Call of Duty: Black Ops Review
Well, it's November again, that time of year when the annual genocide of deciduous plant life has ceased to be pretty to look at and now their rotting corpses are just becoming annoying, the temperature has dropped low enough that I can no longer justify going to get the morning mail in my underwear, and Activision bequeaths unto the teeming masses another Call of Duty game. This year's installment comes from Treyarch, one of the two developers Activision employs to keep the yearly shooters coming, the other being Infinity Ward. Comparing the titles released by each in recent years, Treyarch is like to be the bread on the table before the 18 oz medium rare ribeye of Infinity Ward arrives, which is not to say the Treyarch games don't have their own merit, but they seem to be stuck in the shadow of their big brother Infinity Ward.
As a result, Call of Duty: Black Ops feels like a compromise. Treyarch wanted to stay in the comfort of World War II, Activision demanded that Treyarch move out of the basement and get a real job like Infinity Ward, and so they compromised by taking the guest bedroom over the garage. The story is a Tom Clancy novel written by Dylan Avery and requires the player to make so many leaps of faith that it's hard to get immersed in it; the graphics are nice, but what game doesn't look good these days; and the combat tries to be stealth-based at times, but eventually the designers got frustrated with the lack of explosions and you end up taking the Michael Bay route for the rest of the map.
In addition to ripping off iconic movie scenes, the main plot of the game seems to follow in the spirit of Modern Warfare 2 in expressing Activision's deep-rooted hatred of the Russians. After destabilizing their government in the events of COD 4 Mod War and slaughtering an entire airport of civilians in COD Mod War 2, COD Blops carries on by attacking not only the Soviets but all their friends as well. Somehow the designers thought they could slip it by because the soldiers you are endlessly killing are communists, but they forget that people who were around and served in the Red Army are still alive, so it feels like they've moved on from insulting Russians directly to insulting their parents and friends as well.
The game opens with our hero, Mason, being tortured by unseen figures and interrogated about mysterious numbers. Mason is an appropriate name for the character because voice actor Sam Worthington of Avatar fame plays it about as stony as you can get. We are then given a tour of Mason's career as a CIA operative, starting with an assassination attempt on Castro, only for him to turn out to be a decoy, and it's rather unsettling that highly trained CIA agents sent to assassinate Castro failed to realize this wasn't the dictator they were looking for. I've only seen a handful of pictures of the man on Wikipedia and even I could tell that the player model didn't look anything like him.
Regardless, Mason is soon afterwards captured in a selflessly heroic act to save the rest of the crew and is sent to the gulag Vorkuta in the Soviet Union where he takes part in the Vorkuta uprising. While the real Vorkuta revolt was an initially peaceful and political attempt to improve the abysmal working conditions and which ultimately exposed the brutality of Soviet rule, Treyarch dropped that on its head and decides to send them out guns blazing, which has the unfortunate side effect of making the guards fully justified in returning fire. But just at the point when you're beginning to wonder if your accomplice Reznov is less of a political prisoner and more of a violent psychopath, he bravely sacrifices himself to aid your to escape. Doing something despicable and following it up with something gallant and honorable is a recurring theme in the game, as though the developers wanted to make sure the main characters can still be sympathetic and likeable. COD Mod War 2 had us murder hundreds of unarmed civilians without so much as an "excuse me," players don't need karmic atonement to break glass with a man's jaw.
Another phenomenon is that apparently at some point during the 60's, the fine people at Kalashnikov Industries decided to eschew the prevalent interoperability in their equipment that the military is so fond of in favor of proprietary ammo magazines. I first discovered this assault rifle vendor lock-in while partaking in the assault in a rocket launch pad facility. I had just run out of ammo and dove behind several crates apparently filled with Kevlar when I chanced upon an AK-47 with a red dot sight. I quickly dispatched the enemies ahead and as I went grave robbing I discovered that one of bullet ridden corpses had an AK-47 with an extended magazine. Realizing that 45 is greater than 30, I attempted to swap out my magazines so that I could utilize both the reflex sights and extended magazine. As I jammed the use key in impotent frustration, I wondered why the game designers would make it so that you cannot use any type of magazine with a compatible rifle. What was even more perplexing is that though I couldn't use the larger magazines on my reflex sight AK, I was still able to collect the ammo from the corpse, which can only mean that instead of just picking up the extended mags and using them, Mason painstakingly unloaded each round from the large clip and reloaded them into a normal clip. How does that make any goddamn sense?
Despite the game's stupidity, it certainly expects quite a bit of intuition on the part of the player. While previous titles had occasional in-game cues and instruction to prod you along the map, COD Blops pretty much leaves you to it. Though I hardly encourage senseless coddling of players, giving situations to which there are no indications or precedents to work from and expecting them to figure it out isn't tough love, it's just plain lazy. For example, there is a level in which you are facing relentless hordes of Viet Cong attacking a small, entrenched position on a hillside and it is your feeble squad's objective to repel the attackers. After fighting off endless waves of enemies for about 45 minutes with no help from my squad members and no progress had been made towards the objective, I finally gave up in frustration and went back to playing Modern Warfare 2 for awhile to cool down.
What I discovered playing the second time through is that you are supposed to use the several barrels of napalm located throughout the trenches. These barrels had not escaped my attention the first time through, but when firing entire clips of bullets and explosives failed to ignite them, I assumed they were indestructible set pieces placed there as some bizarre aesthetic choice by the level designers. What you were supposed to do is walk up to them, hold the use key for a few seconds as your body gets pelted with a cloud of transonic lead, at which point your character will jam his knife into the barrel, inexplicably setting it alight, and then kick it over into the lower trenches, turning the VC advance into a swim meet at the River Styx. The only instruction you have to do this is a squad member who does it when you first arrive, so if you don't happen to be looking at this character when he does it, you'll never see it repeated and he never gives any verbal instruction, and the only way you would know what to do is if you happen to walk up right next to the barrel.
I suppose I should mention the other two game modes for the sake of completeness. The zombie mode returns from COD WaW, Treyarch realizing that it was the only part of the WaW that was any good and while it's fun, Left 4 Dead is better. Multiplayer is included as well and again, while it's fun, it's still the same multiplayer as all the previous games, with slightly different weapons. The only real difference is that killing people, blowing up structures, slitting throats, and other assorted wanton violence now earns you COD Fun Bucks, which you can then spend on weapons and upgrades.
So would I recommend COD Blops? The story is disjointed and predictable, the combat is frustrating, and none of the characters are particularly likeable or memorable. Captain Price was a morally negotiable thug with ridiculous facial hair, but his appearance in Mod War 2 was still welcome surprise. Mason is utterly forgettable and kind of a whiny bitch. Sure he was tortured in a gulag, but so was Price. While Mason writes angst-filled poems about it, Price strangles a guard and then punches you in the face just for eyeballing him. What's even more absurd is that there are people who bought COD Blops just for the multiplayer, and I suspect these are the same people who buy Madden each year even though one title is generally good for at least a decade. If you're really set on try Blops, I would suggest at least waiting till the price goes down. If previous Treyarch titles are any indication, by the time Modern Warfare 3 comes out, you'll be able to buy Blops for about the price of a ham sandwich. But only if you've already had the sandwich.