By Oldirtybearon 5 Comments
Picture this, if you will:
The sun boils your skin, fresh with mosquito bites. It's 196X and you're riding gunner seat against the humid breeze in South Vietnam. Your brow is caked with dirt and sweat. You've been running on empty since the last fortnight, and only now that you're due some R&R, you're thrust back out into the jungle to meet Charlie head on.
You take a long look at the rest of the Hueys with their blades cutting against the thick, muggy air. You're not quite sure, but you think maybe this day in Hell, more than all the others, has finally broken the thermostat.
This is where the adventure begins. Or at least, it's what I hope to find in Treyarch's fourth foray into the Call of Duty line, entitled Black Ops.
The reason I try to paint this picture in so many words is quite simple: I seem to find that I'm having more and more faith in Treyarch not only as a developer, but as a narrative-driven studio.
Their previous works were confined to the straight and simple "good versus evil" approach to World War II. While this is common and many would agree that it's just fine to chest-thump and flag-wave over the single greatest victory in the 20th Century, one also has to wonder--just what could the boys and girls at Treyarch do without the confinement of a pre-determined narrative?
It's a question I ask because while many lament Call of Duty 3 and World at War as buggy and inferior to the Golden Child offerings from Infinity Ward, I can't help but find that, underneath the graphics and the FPS gameplay, World at War was, perhaps, the better game. And if not the better game, perhaps the most meditative of the series.
I know, blasphemous. Modern Warfare and Modern Warfare 2 featured tighter controls, better weapons, and a more fast-paced, frantic story (much to the chagrin of narrative enthusiasts for MW2). However, I can't help but remember that Treyarch were not chest-beating or flag-waving with World at War--they were trying to tell a coherent narrative about war itself. About how alien and brutal the Japanese soldiers were (and not without respect for their warrior mentality), but they also touched upon the true gravity of the war and just what the cost of it was (ergo: Stalingrad/Russian missions). It is with these nagging little thoughts that I can't help but wonder if, maybe, given a theater of war with more loosely defined morals and more grey area to explore, just what could they show us that we haven't seen before?
A lot of people are quick to dismiss Treyarch as the bastard child of the Call of Duty family, but I don't think that is the case. If anything, I think of Infinity Ward and Treyarch in the following analogy:
Infinity Ward - The handsome frat boy who knows how to show you a good time. The experience is a dizzying haze of instant gratification and disorienting, heaping helpings of Awesome. The next morning, you awaken sore and achy, with a headache threatening to go USS Ishimura on your pure skull, and the faint recollection that what you went through was a lot of fun, but if only you could remember what made it so special.
Treyarch - The poet. He's clumsy and awkward, and while he rambles in what he tries to say, what he tries to preach, he stumbles over his words because he's not used to an audience. By himself, in his own little world, he can tell sweeping, grandiose tales full of adventure and thoughtful platitudes... but in a crowd, his message and story is lost in the white noise of a house party. In essence, he's hanging out with the handsome frat boy, and if he ever hopes to grow, he needs to realize he's got a future if only he reaches out to take it.
I mean it when I say this: World at War was the most provocative stance on World War II in our medium. It wasn't in the cutscenes, and there were no heavy-handed "messages" distilled through dialogue from faceless NPCs. Everything you saw, every climactic battle and every scary-as-shit Spider Jap hanging in the trees was a comment on not only the Pacific Theater, but on the nature of war itself.
Please, feel free to tell me I'm smoking crack and I'm seeing things--but I can't help but feel that the reason "Giant Zippos" were included in World at War was not because "it'd be fun", but to show you what it was to burn a man tied to a tree alive was like. Better yet, they wanted to put you in the shoes of that poor bastard who had to take the Giant Zippo and burn other men alive. In any language, the screams of anguish and suffering are universally understood.
So why is it that I believe Black Ops will wind up being a thoughtful, narrative-driven experience? It's not the FPS gameplay, or the no doubt Tom Clancy-inspired plot they will saddle it with. No, it's the experience. It's the little moments, it's seeing the Fall of Saigon not in pictures, but through the eyes of a soldier who was there. Seeing the faces of helpless Vietnamese civilians fleeing to the rooftops for Air-Evac and being told "only eight at a time" would be a harrowing experience in our medium. Especially if it was us who had to pick who to save, and who to leave behind.
And yet, Vietnam will be just one facet of a much larger war. The Cold War as it is commonly known, will no doubt be the focus of this epic. From what little can be gleaned (from leaks last year to rumours and speculation), there is a theory out there that you will play the role of one soldier, and will be following his career from the Cuban Missile Crisis all the way to the Iranian Embassy in the 1980's.
It needn't be said, but I will say it anyhow: This is extremely fertile ground to explore. Not just for the nature of the conflict between the Soviets and the Americans, but also instrumental to perhaps understanding the deeper threat behind M.A.D.--Mutually Assured Destruction.
To date, there have been only three Nuclear disasters in the world (that this author is aware of), the two bombs dropped on Japan, and the Chernobyl Incident. Many gamers were not even alive during Chernobyl, let alone around to really understand the nature of just how fucking scary it was to live during the Cold War.
Duck and Cover: it's a joke now, but it was serious back then. Nuclear fire was a very real possibility, and it was the covert as well as the diplomatic background shenanigans that almost brought the world to an end--and also saved it.
Perhaps Black Ops will be just another shooter with an intriguing setting. It's a very real possibility. However, this author cannot help but think that Treyarch is aiming for a higher watermark. I think, personally, that we're going to become very acquainted with just how close the world came to ending during the Cold War. And while it may be wrapped up in a harrowing single-player experience--I believe, if handled properly, it can prove to be an educational one. One to teach the gamers who didn't have to live in fear of Nuclear Fire, or of an irrational fear of Communism infecting the Great America. It could educate as well as validate the unsung heroes who saved our collective bacon. And without them, we wouldn't be here.
And of course, Black Ops could turn into a really shitty game that has no redeeming qualities whatsoever--but where's the fun in thinking that?