There was a time when I appreciated the idea of a franchise. It seemed to me that the attachment towards certain standards, the development of familiar notions and the opportunity to continue or strengthen a universe previously described were the engine fueling a trademark. It seemed to me that I could trust something that had a pedigree to it and that branded things brought along a guarantee of superior quality. I believed in a license’s power and the conservation of certain values within a company.
Then I turned seven.
Let’s be honest. Franchises are created for one reason only. Money. It’s an industry, even if it’s the entertainment industry, so nobody gives a rat’s ass on something so immaterial as respect towards the fans. This is neither funny nor sad – it’s a fact of life and should be accepted as such. You may be expecting a more spectacular explanation, but the truth doesn’t have to be spectacular. The truth has to be palpable, within reach. And the truth is you have to be pretty damn naïve to think you’re being owed something on behalf of the digital entertainment industry. Which is why I find ridiculous the ever present indignation spilled on the forums in regards to Call of Duty: Black Ops lack of novelty.
This isn’t my way of saying everyone is wrong and that the latest CoD is actually a step forward. But it’s a logical sequel made for the sole purpose of cashing in on the franchise. It might as well have been named Modern Warfare 2.5. The new elements it brings are all tweaks in functionality and detail and if you squint your eyes, you’ll see the exact same landscape the previous title served you. So if MW and/or MW2 didn’t make any impression whatsoever, stop reading right now.
If you’re still on this text, you must first accept that we’re essentially talking about a new edition of an old game. Look at it this way: if you didn’t like an old movie, what are the odds that a remake will pleasantly surprise you?
Out of bullets
Up until now there have been more war shooters than wars. Just about every modern historical event found its mise en scene somewhere in a Medal of Honor/Call of Duty/Vaguely heroic name named after a Sabbathon single. The producers would have been in serious trouble had they not taken tips from Michael Bay or the Baron Munchausen – if you make enough stuff up, any banker’s banter can turn into an exciting odyssey. And add explosions. Don’t forget to add lots of explosions.
Thus, Black Ops takes place in the hot zones of the most lacking in open combat segment in human history: the Cold War. This doesn’t subtract from the intensity of the action movie we’re being served: the massacre in the Bay of Pigs looks like an Eric Bana flick, gulags are about as guarded as a day care center and the Nazi officers depicted in flashbacks can’t hold back for five minutes without gassing someone. No, really. It’s Activision’s way of saying they’re sorry for the airport level back in Modern Warfare 2.
Aside from the story’s Kodak moments, animated pretty convincingly and intensely, the campaign is a teeth-clenching rail ride. Its structure revolves around the alternation between the present and past, for about 8 hours total, time which will be spent shooting up everything that yells in foreign tongues, while you’re getting tortured.
Visually, the moments in which you rappel, dolphin dive in slow-motion or take a mouthful of snowy boots are gritty and intense. There are, however, two issues – one is that everything is scripted, and there’s a feeling of getting pushed aside from what is supposed to be an interactive experience after all. Furthermore, events may not get triggered correctly at times.
“Yeah dude, but Call of Duty has been a scriptfest since, like, forever.” I know, but when a mate dives over a balcony and starts shooting away like a maniac while an enemy shows up behind him, pushes a wardrobe aside and starts shooting at you, totally ignoring the enemy standing one foot away, the “it’s always been like this” excuse can only hold for so much. To which you can add the endless advancement through a tunnel that’s sometimes briefly paused by “gauntlet” events. Actually, I wonder why you can still strafe, since the level design is more similar to, say, Virtua Cop (or any other rail shooter) than Quake.
The mini games from the previous titles (guided bombings, rocket control) are replaced by a very short sequence of RTT-style gaming or the mandatory chopper piloting and other armed devices. But other than that, as I was saying, it’s just a rail shooter marked way too often by sequences in which control gets snatched away from you for a better “cinematic” experience.
Even so, the campaign is slightly longer than in previous titles, or shooters in general. It moves you around through multiple periods and continents, adequately adjusted to the Cold War warmed up by plastic explosives. The Vietnam parts borrow Oliver Stone’s Platoon as an atmospheric reference (Rolling Stones included) and the experience is wrapped around a psychedelic twist.