canuckeh's Call of Duty: Black Ops (Xbox 360) review

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JFK hires Sam Worthington to rescue America...

 My advice for the day is to resist peer pressure in all forms. When your buddy Pete in school is telling you to take a puff of that cig, just say no. You already know the dark path that follows: a dark path of taking smoke breaks in -20 degree weather and spending money on packs that could’ve easily gone into other vices like booze or Big Macs. Well, multiple coworkers erked and nudged me for weeks on end to play this Black Ops game. Despite how they ignored my warnings of how the people that made our beloved Modern Warfare games had nothing to do with this release. Those Modern Warfare guys got escorted out of their building by security a long time ago for legally-confusing reasons. But alas, the Infinity Ward controversy was downplayed just enough for people to think that this is indeed the next official Call of Duty release. And I finally found myself caving into the pressure of my peers and renting the supposed most popular game going today.

Thank you, my local Blockbuster Video. Thank you for not shutting down yet.

The one thought running through my mind was that of acknowledgement. “Yup, this is indeed a Treyarch game.” I was reminded of all the Treyarch-isms that I saw in my last two Treyarch games: World At War and Quantum of Solace. The game has a lot of excessively flashy cutscenes interchanging real world footage with animated words and numbers in wacky fonts. All of it serving no other meaning than to say “hey, here’s JFK and Castro and explosions! Be impressed please!” Which is a shame, because the only thing that this Call of Duty game does differently from World At War is attempt to tell a consistent narrative with characters…and it’s a pretty dull one at that.

 JFK sounds like he's got a cold. And trying to be a parody of himself.
 JFK sounds like he's got a cold. And trying to be a parody of himself.
So you play as a guy being interrogated by another guy who wants to know about some numbers that are flashing in your head. And his plan for finding out what those numbers means involves conveniently submitting you to flashbacks of your past missions. This involves levels in Vietnam, the Bay of Pigs invasion and other Cold War hijinks. Somewhere in the midst of all this is a plan for a doomsday device that seems a lot more inefficient and unreliable than traditional nuclear bombs. (And I don’t think there was a shortage of nuclear bombs during the Cold War.) There’s some kind of conspiracy involving those flashy numbers, but the revelation, much like the rest of the plot, is predictable, illogical and bland.

I feel like the Call of Duty series as a whole is having a major problem transitioning from a somewhat-accurate recreation of famous battles to a consistent, narrated fiction. Black Ops is the current peak of that issue, having numerous characters drive the plot forward and not offering a single reason to care about any of them. Besides ethnicity and a missing eyeball, what is the differing character traits between Alex Mason, Frank Woods, Jospeh Bowman and Grigori Weaver? They’re all cut out of the same generic soldier archetype, which no longer holds up now that the game is asking you emotionally invest in them. Do they even have a family to come home to? A favorite hobby? A personality tweak? I don’t know! I know the villains are generic cackling doomsday-loving supervillains with thick Eastern European accents. I do know how to identify characters by their miscast voice actors. I know Sam Worthington plays an Alaskan soldier with a slight Australian accent, and that Ice Cube plays an American soldier with a Comptonian accent.

And these decidedly dry characters made me very frustrated when the game attempts to tie in one of its characters with a major historical event. I got even more frustrated when I thought about it and realized that somewhere, on the cutting room floor, probably lies a mission based on that historical event. And that someone at Activision thought that using that historical event could be pushed as this game’s “No Russian” moment as a headline-grabbing piece of fabricated controversy.

 Your character gets tied to a lot of would-be historical events.
 Your character gets tied to a lot of would-be historical events.
But alas, I spend so much time talking about the storyline because that’s about the most unique aspect of Black Ops. I could just about sum up this review by calling this game “Call of Duty: World At Cold War.” The campaign consists of a series of missions. Most of them involve following a linear path, hiding behind cover and shooting other guys before they shoot you. You know, the first person shooter business. Even the Vietnam missions feel remarkably similar to some of the World War 2 set pieces in World At War, which doesn’t strike me as very historically accurate. There are a few really neat set-pieces, like one that has you fighting enemies with infrared goggles amidst a thick layer of smoke. But most of the set-pieces feel kind of tired. You will control the guns on a tank. You will drive a helicopter. You will man the guns on a hovercraft. The game has a surprising amount of quick-time events that feel more distracting than irksome. You will be prompted a message like “Press the right stick to stealth kill this guy” followed by an elaborate animation of you breaking the dude’s neck while disarming him. This is the anti-Uncharted, the game that has no problem removing all but the most basic of controls from your grasp.

And much to my dismay, the competitive-co-operative mode from World At War was taken out of Black Ops. There was something satisfying in a passive-aggressive way about working together with other dudes while trying to steal their kills. Instead, hey! Look, the Nazi Zombies are back! What better way to spread out your military fatigue than to respond with zombie fatigue! They even have their own fiction now! I shouldn’t be so harsh; Zombies mode is the most interesting part of the entire game. It can be fun to scramble around an ever-growing area, scrapping together funds earned from the zombie-murdering economy to purchase new toys. It’s even more fun if you have friends to watch your back, because you’re not going to know where the bloody fleshbags are coming from without someone panicking cries of mercy in your headset. There’s one particular mission that teams certain American leaders together against the zombie onslaught in what feels like the only soulful, self-aware aspect of a game that needs a lot more soul and self-awareness.

 Treyarch really digs their fire, dudes.
 Treyarch really digs their fire, dudes.
You already know what the other multiplayer mode is, if you played a Call of Duty game in the last three years. All of the same multiplayer modes, weapons, short life spans, wacky maps, perks and killstreaks are back, but in slightly-modified Cold War form. There are probably more subversive changes that devoted Call of Duty fans might appreciate, but I’m not one of those fans. I guess the idea of using a currency to purchase your upgrades is kind of different, and I guess the idea of gambling those funds in gimmicky, Goldeneye-worthy match types like “you only get one bullet!” is kind of neat too. But I have been unable to, and still am unable to get into the multiplayer modes of Call of Duty games. I still feel like the victim of a multiplayer mode that awards perks and advantages to players who were already more skillful and committed than I ever care to be at first person shooters. See, I’m the kind of person that enjoys playing multiplayer as a distraction and not a full-time career. I view multiplayer as a way to kill an hour of free time, not my entire weekend. The whole idea of grinding levels in the name of being competitive with people playing 6-8 hours of team deathmatch a day is a major turnoff to me, and makes me crawl back to the Monday Night Combats and Halos of the world.

I get the vibe that Black Ops services the multiplayer demands of its audience well, based on how many people within my social circle gunning the hell out of each other with it. I guess if more zombies and more level-grinding is what you want, then I think you will be satisfied. But I was left underwhelmed. And I will admit to having a bias against Treyarch as a developer and the whole genre of the military first person shooter. But the Modern Warfare games have always found ways to circumvent my first-person fatigue with some unique ideas and twists. Black Ops, on the other hand, does nothing to fend off my sense of apathy.

3 stars 

Other reviews for Call of Duty: Black Ops (Xbox 360)

    All must die 0

    Call of Duty: Black Ops is the seventh core Call of Duty game to be released in the past eight years, making it one of modern gaming’s most consistent franchises. And while each entry is generally solid, that ridiculously frequent release pattern is starting to dilute the overall product. Black Ops is a perfectly fine shooter, and an equally fine entry into this blockbuster series. But it also does so little that hasn’t been done to death already, making it increasingly hard to jump on t...

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    Scripted bore. 0

    Everything in the solo campaign is scripted.  If you move up too fast, you can actually shoot enemies and they won't die because they aren't "valid" because their script hasn't started.  In that same theme, enemies will spawn in certain areas to supposedly make a tense event.  Sure is amazing how many guys hide behind a door even thou you can see that its clear until you walk thru.  The CoD series is no longer exciting.  You can see scripted events coming up, you can even guess what will happen ...

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