Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Call of Duty: Black Ops Review: Seventh Verse, Same As The Sixth

"Can't see fuck-all in here. Too bad this isn't Modern Warfare. Hit those NVGs. Yeah, boy." Okay, Activision, enough already. Call of Duty: Black Ops, the seventh installment in the long-toothed First Person Shooter series, is a lot of fun, but it’s getting old.

Sure, you bust down doors, crash through glass windows and shoot through enough slow-motion sequences to sate your lizard-brain, but don’t expect anything intellectually challenging.  In fact, the most thought-provoking moments in Black Ops were when I paused to wonder why, exactly, I still bothered playing shooters: if Black Ops were taken as a specimen, the genre is little more than a railroad ride from point A to B, a hand-held, high-explosive tour of stock locales staffed by stock characters.

You fight through Cuba. You fight through Vietnam. You fight through a well-executed, if not totally predictable, conspiracy-thriller plot. You consume scripted moment after scripted moment, and for all the adrenaline, you’ll be struggling to keep your eyes open. For all its successes, Black Ops shows just how tired the Call of Duty formula has become.

If my inner games-as-art curmudgeon is going to hold court, I should take a minute to give Black Ops its due. For an entire generation, developer Treyarch has played second fiddle to Infinity Ward, the erstwhile favorite child of publisher Activision. Treyarch pumped out interim titles to keep fans paying while Infinity Ward worked on the series’ blockbusters (Call of Duty: Modern Warfares 1 and 2). When Infinity Ward dissolved after its leaders were sacked in a dispute with Activision, the spotlight panned to Treyarch. Could they carry the standard?

They can. While Black Ops can’t beat Modern Warfare 1’s expect pacing and (relatively) cool reserve, it easily tops the confusing bombast of Modern Warfare 2. There’s no pacing to speak of – you sprint from gun fight to gun fight, with the occasional scenic “stealth” interlude spliced in – but at least the plot doesn’t trip over its own feet.

As Alex Mason, a CIA shooter troubled by some weird daydreams, gamers set out to kill a Russian spy named WhoEvenCares, who we’re told is really, really bad. I ruin nothing when I say the plot boils down to that hoary old Bond schematic: stop the bad guy before blows up the free world.

Mason & Friends romp through Cuba, Vietnam and Russia, taking in plenty of lovely scenery along the way. Like other CoD games before it, Black Ops is gorgeous – after all, when you don’t have to waste the processor on things like interactivity, you have plenty of horsepower to splurge on pretty sunsets, Russian firs and Vietnamese flora. Black Ops stopped me cold on several occasions:  say, the sunlight cutting through the smoke on Khe Sanh; or deep in the jungle, when I emerged from a muddy river like Martin Sheen and crouched in the rain with my M16. Or when I cruised down a different river, strafing the banks and and “woo-woo”-ing to “Sympathy For The Devil.” When Black Ops’ level design successfully pulls off the disappearing act of presenting the illusion of a seamless, open world, it’s an exhilarating experience.

All too often, however, gamers are painfully aware of their funneled path to whatever objective (take this, destroy this, kill him, go here) Black Ops serves up any given minute. The only thing really separating the game from rail shooters like Time Crisis is the freedom to swivel your empty, purposeless virtual head.

But hell, who buys FPS titles for the single player anymore? Black Ops shattered first-day sales (of any entertainment medium (ever)) by selling 5.4 million copies within 24 hours, and I’m willing to bet many of those gamers skipped the story and mainlined the hyperactive, adrenaline-fueled, reflex-abusing multiplayer experience.

Look: I don’t play well with others. I’m not a skilled gamer, and I don’t give enough of a shit to become versed in the ways of back-stabbing, sniping, running-and-gunning and, um, teabagging. But I did give Black Ops’ many modes a spin, and while I can understand the appeal, there’s little here to significantly differentiate the experience from Modern Warfare 2. Wager matches – games that allow you to bet Call of Duty Points against other players – spice up the spread with some new modes (One In The Chamber gives players one bullet and a knife), but I imagine most gamers will be grinding out points in team deathmatch, which is virtually identical to its predecessors. New weapons, new maps, new skins; nothing else.

If you’ve played Left 4 Dead, you’ve played Zombie Mode. At least Treyarch knows how to sweeten the pot (spoiler alert!).

As Ron Perlman said in Fallout 3: “War never changes.” This is Call of Duty’s credo: love it or hate it, Activision’s money-maker shows no signs of taking risks, innovating or changing even slightly. For 5.4 million gamers, this is news greeted with a cheer; this gamer greets it with a meh.

Thanks for the fun times, Call of Duty, but even at your best, you’ve lost me.