I just replayed Call of Duty: Black Ops for the first time in years this week. Actually, it’s technically my first time really playing it – I grew up in a home where I didn’t have Call of Duty (or really any FPS games for a long time) so I had to eagerly await going to my best friend’s house to shoot nazis/terrorists/spetsnaz on his PlayStation. While he and I had both loved World at War and Modern Warfare, he hadn’t enjoyed Black Ops as much so we didn’t play it as often.
I know that Black Ops has quite a few critics – many didn’t like it, especially after the success of MW2. Nonetheless, I was intrigued by the game. It had an interesting plot, a not-often-seen setting, and some pretty interesting levels. Why not give it a shot?
All in all, Black Ops is an enjoyable game. It’s not perfect, but it delivers the high-octane, heart-pounding, fun that it promises. What I found really interesting is that the greatest strength of the campaign (for me) was the very thing that so many people have criticized about the game: linearity and lack of control.
There’s a level in the game called “U.S.D.D.” (technically a level, really an extended cutscene) where your character, Mason, is guided through the Pentagon to meet JFK. It’s a pretty long scene, and you can’t do much other than look around. To many, this level shows off everything wrong with Call of Duty, and maybe with AAA games in general: controlled storytelling, railroading the player through a bunch of scenery. But I actually think that this level uses its control very well because the control is used to emphasize the themes of the game. Black Ops is largely about control and being controlled. It’s about paranoia and doubt. U.S.D.D. sets this up really well because the whole time Mason is being controlled, you the player are also being controlled. There’s a part of the level where the camera suddenly switches to third person for a bit, but then returns to first person. At first I thought that it was a lazy, unnecessary, confusing touch, but the more I thought about it, the more it makes sense. Mason is suspicious and feels like he is being watched. By moving to third person the game makes the player complicit in that: you are not just being Mason, you are watching him. And he doesn’t know it.
I will admit that there are still issues with the game. The levels have some excellent set-pieces, but for all their grandeur they can feel unnecessarily small. There’s also that frustrating CoD trope of killing the boss with a quicktime/cutscene (although I do appreciate that they subvert it once by giving you a gun that turns out to be unloaded). So, yeah, there are problems. I’m just saying that maybe Black Ops tried to take the problems that CoD was facing and tried to turn those problems into something interesting. And, on some level, I think that they succeeded. Perhaps this attempt at turning a negative into a positive had the unfortunate effect of normalizing these mechanics of control so that they are over-used, or maybe it is just an interesting anomaly in a trend that started long before it was released, but either way Black Ops shows us that players don’t need absolute freedom all the time to make an interesting game.