***WATCH OUT: MAJOR SPOILERS THROUGHOUT THIS REVIEW***
The “Call of Duty” franchise has got to be the most popular and highest grossing video game series, right up there with HALO. As most gamers know that series mostly takes place during WWII settings, however the “Modern Warfare” games moved the time line up to near future Special Operations missions. With these games the player fulfills the role of SAS commandos and Army Rangers in a variety of locations like Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia. The latest edition to the series takes place during the cold war, starting off with the Bay of Pigs invasion before moving into Vietnam.
This review will focus mostly on the plot elements, I’ll leave the game play reviews for the real hardcore gamers out there. Besides, the plot aspects seem more relevant to the content of this blog and are traditionally understated in other game reviews. For the non-gamers out there, the Call of Duty games are highly cinematic with lots of choreographed action scenes that the player participates in from a first person point of view. It’s basically like living out a action adventure novel or movie…and I’m here to tell you that Black Ops has a better story and better action then the vast majority of novels and virtually any movie.
The game opens with a bleary eyed man waking up in an interrogation room. You are strapped to the chair, light in your eyes, shadowy figure in the background drilling you with questions through a voice modulator, all while delivering electric shocks to help “jog your memory.” This gets the player involved with lots of questions about how he ended up here and throughout the game you flipflop several times as to who you suspect has captured you. The game plays nicely on cold war paranoia. From here the protagonist begins to have flashbacks associated with the interrogator’s questions. This plot device carries you through almost the entire story.
The first mission involves the protagonist, named Mason, having his safe house blown in Havana and trying to escape just before the Bay of Pigs invasion. Mason and his team mates are apparently members of Operation 40, the real life group of CIA assassins connected to all manner of subterfuge in those days. A run and gun mission during the actual Bay of Pigs invasion has you raiding Fidel Castro’s villa and assassinating him…of course this turns out to be a double and Mason is captured only to be sold off to the Soviets.
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From here we find Mason in a gulag somewhere in Russia. He and another inmate named Reznov stage a prison break. Mason escapes but Reznov doesn’t make it. The game proceeds through missions with the Studies and Observation Group (SOG) in Vietnam in the middle of the Tet offensive. One complaint is that a lot of those missions seemed like standard fare from other games set in Vietnam. I would have liked to have seen more of the type of missions that SOG actually carried out behind enemy lines.
Through the series of flashbacks the player continues fighting through Hue City, Hong Kong, Kazakhstan (the Cosmodrome in fact) and more. The Hong Kong mission has actually drawn some fire from critics who didn’t like a torture scene where a CIA agent shoves a piece of broken glass in a dude’s mouth and proceeds to punch him in the face…ouch. As the game progresses, Mason’s sanity is repeatedly called into question. In one scene where he meets with JFK he has visions of himself pointing a gun at the president. What was he subjected too while imprisoned in Russia? Is he a Manchurian candidate? While this is going on Mason’s interrogator continues to question him about “number stations.”
The central theme of the story revolves around a plot by the Soviets to launch a chemical weapons attack against the US using a weapon created by a captured Nazi scientist. Mason teams of with an apparently still living Reznov to assassinate the Nazi scientist. This is when Mason’s delusions finally catch up with him. While in the Gulag the Soviets brain washed him to kill JFK…however, Reznov was able to interfere with the process, programming Mason to seek revenge on the Russian leaders who had betrayed him during the war.
With the protagonist pulled wildly in two opposite directions he is something of a functioning schizophrenic…with lots, and lots, of guns. Throughout the ’60s he is working as a CIA contractor helping them conduct missions in Vietnam and the Soviet satellite states. Other times he is completely off the reservation, doing the bidding of Reznov’s voice echoing somewhere in his mind. The game ends with Mason seeming to break out of his programming and teaming back up wit the Agency to deliver a world class ass kicking to the commies before they can launch their plot. However, in the closing segment of the game we see some black and white stock footage of JFK, with Mason watching from a nearby crowd to insinuate that in fact he did assassinate the president.
In the end I really enjoyed the game. The action is fast and brutal and the missions are a literal blast. I did find that they could have toned down the number of vehicles used in the game. It seemed like every mission you end up in a truck with a Dishka or in a Hind D over North Vietnam. What was really disappointing was a mission where you spot bad guys for a CIA strike team from a SR-71 Blackbird. In previous games you got to blast huge amounts of bad guys as the gunner on a AC-130 gunship. Compared to that, the Blackbird mission came off as being really lame and unnecessary.
One more thing I want to add is that I thought the plot was very original and refreshing. We’ve all seen Vietnam games and movies about Manchurian Candidates but this was a different take on it and combined these ideas in a way we’ve never really seen before. Frankly, this kind of experience makes older forms of media seem very passe and uninteresting…its no wonder that so few people go to the movies and people are unsubscribing from cable television in droves. The plots are boring, the writers write for the lowest common denominator. If you think I’m kidding take a look at Black Ops, Mass Effect 2, or the Assassin’s Creed games. Games are telling stories in new ways and I don’t see Hollywood, or the print media ever getting their audiences back.