As many gamers know, the Call of Duty series in its original World War II setting was originally developed by Infinity Ward, who would trade off development responsibilities with Treyarch for later installments in the series, specifically Call of Duty 3 and Call of Duty: World at War. While Infinity Ward would expand the franchise beyond that most famous of wars of the twentieth century in its two more overtly fictitious Modern Warfare titles, Treyarch’s offerings have—up until now—remained within the boundaries of World War II conflicts.
While the franchise itself has been successful overall (to say the least) with both developers managing to release titles that sell in record numbers, it has been Infinity Ward that has tended to create games that garner the most media attention, both in terms of critical praise as well as controversy. The first installment of Modern Warfare, Call of Duty 4 was unique, not merely in terms of setting, but in its innovative use of the first-person perspective to create some truly compelling playing experiences. The initial shock in the game comes when the player’s first perspective on “modern warfare” is one in which the character whose eyes they are seeing through is assassinated.
First-person shooters are games about kicking ass and taking names, not meditations on death and helplessness, but Infinity Ward took advantage of what the genre typically offered the player in terms of experiences and turned conventionality on its head. From the experience of a nuclear blast from an immediate perspective to the weirdly distancing effect of bombing opposition in a game through a “real” bomber’s heads up display (which ironically resembles a game screen), Modern Warfare offered traditional first-person action alongside some unconventional framing of the experience of war. None of which even begins to touch on the furor evoked by the infamous “No Russian” sequence in their follow up to Modern Warfare, a sequence in which the player (in the role of a deep cover military agent) could choose to participate in a terrorist attack on an airport. Infinity Ward seems committed to provocation in a genre that is usually seen as pretty unexceptional and formulaic.
In a sense, it seems that Infinity Ward is more aware of the interactive medium itself, in terms of how it can be utilized to present unique experiences and to provoke through the manner in which those experiences become very personal to a player involved in a story rather than merely observing it as a viewer. Treyarch, on the other hand, has generally remained a developer much more conventional in its approach to story telling. Their World War II titles feature stories familiar to anyone that has seen a war film. These are stories about soldiers on the ground, fighting for the country they love, and forging bonds with fellow soldiers. While World at War‘s release followed Modern Warfare and tended to have praise heaped on it by fans of the previous game, I found it a very pretty, but rather ho hum follow up to Infinity Ward’s more daring and unsettling picture of war. What Infinity Ward had taught me was that while Treyarch’s World at War was rehashing all the tropes of Saving Private Ryan, Band of Brothers, and the like, that their greatest sin had been in failing to really add anything new to those ideas despite having the same advantage that Infinity Ward had recognized and realized with Modern Warfare—that an interactive medium might offer a new perspective on an old story, the war story.
Treyarch’s latest offering in the Call of Duty saga is their first effort at moving forward or “modernizing” a bit. The most obvious effort in attempting to “make it new” is obvious in that this is their first title not set during World War II. Black Ops is instead set during the 1960s, during the Bay of Pigs invasion and then later moving into the Vietnam era. Largely this is a Cold War story, and Treyarch has additionally gone to some effort to tell this story in a different manner than they have in the past. The main bulk of the plot concerns Alex Mason, a special forces operative assigned to a black ops team. In the initial cutscenes, Mason is introduced as a prisoner of an unseen captor that wants information on a series of numbers, the meaning of which he believes that Mason can unlock. This frame-tale serves as the jumping off point for retelling a story through a series of memories that Mason recounts during interrogation that ultimately revolve around the numbers and their meaning.
All of this is interesting, though it has more of a kind of “James Bondsy” sort of feel to it than one might expect in a Call of Duty game (then again, it is called Black Ops, so fair enough, I guess). In particular, it is refreshing to experience a few historical battlefields that have largely gone unexplored in video games. While The Godfather II played around with Castro’s Cuba, I can’t recall any titles that have really gotten into the Bay of Pigs on the ground. Additionally, Vietnam is an event that has largely been left alone by game developers, perhaps out of concern for the difficulty in presenting a more morally ambiguous war and one in which victory and loss are harder for an American audience to feel comfortable about. Within the historical spaces defined by the game though, Treyarch doesn’t explore a great deal of new ground. An initial feint concerning the assassination of Fidel Castro makes it appear that Treyarch wants to go in a really wild direction, but it turns into nothing more than a feint (though I hear that the Cuban government is less than thrilled with the implications of that early scene).
There is also a brief scene involving participation in torture (that participation, unlike the “No Russian” sequence, is one that the player does not have an option to opt of by simply watching and not pulling a trigger). However, it is so brief and (fairly) innocuous that I doubt that a whole lot of hackles are going to be raised by it. Instead, despite the weird “flashback” storytelling device (which kind of breaks down as Treyarch also continues the Call of Duty tradition of having the player trade roles with different soldiers involved in a conflict—when the player takes on the role of a CIA operative, Jason Hudson, in some of the flashbacks it makes less sense given the foregrounding of the plot in Mason’s interrogation – the story is representing his memories and should all be from his perspective, right?) and these brief nods to the kind of edgy interactive moments that Infinity Ward has made famous in their iterations of the series, Black Ops largely tells a pretty conventional war story (in this case, the soldier haunted by his past) within the frame of a really familiar first-person shooter.
All of this isn’t to say that the game is bad. The visuals are outstanding as usual and basic play is diverting and there are some generally well designed levels. It is just that there isn’t anything especially outstanding about it all.
Frankly, the most innovative element of Treyarch’s most recent work with Call of Duty is their “Zombies” mini-game, which appears here again with a pretty amusing Cold War facelift. “Zombies” does do something unique in the way that it adds a layer of strategy and depth to the first-person shooter as the player is forced to figure out how to control a confined space and when and how to upgrade weapons in order to survive. I guess in that sense Treyarch does have something in common with Infinity Ward—they both do their best work when they push the genre in surprising new directions. I just wish that there were more new surprises in the main game itself.