One of the best things about the Call of Duty Black Ops video game — this year’s phenomenal blockbuster that pulled in $350 million in its first day of sales last week — is that it has a great story. Much of the plot has twists and turns taken from brainwashing movies such as The Bourne Identity. But there are enough original elements to make the game more than a knock-off.
The continuous improvement of this game series, now in its installment, shows something that fans have long known. Video games are good at telling stories and conveying artistic themes as movies, books, or music. If this trend continues, don’t be surprised if the next blockbuster comes from video games and not Hollywood directors such as James Cameron, creator of Avatar and Titanic.
Indeed, while many of the game’s elements will seem familiar to Call of Duty fans, the execution makes this year’s installment of Call of Duty the best ever. That’s an important victory for the game’s publisher, Activision Blizzard, which is engaged in a death match with rival Electronic Arts over who can make the best modern combat games — the first-person shooters that represent the highest form of video game art today and its most lucrative category.
In their usual homage to great war movies, the developers at Treyarch, the studio that produced this game for Activision Blizzard, have liberally lifted scenes from some of the best movies spanning the Cold War era, the time period in which the game is based. They include the gut-wrenching scene from The Deer Hunter in which Viet Cong captors force American prisoners to play Russian roulette. You also get to pilot a swift patrol boat up the Mekong River on the same path that actor Martin Sheen traveled in the most memorable scenes of Francis Ford Coppola’s masterpiece film Apocalypse Now.
The point of these scenes is to capture the essence of war drama at its highest and let the game player relive it. What separates Call of Duty games from its rivals is that the developers insert the player into the most cinematic combat moments imaginable, and the player’s job is to fight a way out of it. You’re never bored in a Call of Duty game, unless you’re bored of over-the-top combat scenes in the first place. In how many other games do you get a chance to escape an avalanche by jumping off a cliff?
This game has a few minor flaws — it slowed down in three instances while I played it on the Xbox 360 — but it delivers a fresh story with intense combat scenes, a wide variety of theaters of battle, and experimental weapons such as Dragon’s Breath shotgun ammo that bursts its target into flames. Since the execution is so good in this game, I’ve given it a review score of 95 out of 100. In my opinion, that puts it in the running to be one of the best games of the year, alongside titles such as Red Dead Redemption and StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty. In fact, this game is better than a lot of movies I’ve seen lately.
The real-life drama of the game studios
That explains why the game sold 5.6 million units in 24 hours — more than last year’s Call of Duty Modern Warfare 2 (4.7 million units) and far more than its chief competitor Medal of Honor. Luckily for the game’s publisher, Activision Blizzard, the quality of the game wasn’t affected by the real life drama at the Call of Duty game studios. The Black Ops developer, Treyarch, operated as a second-string Call of Duty developer for many years. It alternated Call of Duty titles with Infinity Ward, the first-string studio that handled the big game releases every two years. But Infinity Ward imploded in March, when Activision Blizzard chief executive Bobby Kotick fired Infinity Ward founders Vince Zampella and Jason West for allegedly trying to start their own game studio while still employed by Activision Blizzard. The firings led to lawsuits. The founders started their own game studio, Respawn Entertainment, which will presumably make games for arch rival Electronic Arts.
Treyarch stepped in the limelight with Black Ops, eliminating all other projects and dedicated more than 300 developers to the task of creating an outstanding Call of Duty games. EA also chose this fall to revive its moribund Medal of Honor brand with a reboot of that game franchise, which competes with Call of Duty. Medal of Honor had to weather its own controversy, as the game set in the ongoing Afghan war offended the families of war victims because it allowed you to play the Taliban side in multiplayer. Medal of Honor has sold more than 3 million units since its launch in October, but I gave the game an 80 out of 100 because of numerous glitches and weak story. Other critics also panned the game, leaving a big opening for Activision Blizzard with Call of Duty Black Ops, which debuted Nov. 9.
The re-introduction of Medal of Honor put a lot of pressure on Treyarch, which made a big bet by leaving World War II behind (gamers have tired of it) and set a game in the midst of an unpopular American war, Vietnam. It might seem like Activision Blizzard is launching this new game right on schedule — despite the blow-up at Infinity Ward — out of a patriotic duty. But clearly the profit motive is a mighty incentive, as Activision Blizzard is pouring the necessary resources into this to hang on to its perch as the No. 1 company in video games. Rather than merely re-fight that war, Treyarch wisely chose to use the war as a backdrop for a more interesting, personalized story of betrayal, revenge, and moral fog. This story is why Black Ops and the relentless focus on action is so much more compelling than Medal of Honor.
Going beyond the Bourne Identity
The game consists of movie-like animated scenes, dubbed cinematics, that convey the story of Alex Mason, a special forces operative, and Jason Hudson, an agent for the Central Intelligence Agency. They embark on a series of clandestine Black Operations missions behind enemy lines to thwart a Soviet attempt to develop a lethal nerve gas known as Nova 6. The Soviet efforts are led by rogue leaders Nikita Dragovich, Lev Kravchenko and Friedrich Steiner. Mason is assigned by no less than U.S. President John F. Kennedy himself to take out Dragovich. But the mission is complicated by the fact that Mason was captured and tortured by the Russians. Mason realizes he was brainwashed but doesn’t know what his real mission is. He is a trained assassin, triggered by code words to execute a mission that has been implanted in his brain.
While that may seem a lot like the fate of Jason Bourne in the Bourne Identity, the similarities end there. The plot is less convoluted than last year’s Modern Warfare 2, which had crazy scenes where you were shooting Russians, terrorists, and American soldiers all at once. Treyarch’s chief executive, Mark Lamia, told us in an interview that a lot of the roots of the story — set against the backdrop of the Cold War and the Vietnam struggle — were based on interviews with real Black Ops agents. These agents of the Studies and Operations Group (SOG) were given the chance to use experimental weapons, an idea that the game designers ran with. It allowed them to introduce fictional weapons such as a crossbow with explosive bolts. The result is that, even though the game is set in the 1960s, you wind up with some very snazzy weapons that fans of the series really want.
Last year’s Modern Warfare 2 game included a controversial scene in which the player participates in a civilian massacre at a Russian airport. The new game also opens with a controversy. Your first mission as Mason is to accompany the invasion of Cuba during the Bay of Pigs fiasco in 1961. Accompanied by fellow soldiers Frank Woods and Joseph Bowman, Mason has to break off from the U.S.-backed invading forces and try to assassinate Fidel Castro. That scene has enraged the Cuban government, which says the game promotes the assassination of a world leader and encourages American teens to adopt a “sociopathic attitude.” (That part of the plot is softened by the inclusion of a mini game in which Castro, John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon and Robert McNamara use shotguns and other weapons to fight off attacking zombies). The game makes you feel like you’re shooting Castro himself, though a twist in the plot allows the game developers to distance themselves from the Cuban government’s accusation.
Despite a hair-raising escape attempt, Mason is captured by Castro’s forces and delivered to Russian General Dragovich, who takes Mason back to a Soviet prison camp, Vorkuta Gulag. There, you meet fellow prisoner Viktor Reznov, a former Red Army hero (from the earlier Call of Duty: World at War game) who is disenchanted with the Communist government. Reznov recounts in a flashback scene how he encountered Dragovich, Kravchenko and Steiner at the end of World War II, when they all converged on the effort by former Nazi scientist Steiner to create the Nova 6 nerve gas. As the Russian’s claim Nova 6 for themselves, Dragovich betrays Reznov and sets up the revenge story for the game. Reznov becomes Mason’s constant companion, providing Mason with the will and drive to track down the villains and stop them from using the nerve gas against America.
From one hot spot to another
The game has some very memorable scenes. As Mason, you walk through the Pentagon and meet with President Kennedy himself, where in circumspect language, he tells you about Dragovich’s threat and to “take care of it.” All the while, Mason has to fight off an inexplicable urge to kill the president. Mason and his companions also have to infiltrate and attack the Baikonur Cosmodrome, which houses the Soviet space program. In one of the cool scenes of the game, you get to feel what it’s like to take off in an SR-71 spy plane and climb into low orbit. From the spy plane, you have to guide the soldiers on the ground so they can evade Soviet forces in a blinding blizzard.
That sets up yet another cool scene in which you rappel down a mountain side, jump back from a ledge, and then crash through the window of a control center. In slow motion, you have to target each soldier in the place as the glass shatters so that your team is the only one left standing. You fight on throughout the facility, using a crossbow with explosive bolts to slow down big packs of Russian soldiers.
From there, the story shifts to Vietnam during the Tet offensive. You have to defend Khe Sanh, the northern-most U.S. Army base in South Vietnam, as it comes under a blistering siege by North Vietnamese forces. This was one of the weaker segments of the game, as it got a little boring and predictable. But in the rest of the game, the artificial intelligence of the enemies is really good. Sometimes the enemies will charge you when you’re hiding behind obstacles. Or they will try to circle around you and attack together.
One of the best levels is when you are inserted into the city of Hue, which was overrun by the North Vietnamese during Tet. As I’ve pointed out before, the introduction to this scene is a signature example of why Call of Duty games are so fun. In another game, you might rappel down the ropes of a helicopter into a hot landing zone. But with this game, you start going down the ropes and then your helicopter is struck by a rocket. The Huey gunship starts spinning out of control and then swings you around, clinging for dear life on the rope. You smash through the windows of a building and then you have to immediately engage in a firefight. That’s where you pull out your shotgun with the Dragon’s Breath ammo.
I also enjoyed sneaking through the jungles and tunnels of Laos, jumping from rooftop to rooftop in the high-rise city of Kowloon, spraying death from above in a stolen Soviet Hind helicopter gunship, cruising the Mekong River in a patrol boat that shoots rockets and machine guns at the shoreline. At each point in the game, you have to take advantage of different weapons, from sniper rifles that see the heat outlines of soldiers to antiaircraft rockets that take out helicopters. The soundtrack includes 1960s titles from the Rolling Stones. That’s another element that makes the game feel more authentic.
What makes the story good is that the characters all play their roles in advancing the plot. Your comrades in arms aren’t just cannon fodder. They’re characters with distinct personalities. Treyarch used new motion-capture technology to capture facial expressions accurately so that the animated characters’ mouths move in a convincing way when they are talking.
The effect is added realism. You wind up caring about these soldiers. The game also continues the Call of Duty tradition of having superb villains to chase after. Since you have three hated villains to pursue in the game, you never run out of the proper motivation as you hunt them down, one by one. When you catch up with each one of them, a movie-like dramatic scene ensues. The Call of Duty ethos is to show respect for the soldier and disdain for the politicians and generals who send them to their deaths. Although Mason is a time bomb as an assassin waiting to carry out his final orders, you feel genuine sympathy for his plight.
Not everything is perfect
I didn’t give this game a perfect score because it has some technical glitches. The game slowed to a crawl on me three times while playing on the Xbox 360. This is almost enough to drive me to the PlayStation 3, which has a lousy controller for shooter games.
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PC players have also had similar complaints. I noticed the same problem on Electronic Arts’ Medal of Honor game. But this title is so much better on a variety of fronts that it’s easier to put up with the glitches. Games almost always have some kind of glitch, and the Call of Duty ones have been more humorous than maddening. Last year, for instance, you could make yourself nearly invincible by strapping a Javelin missile to your back. This year, PC players have also noted the game has some frustrating bugs.
There are some design mistakes too. Early in the game, as you are escaping from the Russian prison, you have to wander around looking for a switch to open a mechanical door. The problem is, the switch is hidden too well, and you are attacked by dozens of Russian soldiers while you are trying to find this switch. I had to replay that scene until I killed all the Russian soldiers. Then I wandered around for a while until I found the switch. You still can’t lean around corners and shoot, either.
I can also forgive the mistakes because the overall 3D technology is also much better in this game, which is the seventh one in the series. Lighting effects look better, and the game uses a streaming texture technology that allows for much bigger levels than was previously possible. The game functioned perfectly at the end, even with the difficult-to-render combination of water leaks, electrical shorts, and fast action. The scenery was also quite memorable, and weirdly beautiful, amid the destruction of the city of Hue.
I’ve played the multiplayer version of the game briefly. But it’s enough to show me that the Call of Duty multiplayer experience is still among the best in video games today. In each match, you are rewarded for “killstreaks,” where you shoot multiple enemies in a row. Those killstreaks unlock new weapons such as a remote-controlled explosive car or controllable attack helicopters.
On Modern Warfare 2, I played multiplayer for weeks and got to 61 out of 70 in the rankings. In a couple of nights of play, I was able to get to rank No. 8 on Black Ops. Now, as you level up, you can earn COD points that you can spend to upgrade your equipment as you see fit. These COD points give you more leeway to control your upgrade path. And you can also wager COD points with other players in an attempt to level up even faster.
Overall, the experience is recognizable as a classic Call of Duty experience. It probably has the legs to stay popular for months, especially with free multiplayer combat. That means that gamers may be too busy to play other games and it will take a really good game to knock this one from its perch.
Do you think this is the best Call of Duty game ever? Take our poll below. I’ve also attached the Call of Duty Black Ops launch trailer video below.