A special series playthrough review – Part Four, The Black Ops Trilogy
So Modern Warfare as a trilogy was way better than I expected. Somewhere in this seemingly endless playthrough, is the game that turned me against CoD. WaW came close with its by-the-numbers gameplay and lack of story; the only good thing about that game was Reznov, and he’s in Black Ops. If this ruins CoD and Rez I’ll be pissed.
Black Ops I - CIA Operator Mason is strapped to a chair, an unseen interrogator screaming ‘what do the numbers mean’. Told in flashback, BO1’s 60’s real-world conspiracy theory plot sounds like an Oliver Stone movie. Numbers stations, MK Ultra, the Space Race, Nazi Scientists, the Kennedy Assassination, the CIA, the Bay of Pigs – we’re in a 60’s era Assassin’s Creed. I’m looking forward to this. Don’t fuck it up, CoD.
Mason begins his tale as he and fellow Operators Woods and Bowman infiltrate Cuba to assassinate Castro. Starting off easy then. And starting off well. We’ve got detailed cut-scenes, great art design and interesting characters right off the bat. The shooting is similar to MW and the sixties look and weaponry gives it a nice edge; it’s pressured and dramatic, plus I’m gunning for Castro which gives it a realer feel. I’m liking this. I feel a story coming on.
Mason gets captured by Red Army General Dragovich and we find ourselves in a gulag in the midst of a fist fight with an insane Russian demanding we hit him again. That sounds familiar … Reznov! The best thing in WaW is back in action and as insane as ever. Rez has an escape plan in mind. And in Mason’s mind. The two stage a daring and incredibly thrilling escape – we’re unarmed, vastly outnumbered and against the odds, just how Rez likes it. I am in The Great Escape; we’re even on motorbikes like the Cooler King, except while Mason escapes, Reznov doesn’t. Aww man.
Back in the CIA fold, Mason and his handler Hudson meet none other than JFK who gives us an off-the-books mission to kill Dragovich, who has a nerve agent. Red numbers fill the screen and Mason imagines holding a gun to JFK’s head. What the hell was that? Mason begins his private little war while Hudson is tasked with tracking down the nerve agent. It’s really nicely done, with Mason’s black op interfering with Woods and Bowman’s missions. They’re unaware of the depth of Mason’s hatred for Dragovich, but then even Mason’s unaware how deep that hate goes.
Yay! Rez re-escaped to begin his own revenge mission against Dragovich; playing as Rez, we get to see how he wound up in the gulag. He is a bit of a disappointment, I thought it would be like inhabiting a Russian Deadpool but it’s no different. Mason begins going off-mission to follow Rez but within the interrogation sequences we realise things aren’t quite what Mason thinks they are. We blast our way through a mission only for the interrogator to rip Mason’s recollections to pieces. But we just saw it? What do the numbers mean?!
I all-time-great loved this. This isn’t just the best CoD, it’s one of the best shooters I’ve ever played. The levels are all brilliant and never repeat themselves; and that’s because of their contribution to the story. Yes! A CoD with a strong, detailed plot. I knew it! It just gives the levels a grounding not just FPS intensity – Hudson outrunning Spetsnaz soldiers in Hong Kong slums, a detour through Viet Cong tunnels after getting tangled in the Tet Offensive, a mission to disrupt the Russian space race; they all have a narrative impact and intensify Mason’s interrogation - What happened to Mason? By now, even he’s not sure, and neither are we because we’re not just watching or shooting, we’re in it with him.
BO1 is the proof I was looking for; story in an FPS works. That we spend most of our time as Mason adds to the immersion and brilliantly, Hudson’s levels provide a counter-point to Mason’s, revealing more of the conspiracy; exactly how character-hopping should be. Most CoDs feature interchangeable heroes who are a small cog in a big machine, this time it’s all about Mason’s mystery and it makes all the difference.
BO1’s characterisation even extends to the NPCs; Rez is great as always, but Bowman and Woods (who has a great scene where, as POWs he and Mason are forced to play Russian Roulette and he screams “you can’t kill me!” before pulling the trigger) are believable allies, while Hudson is untrustworthy and likeable at the same time, constantly hidden behind his mirrored Aviators and stoic look.
B1I isn’t CoD with a sixties soundtrack; it’s so removed from their standard structure it’s almost a lie to call it CoD. No other CoD game digs this heavily into a character, gets inside his head – although it’s fairly crowded in there – or gets invested in a storyline. I can’t believe BO is part of the CoD assembly line. How can BOII top this?
Black Ops II shapes up to be an exploration of the Cold War, regime changes and meddling in the Middle East. But, BOII’s secret mission is to see the franchise back in the CoD fold.
So Woods survived BO1. His death, along with Bowman’s was caused by Mason’s obsessive quest for Dragovich; their deaths were on him and their sacrifices meant something. Is Bowman going to pop up complaining of a headache? Turns out Woods withstood the grenades, ended up in the Hanoi Hilton, escaped then got captured again - where he survived for weeks with no food or water. He wasn’t kidding when he said ‘you can’t kill me’.
Meanwhile, Mason had a child. And we have two plot lines; Mason Snr and Mason Jnr - Snr goes Rambo Part II to rescue POW Mason from a jungle, then Rambo III in Afghanistan before turning his attention to Panama. Meanwhile, Jnr is after terrorist Menendez, who in Snr’s timeline was a drug and gun peddler. Snr gamely shot him in the eye and Woods accidently blew up his sister, giving him the myopic focus to turn his criminal empire into an anti-US terrorist group and seeks revenge against the BO boys. It might be a subtle nod to how America creates its enemies, but BOII doesn’t really explore that – let alone BO1.
Apart from a Rez cameo that makes no sense and a red numbers moment, there’s nothing of BO1 here. Snr’s not a man with a mystery anymore or even on a Black Op; we’re in Afghanistan but avoid any of the obvious implications there, and we tangle with General Noriega but he’s just part of Menendez’s plan; it’s frustrating, all the more so because Jnr’s mission has no intrigue or conspiracy. It’s two separate games bound by the now standard sneering CoD villain who wants to trigger a war. Only the accent separates him from Makarov, Shephard or even Dragovich. I can feel CoD slipping into the generic.
As a shooter it’s great though, particularly in Jnr’s section; a fight through a flooded city avoiding drones, a hectic Humvee chase, a showdown in a floating hotel, burning Michael Rooker’s face off – or not; Black Ops now comes with moral choices. Choices that affect outcomes? How does that work with dual timelines? It doesn’t.
The whole concept is squandered – Snr’s timeline doesn’t alter Jnr’s narrative while in the future the choices just impact how well we do in the final battle – but you can’t anticipate or understand those choices so they’re not tactical, it’s coin flipping. Most insultingly, we play as Menendez - he’s been causing as much pain and destruction as possible and now we decide if he has a conscience? And then it makes no real difference anyway.
The main reason your choices don’t really have an impact is the Strike Missions. A sub-section of the future timeline, you can command bots, drones and men in battles against Menendez’s invasions. I ignore all of them because they’re terrible and not what I signed up for, but they have huge impact on how the final battle plays out. It just doesn’t make sense for Jnr to be pissing about playing Command and Conquer.
I really enjoyed BOII as a shooter but the irony here is there’s too much story. Snr has no real impact or narrative other than being messed about by Menendez and is effectively another CoD character-hop to provide filler. This is all about Jnr, and his story is standard CoD chase the bad guy stuff that comes across as a warm-up for the next wave of CoD. Woods, who in Snr’s timeline got shotgunned twice and left to bleed out (but of course survived) tells Jnr about Snr’s missions but we don’t gain any insight or edge on Menendez by listening to Grandpa Simpson-Woods when it should be choices we make as Snr alter the cut-scenes and how Jnr can operate.
In fact, BOII's future section would have made a great Ghosts II – just change Menendez to a brain-washed Logan and it would have worked insanely well. If BOII had just stuck to Mason’s murky missions in the Middle East or putting Noriega in power it would have worked fine too. Instead, BOII is classic FPS; you’re skipping cut-scenes and enjoying the spectacle. I ended up with the worst possible ending and didn't really care.
Still, I wanted story and there is one, and for the first time it was one we could influence. That’s something at least. Let’s see how BOIII handles my natural aptitude for bad choices.
Black Ops III - It’s 40 years later not that it matters, and we’re fighting the Common Defense Pact for earth’s resources, which doesn’t matter. My BOII choices didn’t matter either; BOIII ignores everything we did. What was the point of all that? WHAT THE HELL IS THIS?! It’s my first CoD rage quit.
Our Hero gets graphically ripped apart by robots from Infinite Warfare while trying to rescue a Prime Minster from the tutorial in Advanced Warfare. Rebuilt with cybernetics, Our Hero learns Cyber Ops from Robo-CO Taylor within a simulation of recent battles; we can use augmentations and are able to run along walls and make huge leaps; but not in originality.
Oh, here’s something new; you get upgrades to your suit that allows you to shoot secondary weapons out of your fingers - like fire and little bugs; or as I like to call them, PLASMIDS. The only game BOIII doesn’t rip off is BO.
Our pal Hendricks also goes along with cyber augmentation and together we become the last kids picked in PE. Hendricks and Hero are like some Cannon Films rip-off, Robotcop and we behave just like regular troops. Why am I in a specialist team if we’re not assigned to anything special? We’re supposedly doing wetwork but all we do is get dropped off and fight through a standard CoD level. Except this time, we can’t pick up other weapons; no more scrounging for a replacement, hazarding a shotgun over a sniper rifle, getting suspicious when you see RPGs just lying around. You get a loadout at mission start and stick with it. The Plasmids don’t change things up enough and half the time I forget I have them.
What’s frustrating is BOIII has a story and it has huge potential; it’s Robocop meets Vanilla Sky and it could have worked brilliantly if better developed - or been a great Advanced Warfare sequel (it’s basically AW reskinned); make the CDP into Atlas and the AI into Irons and drop the crappy end twist and it would have been awesome. A real frustration is we’re battling a Triad group who are pissy with the US after Nova-6, the gas from BO1 was released in China - by the CIA. You set that up then just ignore it? That’s Black Ops! Why aren’t we following that plot? Why isn’t Woods involved? The guy’s like Keith Richards, he’s bound to still be alive. So frustrating. Instead, we’re in every other CoD game we’ve played. It’s like the game refuses to be original even with all this story potential.
I’ve found the game that ruined CoD for me. No wonder I didn’t remember it, it’s every game I’ve already played, it’s the worst of CoD. But what really gets me to rage quit level is it’s unconnected to Black Ops I or II; Activision slapped Black Ops on this for the marquee value and that makes it the most cynical game I’ve ever played; Rage Quit.
How did we get from JFK to this? The series goes from a deep, complex, thrilling adventure to the most the basest level to ensure sales, plundering every ‘in’ thing to maximise the chance idiots like me will buy it and play mindlessly. The trilogy could have been a dark, mature series exploring patriotism; aka power. There are so many real covert and corrupt ops the BO sequels could have plundered; Oliver North appeared as himself in BOII – how do you not build on that?!
I don’t think I’ve ever been through so many gaming emotions – from a new GOAT game to a rage quit. Black Ops 1 should be considered alongside Half-Life, Bioshock, Mass Effect 2; it needs to be played. BOII and BOIII need to be redacted.
Up next, FBT chases Ghosts.