Review – Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 (Single-player)

How many of you remember the old Call of Duty games?  Remember that one level in the second game where you had to jump out of the amphibian craft and run out on the beaches of Normandy as the Germans tore everyone down with machine guns?  That level was based off a significant historical moment in WW2, but I bet more people were excited to play only because they’d seen Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers.

But that was the point.  It was a turning point for video games, a medium still in its infancy, because it was one of the games that showed off the potential for immersion, interactivity, and how much alike and unalike film it could be.  That Call of Duty level alone and the sheer magnitude of what it had accomplished hooked a bajillion people forever more.

Fast forward to today.  If you had time travelled straight from 2003 to 2012, aside from realizing that we have an African-American President in the White House (and for two terms at that!), you’d wonder where the fuck the love for Call of Duty had gone.  The franchise was in ruins – of course, financially, it was still earning Activision oodles of money, but the original developer Infinity Ward was unceremoniously booted out, and now there were two different teams working on the games, churning it out every year without fail.  Journalists were calling the games a ruin on brains, with their lack of anything in the way of interactivity, touted as “corridor shooters” because of the way all you ever did was run down a straight line and shoot at baddies popping up left and right.   That wasn’t all – Activision was cocky enough to think they could charge people even more money for it – which was why Call of Duty Elite was born. A service that made you pay for periphery features like more maps, stat tracking, and video recording – services which most other game companies rendered free to end-users after purchasing of the original game title.  It was only with the release of Modern Warfare 3 that even the most hardcore of Call of Duty fans admitted that they were brainwashed into paying for a franchise that was continually slipping further and further into oblivion.

So how the fuck could Activision come back from this?  They were the company that caused a worldwide retardation of intelligence, going as far as indirectly encouraging the other big game publisher, EA, to jump on the bandwagon and make their own stupido war games like the rebooted Medal of Honor series, which is a joke to the original title.  Battlefield 3 is an exception, although the single-player portion isn’t all that good either.  So it is with all these thoughts swirling in my brain, and with low expectations that I went into Black Ops 2.  Would I suffer even more severe brain damage as a result?  Read on to find out.

It was about half-way through Black Ops 2, in a level called Fallen Angel when I realized I had been looking at the game all wrong.  Up to that point, I had been shaking my head at yet more insipidly written dialogue and half-assed flash-back styled narratives about macho men getting up to macho things and making it all seem more pompous than it really is.  But Fallen Angel was the first time I actually stopped to look at what they had done with the level.  It was set in a flooded city on a stormy night, and just watching as the water rushed and swirled through the streets as you waded in it, that was amazing.  God knows why it was flooded, but it was nice to look at.  It reminded me so much of that early level in Call of Duty 2 as you stormed the beach under a hail of bullets.  I realized there and then that Treyarch was just doing their best to make a cinematic game with breathtaking setpieces and amazing art direction.  I don’t know why I was bored of the previous games, but this one made me sit up and go “Wow”.   Certainly there were still the requisite number of scripted explosions and baddies still popped up from hidden corners, but it felt like there was something more to the experience than anything that had come before.  Whether it was running through the war-torn streets of LA, infiltrating a modern city in the sky, scaling a rockface to invade an enemy HQ, or riding a horse through desert plains, it was a mighty entertaining experience!  Maybe it was also the futuristic setting that no Call of Duty game had explored before (not that we didn’t see it coming) – weapons had enemy-tracking reticules and there were wrist-mounted nade launchers, and hulking robots that fired Gatling guns at anything you aimed at.  It was the same Call of Duty experience, just seen through the lens of a techno-future, but I have to admit, no game made the act of firing a gun more delicious and sticky than Call of Duty Black Ops 2.

Black Ops 2 is still a mostly brain-dead Call of Duty game, but there are little things that change up the fun – the occasional choice to take the story in a different direction, larger maps with less obvious routes for flanking strategies, and also the small, contained levels where you get to play commander to a few fireteams from above, ala Natural Selection 2 – perhaps a hint of what’s to come in future Call of Duties.  Most of it is still scripted, but by this point, Treyarch could be commended for trying something different, and had done a better job of hiding the corners where baddies respawned from and camouflaged the seams and stitches of the game pretty well.

The story is still as convoluted as ever, a sequel to Black Ops.  You play as the son of the previous game’s protagonist, now trying to uncover some conspiracy left over from the Cold War which didn’t really get explained in the end anyway.  The flashback post-Vietnam War era missions are the most boring bits most likely due to its lack of futuristic implements, making it more a standard shooting foray.  Truth be told, I didn’t like the story all that much.  Some villain wants to take revenge on a bunch of people who killed his sister, kinda’ overreacting by taking control of the US army’s combat drones and bombing the shit out of the US.  A lot of unnecessary melodramatic posturing from all the characters, some subtle hints about the nature of war and how it comes to bite everyone back in the ass, but at least the writers tried to give the characters a little more rounded personalities and back-stories than just Macho Man A and Macho Man B.  I still didn’t care for most of them, except Harper, your buddy hero bro who is funny when he needs to be, and doesn’t say shit when he shouldn’t (voiced by the gravelly-voiced Michael Rooker).

This is Carl on duty

But gone were the days with the ol’ Call of Duty games where you also had the British and French partaking in world-saving – this was all on good ol’ America.  I found it amusing that the aircraft carrier HQ was called the Obama, and extramarital-affair CIA guy Petraeus became the Secretary of State.  Maybe in that future, extramarital affairs were okay.  The most annoying character award had to go to Admiral Briggs who says nothing of worth or importance, preferring to show an archaic stereotype of African Americans as smack-talking, with this one in particular having a fondness for the word “cocksucker”.  Also, Call of Duty still subscribes to the notion that a) most Eastern European countries are home to evil villains-to-be b) third-world countries are usually where bad shit goes down.  Can’t we have an American uber villain for a change?  Also can’t we have a female protagonist or supporting lead for a change?

In any case, shitty narrative aside, the game portion of Black Ops 2 took me by surprise.   They even let you customize your loadout before each mission – which Call of Duty game before has done that?!  Even the vehicle bits didn’t feel like you were just on a rollercoaster ride with the ability to shoot out the windows.  You actually got to drive through the levels.

Maybe I just had really low expectations, but this was certainly better than the horrific Medal of Honor: Warfighter.  It’s even more ironic considering EA’s own contender for war shooter of the year was trying to win with the “realism” angle again.  I think that saying your game is “based-off real life events” but is going to have a bajillion more explosions, unrealistic military firefights, and with you killing entire armies of goons, is no longer a “realistic” game by my own definition.  The people over at Treyarch and Activision have embraced that their thing wasn’t about realism anymore.  Like Michael Bay, they liked cramming as many explosions into one scene as possible, and worked to make sure you enjoyed each and every one of them as much.  At least they don’t try to steer your head in the direction of every explosion (yes, Medal of Honor did that).

My point is this, Black Ops 2 is pushing for that next-gen level experience.  True, it isn’t the same experience as the one we got back in ’05 with that Call of Duty 2 Omaha beach level.  But then again, times have changed – it’s not enough now that our games show us the same experience as you can get on a TV, in a movie, or like in real life.  Black Ops 2 is going for gold, it’s going for something that only games can show.  Especially a game that had a bajillion dollars thrown at it to develop.  So yeah, the new Call of Duty is escapism, at its best and worst.

I probably won’t stop hating on what has become of the CoD franchise, but I will admit that like Apple products, it has its place in the world.  If it was a movie, it would be Expendables, and we all know that Expendables was fun – even if we can’t ever take it seriously.  In fact, when you see the Avenged Sevenfold music video that plays out post-credits for Black Ops 2, you come to realize, why are you taking it so seriously when the people who made the game aren’t?

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