Angry man with guns or billionaire relieving himself on your grandparents?
The following review contains spoilers for Forrest Gump.
As momentous events that forever change popular culture, Modern Warfare wasn’t a bad one. I mean, it was no Pop Idol. While it did give rise to a number of imitators and also-rans, none of them were Rick Waller – though, arguably, there was an equally generous amount of content inside. And while the single player campaign was short, Infinity Ward’s game offered an intense experience made up of a number of memorably entertaining moments. Of course there was also the multiplayer, which one or two of you may have even played…
Modern Warfare’s multiplayer was a natural extension of the single player campaign, and to a certain extent, war itself. Sent out to some remote looking crap-hole that looked a bit like a trading estate in Slough, your mission was to dodge a barrage of fast moving projectiles and barbed insults spewed from the mouths of 12 year olds. Of course, in every war there’s a power-hungry despot sending the youth to die. In this case it’s Bobby Kotick, head of Activision and the nearest we have to a living incarnation of Dr. Claw from Inspector Gadget. Kotick’s lust for glory has seen the COD brand invading supermarkets every year, to the delight of his pockets and bemusement of any one who can remember when war was fought with less good graphics.
But in every conflict there’s a loser; in this case it’s developer, Treyarch. If Modern Warfare developers, Infinity Ward, are The Expendables (literally!) then Treyarch are more like Dad’s Army, attempting to convince the world that they don’t need gunships and night-vision scopes to fend off abusive pre-pubescent ninjas when you’ve got packs of dogs and planks of woods with nails in them. Treyarch’s legacy, until now, has been as the nearly-men of the Call of Duty franchise. If Infinity Ward are (or were) the sun, then Treyarch are on the dark side of the moon, a bit like Pink Floyd, but more like Think Floyd, Rotherham’s finest tribute act.
However, since Infinity Ward’s talent pool soon found themselves in Kotick’s shark pool, Treyarch have unwittingly found themselves in the position of being the A-Team for the COD franchise. It’s an unlikely series of events that brings to mind Forrest Gump – with attack dogs and planks of wood with nails in them. Black Ops, then is a chance for Treyarch to reunite with Jenny, metaphorically speaking. But is she (the game) destined to die of AIDS (be not very good)? Let’s find out shall we…
Black Ops closes the gap between the COD brands, getting ever closer to Modern Warfare, both stylistically and chronologically. With OTT action histrionics and near mawkish levels of personal tragedy, last year’s Modern Warfare 2 was more like a Michael Bay remake of Philadelphia than a credible trawl through the muddied morals of contemporary warfare. It also seemed to be written by someone suffering from the same short-term memory loss as Guy Pearce’s character in Memento. After tattooing ‘Airport massacre’ on his body in Felt tip Roman, he blacked out, waking to find a mysterious message scribbled on a crumpled napkin. It read: ‘Snowmobile canyon jump’.
Black Ops perfectly combines these – now expected – tropes, opening with a series of attention grabbing scenarios that leap about all over the place. While it seems like a masterstroke to forego narrative cohesion and focus on a series of random events featuring guns, ‘plosions and shouting, it turns out that Treyarch are slavishly following Infinity Ward’s equation, warts and all. Level objectives are marked with bright yellow markers; your pals have helpful words floating over their heads and you can’t really act outside of the game’s pre-scripted events. And while Treyarch may be turning the formula up to 11, it’s strange that in a story about ludicrously brave individuals saving the world with nothing but a piece of enhanced Formica, the creators show such a lack of courage in truly moving things forward.
What you’re left with is a number of levels that tick all the boxes. Being shouted at by walking testoids who use terms like “L-zee”, “Juliet Bravo” and other words you don’t understand but whose inclusion makes you feel like you’re in a proper war? Check. A top tier military unit whose combat strategy appears to be shouting loudly, walking sideways round corners but getting shot less than the equally shouty Johnny Foreigner* on the other side? Check. A series of dehumanising interactive events, which are supposed to illustrate the high stakes of war but are actually more like being kicked in the shins by an obnoxious, attention-seeking child. Check, check and check.
There are a number of entertaining set pieces within the single player campaign but you’ll probably be familiar with them if you’ve watched a film containing a gun in the past 20 years. And while 600 billion contented gamers makes for a compelling argument for leaving the series unchanged; it’s hard not to feel that the campaign portion is just the straight man, buoying on his more talented and entertaining partner.
So what of Black Ops’ Eric Morecambe? While the multiplayer is immediately familiar, sweary voices on the verge of manhood and all, there are some nice touches that show a bit more creative effort. Though, statistically, you’re likely to either be playing it while reading this, or the kind of gamer who looks upon the cover of a new Call of Duty game and sees a photo of Bobby Kotick pissing on their grandparents instead of an angry man with a gun. Either way, you already know, or you’ll probably never care.
In short: Black Ops multiplayer is a fun evolution with some of the more annoying additions removed, such as 2 minute nukes (strange for a game set in the Cold War) and an updated zombie mode, which is bound to keep you entertained until they announce how many kidneys you need to swap for the first map pack. You could argue the merits of radio controlled cars and having to actually buy your weapons (what is this, Blackwater?) but since I’ve yet to see someone mastering the battlefield with nothing but a smoke grenade and a penknife, I’m going to call it a minor win.
So where next for the series? Well since the brand appears to look like a cow covered in tits through Dr. Claw’s special money-goggles, you can bet it’s not going to leave the dairy anytime soon. Next year should see Modern Warfare 3, which will either be a case of Infinity Ward’s janitor getting his time in the sun, or being asked to bring his swimmers to a board meeting. Treyarch, meanwhile, inch ever closer to the present; in two years time we’ll likely be presented with Call of Duty: Best of the 80s, featuring a brutal interactive sequence where the player must prove his worth to a terrorist organisation by going at some mating pandas with a stolen cheese grater, accompanied by a nu-metal version of Take My Breath Away.
But what’s even more disturbing is I’ll probably still buy it; enjoy it and play it to death. It seems resistance to gaming’s biggest franchise is futile – which is a bit like war really, innit?
*It should be pointed out that the British have been added to the cannon fodder in Black Ops. Perhaps it should be renamed Call of Duty: Equal Ops in Germany, Russia and Japan?
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