Call of Duty: Black Ops Single-Player Review
With the exception of a brief ten minutes in the uninspired demo for Call of Duty 3 simply because it came pre-loaded on my 360, my entire experience with the franchise has been with its post-World War II iterations. Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare (MW) blew me away with its high production values. Its sequel, Modern Wafare 2 (MW2), was a let-down in every respect when it came to single-player.
Initially, right after I’d finished the game, I would have gladly put Treyarch’s Call of Duty: Black Ops (BO) as the best in the franchise. After gaining some distance from the game, however, I would slot it in between MW and MW2. The first MW was memorable for some gripping levels, the second tried to achieve the same thing but failed on account of switching perspectives too frequently. BO presents a more cohesive narrative than either game on account of its framed narrative, but the gameplay disappoints more than either MW game.
Like any game, there are highs and lows–but BO comes with a major caveat: you have to enjoy being on a leash. The MW games have always been corridor shooters, but most levels had some measure of branching in them. BO’s levels have some branching in them, particularly towards the end, but an ever-present objective indicator kills the fun. At no time during your playthrough will you be in doubt where the game wants you to go. You literally cannot get lost.
I’m fine with a scripted experience, but at least conceal it from me. Leashes should be comfortable, not chafing.
MW had its share of interesting narrative elements, with the most memorable being the death of one player-character (PC) in a brilliantly constructed interactive cut-scene. Other highs included the very end of the game, the very beginning, and perhaps the best sniper mission in any game–ever– in “All Ghillied Up”. MW2 followed this up with several interesting twists of its own, but it ‘head-hops’ so frequently that none of the twists derive any kind of narrative impact.
BO head-hops, but only after spending the first half of the game in the head of the game’s main character, one Special Operations Group (SOG) operator named Mason. I felt for Mason–I truly did–despite mediocre voice acting, because the guy has been through a lot. In fact, if you think the way the game opens–with him in a torture chamber, strapped into a chair–is a lot, wait until some of the later levels. When perspectives do switch, they’re done logically–and always to add context to ‘gaps’ in Mason’s memory.
That very beginning–being strapped into a chair while being interrogated–alone gives BO a very different feel from the rest of the franchise. Unfortunately, despite Treyarch flirting with the idea of an unreliable narrator, inside each level there is never any doubt what we need to do and where we need to go to do it. One could say that the linear aspect of the game is partly because these are Mason’s memories, after all, but the way we see his mind devolve later in the game (in cutscenes) could have opened up the possibility of playing different levels in order to remember them ‘correctly’. Alternatively, more open-ended level design could provoke different reactions from Mason’s interrogators, and thus give the campaign replay value that it sorely lacks.
BO’s campaign is worth a single playthrough, but the linear experience kills any appeal for a second time through. Unlike the sandboxy levels of a Halo game, you are essentially assured of experiencing the exact same thing each time through the game.
That said, many games have been forgiven flaws for memorable experiences–but removed from the game I remember its flaws more than its strengths. The voice actor for JFK is so atrocious I wish the President had just been left out of the game altogether–though Robert McNamara’s presence was a well-done touch. The ‘assassination’ of Castro was mildly interesting but the lack of any tactical input felt like watching a badly realized History Channel special. Speaking of the History Channel, I have fonder memories of a documentary I watched about Khe Sanh two years ago than the level I played last week.
The on-rails vehicle sequences are present and as unremarkable as any other game’s use of them. Still, I’d rather have on-rails vehicles than the atrocious helicopter controls Treyarch has implemented. Though the helicopter levels are brief, they leave a very bad taste in one’s mouth afterwards, mostly because the controls are neither on-rails nor true flight control. You can ‘strafe’ and move forwards or backward, but since altitude is fixed, the camera does some very weird things when negotiating terrain. The SR-71 seen in trailers makes a brief appearance, but Treyarch found perhaps the most unimaginative way possible to implement it in gameplay–switching back and forth between FPS play and a weirdly inserted RTS quasi mini-game.
Two parts of the game come close to achieving the greatness of “All Ghillied Up”, but also end far too briefly–and oddly enough come later in the game when we’ve ‘head-hopped’ into CIA agent Hudson’s brain. The first finds us chasing through a series of inter-connected high-rise apartments in Kowloon. Partway through, Hudson picks up the “Dragon’s Breath” shotgun. This is the best shotgun I have ever used: it fires incendiary ammo that, when combined with an impressive rate-of-fire, obliterates everything in its path. Spamming a room with blasts from this weapon is pure FPS nirvana. Unfortunately, our time with this weapon is brief–twenty minutes or so–and the drama of the chase is ruined by the ever-present objective marker. When you can’t possibly make a wrong turn, it’s not much of a chase.
My second favorite is the first half of the game’s penultimate level. Once again in Hudson’s shoes, the island we’re on has been bombed with Nova Gas–a particularly dreadful nerve toxin–forcing the PC to don a bio-hazard suit. To simulate the vulnerability of the suit, we get a fragile health-bar that doesn’t regenerate. Now, I hated the perfection demanded in a game like Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter, but this gives a degree of tension not present in the rest of the game. The tension is derived not only from your suddenly fragile health ‘bar’, but also because Nova is opaque, so you have to advance carefully through the smog while using your thermal sight to pick off the Soviet defenders. The extra tension also made me forget about the objective marker for the first–and only–time in the game.
Missed opportunities: more so than either MW or MW2, this game screams campaign co-op. Every level features the same set of paired characters (Mason and Woods, Hudson and Weaver, Reznov and ‘Random Russian #2’) that would give legs and perhaps inject some fun into the linear objective-clearing slog.
The story is relatively cohesive, and the characters are certainly better developed than MW or MW2, but none of them are as memorable as Captain Price from MW (I’m not going to talk about his appearance in the second game). Mason is an intriguing protagonist, but Treyarch doesn’t utilize his unique position very well when it comes to actual gameplay. Levels should feel off somehow, maybe replayed twice, because his mind is terribly messed up. And then, suddenly, everything is ok at the end and he’s let out on the final mission. What?!
You play as a member of the Special Operations Group, but that shouldn’t be license for being a generic super-soldier. I really enjoyed the grunt status of the player in the ‘F.N.G.’ level from MW, but the franchise has gone in a very different direction–to its detriment. The super-soldier issue aside, the concept of Black Ops had the chance to be something special–a Jerry Bruckheimer action game with a Christopher Nolan flair–but it falls flat by failing to deliver good level design.
Gameplay itself has its moments–highlighted above–but these are too few, too far in between. I’m not going to fire up the campaign again just to spend 15 minutes with the Dragon’s Breath shotgun. I’m just not.
I said at the outset that this is one of the better games in the franchise, and I stand by that statement. That said, unless I hear wind of the next Call of Duty featuring remotely open level-design, count me out. I’m done being on a leash.