Byzantine Reality

Searching for Byzantine failures in the world around us

Call of Duty: Black Ops

Update (11/27): Yahtzee has a great review on Black Ops that pretty much sums up what I’ve already said here in a more entertaining manner with a few things that I missed. Enjoy!

For a while I’ve been playing Left 4 Dead 2 and Magic the Gathering, but as I’ve been playing them both for a while and they’re exceedingly repetitive, I’ve been seeking something new. With that, I turned to what is apparently the fastest selling game of FOREVER, Call of Duty: Black Ops. I was a bit concerned that, like its predecessor, the story would make no sense yet have great game play. Under normal circumstances, I would skip on a game like this (see Yahtzee’s review of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 for a great summary of the problem), but as I’m particularly bored as a gamer right now, the great game play could be just what I need. So let’s see if my suspicions were right and if the game play is good enough to make this a worthwhile rental.

So all the “actual” game reviewers have already reviewed this game, and before checking out the game myself, I watched Russ Pitts’ review on the Escapist, where he gave it a pretty low review. He graded the game pretty harshly in the story department, which is pretty surprising, since Pitts usually seems fairly optimistic in his reviews. After that, I was really nervous about renting this game, but hey, it’s only ten bucks and I do need to mix up my game habit just a little bit.

Now that I’ve played through the entire game (it’s not that long), I can pretty confidently say that I completely agree with Pitts’ review, but that it is pretty much what I needed. The story was bad enough to break the immersion every once in a while, but at least the settings were varied enough to keep things interesting otherwise. The game play is pretty good, more or less unchanged from previous Call of Duty games.

What I did find really weird was how well this Call of Duty game (and its predecessor, to a lesser extent) sum up the mood of our generation. <rant> The original Call of Duty games took place in World War II and depict America as the righteous party who always “does the right thing” from a position of moral superiority, and comes out the winner. But one of the characters in this Call of Duty game summarizes the mood very nicely, saying something to the effect of “we have no friends – we fight everyone and we fight alone.” America completely loses its position of moral superiority – there’s torture throughout the game and really visceral murder scenes which are great for immersion but make me feel really weird (and this is coming from someone who’s a lifelong gamer). Maybe it’s just because the graphics are good enough now where when I light up the Viet Cong with a flamethrower and they flail their arms while screaming, it feels really uncomfortable to do so. Mind you, I still do it in the game whenever I get the chance, but every time I pull that trigger, boy does it feel really weird (there are many other situations like this that I’m leaving out to keep things brief).

Anywho, let’s get back on topic. So in this Call of Duty game, it has the post-9/11 mentality of “we need to do whatever is needed to do to save the world” so that’s used as an excuse for some morally outrageous behavior. Even more so, it means that the villains of the story have to be even more outrageous than this, to the point where they’re cartoonishly evil – the Viet Cong make you play Russian Roulette with a comrade, the Russian baddie kills their own national hero with nerve gas, and (surprise!) there are Nazis! Yay for cartoon bad guys that make our heroes look just a little less evil than they really are!</rant>

The game is also a bit gimmicky – it adds a Zombie mode which apparently every game is now obligated to have. The intro cut scene for this is downright hilarious, but I guess a gimmick is still a gimmick. And besides, they took out the Special Ops mode from the last Call of Duty game! Completely unforgivable – that was the best part of that whole game! For the uninitiated, they were a set of two dozen short little one-off missions where you can pair off with a friend to shoot some bad guys. They were short and sweet, and a ton of fun. And now they’re gone :(  The multiplayer is still there of course, but you know how it works. It’s pretty much the same as the last Call of Duty games with a few changes here and there.

So – should you rent the game? Sure – ten bucks is a good deal for the one day it will take to blow out the non-sensical but scenic single-player and spend the last four days on multiplayer and zombies, but sixty bucks for the full thing? No way! And the critical scores it’s been getting? Ridiculous! As I read on the reddit earlier today (but can’t find the link to) UPDATE 11/29 Elder Geek’s reviewCall of Duty is basically the first-person-shooter version of Madden – they change the UI a little bit and the single-player mode and release the new version every year. Let’s wrap things up with a chunk of a review at the Bellingham Herald I particularly like, except the part where they thought the story was coherent (emphasis added):

“Black Ops” is the best game Treyarch has made, and a hell of a good time no matter how you slice it. The series has always hung its single-player hat on creating spectacular moments that players remember for years. It didn’t matter if you couldn’t remember the name of the faceless army ranger you’re playing as, because oh my god they just dropped an EMP on the White House! “Black Ops” flips this equation around. The story is coherent, and the characters are more than cardboard cutouts. I wanted to keep playing to find out how the plot ends up, not just to see what crazy situation is around the next corner. On the other hand, as “Black Ops” makes gains in characterization and storytelling, it loses spectacle. Outside of the excellent prison break level, the “wow” moments fall flat. Even blowing up what appeared to be half of Vietnam with an attack chopper failed to elicit much of a response from me beyond making me swear at the controls. Far too much of the roughly seven-hour campaign is spent running through the same pop-and-shoot motions we’ve been doing for years. At least my companions were less interested in running directly into my line of fire this time. Be sure to stick around after the credits, though the best bit of the game is hidden there. The campaign puts players neck deep in the close-up brutality of combat. Limbs shatter disgustingly as bullets rip apart flesh and bone. Gore flies in all directions as combatants are popped like meat balloons by the vicious weaponry of the ’60s. In one uncomfortable sequence, the player has to torture a restrained prisoner. This is an emphatically mature game (in the ESRB sense, anyway). Everyone should make their own judgment on what they are comfortable with, but “Black Ops” crossed my personal line in its bloody depictions of violence, particularly the torture sequence. I wasn’t able to compartmentalize it as enjoyable cartoon violence like I have with so many games over the years. Call me a wuss if you want, but the realistic gore is distasteful in the absence of a discussion of what should be a careful decision to employ lethal force. I realize that Treyarch isn’t trying to put on a morality play here, but Black Ops pushes the lines of good taste.