I was going to write a quick initial reaction to My Chemical Romance’s new album but then I thought ‘Jesus Christ the blog’s barely been born and it’s already swollen with enough My Chem clap-trap to almost make it a thing.’ Songs about emotions? Men who look like girls? Hair-dye?? This will not do, what I need is something manly, something that speaks to the red-blooded animal within me, something involving sinewy, muscle-bound men locked in unarmed struggle in the open air like rutting beasts, sweat glistening off their brows and bare backs. Hit it Edwin! ‘War! Hyeaaurgh! Yeah! What is it good for!? Abso-‘ well that depends, actually, because if you’re Activision, the publisher of the staggering leviathan that is the Call of Duty series of computer games, it’s good for selling around tens of millions of units and pocketing over $3 billion in the process. Looking at some of the figures surrounding these games can be mind-boggling, if not particularly surprising considering the series’ almost demented fan-base. I mention this because I have recently completed the latest installment Call of Duty: Black Ops, and I honestly do not know where they can take it from here. For those who don’t know their FPS’s from their JRPG’s or understand precisely what a ‘noob’ is, Call of Duty is a series of computer games set in a variety of locales that derive wholesome entertainment from the sacred art of war. The series has had a number of developers, but the two big ones are Infinity Ward and Treyarch, the others devoted mainly to porting the games to handheld consoles. Originally the games were set exclusively during World War II and were acclaimed for their gritty, Private Ryan-influenced depiction of war and for their fluid and intuitive gameplay. It wasn’t until 2007 and Infinity Ward’s monumental Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare that the series became the all-conquering franchise it is today, featuring an engrossing single-player campaign, memorable characters and a standard-setting approach to multiplayer gaming. Right, for those of you who do know what FPS stands for and don’t believe that gaming starts and ends with playing Wii Sports at the fucking Redknapp’s house, you’ll be aware of all this already and probably be quick to let me know that you were playing a heavily modded Counter-Strike on your homebuilt PC in 1999. I would argue that it was games like Bungie’s Halo 2 and later CoD 4 which streamlined online-multiplayer and made it accessible to anybody with a console and an internet connection, you would probably counter that console gamers are philistines and deviants and I would then ask you to kindly fuck off. CoD 4 was met with critical acclaim and huge commercial success. It also told a story that managed to avoid inane jingoism and instead portrayed war as unpleasant and nihilistic and downright miserable. Treyarch returned the next year with Call of Duty: World at War. The setting reverted to WWII and proved to be the bloodiest edition yet, featuring torture, flamethrowers and limbs flying hither and yon.
World at War managed to divert the populace from the thorny issues of spiritual and philosophical wellbeing until the much anticipated sequel to CoD 4 appeared; Modern Warfare 2. The big selling point of the series has always been the online multiplayer mode, with the single player campaign taking a backseat somewhat. This is always disappointing for a player who believes that computer games could, in time, become just as popular a medium for story-telling as any other. Games, when done right, give one the opportunity to experience thoughts, feelings and emotions you could not achieve in more passive media such as films or comics. This is a theory I have been developing for a while and will come to grips with in a more direct way another time. The Call of Duty single player experience has always been very linear, but MW2’s was cloyingly so, never giving you the impression that you are in control of your actions and completely killing the replay value. This linearity however, enabled some of the most awe-inspiring set-pieces seen in a computer game, notably a breathless, frantic chase through a Brazilian favela and a scene where you have to dodge helicopters literally falling from the sky. Where the game failed miserably was in its story-line, which was so utterly bat-shit and illogical it made the original Modern Warfare seem like a subdued Brontëan chamber-piece.
Controversy has always been a computer game’s friend, affording it greater press coverage than it would otherwise receive. The writers at Infinity Ward must’ve known this when they included the ‘No Russian’ level, wherein you bear witness to a terrorist atrocity. There were probably as many articles dedicated to this level as there were the game itself, and I’ll be fucked if I can be bothered reviving that sorry argument over a year after the fact. Let’s just say that if the game required you to walk into a crowded airport terminal with a belt of C4 strapped to your chest and instructed you to detonate it with the ‘RT’ button, that might have been controversial, this was just ill-judged. Aside from this the plot was convoluted, insensible and contained far too much location hopping. The surprise deaths of major characters became so constant as to lose their impact and a huge portion of the game set on American soil managed to rob it of any contemporary relevance, harking back to the action films of the eighties, particularly Red Dawn. I would like to think that the mournful, wailing brass music and scenes of famous American buildings, as well as a bourgeois all-American suburb, being destroyed by the nefarious forces of communism were meant as some kind of trenchant satire on cold war paranoia, but I sincerely doubt it.
And so we come to Black Ops, which attempts, with some limited success, to deliver the most complete single and multiplayer package. The game’s release was as much an event as any movie premiere, and you can bet that on that day a huge portion of the planet’s males aged 18-35 called in a sick-day. This time the developer is Treyarch who have finally abandoned their old stomping grounds of 1939-1945 for the twitchy, paranoid battlefields of the Cold War. You play beleaguered nutcase Alex Mason, and start the game bound in a chair as shadowy interrogators drill you on your career in the Studies and Observations Group, the black ops unit of the title. You are taken from a number of locations including Cuba, Soviet Russia and finally in a CoD game, Vietnam. The series has always borrowed wholesale from other media, particularly combat films like Black Hawk Down and Enemy at the Gates and in MW2’s case, the HBO series Generation Kill, but never have they been able to rip quite so shamelessly from the great canon of Vietnam films. From the moment you are sailing a navy PBR up a river to the strains of ‘Sympathy for the Devil’, to a buttock-clenchingly tense Russian roulette scene and then the final climatic scene where you come face to face with the Vietnamese prostitute who gave you the clap the entire experience reeks of marijuana and napalm.
Black Ops doesn’t deviate from the tried and tested formula of its forebears. You follow a team-mate from one set-piece or shoot-out to the next, you might get on a turret, sometimes you boot open a door. The only major addition is a more fully realized emphasis on vehicle sections, at one point giving you full control of an enemy gunship, perforating roughly a billion people called Charlie in the process. The plot is much more focused that MW2, concentrating mostly on an individual character with a face and a voice (here handled by Avatar’s Sam Worthington, to little effect). Controversy arises somewhat in an early mission when you are tasked with assassinating a very famous and very public real-life figure, and I dreaded every moment somebody handed me a hatchet and ordered me to kill some unsuspecting enemy. Black Ops is certainly the most graphically violent addition to the series, featuring visceral, in-your-face depictions of stabbing, bludgeoning and eye-gouging. You also have to torture somebody using a shard of glass and a well-aimed punch, and don’t get me started on the weapon known in-game as the ‘Death-Machine’. Only Rockstar Game’s infamous Manhunt matches it for bloodshed. The characters are well-rounded, particularly Sgt. Frank Woods who is the nearest the game has to Modern Warfare’s cockney avenger Captain Price; probably the world’s second-greatest computer games character to ever sport a moustache. Unfortunately, like many of the other contributions to the series the game is just too fucking short. You are never given the time to truly soak up the atmosphere of a place before Johnny Red begins shooting foul Bolshevik rounds at you and some twat with a scar is barking orders in your ear telling you to murder some unknowing chap with an old Bic razor. I know that real war doesn’t allow you to stop and smell the roses but this is a computer game. You need to at least allow the immersion set in. I fear that the developers might not respect the patience of their audience, although that may not be a dreadful surprise considering your so-called typical gamer. Okay, a quick rush through of the rest of the single player because time is getting on and this ‘review’ is looking to match the word count of your average under-graduate essay on Joyce and Modernism. So; characterisation: good, motion and performance capture: stunning, action: nerve-flaying. Ending: bloody terrible. This came as a disappointment because up until the final two levels the narrative was at the series’ most compelling, however all the trust I had placed in the game was suddenly ruptured by a plot-twist recognisable from Betelgeuse. Bah!
As for the multiplayer, Treyarch have attempted to pull out all the stops, whatever that actually means. One of the main problems with the series has been the fact that some of us, well not me, but some of us have jobs to go to and can’t just sit on our arses playing computer games all day. Therefore there are thousands of fifteen year-olds being revoltingly good at the game which makes it less fun for people who can find better ways of establishing their alpha-male status (yes, some people actually think that being good at CoD makes you nails in real-life). Treyarch have tried to rectify this by tweaking the rules so that it seems more accessible to newer players. The ‘killstreak’ rewards are less powerful, sniping is more difficult and the starting assortment of weapons is more balanced. There is an added ‘wager’ and ‘contracts’ mode which makes for a bit more variety as well. The new maps are excellent, though they always are until you’ve played them for the umpteenth time, and although the guns seem underpowered, I’m sure this won’t be a problem in hardc-, wait a minute, where the fuck is hardcore mode? Yes for some reason you can’t play in hardcore mode until you’ve reached a certain level, this is a minor gripe by me but I know it’s not everyone’s preferred mode, because everyone is a fool. Other gripes include a broken match-making system which results in serious lag (you end up playing against a Peruvian mountain boy which makes the game run slower, essentially) and a habit of re-spawning you right next to the enemy who just killed you to re-spawn right next to the enemy who just etc. I haven’t really had enough time to explore everything Black Ops multiplayer however because, making a very welcome return from World at War is a mode quite simply called
Zombies! Everywhere! Shambling, fly-ridden corpses ravenous for the rich taste of- wait I’ve said that before. The Zombies mode is some of the most fun you can have with three like-minded friends sans alcohol. It plays very much like Valve’s Left 4 Dead series except with CoD’s smoother gameplay. It is pretty simple, but then most fun games are. It also requires more teamwork than you would find in the normal multiplayer mode, which is saying something.
As I said, despite its several, sometimes major flaws Black Ops is the most complete CoD game to date. To improve on it would be difficult and frankly, the linear military first-person shooter has gone as far as it can without completely stagnating. If another came out I would still play it, but I think it’s time for the winds to change in gaming, less death, violence, fucking American flags. I would hope Black Ops to be the final word until at least something innovative happens to the genre. For my part I shall leave the battlefields for a while and head for somewhere different like, oh I don’t know, a little place called New Vegas.