Monday, October 3, 2011

Call of Duty: Black Ops - a.k.a. War is boring... (27/11/2010)

... so why would you want it? No, seriously.

My experience with Call of Duty has been a rocky one, at best. I was one of the first people to praise the original title. I still love it to this day; a WWII, anti-war and still heroism-filled shooter with an abundance of cinematic moments and anthemic music. CoD2 felt more of the same, which wasn't bad, but it had started growing stale and adding entire sections where you kill over half of Nazi Germany didn't help the somewhat more realistic grounds of the original. CoD3 I never played. CoD4 I'd avoided for long, but I enjoyed enough when I caved in.

And then, Activision turned to total assholes. It's amazing what money can do to people. They started shitting over any sense of quality and instead focused on turning a series full of potential to the same reheated dish that mindless masses have been drooling over.

CoD4 is probably where the big problem started. Hmm, I recall I had done a CoD4 review and I don't even remember what I had wrote in it. So, let's get something straight here: Modern Warfare is a merely good shooter! I can't stress that enough. I don't care how many people loved it, I don't care how many millions of copies it sold; it was merely a fun first person shooter. The multiplayer was what made folks go banannas over it, but I don't give two shits about it. A single-player game that merely features a multiplayer mode, however well-crafted, shouldn't be judged solely on the merits of said mode. See, I'm the kind of player who doesn't like multiplayer that much.

But I do like first person shooters. When I want to let some steam off with other players, to this day I'll boot Counter Strike! I have no interest in leveling up and acquiring weapons and increasing stats, all saved in my profile to use at a later time. Buy gun, set bomb, don't let the CT defuse it. Round after round till I'm bored and log off satisfied. I respect what MW's multiplayer did in the bigger picture of online shooters, from a theoretical standpoint... but on the flipside, I loathe it for the damage it eventually inflicted on the genre, gaming and even the series itself in the long term.

And here is why single player games shouldn't be based on their multiplayer campaigns: they're different beasts. Multiplayer needs solid design. Originality never hurt anyone either. You can make it great, but based on very specific foundations. Single player campaigns, on the other hand, are about different stuff. They are about storyline. Pacing. Solid mechanics. Linearity or lack thereoff. Especially for a cinematic series, like CoD, it's also about scripted events. Multiplayer made MW a beast in terms of popularity and its sequel the talk of the industry for far too long. In misreading that, what followed CoD4, in terms of single-player-campaigns has been complete and utter tripe.

I'm not including World at War in those. I had given it a somewhat negative review and the game itself wasn't very well-accepted by the audience, but ironically, it features the best campaign out of the last three CoD games. It stuck to the CoD1 basics, they'd just grown stale by the time WaW came out and it didn't compare to the admittedly well-crafted campaign of CoD4. But Modern Warfare 2 came out a year later and showed us that the stale basics aren't always a bad thing. CoD6 is so convinced that what made CoD4 successful were the over-the-top moments that it has you speeding on a snow-mobile from as early as the second mission in the game. To make matters worse, it relies solely on scripted events and explosive situations, making any sense of realism once graced by the series disappear and the entire arsenal of military hardware at your disposal moot, since experimenting with the gameplay is not really an option.

But that piece of crap isn't what we're here to talk about. It's just that "Call of Duty: Black Ops" does the exact same thing, as I was very disappointed to find out. MW2 I tried (for as long as my PC allowed me to play its too-demanding-ass) out of curiosity (big title and all), but Black Ops I was genuinely interested in, something that hadn't happened since at least CoD2. I'd heard it has a more intricate storyline and it's set in the '60s; not that Vietnam is a time to be remembered with any sense of pride, but if you do military fantasy laced with tons of heavy-handed americana, it's infinitely more interesting to do it in the peak of the Cold War as opposed to the controversial and grim reality of today.

The story revolves around a soldier, Alex Mason, captured and interrogated by two shadowy figures about a string of numbers he seems to be familiar with. Missions are set up as Alex's flashbacks during the interrogation, starting from the Bay of Pigs Invasion in '61 and proceeds well into Vietnam War in '68. The premise is smart at first, but it grows stale really fast, since there is little story to be told and instead only plot points are revealed during the missions, only to amount to the revelation and the game's epilogue. In fact, the story does so little to truly flow that every single major plot twist I could see coming before they were HINTED at. Spoiler alert here, but from the moment Kennedy shows up in a brief cutscene, I said "I killed the President".

The truth is that I didn't expect much else from a CoD game. My favorite in the series didn't feature any story, after all. But the problem is the story becomes a bit too pro-American to buy. I cringe whenever a rogue foreign terrorist shows up and attacks America, but I at least find that set-up acceptable within limits. Black Ops (just like Modern Warfare 2) concerns itself with Russia invading the United States. We're not talking influence-focused power-plays between the two super-powers, we're talking full-blown takeover. When did Russia want to actually conquer the United States?? Why would they want to take over the US? Are Americans so hung up on the decade-old idea that the starving USSR concerned itself daily with invading and spreading communism they need to make games out of it?

It may be done in good fun, you say. I read way too much into it, you may argue. I could accept that several years ago. But between this, MW2, the original MW to a point, the new Medal of Honor, as well as the countless other "patriotic" shooters made the past few years, I'm starting to see alarming patterns here. Yahtzee reviewed the game and brought up the point, so I don't want to elaborate on it; he did it better and he did with humour. I'd be a lot pettier.

But let's get something straight here. We don't hate you. Nobody in the western world does. We just find it hard to take you seriously and when you want us to do so, you do it in ways that create distrust. You're like kids doped up in tons of sugar, packing nuclear rocket launchers. Worse, yet, you have some serious self-esteem issues and a constant need of reaffirmation of your worth (if not, at times, superiority). After the latest Iraq debacle, a large percentage of the gaming audience in the country seem so hungry for a confidence boost, they'll eat up anything with a gun and the American flag waving somewhere.

It's not patriotism I don't get. It doesn't bother me people being proud of their nationality, whatever that may be. What I don't understand, what I find border-line disturbing is that so many people living in the cultural center of the 20th century (even if it's just pop culture) can't find pride in anything other than waging war.

I'm not promoting the idea of stopping making war games, or war movies. I like them as much as the next person. I'm just suggesting putting it in the proper context. The spectacle and adrenaline-pumping moments of a game like Call of Duty are a good sell for good reason. But the emotional impact of human drama and, indeed, the heroism so many people seem so hungry for are diminished, even cheapened when the context isn't the tragic substance of war, but instead a glorious excuse for self-assurance. Fueled by fear, no less.

Even if you disagree that war is bad and are sick and tired of all the anti-war bullshit people like me are so fond of, at least express it in a thought-provoking way. You think war is necessary? Say why. That I can take seriously. Eating apple-pie over the rotten corpses of vilified foreign soldiers is nothing less than mind-numbingly stupid.

Seriously, folks. The game literally ends on an ocean occupied by two very phalic aircraft carriers, with fighter jets flying overhead in such a way you'd think they were performing stunts, while a really-not-subtle music piece kicks in. The only thing missing from that end scene is "AMERICA FUCK YEAH" sealing the screen in big, red letters and a bang.

The funny thing is the story isn't my biggest gripe with this game. As much of a dud as it may have turned out to be, the premise was intriguing and the intermissions are tense enough to at least keep one awake during the whole thing. The big problem with it is the gameplay. This is also where we go back to what Modern Warfare did to the series with its campaign. Just like with MW2, the campaign relies on explosive action. Not bad in itself, it's what you expect from such a game, but the fucking thing is on Ritalin!

It doesn't let up. Not for a bit. The problem is that, while action is cool, some down time is necessary. The audience needs a little time to process, before they are thrown into another explosion-filled sequence, otherwise the excitement dies down and what was once engaging becomes formulaic and ultimately boring. In no game I've played was that so obvious as it was in Black Ops. I started the game, absolutely loving the set-pieces; the second mission, in particular, has you escaping from a prison camp. It's a stunning mission, complete with bullets flying, hordes of enemies eager to die by your all-American hand, anthemic music and a crazy Russian yelling bold words like "freedom" at the top of his lungs. But the pacing kind of got stuck there and with no sense of momentum, two missions later I was bored out of my tits.

The countless, ridiculous scripted events don't help either. They are everywhere and they are sloppy. Want the game to progress? You better make sure you shoot those hinges off the door or your unit is going to stay frozen looking at the endless nothingness. You want to melee a guard? You can start betting on whether or not doing so will prompt a scene-specific animation, since consistency is nowhere to be found.

In one mission, I was to raid an enemy camp with my unit. I moved there faster than my folk and stood behind the script trigger, since I had a sniper-rifle and thought picking off the enemies would be the wise choice. I see a guard patrolling and shoot. Five times. Nothing happens. The motherfucker is covered in blood and he keeps strolling as if nothing's changed. Nobody else seems alarmed either. It wasn't until the rest of my unit caught up with me and I took two steps ahead that he remembered he had to drop dead.

These are the "good" scripted moments. At times you're not even prompted to perform a required action. Later I was in a stealth mission. I'm hiding behind a wall, AS INSTRUCTED, and I hear two guards talking. I don't have any guns with me and an alarm will surely get me killed. So, I wait behind the wall, as I'm led to believe I'm supposed to do, until I can at least see one of them leaving. Suddenly, message pops up "You've been discovered" (fun fact; I was hidden the whole time). Bullets flying through my body, me dead. Second try, same thing. Third, same thing. I got bored, eventually and decided to try and bludgeon both to death with my fists. So I leave the wall and go to the guard... only to find out the bastard was talking to the RADIO ALL ALONG. And I was SUPPOSED to get there and melee him from behind, otherwise the game wouldn't progress.

All these issues make the game frustrating. I know it's a linear FPS, but I should at least get SOME sort of freedom in how I'm fighting my way through a level. Remember Half-Life? I've played that game something like 15 times. Every single time I picked a different strategy to progress through the game and that didn't affect the many set-pieces of that game. I know the current console-gaming audience are inherent retards, for whom pushing "up" and the fire trigger at the same time is too much workout for the brain as it is, but this shit won't fly!

Treyarch has always been the less favorite son when it came to this series. We all knew that it was Infinity Ward's baby and Treyarch merely built mediocrity on IW's work. The tables have turned though. MW2 was a piece of crap and while Black Ops doesn't fair much better, it at least has an interesting premise, which is something the series seems to be missing once again. Having said that, Call of Duty needs a break (if not retirement, altogether) and I say that knowing full-well it won't happen. The efforts to expand on CoD4 fell flat and understandably so; script-dependant, action-filled games can only go so far before the predesigned and preserved excitement becomes ridiculous and ultimately pointless.

Or they could always just go back to making a realistic shooter (which was the series' shtick for quite some time) that focuses on playing well, instead of showing off.

But what do I know?

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