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So here we are, annual CoD week, where the millions of red-meat induced, overactive salivary glands of gamers soak living room floors worldwide, and I am 65 dollars poorer. Treyarch’s new entry into the CoD series is everywhere in the media, and if you haven’t heard of it already then you live in a cave, though I’m sure Activision’s purported “larger than ever” marketing budget for Black Ops has a cave drawing strategy, so you really don’t have an excuse. It’s a gigantic game full of unique game modes, and more content than you could ever ask for, but modes don’t sell me on games, good old story-driven single player fun does. So here be a review of the Call of Duty: Black Ops campaign.
Call of Duty: Black Ops (BOPs) is unlike any other I’ve ever played before in that, while very important aspects of the campaign are poorly executed, it was still a satisfying game(?!) . It’s full of gameplay breaking design flaws, minute after minute, but I still finished it thinking it was worth every penny.
At what point does a game get the benefit of the doubt?
Firstly, its important to note that the actual shooting, running, weapons and grenades, etc. all work flawlessly. The Call of Duty gun play is the most responsive in gaming. Period. But that itself is not enough. With games becoming more and more complex, exponentially adding variables to the overall experience, perfectly tuned shooting gameplay alone does not make a game fun. My feelings on this game are all over the place, but I still liked it a lot; as an overall experience, BOPs delivers a tense narrative, while sacrificing well-designed gameplay. This is due to one very large problem, made up of a bunch of little problems, in the actual foundation of the game: poor gameplay scripting.
CoD’s cardinal characteristic is the use of heavily scripted events happening in a succession, where your control of the game is to essentially unlock the next non-user controlled scripted action scene. When done correctly, as in CoD 4, it can be a very satisfying way to play because it allows the developer to bait and switch exactly which scenes are controllable and which scenes are not, keeping your attention glued to the action. The problem with BoP is that the scripting is so ham-fisted that you start to miss the actual decision-making aspect of gaming. Heavy scripting also makes you reliant on the design cues encouraging progression, such as the little-yellow-arrow stapled to your pupils during most of the game.
Again, the scripting wouldn’t be a problem if it doesn’t screw up. For example, when the yellow arrow glitches out and forgets to tell you where to go next, you start to notice that your dependence on it has dulled any instinct you would actually use in a real battlefield. Scripting problems are also apparent in the artificial intelligence.
The AI (your team-mates and the enemies) act like haphazard 8 year old children playing with Nerf dart guns. There is no intention to anything either side does; at one point, my team-mate was back-to-back with an enemy whilst shooting in the opposite direction. Sometimes enemy AI will just start running at you, sometimes they will roll side to side for no reason, which again, breaks the illusion of purpose in linear gameplay scripting.
In the end, however, it’s an excellent script. The story is about political subversion, international warfare, and personal revenge, and it all comes together in a tale that is miles ahead of any of the modern CoD games. You experience most of the game as a mentally scarred (to say the least) CIA agent, Mason, and will also play as different characters around his story. Set during the Cold War, you play through a globe-trotting, time skipping story based off your character’s interrogation about his involvement in a worldwide biological weapons scare. Framing gameplay around the events of a fickle memory is a clever way of avoiding monotony; the variation in settings and objectives are satisfying and the story telling is done reasonably well.
And the ending…oh the ending.
Overall, Call of Duty: Black Ops campaign was not all that much fun to actually play, yet I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys gaming because I couldn’t pull myself away from its experience. As a package I can’t deny its value, but it does have some frustrating problems. I’m sure it’s excellent online, and I know the zombie mode is fun, but gaming is largely a solo experience for me, and the campaign is a memorable experience.
Why do I give an unevenly executed game a recommendation?
Long answer: Forget how easy it is to shoot and kill, BOPs is a radically different from all other Call of Duty games in that it’s driven by a well told story. So despite itself, Call of Duty: Black Ops as a whole largely succeeds and is the best game in the series.
Short answer: It’s a gut feeling that BOPs is great.
I’ve never been so conflicted about, or forgiving of a game.
Maybe BOPs is just charming, or maybe I’ve been brainwashed by marketing.