Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Cordis Die! Initial Thoughts on the Black Ops 2 SP Campaign



I knew there was going to be something special about the single player campaign in Black Ops 2 when the game began with this emotionally powerful video:


Indeed, it seems that such intense emotional energy is the driving force behind the entire BlOps 2 story, not surprising when David S. Goyer, co-writer of The Dark Knight Rises, has penned the script. 


Unlike other iterations of the Call of Duty series where the villain is motivated to destroy the world just because he can - a plot failing that CoD seems to have inculcated from mainstream Hollywood - this time around the bad guy, Raul Menendez, is a flesh and blood character motivated out of both love and loss. Indeed, I have found those moments where the player is put into the shoes of cyber-terrorist Menendez to be some of the most engaging sequences I have ever experienced in a game (is this ability to see things from the villain's perspective a first for a CoD game?). Hope and despair, vengeance and sympathy, indeed, the gamut of human emotional frailty is the beating heart of Black Ops 2, hence the Cordis Die ("Heart Day") theme that penetrates the story in both a tangible and metaphorical fashion (fire as a metaphor also makes a repeated appearance - some interesting subtext there).

Make no mistake about this: the plot in Black Ops 2 is a singular achievement. It is a riveting tale not of Michael Bay explosions, but of men at war who, through not fault of their own, find themselves on the sharp end of world events, and can only "roll with the punches" as best they can. These aren't action heroes, but imperfect people forced to act to achieve what are, at best, nebulous ends. For that reason alone I am finding it to be a refreshing experience.

Now, some have complained that the game's many flashbacks to the pivotal events of the 1980s muddle what should have been a pure futuristic shooter experience, a Treyarch produced Syndicate, if you will. While I understand that attitude, I do not agree with it. To begin with, as a Gen Xer, I am really enjoying revisiting that decade. It is a refreshing change of pace from the Baby Boomer obsession with all things Kennedy and Vietnam. Instead, we get to see Afghanistan and Col. Oliver North, the Contras and Miguel Noriega. What a breath of fresh air for a campaign setting! But in addition to this nostalgic reasoning, I also see the crucial importance of having the gamer revisit this iconic decade so as to better understand the motivations of the key actors in Black Ops 2. Without these oft tragic flashbacks - BlOps 2 is an unrelentingly dark game, something that should please anyone who enjoys "mature" storytelling - the game's narrative would not be nearly as powerful as it is.  

What is more, these visits to the gritty past also serve to add some wonderful contrast to Black Ops 2's presentation of the future.  Because we get to see how how far technology has jumped in just the last few decades (we've come a long way, baby!), Black Ops 2 cyberpunk future doesn't seem as far fetched as it otherwise might.  Instead, it seems like a natural outgrowth of the past - just as it is in the real world. 

But this does come at a price. While playing the SP campaign, I have noticed a definite tension between story and gameplay. Indeed, there are more than a few moments where the player is strangely passive for such a high octane shooter, where the devs seemed at a loss for a way to actually incorporate some gameplay mechanics into a lengthy narrative sequence (Treyarch Dev #1: "OMG! The gamer hasn't had to do anything for the last five minutes! We need to squeeze in some gameplay!" Treyarch Dev #2: I know! Have him hit 'S' to swim to shore! It won't be fun, but at least he will still feel involved!" Yeah, I suspect that was an actual conversation during one portion of the game's development.). As I have discussed elsewhere, this is the great Achilles' heel of telling a story via a game: if the gamer is playing, the story isn't developing in a meaningful way, but if the story is developing, the gamer isn't playing in a meaningful way. Why? Because all good stories are told to you. If you are invited into the telling, thereby making the story a collaborative effort, the story always suffers as a result - too many cooks in the kitchen, and all that. So, there is that minor flaw to Black Ops 2 gameplay. However, I think it is a testament to the strength of the narrative that this is the first Call of Duty title where I could actually see this game being made into a live action movie. All the elements are there for an absolutely riveting tale of personal tragedy, the frightening possibilities of technology, and "deep black" warfare in the not too distant future.

P. W. Singer, military futurist and author of Wired for War, has also contributed to Black Ops 2 story, and it shows. At last we have a game that isn't afraid to abandon the threadbare Ruskies as the primary villain (really, BF3? Again?), nor resorts to the equally tired generic Middle Eastern jihadist out to control the world's oil. Instead, we have what I believe to be a very accurate portrayal of a future world obsessed with rare earth elements, and a Russia/China alliance to dominate that market at all costs (didn't I forecast that thaw in relations after the surprising events of 2008?). Into this prescient geopolitical landscape BlOps 2 mixes in a healthy dose of cyberpunkish / social media / popularist uprising elements that makes the setting seem thoroughly believable. Indeed, I find myself wishing that the somewhat under-performing Deus Ex: Human Revolution had such a well developed future for its setting. In fact, the more I think about it, the more I realize that this is the game DXHR should have been.

The gameplay is as tight as ever, with the player finding himself deployed on missions that, despite what naysayers might have you believe, still retain a patina of real world spec ops. Snatch and grabs, assisting guerrilla leaders, stealthy surveillance missions, and, of course, full blown battles...its all in there. Not only are these missions thoroughly enjoyable, but I think Treyarch managed to 'up' the epic-ness of them, something I suspect is partially achieved by BlOps DX11-fired PC graphics:


The sound is also excellent.  Weaponry has the necessary 'pop' that Modern Warfare 3 strangely lacked, and the music score, composed by Nine Inch Nails frontman Trent Reznor, is suitable weighty:


Mr. Reznor remarked:

"What I learned in listening to the full story and the amount of effort that has gone into the back story and the characters and the full preparation there is a lot of reservation and angst and sense of loss and regret and anger bubbling under the surface. So it didn't make sense to have a gung ho, patriotic feeling theme song. It has to feel weighty. There is a lot of remorse and apprehension here."

The voice acting is fantastic, as well.  While most big budget games these days enjoy good voice acting, I find BlOps2 to be a cut above the rest, meeting what would be expected from a star-laden live action movie.  It is that good.


The one point of campaign gameplay that I am a bit disappointed in, however, are the much touted Strike Force missions. These are those Rainbow Six-styled missions where the player can take control of an entire force and give orders and/or take control of individual units. It works just fine, and I love how it affects the narrative of the game, but in truth these are little more than a type of tower defense mini-game where the player has X amount of minutes to achieve an objective, such as defending a base from repeated wave attacks by the AI. As such, these are not thoughtful encounters as in a typical session of Rainbow Six, but frenetic battles that feel more arcade-ish than tactical in nature. They are fun, but not the involving experience I hoped they would be. However, I suspect that these missions represent Treyarch putting their collective big toe in some unknown waters, and I think we will see this mechanic become increasingly developed in future CoD titles.

So, those are my initial thoughts on the SP campaign in Black Ops 2. I am definitely impressed. Indeed, contrary to my experience with other CoD titles whereby the SP campaign is just a break from the MP for me, I can't wait to get back into this campaign and see how the story further develops. That, alone, seems to signify just what an accomplishment this title is proving to be. 

I think it is now safe to say that Black Ops 2 definitely has the cordis so many other titles struggle to obtain but fail to achieve. Well done, BlOps 2.

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