I've Been All the Way to Vorkuta... But I've Never Been to Me

Call of Duty: Black Ops - 2010
Studio: Treyarch
Publisher: Activision
First-Person Shooter (2010)

The Call of Duty franchise has become the 500 lb. gorilla of the video game industry, and most of this is due to some very good choices, as well as a not-terribly-imaginative gaming public. Right off the bat, I'm going to admit that I avoided the series for years because I'm just not that interested in the real-world military, but finally, when I found a used copy of COD4:Modern Warfare, I decided to see what all the hubbub was about, gameplaywise. I have very little interest in spending time online getting screamed at by racist 13 year olds, so I was coming at this from an angle of a pure single player experience. I was, quite despite myself, bowled over by the well-balanced combination of excellent choices made by the game's studio, which in the case of the Modern Warfare iterations of the series, was Infinity Ward. Every choice is designed to keep the game dramatic, highly stimulating, easily digestible, and most of all; at all times FUN. Everything that the Modern Warfare games are, Black Ops is even more so.

Black Ops is an intensely ridiculous game, and I love it for that. All the machismo that Duke Nukem Forever wished it had, was here all along. The series has always loved its "Bro Moments" -- the lingering gun-tosses and manly hand-holding rescues -- but Black Ops is Bro-ier than fraternity of soldiers bare-knuckle brawling, which is pretty much describes every character in the game, come to think of it. It's positively Bro-Mosexual.

For example, one scene in particular trumps virtually all other Bro-Moments -- not just in the series, but it gives Michael Bay a run for his money. Both MW1 and MW2 have the hand clutching rescues, but in Black Ops, one intensely dramatic scene (MID-LEVEL, mind you!) has THREE men in a chain of white-knuckle rescue, hanging high above Kowloon streets, on TOP of which, one man is shot through the head, mid-rescue resulting in a Slow-mo Triple Bro "Nooo-o-o-o" Mo. It was SO dramatic, I had to pause the game for laughing. Don't get me wrong -- this is what makes the game so bloody awesome.

How else is it awesome? You get to kill EV-ER-Y BO-DY. If the United States of America has killed them, YOU will probably get to kill them here. Cubans, Russians, Vietnamese, Chinese, Germans & British -- all jump out for you to mow down as the CIA operatives and Russian soldier players will steer through the conflicts of the 20th Century. Oh yeah... AND zombies, in a separate mode. It's a masterpiece of gratuitous excess.

Yes, if you have a conscience, murdering the rainbow can be disturbing -- but that's not what you came here for. From a gaming perspective, it's nice to have a little more variety of targets than the primarily middle eastern palette of the MW games and the entire Bavarian population killed off in the series' previously WWII-centric titles. What this also means, however, is that the levels are the most widely varied in the series -- and scores highly against the FPS genre in that regard. Levels range from the Arctic to the jungles of SE Asia, wild to urban, exploding battlefields to tight rat holes, flat to hilly to outright vertical, engaged in stealth ops with a single partner to a mass prison break from a Soviet gulag. It has the kind of spirit of adventure more commonly seen in pure fantasy.

As such, there's always another new twist on the gameplay in service to narrative. Mostly, these are great at adding a new layer of experience, and I loved them. Unfortunately, there are a few places where the variations are implemented badly, the net effect of which yanks you hard OUT of the experience rather than tugging you deeper into it. One example of this is a level in a Vietnamese river where the player character and his partner swim under some boats to pull a stealth attack on a group of VC. The on-screen directions tell you to do this, but they don't tell you HOW you're supposed to achieve it unless you're in just the right spot, and the game's radar does not direct you to the correct spot. This resulted in several very confused and frustrated deaths for me before ultimately turning to the internet for answers. That really interrupted the experience for me, as well as a clumsy run-and-jump moment hampered by controls with priorities other than run-and-jumping and a few other lesser distractions. These aggravations are ultimately mitigated by all that DOES work. The swift boat level alone makes up for the swimming glitch. Yes, they ponied up for the Rolling Stones.

One of the things that the Duty franchise is most known for is its use of heavy "scripting" in levels -- progress-triggered events from the release of the next wave of enemies, to lines of dialog, cutscenes, explosions, helicopter crashes, and so on. Now me, I mostly love 'em. A lot of gamers don't because they interrupt the action, and siding briefly with them, the levels DO tend to include a lot of unskippable scenes, which is an unfortunate choice for a series that so consistently makes fast, fun choices.

Despite the numerous references back to previous entries in the franchise, and the passing mention of Duke Nukem, the game that Black Ops REALLY reminds me of is the original GoldenEye 007 for N64. There's an uncanny similarity -- snow, jungle, rappelling into a Russian installation, not-terribly-clever enemies, distinct levels that don't drag on forever...

At the end of the day, no, Black Ops isn't the hardest game, and that gains it a lot of scorn from the boy-men who want to keep the rest of us out of their club, but in terms of just plain having fun, that's exactly the way I like it. It's a speedball mixed from pure Bolivian Michael Bay and uncut Afghan Paul Greengrass, wrapped in bacon and fired up your ass with a roman candle to the beat of "Like A Rock." It's intensely dramatic, or maybe dramatically intense, yet impossible to take seriously except when it breaks. The story is the best in the series, which isn't saying much, and the always good story-TELLING (game narrative) is the best its been -- aided in no small part by the best defined and best expressed characters yet. Call of Duty: Black Ops isn't so much a game you PLAY, as much as it overwhelms you in a manly fashion -- and like most "manly fashion," it can be thoroughly silly to behold.

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