I was at my wife’s company Christmas party when I committed a social blunder. A group of guys had gathered in the den and were discussing their love for the latest Call of Duty offering when my wife’s boss, knowing that I am a serious gamer, asked me if I was playing COD: Black Ops and what I thought of it. With a celery stick suspended halfway between the vegetable dip and my mouth I uttered the fateful words, “I took it back”.
Conversation stops. Disbelieving eyes turn to me. A glass breaks and a woman screams. My wife’s boss steps closer to regard me with greater scrutiny, “You… you took IT BACK?”
This was the beginning of a ten minute group interrogation where I fended that I had dutifully (pun intended) purchased the game on launch day, finished the single player campaign in a few days, went on to play online multiplayer for another three days, decided I didn’t care for it and sold it back to Gamestop for a considerable loss. (I actually exchanged it for Kirby’s Epic Yarn, but I was already playing defense at this point.)
It seems that it has become borderline unpatriotic to not welcome each new Call of Duty game like a holy event. Men of a certain age are expected to be loyal to the franchise and overlook any flaws no matter how glaring. To speak ill of the series is to risk being excommunicated from the church of Infinity Ward, (Treyarch). It’s like living in Dallas and being an outspoken Pittsburgh Steelers fan. You may not actually get beat up, but you're living on the edge.
Everyone scream all of your lines and we’ll call it good voice directing.
My problem with the single player campaign is that storyline is a spotty mess. Not knowing who you are or what you are fighting for is actually a bad thing in a first person shooter. Also the cut scenes became almost painfully bad as the game progressed with most of the dialogue being screamed and shouted for the last third of the game.
This failure in story is brought into sharp relief by the release of another game industry galactus called Halo Reach, which tells a story of quiet desperation and futility. You know from the outset that you are fighting a losing battle and trying to take down as many Covenant as you can before your ticket gets punched. It escalates in tension until the credits roll and then even after that. Reach’s story mechanics were far from perfect, but the initial plot and the journey that the Spartans endure (or fail to endure) is consistent, logical and captivating.
COD Black Ops not only jumps from continent to continent without much explanation, but I found myself confused as to what era was I in. Is this present-day Viet Nam? Wasn’t I just in 1980’s Russia? Just who the heck am I exactly? Torture indeed.
I’m guessing that the writers were thinking that this was going to come across as some sort of Chris Nolan Memento/Inception mystery that would add depth to the game, but this idea works much better in a passive form of entertainment like a TV show or movie. In a video game, knowing your objective, knowing your part and what’s at stake are crucial elements in making the player care about the outcome and staying with it when the difficulty ramps up. Black Ops throws all that out the window and the result is a string of big Hollywood set piece battles that CoD is famous for, but lacking any continuity or emotional resonance.
Save me Multiplayer
Black Ops saving grace is the multiplayer. Wait- no it’s not. The maps are gorgeous with clever designs for bottlenecking opposing teams resulting in crazy fierce gunfights and close matches.
The variety of weapon types, the attention to detail and the sound design, all of it is top notch and up to the usual Call of Duty gold standard.
Where my appreciation for the Call of Duty multiplayer experiences collapses is in one key basic game world decision. Just as the campaign suffers in comparison to Halo Reach, the multiplayer suffers in comparison to Battlefield: Bad Company 2. Anyone who has played games from the Battlefield series for any length of time becomes accustomed to two facts of that game world; darn-near everything is destructable, and because of that, player’s strategies are forced to accommodate a changing landscape and no two games are ever exactly the same.
Here’s an example: I was Recon class, (sniper) and I had set up in a cozy little perch on top of some oil pipes. I had a perfect view of objective A and I was doing major damage to the opposing team. We took the objective and I changed my focus to objective B, only to find my view block by a stand of large fir trees. One of my squad mates was assault class and I asked if he would use his grenade launcher and take out three or four trees and voila! I had a perfect view of objective B. Could I have just moved to a different location? Sure, but the opposing team had yet to figure where I was and moving would risk being spotted.
This type of landscaping occurs constantly in developer Dice’s Battlefield games with entire buildings and forests coming down on enemy squads and objectives. Attack helicopters and tanks rip up the countryside and quickly provide cover for your team or strip cover from your opponent.
Often these vulnerable objectives force you into an aggressive posture. If the objective that you are defending is inside a house being hit with mortar strikes, you need to get busy finding the source of those strikes in a hurry. It’s remarkable to see a whole team of players identify a new threat and work cohesively to eliminate it. And then watch as a new threat develops.
Dried Concrete Sandbox
So imagine the jarring break from Battlefield reality when going into a Call of Duty game and finding that I can’t break a single twig. That’s right—fire an RPG into that stand of bushes and see what happens. This major game world flaw, (or flawed design choice) stultifies gameplay, creating a dried concrete sandbox where the only things that move and interact are the players themselves. Familiarity with the multiplayer maps leads many players to routinely bolt to their favorite spots with complete confidence that not a single blade of grass will be out of place.
Consider these two scenarios. You and your buddy are driving a tank through a city street. You spot an enemy with a rocket launcher running into a house. You know that he can blow up your tank with that RPG so you really need to take him down. You fire your arsenal of destruction at the house and entire walls are blown out, then the roof and it eventually collapses on the enemy, killing him. When your opponent respawns and faces a similar scenario he will know that he cannot cower indefinitely inside the house, he must change his strategy, run out the back door and find somewhere to hide or evade fire. You are never really safe and being inside a structure can be more dangerous than outside.
Same scenario again, only this time all of your tank’s weaponry can’t make a dent in the side of the house. At first it appears to be taking damage, big explosions and debris flying, but when the smoke clears the wall is still standing. Even a grass shack, made of mud and straw, is impervious to a tank twenty feet away shelling the heck out of it. The enemy inside snickers with evil glee and shoots his rocket through an open window and blows up your tank. This scenario may be repeated endlessly because the house will never be destroyed and the man with the rocket launcher knows this and will run into the house every time.
(I ask this question; why even have tanks in Call of Duty? If the only thing you can shoot is the enemy, aren’t you more effective on foot with a weapon that shoots and reloads 10x faster than a tank?)
I know that Call of Duty is like Madden; everybody plays it so everybody else plays it and I don’t expect that self-perpetuation to change. What I would like to see is Treyarch stepping up to the plate and making maps that are subject to real world physics and vulnerabilities. Balance the playing field and give the new guys a chance against the seasoned vets who would be forced to improvise on the fly to adjust to maps that change with every new game.
(To be fair, Halo Reach does not provide destructable environments either and it too is a lesser game for it.)