Saturday, May 28, 2016

Call of Duty: Black Ops review


    I've mentioned how much I love Call of Duty before but it is a love and hate relationship. I've avoided much of the hype aversion the game gets because I avoid what the series is arguably for in multiplayer. I'm an awful "run and gunner" so I really just sit around and enjoy the single player on low difficulty since I would be made mince-meat of even in the bunny slopes. This, of course, means that I'm arguably able to review it from an angle which is somewhat underrepresented: those who care about the storytelling first and foremost.

    The premise is Alex Mason (Sam Worthington) is an American soldier tasked with killing Fidel Castro. As he's still alive in 2016, this doesn't work out so well. Indeed, it results in him getting banished to a Gulag in Russia. From there, he's somehow destined to end up in a prison cell where he's being interrogated by mysterious individuals who are trying to figure out what a strange set of numbers going on entail. Are they attempting to brainwash Mason or liberate him from brainwashing? The majority of the game takes place in flashback as we discover the answer to this question. 

Cuba is my favorite level. Sadly, it's the first one.
    Call of Duty: Black Ops certainly had a big set of shoes to fill after Modern Warfare. Indeed, it is Call of Duty's biggest hurdle that it's always competing against its previous game. Modern Warfare brought the series out of World War 2 and then found itself faced with a question of where to take the work next. Black Ops had the unique answer of taking it into places like Vietnam, the Bay of Pigs invasion, and other places where the United States didn't exactly cover itself in glory. Then, in a somewhat questionable decision, the series went into the future and eventually morphed into cyborg super-soldiers fighting A.I. That's another game to review, though. But that's for Black Ops 3.

    The choice to use these particular events is one which has been debated somewhat in terms of taste as well as whether or not they deserve to be glorified. I, for one, have no particular problem with trying to shoot Fidel Castro but it's not exactly like the motives for his overthrow were particularly warm and fuzzy either. Indeed, some players may be put off by the fact the USA is given an action movie hero treatment about some of its most questionable choices during the Cold War. We don't go supporting Pinochet during any of these levels but, honestly, I'm not sure mowing down hundreds of Viet Cong like wheat is all that much better.

"I am the craziest Russian since the Bolshevik Muppet."
    Still, in pure gameplay terms, setting it in places where the United States was not at its best offers unique gameplay challenges as well as an extra-layer of storytelling oomph. We're aware what our heroes accomplish in Vietnam is not going to make a bit of difference and they're very likely unaware or uncaring of the intricacies behind the politics. There's even some "blink and miss it" collectibles where it becomes clear our heroes are completely ignorant of what's really going on, preferring to frame the enemy as purely bad and themselves as purely good.

    I say "blink and miss" it because the main part of the game is about lost Nazi superweapons, Soviet brainwashing, underwater bases, and plots to kill everyone in the United States. It's a weird juxtaposition of historical tragedies and conflicts with over-the-top spy fiction plots. It's as if Ian Fleming and Tom Clancy's ghosts collaborated to write this game. It becomes hard to take any figs at moral equivalence via your plucky communist buddy all that seriously when it seems the Soviet Union is planning the genocide of every man, woman, and child in America.

Is using Vietnam disrespectful? Probably no more than any RL war.
     Storytelling-wise, I think of Black Ops as probably the best of the Call of Duty franchise. Even Modern Warfare tended to fall back on ciphers for the player with only a few truly stand-out characters. Here, Black Ops is full of interesting badasses who I remember all of the names of. Hudson, Woods, Weaver, Mason, and Bowman all form an interesting little pack. The fact Ice Cube plays Bowman also elevates the game from being completely lily-white.

    Don't get me wrong, the plot can be summarized as putting The Deer Hunter, Platoon, Apocalypse Now, and The Manchurian Candidate all in a blender before hitting frape but that's not really a bad thing. It's a good idea to rip-off good movies to make good video games. It's sure as hell a better idea than ripping off bad movies to make bad video games or good movies to make bad video games. Watching Gary Oldman rip-off his performance as the villain in Air Force One to be your ally is also hilarious as he starts overacting and then goes to SUPER-overacting before achieving an overacting form of Nirvana.

Shady CIA ops form only a small part of the weird conspiracy-based fiction.
    Indeed, props to Oldman for his returning World of War character Viktor Reznov as he does an outstanding job as a Russian absolutely obsessed with revenge on his superiors for their betrayal. Reznov never stops being a die-hard communist and is guilty of some pretty horrific acts but this just makes him all the more interesting of a character. I figured out the twist regarding his character from the beginning but it didn't make it any less enjoyable to watch play out.

    While the game's central villain, Dragovich, never reaches the same level of hate-ability as Makarov or Menendez, I do think he and his fellow villains work well as antagonists. The fact the game repeats over and over again their names as well as the necessity of them dying helps the storyline gain an extra emotional punch. You also get a section to kill a bunch of Nazis and that's never a bad thing.

The rathole sections are genuinely unnerving. I think it's my inner claustrophobia.
     The final twist of the knife by the villains was not actually still surprising and something which made sure they won almost as much as they lost. Black Ops didn't try to do anything new and simply attempted to be the best Call of Duty game it could be and that made it better. Also, I give kudos for the opportunity at the end to play a United States President battling zombies at the bottom of the Pentagon.

    I would never use Call of Duty as a device for teaching history, especially given the portrayal of the Cold War here is at its most over-the-top but I think it's the kind of work which might inspire others to become interested in what is often forgotten conflicts of today's generation. This was a fun game from beginning to end with strong storytelling, excellent gameplay, and entertaining visuals. So, whats not to like?

9.5/10

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