CoD: Black Ops Review

Hi friend!

Atención! 4. 2. 8. 4. 7. 9. 1. 8. 3. 4…

Also, new theme time! Why does DisCONNECT change themes? Dunno. Don’t care! Get your fix of sarcasm right here.

Vaguely satanic.

Anybody who has an interest in shortwave radio should know of (and probably have listened to) numbers stations. For those who don’t know, a numbers station is a radio broadcasting station on shortwave frequencies which, at regular times, broadcasts a series of numbers. Typically a tone or quick message like “Attention!” is broadcast, followed by a stream of numbers. Here in Australia the only one I ever managed to pick up was a well known station in Cuba, which was voiced by a woman and would start with “Atención!” before reading out numbers in Spanish. Some stations use both numbers and letters. It’s highly likely (and in the case of the Atención station actually proven) that they’re used for broadcasting messages for spies. It’s a pretty good theory; shortwave radio reaches across long distances from a single transmitting station, and receivers are pretty inexpensive. The numbers themselves are probably tied to a one-time pad, which means that they’re valid only for one decoding pad and nothing else, making them very hard to decode. Since they can reach many operatives at once, don’t require much in the way of infrastructure outside of the broadcast station, and can only be stopped by high powered jamming attempts, the old shortwave technique is actually pretty damn good, even in an Internet world. For the record, shortwave’s propagation still makes it a good source of communication even in an internet age, especially for emergency applications. Even if the commercial broadcasters went silent (and they probably will, since most people use the Internet today), there would still be people transmitting on the bands simply because of the unique propagation properties.

Tunnel of love?

Now I’m sure you’re thinking “Gee Soldant, that’s pretty interesting, but what does it have to do with another CoD game?” Well, patient reader, the idea of numbers stations plays a big part in this CoD game. Right from the outset Mason, the player character, is haunted by a sequence of numbers that are to be broadcast from a station located Somewhere. Mason is being interrogated so that they can find out where the station is and what the numbers mean. Apparently this involves reliving all of Mason’s memories. Set in the Cold War during the 1960s, from the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba to Vietnam and on, CoD:BO is set in an interesting time period filled with intrigue, proxy wars, and Communists. Games had a bit of love for Vietnam in the early 2000s but we kind of got sick of it for some reason and moved on.

You heard the man.

Incidentally this time period also represents a time when weapons were built pretty much to kill outright as opposed to mostly wounding. All the classic weapons from that period (plenty of which are still in use today, so maybe they’re not so classic) are in the game, and all of them do obscene amounts of damage to the in-game models. Their actual damage output is pretty low in some cases, but they tear up the ragdolls like butter. Sometimes it doesn’t even make sense how they tear off limbs. Also there’s a sequence where you torture a doctor by shoving broken glass in his mouth. Now I know the kiddies who run around calling people “douche bag” will go “OH LOL MAN UP KEKEKE”, but I have a bit of a problem with some of the CoD:BO violence. Before you claim I’m weak willed when it comes to blood, know that I don’t mind violence when it’s done right. Also I’m a medic, so I see plenty of horrible injuries IRL. My problem is that BO’s violence is unnecessary, and in some cases doesn’t make sense. Violence for the sake of violence (like Manhunt, which I class as a piece of shit) isn’t cool unless you’re 14. BO’s violence crosses that line, IMO. I don’t think it’s quite as bad as some people make it out to be, but the torture sequence is a bit much. There doesn’t even seem to be any need for the glass-in-mouth routine. The doctor joins you as if it never happened right afterwards. What a load of pointless, pretentious, “edgy” bullshit. If you’re going to put moralistic stuff like that in, it’s better to give player a choice.

Deliverance!

Anyway, rant aside, what you get is standard CoD gameplay; run around with a squad, kill guys, get to the next game trigger and repeat. The CoD series have been known for the more cinematic aspects of their dramatised wars; in CoD it was pretty much anything the Russians were in, in COD4 it was the nuke, in MW2 it was another nuke… in BO, it’s… um… well… I’m not sure. There’s nothing really in BO that made me go “Oh wow, that’s so awesome.” At least not until the ending, where there’s a bit of a twist. The twist isn’t too bad but if you’re paying attention you’ll notice it. It’s not quite as good as “Would you kindly…?” but it’s not as obvious as some other games. Apart from that though there are no real sequences which make you think that something monumental has happened. At least they didn’t put yet another nuke into the game, just the threat of nukes. I guess if they’d put a nuke in, the Cold War would have gone hot, and the the Modern Warfares would never have happened. There’s one sequence where you fly in an SR-71 Blackbird and command a squad from the air, but it’s ultra short and the game swaps between the squad and the pilot. Before you know it, it’s all over.

Since when was I playing HAWX?

Another problem I have with this is battle fatigue. I use that term to refer to games that never give you a break. Doom 3 was one example; you always had to kill something, and the breaks between fights were pretty small. Half Life 2 on the other hand gives you some breaks where you solve a puzzle element, or maybe just look around for a bit. Valve have got it down to an art, and other games could learn from it; give your player regular breaks and you’ll keep them interested. The MW games do a decent job at this, because every so often you get to creep around or get to play out a sequence where you’re not fighting enemies non-stop, whether it’s crawling around in a radioactive wasteland or walking through city streets with no power in the middle of a storm. BO doesn’t give you any breaks at all, you’re pretty much always getting shot at or shooting at someone else. The few stealth sequences are a welcome break, as are the intermission periods where Mason talks to his captors. The missions themselves quickly become tiring though. Also, some of the cutscenes remove you from the player’s perspective entirely. In the MW games it never takes the camera away from the character’s eyes when something’s going on. It does this in BO though, and it does it too frequently. It breaks the immersion-factor and the transitions are jarring. Not at all what I’d expect from a CoD game.

Can't see shit, Captain.

Graphically the game looks good, but all of the MW games look good. Oddly enough the PC port seems to suffer from performance issues… on my i7 920, HD5850, 4GB RAM rig running Win7 x64, the framerate would occasionally drop to average 40, and at one point even 35 when looking in some directions on some maps. Given that the previous MW games have been excellent performers, I can’t see why this one would be any different. Not sure how they could mess that one up. It doesn’t look particularly different in the graphics department, so I can only assume that somebody made a big god damn mistake somewhere. Others have no problems, but with mid-high hardware like this and the series’ reputation for scalability, I don’t understand why there are weird FPS drops. Sound-wise the game is solid, the voice acting is good (except for a few terrible celebrity impressions, like President Kennedy) and the mixing is decent.

Intel's cleansuits before they were Intel.

There’s also a multiplayer mode which is more or less the standard CoD affair, but there are ways to play with bots. There’s also a Zombie survival mode. What the hell is it with zombies these days? I like a good zombie game, but this shit’s going too far now. It’s like developers sit around and go “This game needs something new… I know, let’s put some zombies in it!” Booooring. Also as another minor gripe, the checkpoints need to be better thought out. The other CoDs did a good job of this, but in BO if you get killed by a stray grenade or if you can’t move because the prone controls suck, quite often you’ll be kicked back about 2 battles before you make it up to the point where you died. Give me a break, if you’re not going to let me save on my own, at least give me some decent checkpoints.

Maybe BP should hire these guys for their oil rigs?

GRAPHICS: Good
The graphics are good but the engine plays up a bit, at least on my rig.

SOUND: Good
Good, except for a celebrity impression which sounds far more like Mayor Quimby than President Kennedy. I, er um, er, wasn’t too impressed with that, um er, impression.

GAMEPLAY: Pass
Honestly, the formula is getting a little old, and without any show pieces and breaks, it’s pretty tiring. There are some points where you just want it to be over. The storyline is somewhat interesting, but apart from that: you shoot people, the end.

REPLAY: Pass/Good
If you can’t get enough CoD MP, then you’ll buy this and nothing I can say will change your mind. If you don’t care about it, there’s limited replay value.

OVERALL: Pass.
I suppose my biggest problem with Black Ops is that we’ve seen it all before. As it stands, this is pretty yawn-tastic. The constant fighting just wears you out and there’s not enough breaks in the game to make you actually care about the combat. In other words, the pacing is totally off, but it does resolve a little more towards the end of the game. The storyline is somewhat entertaining and mostly makes sense, but it’s smothered by the constant firefights. If the game had better pacing, it’d be far more enjoyable.

In terms of telling a story focused on individuals, Black Ops does a pretty decent job. It’s a departure from the regular MW games where although your character has a name, it doesn’t really make a difference. Mason actually has a backstory, as do the others, and that’s pretty cool. But you can’t tell a decent story and throw combat non-stop at players; you have to give them a chance to reflect on what they’ve been told. And some parts of the story give you little frame of reference to tell you why you should really give a shit about what’s going on. They’re lost in the intense action sequences.

If you absolutely adore the CoD franchise you’ll buy Black Ops, and if you’re a 14 year old kid who won’t even pay attention to the story and loves these kind of shooting gallery games, you’ll love this one. But for the rest of us, I can’t help but think that a good opportunity was missed here to actually deliver a decent story. Instead it’s buried beneath a hail of bullets which becomes flat out boring.

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