Call of Duty: Black Ops

In a word: clusterfuck.

I really enjoyed Modern Warfare.  It’s one of my favourite FPS’s of all time.  It was fun, challenging, had an interesting storyline… it was “realistic” but not to the point of losing the whole point of the game – to be a game, a form of entertainment.  Alas, Black Ops is the epitome of what happens if you completely lose the plot, presumably in the name of “realism” or “artistic integrity”.

It’s ridiculously hard.  Death swings by every 5-10 seconds to say “yo, whassup?” and boot me back to the last checkpoint.  Enemies take half a dozen rounds from a heavy machine gun just to start limping, but a couple of stray pistol rounds and I’m dead.  There’s no point hiding in cover, because half the time the game will spawn enemies on your head.  Sometimes literally.

It’s fundamentally hard because it’s monotone.  Everything is brown.  Yay, brown.  At least there’s minimal blooming so far.

But there’s also minimal effort from the modelling department, which in concert with the brown-o-vision glasses is a double-vasectomy.  So-called “friends” and “foes” are all essentially identical.  Thank god the game doesn’t mind (too much) if you shoot a few test rounds into a friend to determine which is which.

And these “friends”… ugh.  If you do give them too much grief, the game ends, informing you that friendly fire is naughty and now your toys are being taken away.  But there’s no apparent repercussions for them when they shoot you, throw a grenade at the back of your head, or push you out in front of enemy fire.  But these frat boy antics do ease the conscience over using them as human shields, which is pretty much necessary since unlike the wispy, frail player character, they’re made of solid adamantium and bounce T-72’s off their rock hard abs.

The design flaws are just endless, across all scopes.  The lack of broad purpose is emphasised by persistent lack of immediate purpose, of which it’s hard to decide if it’s deliberate or just due to incompetence.  For example, I missed an entire section of dialog, presumably explaining what the hell we were supposed to be doing, because a carpet bombing took place at the same time.  More generally, there’s frequent explosions or similar noises that drown out portions of the dialog such that you have no real idea what’s going on.  And the dialog is ambiguous and irrelevant enough as it is.  Most of the time I have no idea what I’m supposed to be doing.  About half the time there’s a waypoint shown.  But it’s rarely apparent what you’re supposed to do with it.  Do I have to get to it?  Throw a grenade at it?  Building a sandcastle on it?  Burn and salt the ground around it?

Currently I’m thoroughly stuck some way into the Vietnam mission.  Presumably – there’s no other apparent options – I have to get down a hill, up which a literally infinite supply of sassy young Vietnamese are zipping.  The waypoint is at the bottom of the hill, but I have no idea what the goal is.  After about the thirtieth replay through I got bored enough to try just running straight to it.  Some ten or so attempts later I finally made it.  And then nothing more happened than I got shot to shit and died.

So apparently it’s the final mission, and to justify the otherwise embarrassingly short game, it’s a surprise endless, brown version of Duck Hunt.

In a vague form of defence for the game, it’s possible that the Vietnam mission is this way deliberately.  Perhaps they wanted to convey the sheer anarchy of it, the pointlessness, the disempowerment of the individual.  You die randomly a lot, from random explosions, knives in the back, all sorts of things.  Enemies come from pretty much everywhere, including closed rooms you just walked out of.

The problem is, while this might be realistic and poignant,  it’s fucking awful as a form of interactive entertainment.  It’d be totally appropriate to see on the big screen, watching thousands upon thousands of extras die senselessly.  It’s not fun to be the extras, over and over and over and over again.  There are a lot of sections of Black Ops which are on very constricting and arbitrary rails, betraying how much the development team really just wanted to re-make Apocalypse Now for the big screen, not a game.

And, as if all those fundamental design flaws aren’t enough, it’s also just plain buggy.  I haven’t walked through any walls yet, but bullets do pretty regularly.  Some sandbags are bulletproof, you see, but these ones over here aren’t.  There’s no apparent way to tell which is which.  But the enemies know.  They’ll happily shoot you through them before they can even see you.  Their x-ray vision also extends through vehicles, fire, smoke and each other.

Now, it must be admitted that Modern Warfare had some challenging sections.  Surviving the sniper mission, particularly at the end in the ruins of the faire ground, that gave me some grief for a while.  But it was a small part of the overall game, and it fit well into the storyline.  So it was worth replaying a few times, and in any case was a small frustration in the overall game.  Plus there was a clear room for and need of strategy – it was provable survivable if you just found the right one.  I don’t get that sense at all in Black Ops.  I spend much of my time wondering where I’m supposed to be going, where the hell my so-called allies have gotten to, or – on the rare occasion I do know – why I’m waist-deep in the blood of mine enemies while they’re cowering in a bunker three hundred feet back.  If I could just ignore them and leave them behind, that would be most satisfying.

Lastly, and most severely:  thus far in Black Ops there’s no storyline.  At all.  Not even any real continuity.  Certainly no backstory, no motivations, nothing.  Allies come and go frivolously.  And the flashback sequences and related style are pretty blatantly “inspired” by Assassin’s Creed, but without a sense of appropriateness, meaning or actual style.

As far as I can tell thus far, in Black Ops my sole purpose is attract bullets like a super magnet, absorb them, metabolise them, and perhaps excrete useful items, like chairs, or farm equipment.

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