I’m not sure if it’s entirely true or just a joke perpetuated by the ever unpleasant internet, but it often feels like I’m the last person left still buying Call of Duty for its campaign.
For as much as people assure me it’s the same brief series of explosions every year, that it’s inclusion is simply mandatory at this point and I’m wasting my time, I’ve always thought CoD a mechanically strong enough shooter that I wasn’t too bothered if all it gave me was a few hours strung together by enough explosions to make Michael Bay blush.
But something changed with Black Ops.
Or to be fair, very little if anything changed, and that’s half the problem. For the first time it feels like I’m playing a game that wasn’t developed, but manufactured out of a mold. It’s as if Activision sat down with Treyarch, told them “this is what CoD is, this is the game you’re making; get to work and don’t try to do anything too different because we’re on a tight deadline here and can’t risk people disliking any changes you make.”
And so we are left with a game that’s unmistakably CoD, from how it plays to its incomprehensible narrative, and its endless stream of setpieces pulling you by the neck through to the next objective. It’s what I expected and what I thought I wanted, but there’s something about Black Ops that never clicks like past games. It seems to constantly wish to out due its predecessors but always reels itself well within the confines of what the series is known for. It pushes only so far as it feels safe doing so, which amounts to something that somehow feels more familiar than ever.
The only area Black Ops seems confident in its ambitions to outdo that which came before is in elevating the level of violence, which is where it lost me first. Chunks of enemy flesh go flying under gunfire, slow-motion headshots show detailed cranial remnants splattering out the back of soldiers’ heads, I was found on both ends of torture scenarios more than once, and any encounter with a single enemy was an excuse for a gory takedown.
ANY HEAVIER COMMENTARY ON THE HORRORS OF WAR IS LOST AMIDST THE CONSTANT GUNFIRE
I get it, war is hell, and its grimness is certainly present in Black Ops. But as with every CoD game since at least Modern Warfare, Black Ops is so married to the idea of being a blockbuster action movie that any heavier commentary on the horrors of war is lost amidst the endless rattling of guns and bombastic mission objectives. It’s there to shock you and be “mature”, never once questioning its exploitative nature or the gratuitous acts of its protagonist, always happy to assure you that no matter how bad it seems anything is justified because the cartoon villain you’re chasing is even worse and two wrongs must make a right.
But even if I could divorce myself from the violence, which at numerous times left me feeling sick and seriously considering abandoning the game, Black Ops for all its explosions is still shockingly dull. It shuffles you down narrow hallways peppered with mindless enemies, each feeling much like the last save becoming longer and more tedious the further you get into the game. Death loops wait for you behind every corner, encounters seem to stretch on endlessly as enemies continue pouring out, and the reward is always just another explosion or another close up of some character getting their head smashed in.
Maybe I’ve just become more ambivalent over the years to murdering hundreds of people for no other reason than I’m constantly being told that it’s supposed to make me feel cool, but between grossing me out and putting me to sleep Black Ops, more than possibly anything I’ve ever played, feels like a game shackled by its own franchise.
It’s something I’ve seen before, only somehow less interesting than the last time. It the very definition of what CoD is, or at least what we collectively know it to be and apparently nobody is prepared or capable of at all deviating from. Its story, while not quite the insulting mess that was Modern Warfare 2, is as hamstrung and ridiculous as ever, with dubious voice acting and a meme worthy donning of sunglasses getting an audible laugh out of me as things finally began to wind down and I began to question if I had gotten anything out of continuing with a game I’d repeatedly abandoned, only to come back to later wondering if it could really be as bad as I remembered.
Apparently the answer was yes, and then some.