Call of Duty: Black Ops was released in North America and the United Kingdom on Nov. 9, selling 5.6 million copies. With $360 million of sales that day, game publisher Activision hailed it as the “biggest entertainment launch ever.” But does the game live up to the numbers?
Black Ops is solid, but not outstanding. Campaign mode slowly and non-linearly unravels the story of Alex Mason, an American operative involved with “black operations” during the Cold War.
Admirably, the game uses the parallel narrative mode, using various playable characters to tell the same story. I applaud writer David S. Goyer – whose credits include Dark City, Batman Begins and the Blade series – for using a convention fluidly in order to emphasize theme, unravel story and develop character. Ironically, it is this technique which reinforces the status of Black Ops as predominantly a game rather than a film, although film actors Ed Harris and Gary Oldman do lend their voices to characters in the game.
From an aesthetic and literary point of view, this both reinforces and plays with game elements like the first-person camera (expected in a first-person shooter), and user agency, by reminding the players they are playing through a troubled man’s memory: this brings into question things like the reliability of the character and the extraordinary circumstances of the story which direct the player’s control.
Black Ops is impressive as a first-person shooter, but it falters slightly in its conventional constraints and its clear cinema envy. This is not a slight against the live-action moments and stock footage peppered artfully into the game. Uninspired attempts to use quick-time events to activate cut-scenes could have been paced better within the gameplay. There are also plot points where the non-player characters move so much slower than the player that they actually obstruct the flow of the game. There is very little about the combat which sets it apart from other shooters; while the game is successful at meeting shooter conventions, the repetitiveness may become plodding for those who are not die-hard fans. The derivative combat and problematic design detract somewhat from what could be a high-octane, completely immersive experience. But the firepower and array of weaponry are still hair-rising enough to make the gameplay more than satisfactory for its fan-base.
Multiplayer and zombie modes remind us all of what defines the franchise. The Pentagon zombie map is the most memorable part of the game, featuring presidents John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon, and other political figures like Robert McNamara and Fidel Castro, as playable characters. All my previous arguments regarding the gameplay extend into both modes, but they succeed despite this due to nostalgia, cultural relevance and the draw of co-op. Multiplayer mode includes levelling reminiscent of an RPG (think Borderlands) and actually resolves the pacing issues of the campaign because the varied maps are designed for human players with no embedded narrative, meaning players create their own fun, on their own terms, without any kind of pretence.
The mode allows one to create a class, choose their weapons and join a team, and will be an especial hit for online players. The voice acting and body language are spectacular, and the use of historical figures is a romantic and funny way to reinvent a classic genre. These figures are historically consecrated, but still detached enough not to cause too much controversy. Perhaps Call of Duty is playing it safe this time, inching closer to something intriguingly recent, while restraining itself.
Ultimately, Black Ops focuses far too much on things which have already made the Call of Duty series popular. While the game has replay value and is by no means bad, it uses conventions as a crutch to satisfy expectant audiences. Contemporary public scorn and conventional gameplay will fade, but shooting up zombies is forever.
See Lana Polansky’s criticism of Call of Duty’s foray into historical content here.