Does every video game have to advance the medium in a positive direction? Of course not. There is value in taking old ideas, repackaging them and producing an entertaining game. However, with Medal of Honor releasing just days before and Modern Warfare 2 and Battlefield: Bad Company 2 coming out not too long ago, Black Ops feels very unnecessary and as I forced myself to finish the campaign that feeling became more and more of a reality. The first person shooter war game genre is the most popular genre in console gaming right now and games like Black Ops are neither advancing that genre nor the medium of video games.
In many respects Black Ops is entertaining, but in the end, there is very little that is new about Black Ops and the “hardened-soldier-gets-revenge” plot is convoluted and at times down right embarrassing. The most promising elements seem designed to reward the veteran gamer at the expense of the new, which makes me wonder if Black Ops isn’t creating a niche that could potentially turn many would be fans away from the medium.
The campaign mode has you playing as 3 different soldiers but the main plot centers around Alex Mason, who early in the game is involved in an operation to assassinate Fidel Castro (no I am not kidding, and BO has gotten flack for this) which spirals into continent sprawling missions throughout various locales of the Cold War. The best way I can describe the plot is a mixture of Wolverine, Platoon, and Fight Club, though not as compelling as any of those. As you would expect the action of BO is over-the-top and is actually the most entertaining part of the campaign. This includes some impressive slow-mo bullet-time sequences, tons of vehicular explosions, and tons of intense run-and-gun sequences. The attention to detail in the graphics department is worth noting—shoot a fish tank and glass, water, and fish spill out onto the floor—they have certainly amped things up in the destructible environments department (though not to the extent of something like Battlefield or Red Faction). The plot will certainly hook some gamers because the voice acting is stupendous—particularly Victor Reznov voiced by Gary Oldham. Ed Harris, Sam Worthington, Topher Grace, and Ice Cube all put in solid performances and exhibit the greatest strength of BO.
Ed Note: Spoilers beyond this point.
Despite this impressive cast, it seemed like every time I would begin to get interested in the plot something completely absurd would kill that feeling. The first of these instances came in an interrogation scene with an engineer that had aided a terrorist you are after in which you place a large shard of broken glass in his mouth and proceed to punch him several times. This scene is gross and unbelievable because after swearing that talking would do him no good, the perp politely leads you to safety and begins helping you on your quest. The second comes at the end of the game when it is strongly implied that your brainwashed character (by Russians with the collaboration of a Nazi Scientist) is responsible for the assassination of JFK—it seems like a last ditch effort to make a happy ending seem sad and reinforce the hardened soldier motif. It just felt dumb to me.
It should be noted that Black Ops is the most violent Call of Duty game I have played—there are numerous torture scenes all of which are brutally violent, and the in-game violence is at an all time high—sneak up on people and you will brutally slit their throats resulting not just in sprays of blood but revealing veins as well. On the battlefield you will see limbs blown off and enemies who are surrendering being mowed down brutally. In one of the torture sequences, your character is actually the torturer and you have to press buttons to initiate the torturing–there is no opting out–BO it seems wants you take responsibility for torturing this man. Mason regularly shows off his potty mouth. There is an option to turn off “mature content” which will remove F-words and a few other expletives as well as make the sprays of blood smaller, but it’s still violent and the language is still foul and turning this off does not remove the torture sequences. Take note parents, this game is rated mature, it has mature themes and probably doesn’t need to be played by your 12 year old son.
I actually purchased Black Ops almost expressly for its advertised 4 player Co-Op (I like the potential such modes have for cooperation and teamwork) Zombies mode in which 4 players hole up in various locations and have to fend off swarms of fascist zombies—it is a survival game that is a blast to play with 3 other friends. There are frustrating elements here as well, mostly I was frustrated that I had to complete the single player campaign to unlock the most interesting of the two zombie levels—given the popularity of the zombies mode—this just felt like something that should have been accessible right out of the box.
This brings me to my biggest complaint about Black Ops—the multiplayer mode. Online Multiplayer forces you to level up before you can access its many modes—some you only have to level up to level 7 to play while others require level 20. Initially the only mode you can play is team deathmatch. The game doesn’t seem to make much of an effort not to place veterans and newcomers in the same matches and the result is that I often found myself getting brutalized by kids who haven’t hit puberty yet. Additionally, as you level up you will be able to add enhancements to your guns, side arms, and explosives (grenades, mines, etc). This favors 12 year-olds who don’t have anything better to do than play BO every day after school for 3-4 hours a day. Thus people who play BO a lot have a distinct advantage over me, who is just hoping to play a few games for fun every now and then. The result for me was a lack of desire to play multiplayer at all—I don’t want to take the time to unlock everything—and it would take me a while going up against vast hoards of 12 year olds (who probably shouldn’t own this incredibly violent game anyway).
I cannot imagine someone relatively new to video games picking up BO’s multiplayer mode and sticking with it. This is important to note because of it’s insane popularity—people are going to buy this game, but its not going to win many new fans to the genre. It simply is not accessible for anyone who hasn’t already committed to the genre. There are ways to introduce people to first person shooters that are far less demoralizing than what BO offers. I honestly feel like a little child playing BO multiplayer because I am only allowed to play the more interesting game modes as I play more and more. In my opinion, these modes should be accessible from the moment I load the game into my system—after all I spent $60 on this game and the box tells me it has a “ludicrously deep multiplayer experience”—I suppose this is true for the person who has 3-4 hours a day to kill playing COD. Compare this with Halo Reach in which every multiplayer mode is accessible from the start and there are multiple modes that favor playing with friends. Black Ops multiplayer seems set on making Call of Duty a competition for the dedicated.
Another disappointment with BO multiplayer is its limitation of only 2 players playing split screen online or in Zombies mode—I don’t understand why these modes cannot be played with 4 players online. And again the box advertises, “4-player co-op zombies” but that is only if you have two systems and two copies of the game. This is a very simple but very enjoyable feature that Halo Reach gets and has included. When I bought the game I invited several friends to play 4 player Zombies with me but was quickly disappointed to find that such was impossible unless I can find a friend with a PS3 willing to shill out $60 for the game.
I understand Treyarchs determination to reward the hardcore gamer, but I fear they have done so at the expense of the casual gamer and at the expense of the average person who might be compelled to pick up this game due to its vast popularity. BO is a visually impressive game, the attention to detail is immense, and the action sequences are gloriously over-the-top. But in the end, the plot is rather dumb and the multiplayer experience is too discouraging for new comers and demeaning to experienced gamers who will have to play more than they want to access features that should be available from the begging. Bottom line is that games like BO may actually be doing more harm to the medium than good. Is it fun to play? Sure it is, but I fear its popularity only encourages the industry to produce more pretty games with vacuous plots and multiplayer modes that tend to appeal only to people with a lot of time on their hands.