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McMillan’s Codex 12 By C.T. McMillan

CoD: Black Ops 1 and 2

The Call of Duty (CoD) series is the videogame equivalent of Friday the 13th. It is an annualized franchise with each new installment having the same formula and noted improvements in what people like. Where in Friday the 13th it was the gore and kills, it is the multiplayer that keeps fans coming back year after year. Each release has a variety of tweaks from game modes to basic mechanics. The Kill Streaks and Load Out systems change the most as you pick and choose what perks and gear to bring into a match.

While the multiplayer is the selling point, the rest of the games falter from neglect. There is such a lack of effort that whole animations, assets, and graphics engines are repurposed from previous games. The campaign is hurt the most. I am of the opinion the series peaked at Modern Warfare 2 before the gradual decline. The stories of the preceding games played out like terrible Tom Clancy fan fiction with boring characters, daddy issues, predictability, and sequences stolen from movies. They also lacked the moments that made the previous games memorable like “No Russian”, the street battles in DC, and “All Gullied Up.”

Fortunately, Treyarch, one of CoD’s three developers, had the opportunity to do more with the series. Given how cheap and how little the publisher cares what is in the games besides multiplayer, Treyarch was free to do what it wanted with the story. Its last two titles, Black Ops 1 and 2, showed a consistent effort to take the series in a different narrative direction. The stories are really nothing special, but at least they tried and I find that admirable.

COD1

Black Ops 1 is the only game in the series to explore the Cold War, a period that should be visited more often considering all the proxy wars, espionage, clandestine conflicts, conspiracy theories, and nuclear tension. Following a failed assassination attempt on Fidel Castro during the Bay of Pigs Invasion, Mason, a CIA operator, is captured alive and sent to a Russian gulag. He escapes thanks to a fellow inmate and sets out on a quest for revenge against the people who experimented on him. The same individuals are also behind a plot to attack America with a biological weapon the CIA is trying to thwart.

Compared to other stories in CoD, Black Ops 1 is focused and less concerned about being a military simulator. A trademark of the series is putting the player in the middle of the action, the raw intensity of battle, while providing an insight into how real armies work. There are always two halves to the experience: the Special Forces side and the regular army side, shifting between the two sides.

While there are a few shifts in who you play, the main focus is on Mason between 1961 and ‘68. From Cuba to Vietnam, the game’s missions are consistent with the period and covert operations aesthetic. Every level is about the secret wars fought to maintain the balance of power between East and West. There is even a sequence where you play a Blackbird pilot coordinating a team infiltrating a Soviet relay station in a blizzard.

Problems come from the way the game feels. The loud audio, chaotic scenes, and gameplay tension that set CoD apart from most shooters is muted in every respect. It makes sense seeing as the game is story driven, but it takes away from what made the series memorable.

COD2

Black Ops 2 is the most ambitious entry for introducing player choice. The campaign has moments that affect the way the story plays out from picking up an intel file, to time sensitive side missions. Each choice leads to a different outcome, culminating in a conclusion with four possibilities. It was a welcome surprise to the series, but not without many shortcomings.

Where the first game was told linearly, the second could not decide between being coherent or straightforward. The first half is told in the mid 80s and 2025 as an elderly Sergeant Woods from the previous game talks about his last years working for the CIA, while the son of Mason hunts down a new threat. The events tie into each other rather well, but why they were told alongside each other I have no idea. Nothing would have been lost had the past events played out first, followed by the future, then the twist during the Panama mission, and onto the future. It is still more coherent than Beyond: Two Souls.

Other weaker parts of the game include the overall aesthetic and the underlining themes. Black Ops 2 was the first to take place in a speculative future with new weapons and gadgets like nano-gloves, wrist computers, and quad-pedal drones. The cool factor was strong, but all the elements felt mashed together with no sense of cohesion. You have future stuff mixed with present day, while there are things years ahead of everything else. Thankfully, Advanced Warfare did a better job of capturing the future, but it also inherited the game’s other problem with the use of daddy issues. The daddy issues trope is the worst thing ever and it will never be good in anything. And that is all I have to say about that.

The story itself is not too bad. It has a lot to say about militaries’ reliance on drones and how it takes away from the humanity of soldiers. There is a sharp contrast between the past where everything is rough and hands-on, and those of the future where warfare is convenient and easy.

Historical events are used to propel the characters through missions suited to the subject of covert operations and conspiracy. The Contra War sets the stage for the villain, Raul Menendez, to enter a life of clandestine conflict as an arms dealer supported by the drug trade. While assisting the MPLA in Angola, he meets Mason who tries to kill him, setting the stage for a years’ long revenge plot. On the hunt for Menendez, Mason goes to Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation, then to Panama in 1989, before the plot comes to fruition in the 2025.

Real people make an appearance like Jonas Savimbi during the Angola mission, Manuel Noriega, a Mohammed Omar parallel, and Oliver North, which was a terrible decision. I understand he played a big part in the Contra War, but he is still technically a criminal who supported a group notorious for their atrocities.

COD3

As I write this, Black Ops 3 is days away from release. It reverses the theme of technology replacing soldiers to technology making soldiers. Bionics takes center stage as whole limbs are replaced by mechanical prosthetics and neural implants give soldiers a direct link to information. While the story is not entirely clear, there are obvious allusions to cyber-punk in the same vein as Ghost in the Shell. What it has to say was probably said better in other works, but I am nonetheless interested in what will come of it.

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CT McMillan 1

C.T. McMillan (Episode 169) is a film critic and devout gamer.  He has a Bachelors for Creative Writing in Entertainment from Full Sail University.

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