarch’s biggest achievement with the campaign. Arguably it surpasses Modern Warfare 2, which told its story through the kinetic visuals via the game’s loading screens. However, I didn’t feel that I cared for any of the characters in Blops, not Mason, or Ed Harris not even the hot headed Woods. The only exception was maybe Reznov voiced by Gary ‘he who can do no wrong’ Oldman who returns to reprise his role from World at War. The main problem with Blops story is pacing, the game feels like it is constantly shouting at you, moving from one extreme to the next, with little down time. The game and set pieces are absolutely bonkers and in a way, I’m quite pleased how efficiently Treyarch have toed the line of rampant insanity.

The Call of Duty series has always been primarily influenced by cinema, or the ‘realistic’ depiction of combat as seen in Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan or Band of Brothers as well as other similar movies like Enemy at the Gate and Black Hawk Down. Granted there are a couple of genuinely original scenes. The Chenobyl level from COD 4 for example. It seemed to me that in Modern Warfare 2, they were beginning to scrape the barrel where cinematic influences are concerned, or at least open up the cellar door to the Michael Bay reserve. After the relatively sober and withdrawn nature of COD4; Modern Warfare 2 started to go a bit silly with the snow mobile chase before becoming Red Dawn when the Russians invade American suburbia and occupy Burger Town and the sports bar. Furture installments to the franchise are only going to plumb the depths of other action movies.

Black Ops has finally managed to riff on scenes from the greatest Vietnam movies, namely Apocalypse Now and The Deer Hunter.  Strangely, I didn’t see much in the way of Platoon, there is no extended Wilhem Dafoe death sequence for example. I was expecting it, but it didn’t come. At other points however, Black Ops is just Commando. And call me blasphemous, but Commando isn’t even a good movie, not even a good Schwarzenegger movie for that matter. It’s just a body count. The writing and delivery of most of the lines were off, with exception to Bennett of course. Black Ops for the most part also feels like a body count, you kill a lot of people in this game. People from all different nations.

On the subject of Schwarzenegger, one particular memorable level in Blops has you break out of a Russian prison where it starts to emulate Terminator 2 with a bigger body count, as you mow down prison guards with a minigun from a second floor window, before making a great escape on motorbike with a lever action shotgun. That whole level was just insane. I mean I think I actually harpooned a helicopter at one stage. I don’t want to condemn the game or series for riffing on movies, I mean it’s all fulfilling a fantasy. You are Schwarzenegger, you are John McClane this is what shoot ‘em ups are all about, its like playing Rock Band to the music of your favourite band, maintaining the allusion that you are a god, that you have power of some description that is the essence of gaming in general.  More importantly, in is movies like Saving Private Ryan, games like Call of Duty or Medal of Honour that our generation remembers the war and the sacrifice made by all those men and women who are killed in action and those who are fighting on the front lines today. Earlier on in the Call of Duty cycle, when it was set in World War II, I always felt the games were at least respectful in tone. Everytime you died, the screen would blur out and you’d get some quote from a famous politician or philosopher on the nature of the war. It did seem like a respectful way of handling a virtual re-enactment of the kind of battles that litter human history. I did begin to feel this dynamic began to fade with World at War, where the combination of gore and the flamethrower pushed the game over the edge of respect.    

This brings me to another problem I have with the Call of Duty series, the perverted sense of gun porn that pervades the entire series. You never feel like a character in Call of Duty because you are nearly always defined by the gun you are holding. There are literally so many different weapons, so many different loadouts all finely tuned in a similar fashion to how the developers of Gran Turismo model their cars. I am a big fan of Halo, which has a far smaller arsenal, but every weapon has a certain strength and weakness, there is always a time and a place to use them. There is strategy. I never felt Call of Duty had the same appeal. Instead it throws firearms at you of all different types, so many different models have been worked into the game and for what? 

What happens when you don't 'Shoot the hinges' - exposing the linearity of BLOPS in almost poetic fashion.

Treyarch have a largely familiar arsenal of the usual suspects with the 60s alignment of course, again, nothing that you haven’t seen already in Commando. There are a couple of new and exotic additions, a crossbow, ballistic knives and flame rounds for your shotgun. Because blasting enemies with a 12 gauge is just not enough. Your shells must set them on fire as well. The flamethrower is also back from World at War, although this time you can attach it to the under barrel of your rifle but once again there is no particular reason to have a flame thrower apart from setting your foes alight. Take the latest Battlefield games for instance based on the Frostbite engine, where bullets and explosives have a destructive effect on your environment. If you know an enemy is hiding inside a house, you can blow away the wall with a grenade. Call of Duty does not have this edge, despite the fully blown armory it already has.

When it comes down to the power of the bullet, which defines COD, I want to talk about the game’s ending. And warning because here comes spoilers. The second the game introduced President Kennedy, it became obvious to me that the game’s ending would somehow involve me with his assassination. It became increasingly obvious that CIA mind control and MK Ultra would feature heavily in Mason’s story. Anyone who is familiar with movies like The Manchurian Candidate or JFK will be able to see where the story is going. I’m just surprised that Black Ops didn’t actually end with you making the shot from the embankment. This was a tremendous disappointment because I was playing the game convinced this is what was going to happen, I was awaiting it with immense anticipation as a matter of fact, like I was in on the joke Treyarch was about to pull. Again I sound like a psychopath. Wanting the game to grant me the experience of virtually assassinating one of America’s most beloved presidents. BAN THIS SICK FILTH! But what did Kennedy really do? Womanising philanderer? Make politics the popularity contest that it is today? Perhaps I should leave this for another blog piece.

In my humble opinion, having you in the role of the shooter would have been the perfect ending for Black Ops. It would have been absolutely barmy, sure, completely in line with the conspiracy styled ‘what if’ narrative that defines the game’s story and allure, but more importantly, it is completely within the game’s fundamental gameplay mechanics to pull off. It would have fulfilled that glaring omission in the Blops campaign, despite all its globe trotting extravagence there is nothing in Black Ops that compares to the ‘No Russian’ level in Modern Warfare 2. That level was the highly controversial segment in which you were put in control of an undercover CIA agent, involved in a horrific act of terrorism. The game giving you the choice to fire on unarmed civilians - a moment in which the game actually questions your motives for pulling the trigger for once in the first person shooter’s sordid history. There is no score be made by killing these people, these targets pose no threat to you as a player, they don’t even effect your progression through the level.

The more I think about it, assassinating Kennedy would have been the perfect end to the campaign! Delirious, mumbling under the control of the numbers as you line the scope up to make the shot. You wouldn’t even have to make the shot if you didn’t want to, you could leave it and the game would fade to black, leave it ambiguous. It would have been a fantastic ending. But maybe, I don’t know what I’m talking about… I guess judging from the gung ho patriotism of the campaign’s final money shot, it may not have gone down well in America. But I guess its fine to mow down British commandoes and everybody else who gets in your way.  Oh well… Maybe I’ll just have to wait for when Black Ops 2 in November 2012.  Perhaps it will be the opening of that game or the level after the prologue, where you play as Buzz Aldrin landing on the moon with Neil Armstrong, masquerading as the second man on the moon but actually a highly trained soldier on a top secret Blop to destroy a secret Russian base that may or may not have a doomsday device aimed at the polar ice caps.               

Most of this review will be pointless to the majority of people who have already brought Black Ops. Because the main draw comes from the multiplayer. This is the fourth iteration of the multiplayer since COD4. Has it started to show its age? Well that depends on personal preferences. Halo Reach, Left 4 Dead and especially Bad Company 2 offer the kind of multiplayer experiences that I enjoy, a sense of depth in team play and the promise of ‘moments’. You will make the odd perfect head shot in Blops, or perhaps roll off an impressive killstreak, but as ever the main thing that dominates the MP is once again the accumulation of points, challenges and rankings which will unlock new kit for you to use. You always feel you are on a drip feed and as soon as you get killed or find yourself on a prolonged losing streak you begin to suffer withdrawal symptoms. I’m unsure about the addition of the remote controlled C4 car, it is brilliant for smoking out campers, but all the tension that you get as you move slowly through the jungle level on hardcore mode is thrown out of the window when you hear that RC engine coming. 

Real men kill their foes with remote control semtex.
There is no doubt that Treyarch have made some bold and beneficial changes to the multiplayer of Call of Duty. Taking a couple of ideas from Bungies, you can now play with guests on the same console for example, which is a welcome addition. A theatre mode also allows you to capture some of those moments of skill and fluke. There is also a bot mode, which allows all those who don't want to play online with a number of AI controlled team mates and enemies, a mode well remembered from the days of Perfect Dark on the N64.  

Perhaps the biggest change is the founding of an in-game currency, which allows you to unlock all your different perks, weapons, and equipment from the outset is an intelligent design choice allowing the players to craft their own play style from the outset. You don’t feel obliged to use every single weapon on the list as with the previous games. There is a new dimension to competitive play in the form of wager matches, in which you bet COD points in winner takes all matches. These free for all matches are quite different from the normal game modes that populate the regular servers. One mode gives you a pistol with one bullet. Kill another player and you gain another bullet, which leads to all the players frantically running at each other trying to stab each other. It makes a funny and refreshing change to the usual dynamic that defines COD MP.   

The final addition to Black Ops is its zombie mode. A popular off shoot from World at War and something Treyarch can proudly call their own idea. The problem is that the undead have become increasingly common in video games as of late. Red Dead Redemption managed to pull of zombies in the Old West with great panache, whilst Dead Rising 2 just allowed you to run amok creating up with diabolical DIY weapons. The last word in zombie slaying is Left 4 Dead 2 of course and remains so in the wake of Blops’s Zombie mode.

Zombie saturation isn’t the only problem of course, it is the fact that it functions as the game’s co-op mode. World at War had zombie mode at the end, as well as the ability to play through the entire campaign with a friend. Modern Warfare 2 had Spec Ops mode, which was, as I have already mentioned, a perfectly refined co-op experience. More importantly, Spec Ops obliged and developed the conventions and world of the single player game. What is zombie mode in comparison? Sure it is nicely old school, as you kill zombies for points, unlocking new weapons and areas, whilst repairing breaches made by the zombies and there is definitely a sense that you are under siege. The map set in the pentagon where you get to play as Kennedy and Nixon is arguably worth the inflated price of the game alone, fending off the undead hordes as Kennedy shouts out one liners is almost priceless, but compared to Spec Ops, Zombie mode is merely a fun distraction.    

Do not pray for easy lives gentleman, only pray to be... stronger men.

That concludes this discussion of Call of Duty: Black Ops, the biggest game on the planet. Taking a massive billion dollar share of the market, leaving its competitors only to stare in awe. Will you get your money's worth out of Blops, even after playing the inflated price tag. If you take it seriously then yes, of course you will. If you are beginning to suffer COD fatigue then you'll be able to do without it quite frankly. Some people will only play one game this year and that will be Black Ops and in a year’s time when Modern Warfare 3 comes out, the majority will move. 

As for me. I’m done with killing.  I’m done with war and first person shoot ‘em ups.  I don’t want to see another gun for a long time and I certainly don’t want to watch any more Sam Worthington films.  I need a break from it all. I think I’m going to retire for a while. Take up a new hobby, a new place of residence, a new role in life. I’ll become a boat skipper in South East Asia, shepherding eccentric individuals and exuberant youths down river for little or no fee. I’ll learn how to paint or repair shoes, become a keen fisherman. I don’t want any part in the virtual slaying of mankind. Not anymore, and with that I bid you adieu.

*Next week a look at Killzone 3!!! 

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