When I recently took to Twitter to declare that Call of Duty: Black Ops might have the best single-player campaign in the series, my timeline immediately became contorted with posts of outrage and confusion. I remember thinking at the time of the game’s release that many people I know and respect didn’t seem to be having as much fun with it as I was, but even in hindsight it seems that for some reason Black Ops left a particularly sour taste in a lot of people’s mouths.
My good friend and colleague here, Daniel Hart, expressed to me his various concerns with the game, and he made several valid arguments. He felt that the bombastic action scenes could have been spaced out and punctuated with more thoughtful character moments. He suggested that the game constantly wrenching control away from the player was done at the expense of interactivity and immersion. He thought that the campaign had potential for greatness, but needed to be expanded and lavished with the same care as the multiplayer for people to really and truly care about it.
All of these things are, in some degree or another, perfectly true. The general consensus is that the campaign plays it a little too “safe”. It doesn’t offer anything new or develop the tried-and-tested formula in any meaningful way. It certainly doesn’t provide a gameplay experience we haven’t seen before. But I would argue that besides the undeniably admirable level of refinement and polish, Black Ops really does succeed as a single-player experience in a way that other games in the series have not.
Primarily, Black Ops is the first Call of Duty title which actually goes out of its way to weave a compelling narrative. Alex Mason, the player-character, begins the game strapped to a chair, under interrogation. He knows something that a blaring, unidentified robotic voice is eager to learn, something in his past, something involving numbers, a code, a secret. Already, Black Ops has asked more dramatic questions in its first five minutes that the rest of the series combined.
This setup functions as a narrative framing device, leading Mason to revisit decades of classified “black” operations in various conflicts around the globe. These flashbacks are the typical missions we might play in any Call of Duty instalment, but they are more interesting, inventive and clearly-defined here than they have ever been in the past. That Mason is recalling several years of his life as a soldier in the Studies and Observations Group during one of the most turbulent periods of American history – the Cold War – only gives Treyarch an excuse to deliver more variety and intrigue in the environments, objectives and styles of play than they were ever able to while confined within the Second World War. Infinity Ward’s Modern Warfare trilogy is no longer constrained by this time period either, but in Black Ops Treyarch’s focus on recognizable periods in history – the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Vietnam War – lends something to the experience which the Modern Warfare series seems to be missing. We’re talking about a game here that has you assassinating Fidel Castro in the first ten minutes.
The Call of Duty series has been doing the cinematic action set-pieces better than anyone for a long time, but never with a cohesive story really bringing those moments together. Black Ops could easily be a Hollywood blockbuster, and this isn’t as much to the game’s detriment as one might think. I love action movies, I love action-packed video games, and any kind of crossover between the two isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Black Ops never stops feeling like a video game, but occasionally it feels like a really great movie too. I’m not opposed to that at all.
Problems begin to arise when the filmic conceits overpower those of the video game, and Black Ops certainly has a little of this. It partially goes back to what Daniel was saying about the sacrifice of interactivity in favour of scripted moments being potentially damaging, but it manifests itself in other ways too, particularly in the infinitely respawning enemies. This is a problem that the Call of Duty series has always had; throwing enemies at the player continuously in order to create a cinematic warzone is a great idea in theory, but it doesn’t work in a video game, especially on the higher difficulties. In a film, the same impression can be created by sheer numbers, dressing up hundreds if not thousands of extras in uniforms, putting fake guns in their hands and having them mill around not really doing anything. In a game, those extras all need to be doing something to make the cost and effort of programming them worth the money and time, and in Call of Duty it’s shooting you. All of them, all the time, forever.
To its credit, Black Ops doesn’t have this issue anywhere near as frequently as some of the other games in the series, but it’s definitely there and is undeniably a problem. One of the Vietnam missions in particular had me stuck for close to an hour before I realized exactly where I needed to be standing in order to cut off the spawn.
The Call of Duty series has always favoured quantity over quality when it comes to enemy AI. There are many people who think the series would benefit from adopting the Halo method, which is to put a smaller number of very smart, adaptive enemies into a particular arena and let the player approach the situation how they see fit. This is an interesting idea, but it doesn’t fit the pace and cinematic, action-heavy focus of the Call of Duty series. Which is where the real questions begin to arise, because as gamers are we satisfied to settle for dumbed-down interactive elements just to enjoy the non-interactive elements a little more?
The fact remains though: Black Ops isn’t here to radicalise the genre. This is iteration at its finest. Treyarch wanted to deliver a varied, interesting and accessible campaign with a focus on crafting a familiar experience at an incredibly high standard, and they succeeded in that with commendable style and vigour. Call of Duty is, and probably always will be, a primarily multiplayer franchise, but Black Ops is the first version of that franchise to really make a credible attempt at being something more. If the Black Ops campaign isn’t the best of the series, it’s certainly the most important.