Friday, November 19, 2010

And I Want to Paint it Black -- Call of Duty: Black Ops

It’s that time of year again: Activision has released a new Call of Duty game! That time when gamers come together, shoot each other for XP over Xbox Live, and swear loudly in one voice at that cheating douche who keeps using the noob tube. Some find time for the single player campaign, but those people seem to falling by the wayside in favor of twelve-year-olds that shoot you in the face and call you all kinds of bigot-y names. It is a joyous time indeed.

Anyways, this year’s entry in the Epic 2010 FPS Sweepstakes is Call of Duty: Black Ops. Developed by Treyarch (who, apart from Call of Duty, also makes Activision’s Spider-Man games), Black Ops takes place in the 60’s, and involves many of the conflicts during the era of JFK and The Who. You’ll invade Cuba during the Bay of Pigs, battle against the Russians in almost every corner of the globe, and you bet your sweet ass you’ll listen to CCR’s “Fortunate Son” while landing a helicopter in Vietnam (it’s exactly as clichéd as it sounds). They didn’t manage to work in the Cuban Missile Crisis, but that’s neither here nor there.

Every Nam movie ever? Eh, sorta.

Rather than retelling major battles (although there are a few of those), Black Ops spins an original narrative about conspiracy, subterfuge, and about everything else you would expect thematically from a game called “Black Ops.” The plot concerns Alex Mason (Sam Worthington, in his Sam Worthington-iest), a soldier who wakes up in an interrogation room and is grilled about a series of numbers. Alex doesn’t know anything about the numbers, and has to relive several of his past missions in order to make sense of everything. As a plot device to trigger the game’s playable sequences, it’s not a bad concept. Unfortunately, most of the game’s between-mission scenes generally end up playing out something like this:

DEEP VOICE: Tell us about the numbers, Mason!

MASON: F@$# you! I don’t know any f@$#ing think about any f@$#ing numbers!

DEEP VOICE: We know you know about the numbers, Mason!

MASON: The numbers don’t make any f@$#ing sense! I don’t f@$#ing know!

DEEP VOICE: Tell us about that one time you infiltrated that one place!

MASON: That one time at that one place…

[play some mission somewhere]

Seriously. The story would have been more interesting if it weren’t presented in such a monotonous manner. Many reviewers have taken the time to point to the mystery in this campaign and compare it favorably to the “disorganized and confused mess” that was the Modern Warfare 2 single-player (conveniently forgetting all of the praise they had heaped on it a year before). By the time the end rolled around for me, however, I found I didn’t care about the numbers, Mason’s character, or much else that was going on in the story. Good in theory, meh in execution.

This is where most of the story takes place, accompanied by Bourne Supremacy-esque seizure flashbacks. It's riveting.

Which is a shame, because the missions themselves present several interesting scenarios. In one you command an SR-71 Blackbird to guide troops through a snowstorm, and then switch perspectives to the troops on the ground. In another, you pilot a gunboat while working your way though Vietnam. My favorite has you escaping from a Russian POW camp; with its gradual progression in guiding the player from hunted to hunter, it shows a sense of pacing and payoff that many of the missions later on in the campaign lack.

It’s this lack of pacing that ultimately hamstrings my enjoyment of the campaigns. For all Modern Warfare 2’s narrative quirks (I am a rather large fan of the MW2 campaign and all of its huge, why-is-this-happening-who-cares-it’s-awesome moments), it had a taught, super-fast pace that kept the player racing along from one enormous set piece moment to the next. Black Ops wants to have those moments, but doesn’t make them big enough. There are a couple cool spots (that I won’t spoil), but most of the time you’ll be going down a linear corridor (your allies are helpfully marked “Follow,” as though you had a choice in the matter), shooting everything that moves; none of the huge moments ever seem awesome enough to justify some of the poor level- and gameplay-design decisions that must be worked through to get to them.

There are a few water-cooler moments, like this chopper-piloting bit, but they're few and far between.

Which brings me to the biggest gaffe in the Call of Duty: Black Ops campaign: the return of the infinitely-spawning enemies. This design was eliminated in Modern Warfare 2, but is now back with a vengeance. I’ll illustrate this point with a story. There’s a mission where you play through the Battle of Khe Sanh. During the level, I took command of a stationary machine gun as I attempted to fend-off Charlie. My allies were hunkered down beside me, taking an occasional shot and shouting directions: “Up there by the trench line! Beside those barrels! Three o’clock!” All the while, the enemy kept pouring down the hillside toward me. No matter how many I shot, there were more to be found, and my squad’s incessant calls of “By the trench line!” were starting to grate at my nerves. After five minutes of shooting dudes, I realized that

a) There would be no end to this limitless supply of enemies,

b) The enemies would only stop spawning when I crossed some pre-determined line in the level, and

c) This is really, really stupid.

So I did the only thing I could do: I charged the hill and tried to hide until the game would stop spawning foot soldiers. From there on out, I lost any trust I had in the game’s campaign. I was no longer interested in planting myself in cover, clearing the enemy out one-by-one, and moving forward only when I felt safe; I knew that I would find myself in a position like Khe Sanh, where my efforts of playing smart would only result in wasted ammo and 15 extra minutes I would throw away before my inevitable respawn. In a way, it’s probably my own fault that I didn’t enjoy the campaign as much as I did, but my hatred of clown-car enemy-generation is so great that I refused to buy into the game’s fiction.

There's a calliope playing around here somewhere, I just know it.

I did enjoy my time with the multiplayer component, however. Black Ops takes everything that made Modern Warfare 2’s multiplayer such a hit and adds a few of its own special herbs and spices (it also fixes many of the glitches and balancing issues from MW2; I’ll have to take the internet’s word for it, because my time with that game was relatively glitch- and exploit-free). In place of a traditional Level Up And Unlock Some Junk progression system is a system where players earn currency called Call Of Duty Points, or COD Points (no word if TROUT and HALIBUT Points are coming in a future DLC release). COD Points are used to buy guns, scopes, and camouflage once the player is at a certain level, adding a degree of customization to progression; rather than unlocking a new sniper rifle that you may not ever use, you can choose to only purchase gear that will be useful to you.

Black Ops also lets players spend COD Points to customize their characters in myriad different ways, from creating a personal emblem (built in a robust graphic editor), to choosing a new targeting reticule for a gun’s scope, to marking weapons with clan tags. Just about every facet of Black Ops’ multiplayer can be personalized, and many will while away the evening customizing their avatars for maximum cool factor and sex appeal.

You can tweak just about everything in the multiplayer.

All of the old game modes return from Modern Warfare 2, along with a few new ones in the form of Wager Matches. Wager Matches are on-the-side modes different from the regular games of Headquarters and Team Deathmatch—players wager COD Points that they will be in the top three, adding a gambling appeal to the content. Players can compete in four different match types: Sticks and Stones (which gives the players a crossbow, throwing knife, and tomahawk), Sharpshooter (which cycles through weapons on a set time interval), One in the Chamber (each person has a gun with one bullet, and subsequent kills give more bullets), and Gun Game (players start with a handgun and climb their way through 20 weapons with each kill). I spent most of my Wager Match time with Gun Game, and though I don’t think it’ll become my primary way to play, it was a fun diversion from the main game.

Where Black Ops’ multiplayer shines the brightest is in its map design. I enjoyed the crap out of Modern Warfare 1 and 2’s multiplayer, but there were always a handful of maps that I felt were just plain bad. I never got that feeling from Black Ops; there were definitely a few maps I was less skilled at, but there were absolutely none that made my blood boil the way Bloc or Estate did.

My favorite map: Nuketown. Think that one place in the fourth Indy movie, sans fridge.

All in all, Black Ops was a worthy rental, though I’m not sure if I’ll make the conversion and purchase it. The multiplayer was fun enough, but the single player wasn’t quite up to snuff for me; a few design issues and an uninteresting story dampened the impact that it could have had. Fans of the Call of Duty series may want to look into Black Ops for its balanced and satisfying Xbox Live play, but those looking for a quality, replayable solo experience may want to test the waters before fully taking the plunge.

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