You did, didn’t you? Come on, admit it. You went straight onto the multiplayer and started working your way up to Prestige. Maybe you played some Zombies with a couple of friends. But you didn’t play the campaign did you? Oh no, single player isn’t relevant in Call of Duty is it?
Well actually yes, it is. I wrote on Twitter recently that I thought the campaign portion of Black Ops was the strongest in the series, and I stand by that statement. Yet, it still seems to be largely discredited by the masses. I’ve heard a couple of comments lately from people I respect who didn’t seem to be having as much fun as I was. So, in the interest of trying to qualify my outlandish claims, I thought it might be useful to examine the issue in more depth.
My good friend and fellow blogger Daniel Hart expressed his concerns when playing the game, and he made a valid point. His problem was that the game took control away from the player far too frequently. I’ve spoken before about the interactive nature of gaming and how it gives the medium uniquity, and taking that privelege away reduces the immersion.
The general consensus is that the campaign plays it a little too ‘safe’. It doesn’t offer anything new or develop the tried-and-tested formula in any meaningful way. It certainly doesn’t provide a gameplay experience we haven’t seen before. Then again, the level of refinement is admirable, and I can’t help but use the term I really hate to use when describing video games, and that’s ‘cinematic’.
The main draw of blockbuster action movies is that they provide a comfortable feeling of escapism, exploring the typical ideas of power, wealth, popularity and attractiveness that are synonymous with mainstream action heros, then letting the viewer (albeit temporarily) assume ownership of that role. Video games take it one step further by allowing the player to have a measurable impact on what they’re watching; feeling and seeing immediate repurcussions of their choices and actions, which is what people in the business call agency.
Black Ops really does have that whole action movie vibe going on. By assuming the role of a combatant, you accept the natural associations of danger, courage and selfless heroism that go with it. Taking control out of your hands every now and again to let your character get knocked back by an explosion or strangled by a Vietcong does something that aids in the credibility of the illusion: it reinforces the idea that you’re not in control; that in the grand scheme of global conflict you’re insignificant and powerless, and that warrants a far greater emotional investment than, say, Medal of Honor.
As I said earlier in this post, nothing about Black Ops feels fresh or original, but that’s half the appeal. It’s iterative; unconcerned with radicalising the genre or advancing the gameplay of the previous titles in the series, but rather fully-focused on enhancing the high-octane experience it knows it can provide.
Most missions in the game are simple flashbacks being narrated by the protagonist, and the whole thing is little more than a narrative framing device; an excuse to take the player to lots of locations and time periods on varied styles of mission. The plot is solid to enough to encourage questions of the “who, what, where, why” variety, though it’s importance is questionable. The real focus here is the missions themselves.
Treyarch wanted to craft a campaign that was interesting, varied and accessible. Something people could jump in to and enjoy without the weight of moral choice, role playing or alternate endings, and they did that with commendable style and vigour. Multiplayer is, and probably always will be, the primary selling point of the franchise, but at least give the single player a chance. You never know, you might even like it.