If you’re not given the satisfaction of accomplishment, much less feeling immersed, does any of it even matter?
Spoilers for Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 follow. Proceed with caution.
Level with me: I know that the Call of Duty series, especially with the events of Modern Warfare 2 onward, is considered complete bullshit. Heck, even the first Modern Warfare had a story that was tough to buy. Black Ops, developed by Treyarch, though had a different vibe altogether. It was more cinematic, but it felt darker, more graphic, almost establishing its own style in spite of the Call of Duty tag that it held. We saw similar shades in the stellar World at War.
Aside from the headache inducing cut-scenes, the weird plot twist and the lackluster final mission (let’s not even talk about the PS3 and PC bugs), it was believable. I could believe in all this, no matter how bizarre it all was. Rather, because of the numbers game that Alex Mason had to play, the sheer absurdity of the game made it believable.
That’s an essential aspect of video games: suspension of disbelief. It’s a fancier way of saying that you’re so immersed in the universe, reality doesn’t interfere with the experience. The wall between playing a game and sitting there, holding a controller in your hand, going through the motions, doesn’t come tumbling down, Jericho-style.
After playing a few missions of Treyarch’s Call of Duty: Black Ops 2, the game that sold $500 million in 24 hours, billed as being the one COD separate from others, the one game where they stuck motion tracking dots on horses in a studio just to get the authentic riding feel (for one mission, mind you), I’m convinced those walls have indeed crumbled. If anything, Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 makes me question all first person shooters before it, and how many of them truly immersed, knowing what I now know.
It all begins with the first mission. Keep in mind that the story doesn’t interest me much. And thankfully, Treyarch realizes this, introducing one little aspect at a time, rather than beating me over the head with exposition. Woods, a character from the previous game, is old now and he espouses on each mission beforehand, his testimonies being recorded by some high-tech camera thingamajig (because it’s the future!). Sometimes you get a full-fledged cut-scene, especially in between missions and after experiencing most of everything this franchise has to offer in plot terms via mission briefings and first person real-time events, it’s a nice change of pace.
And then the missions begin.
The first one made me a tad uncomfortable portraying a white man gunning down tons of Africans. It was rote COD style of gameplay at this point until I was informed that we had them on the run. So aboard the vehicle I hop for some drive-by shooting when I take a look at the retreating crowd of enemy soldiers.
They all look the same.
Let me explain.
Other first person shooters have their enemies decked out in military clothing. That means we get very little by way of distinguishing features, if everyone sticks to strict military protocol. If you send a ton of Russian troops after me, or even a bunch of Helghast soldiers, I will have an easier time believing they are unique from one other. Simply because the uniform is the one unifying factor, the one aspect that’s supposed to convey the meaning of “army” – a single overwhelming entity, rather than a collection of smaller entities.
But here, the Africans all have the same white sleeveless shirts, the same trousers, the same running animations – I swear, even the back of their heads looked the same. And just like that, I was aware that I was playing a game.
Another example is the mission that followed our rescue of Woods, wherein we had to find Raul Menendez’s secret laboratory pad and discover what he was up to. Menendez, by the way, is quite an interesting villain. His motives might be stupid but he’s got this aura of menace that past COD antagonists could have definitely benefited from.
The first thing that struck me was how on-rails everything was. From swinging my partner across cliffs, to clinging on to them with futuristic gloves, to wing suit gliding and just trying to navigate left or right every now and then before deploying the chute to land – every thing just felt… boring. Then we had to take on some camouflaged dudes, commandeer a turret to waste them and infiltrate the base. The weapons at this point were interesting, despite the AI being kind of average overall. You gain your own camouflage suit plus some modified weaponry that shows you each of your foes, no matter where they’re hiding. A literal invitation saying “shoot here!”
I look at Far Cry 3’s camera and marking system, wherein you zoom in on different locations and mark enemy positions. These markers stay persistent and allow you to see enemies through walls, no matter where you are. But it’s not an aim-assist. The enemies aren’t any dumber for it. The only advantage you have is of knowing where they are, before they know where you are.
Not so in Black Ops 2. And the overall structure of the mission, complete with it’s bland textures and boring characters made me want to point the virtual barrel my way and take a shot.
And then we come to the horse riding mission, arguably the one single aspect of the game that made me bemoan firing a gun at all.
It’s an interesting, open-world mission where you’re racing from one point to another, fulfilling objectives. You’ll be racing through, crushing bad guys, fighting alongside the Afghan army and Chinese alike, taking out tanks and Hind helicopters, seizing ammo caches, and ultimately going all “high ho silver” when the biggest gun rolls around. For a studio that spent money on motion tracking a horse, the impression I got was of being on a floating disc, hyper-actively travelling from one destination to another. Nothing feels like it makes a difference – you’re just plodding from one location to another, trying to do something before hauling ass to another.
But the shooting. Oh, the shooting.
Maybe it’s the weapon sound effects. Or the AI. Or the overall scenario I’m doing things in. Or maybe it’s just me. But there is no satisfaction whatsoever to the gun play. Enemies are toppled, just to replaced by others. Not a single gun battle feels memorable. I can remember trying to defend diners and out-maneuver Predator drones in Modern Warfare 2. I can remember leaping across roof tops on a stormy night in Black Ops. Hell, I can even remember evacuating the Eiffel Tower, only to see it come down in Modern Warfare 3.
But not a single encounter thus played – because any more would have been torture – felt real. Felt alive. Felt like it could be believed. It just felt like a carnival shooting stand, with the guns shooting corks and the targets falling accordingly. Except those targets looked better compared to Black Ops 2’s amazingly bland graphics.
Maybe Zombies would have been more fun. Maybe multiplayer’s competitiveness could have gotten me involved. Maybe it’s just the single-player and the continuing dilution of this formula into something awful, leading to the next COD to be multiplayer-only.
But what else is there to say when the biggest release of the year can’t be bothered to immerse you in, much less convince you of, all this epicness happening, before you stop and realize that it’s all a gigantic waste of time, if not an affront to every single first person shooter ever?