Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Call of Duty: Black Ops review

I played some multi-player on the PS3 a few months back, I was OK (about half my games I wasn't in last place). A few days ago (right after finishing Killzone 2) I started the single-player campaign on the XBox 360, I finished it in a couple of days. I'm not going to talk about the online-multiplayer, instead my review is focused around the single player campaign.

The first Call of Duty game I played was a demo for Call of Duty 2. I enjoyed the demo; the controls were good, graphics were fine, and most importantly you started off with the Lee-Enfield Number 4. With full 10-round magazine and authentic reload animation using two stripper clips (or just the one if you had 5 rounds or more still in the magazine - how cool is that?). I then played the first Modern Combat, and I loved it. Then of course came the second Modern Combat. I despised it.

If it hadn't been so popular and literally broken world sales records, I would merely have hated it. If I had played on normal rather than hard, I probably would have simply not liked it very much, who know?. But as it was I hated it. It's relevant to this game to mention the main reasons why I disliked it, the biggest would have to be the "red-screen-of-death". I call it that not because your screen goes red when you're dying, but because when your screen goes red you can't see anything and this generally causes you to die. It's not just a light uniform red, the screen goes dark and is covered in blood splatters, making it even harder to see. And like in Killzone 2, the red screen made it hard to see the red directional damage indicators, though I feel it wasn't quite as bad because the damage indicator was a bar rather than a tiny blood splatter. Playing on hard difficulty, as soon as you get shot the screen turns red and you lose the ability to see the enemy shooting at you. In many if not most levels the enemies are wearing camoflage and hiding behind cover. Typically the instant you step into their line of sight you get shot, so now it really is impossible to tell where they are and where you were shot from, so you have to backpedal and hope to reach cover before you die. Then you have to cautiously step out and hope to catch a glimpse of movement or muzzle flash before you're blinded and have to duck back into cover again. Now you have to try to roughly line up the shot before you step out, leave cover and quickly try to line up the sights on the few pixels of exposed enemy before you're blinded again. Now, after you've recovered again, step out and fire blindly in the hope that you've hit him, ducking back if you're not on target properly. Repeat until the enemy dies. Now repeat the whole process for the next enemy, ad infinitum.

Then there's the constant loss of control. In the first Modern Warfare there was a level where the only control you had was to look around. Your character was driven across war-torn streets then executed. It was a very powerful scene, and I was impressed. There were also a few moments when you had no or very limited control, most notably in the ending sequence. This also worked very well and had a powerful impact. Modern warfare 2, however was so full of scripted scenes where you're helpless and someone has to save you that I grew absolutely sick of it. Taking control away from the player is a big deal, you have to be careful about doing it. They were not careful. It seems they saw it as one of the reasons the first was so successful, so they crammed in as many sit-back-and-watch-yourself-be-a-wuss moments as they could.

The strange thing is that Black Ops has many of the same problems as Modern Warfare 2, and yet I enjoyed the game far more. Some of it may be just me; I was expecting a lot of scenes where I wouldn't have any control so I had resigned myself to it, and I was playing on medium difficulty so I wasn't instantly blinded by the very first shot that my near invisible enemies made. But I think some of it was caused by the fact that I just found the plot far more enjoyable and the characters more interesting.

I can't say conclusively, but I do feel that the red screen effect was toned down slightly. At any rate, I found it to be far less troublesome than in Killzone 2 - certainly the environments were far, far more colourful and the enemies stood out better (and had more variety) which just made it much easier to see when wounded. Plus I think they spent less time behind cover and more time relocating and even charging the player than in MW2, which not only solved the problem of trying to shoot camouflaged enemies behind cover, it made the game more dynamic.

Concerning the loss of control, Black Ops was even worse than Modern Warfare 2 - I actually believe that a good half of the playtime involves you having no or little control (I am however including the cutscenes in this estimate). Furthermore, the game alternates between scenes where you can only look around and scenes where you can't even do that, which I find perplexing and consider to be a mistake - especially when it moves smoothly between these scenes so one moment you have no control and the next you have a little but you don't realise it because there was no indication, or one moment you can move your head around and see what's happening but then it focuses in on someone's face and you have no control at all.

But somehow it all works better. Perhaps it's the fact that the game starts off with you tied down, and keeps coming back to it between levels, so it sets the mood right from the bat - you're not in control of your destiny here. Maybe it's something to do with the greater variety in these set pieces - you're not just falling and being caught and pulled up over and over, or the way that they felt less like a result of your failure for not jumping far enough and more a result of events that are truly out of your control. Perhaps it's the fact that the story is interesting and many of these scenes are in fact important story points, so you want to watch and find out what's happening. Maybe it's the fact that the game jumps back and forth in time, so many scenes feel like playing out memories and we intrinsically accept that things are going to turn out a certain way, making it less frustrating when we lose control. In fact, while jumping between characters in MW and MW2 sometimes broke the flow of the plot and made it feel a little disjointed, in Black Ops when it does this it is describing events that have already happened (and it jumps between characters that we know and have fought alongside rather than someone completely different on the other side of the world) so not only is it more interesting to finally play as this character, it also flows better and feels more like filling in the gaps.

As I mentioned before the story is more interesting, it's told in a more engaging fashion, keeps you guessing the whole way, escalates nicely to create a real sense of menace near the end, and in fact I just found it more plausible than that of Modern Warfare 2. The characters are interesting and likable, maybe it's thanks to all the time spent on exposition rather than gameplay that we get to know them better. Perhaps there's something to be said for how it manages to get across to the player the sense of obsession and confusion that the protagonist himself is feeling - honorable mention goes to the scene where numbers start flying out of the walls. And the Fight-Club bit worked well too, especially as you actually play through the events, sometimes from different viewpoints.

The gameplay is classic Modern Warfare - quick and brutal, well-polished (other than the red screen nonsense). The game was set in the time of the Vietnam war, which alone is unusual in games. Fortunately it meant that most of the weapons we are familiar with were available. There was vast range of submachine guns, assault rifles, machine guns, pistols, sniper rifles, shotguns, and a few special weapons available. What it really translated to was the standard modern-day FPS weapons, but in a number of configurations that created a little variety. All were well executed, although I found red-dot and reflex sights were not clear and preferred iron sights, in contrast to the original Modern Warfare. Honourable mention goes to the SPAS12 with incendiary ammo, which is an absolute beast - just wave it in the enemies' general direction and they die in droves, it's just insane really. Levels are varied and well designed, directed but not "narrow". They are also quite colourful at times. This is a big deal actually; it helps buck the recent trend towards everything being coloured in shades of grey and brown. The vibrant greens and blues of the forests are a welcome change.

There's certain things about the Call of Duty games that aren't always to my tastes, namely the squad-based gameplay. It creates a very dramatic experience, it really feels like you're in a real war, there's a strong sense of importance and urgency. Which is sometimes the problem. I always feel I have to rush forwards and carry my weight, after all I can't let my friends do it alone. But this inevitable leads me to run forwards carelessly and get killed, I have to force myself to move forwards slowly, stick to cover, be methodical and careful even if that feels contrary to the tone of the situation. Another thing is the way that you start every level with a specific weapons loadout, personally I've always preferred it when you had some control over your weapons so you can stick with (and perhaps even upgrade) your weapon. But it makes sense in the context of the narrative, and you do get your own weapons to upgrade and dress up in the multiplayer, so I can't complain.

Although, I will complain about the fact that you have exactly two weapons, whether they are pistols or longarms, even though there no logical reason why you would need to drop your backup pistol to pick up a rifle. I know it's a gameplay issue, but it gets on my nerves a little. Especially since there's times when you pull out a pistol anyway even though you clearly didn't have one before (or even pull out a knife, when at other times a knife is a selectable weapon). In fact there a set piece where you pull out a pistol that's empty - I never used it, so why would I be carrying an empty pistol? It's not a bid deal, but it's just one of the things I like to point out.

In my review of Killzone 2 I complained about receiving orders while taking fire. In Black Ops you still receive instructions verbally in mid-level, but it's usually when you're not actually engaged in a firefight and more often the action would stop for a set scene that keeps you in the loop, so I didn't find it a problem (and it maintained the advantage of mid-level instruction, that is to keep things varied and engaging).

I will take this opportunity to mention that the AI sometimes get in your way and wouldn't move, and when a character had a scripted path or position they would simply walk in a straight line and push you out of the way - a little outdated compared to many modern games. There's quite a few differing gameplay sequences that help break up the action, including an interesting level where you alternate between direction a squad on the ground from inside a plane and actually controlling that squad. I quite liked the bit where you're crawling through tunnels armed with a revolver and flashlight - and you can turn off the flashlight.

While I don't want to talk about online multiplayer, I will mention the "Zombie" mode. It supports two player split screen, which I think is a very good thing (though personally I think all games should have a split-screen campaign so I don't give it that much credit), and it's an interesting diversion but it has serious balance issues. Up till the third wave it's still quite easy, but then the zombies suddenly start appearing faster that you can board up entry points and they're suddenly much tougher to kill - as you backpedal while frantically reloading and firing you always, always, always get killed from behind as the zombies suddenly start breaking through multiple entry points simultaneously. Because of this the games are always about the same length and it's very hard to make any progress. One tip: take the time to aim for the head, it makes a huge difference.

Overall I give it an 8 out of 10: fun, varied gameplay and a good story successfully overcome the game's few weaknesses.

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