'Call of Duty: Black Ops': Treyarch Attempts to "Modernize" Warfare

Treyarch's greatest "sin" is in failing to really add anything new 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.

Call of Duty: Black Ops

Publisher: Activision
Format: Xbox 360 (reviewed), Playstation 3, PC
Price: $59.99
Players: 1-18
ESRB Rating: Mature
Developer: Treyarch
Release Date: 2010-11-09

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.






Bright Eyes' 'Down in the Weeds' Is a Return to Form and a Statement of Hope

Bright Eyes may not technically be emo, but they are transcendently expressive, beatifically melancholic. Down in the Weeds is just the statement of grounding that we need as a respite from the churning chaos around us.


Audrey Hepburn + Rome = Grace, Class, and Beauty

William Wyler's Roman Holiday crosses the postcard genre with a hardy trope: Old World royalty seeks escape from stuffy, ritual-bound, lives for a fling with the modern world, especially with Americans.


Colombia's Simón Mejía Plugs Into the Natural World on 'Mirla'

Bomba Estéreo founder Simón Mejía electrifies nature for a different kind of jungle music on his debut solo album, Mirla.


The Flaming Lips Reimagine Tom Petty's Life in Oklahoma on 'American Head'

The Flaming Lips' American Head is a trip, a journey to the past that one doesn't want to return to but never wants to forget.


Tim Bowness of No-Man Discusses Thematic Ambition Amongst Social Division

With the release of his seventh solo album, Late Night Laments, Tim Bowness explores global tensions and considers how musicians can best foster mutual understanding in times of social unrest.


Angel Olsen Creates a 'Whole New Mess'

No one would call Angel Olsen's Whole New Mess a pretty album. It's much too stark. But there's something riveting about the way Olsen coos to herself that's soft and comforting.


Masma Dream World Go Global and Trippy on "Sundown Forest" (premiere)

Dancer, healer, musician Devi Mambouka shares the trippy "Sundown Forest", which takes listeners deep into the subconscious and onto a healing path.


Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" Is an Ode for Unity in Troubling Times (premiere)

Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" is a gentle, prayerful tune that depicts the heart of their upcoming album, Crucible.


'What a Fantastic Death Abyss': David Bowie's 'Outside' at 25

David Bowie's Outside signaled the end of him as a slick pop star and his reintroduction as a ragged-edged arty agitator.


Dream Folk's Wolf & Moon Awaken the Senses with "Eyes Closed" (premiere)

Berlin's Wolf & Moon are an indie folk duo with a dream pop streak. "Eyes Closed" highlights this aspect as the act create a deep sense of atmosphere and mood with the most minimal of tools.


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


Ranking the Seasons of 'The Wire'

Years after its conclusion, The Wire continues to top best-of-TV lists. With each season's unique story arc, each viewer is likely to have favorites.


Paul Reni's Silent Film 'The Man Who Laughs' Is Serious Cinema

There's so much tragedy present, so many skullduggeries afoot, and so many cruel and vindictive characters in attendance that a sad and heartbreaking ending seems to be an obvious given in Paul Reni's silent film, The Man Who Laughs.


The Grahams Tell Their Daughter "Don't Give Your Heart Away" (premiere)

The Grahams' sweet-sounding "Don't Give Your Heart Away" is rooted in struggle, inspired by the couples' complicated journey leading up to their daughter's birth.


Gloom Balloon Deliver an Uplifting Video for "All My Feelings For You" (premiere)

Gloom Balloon's Patrick Tape Fleming considers what making a music video during a pandemic might involve because, well, he made one. Could Fellini come up with this plot twist?


Brian Cullman Gets Bluesy with "Someday Miss You" (premiere)

Brian Cullman's "Someday Miss You" taps into American roots music, carries it across the Atlantic and back for a sound that is both of the past and present.


IDLES Have Some Words for Fans and Critics on 'Ultra Mono'

On their new album, Ultra Mono, IDLES tackle both the troubling world around them and the dissenters that want to bring them down.


Napalm Death Return With Their Most Vital Album in Decades

Grindcore institution Napalm Death finally reconcile their experimental side with their ultra-harsh roots on Throes of Joy in the Jaws of Defeatism.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.