Bland Ops

blandops1With the Black Ops series, some say developer Treyarch have transcended their old public dubbing as the “Call Of Duty B-team” (back when development alternated between just two studios, that is) to today become the premier outfit for the world-famous FPS franchise. Looking at the numbers (the numbers, Mason, the numbers), it’s certainly popular, with  Activision CEO Eric Hirshberg claiming Black Ops to be the “most played series” in the Call Of Duty catalogue during an investor call last year. The first two games have smashed sales records at their respective times, and the second game has topped the poll of wanted Xbox One backwards compatibility games by some ten-thousand plus votes at the time of writing.  What’s more, the latest instalment, Black Ops III, enjoyed one the biggest entertainment launches of 2015, and went on to become the bestselling videogame of the year, too.

Credit where it’s due, Treyarch have been nothing if not bold with Black Ops. Initially roped in to churn out a new Call Of Duty during Infinity Ward’s off years (2006’s Call Of Duty 3 was allegedly made in eight months), the studio seized the opportunity in 2010 to finally make their own mark on the franchise. Freed from the shackles of World War II, the first Black Ops spun an entertaining if preposterous Cold War-era conspiracy thriller that took many players by surprise with its hefty narrative focus (by series standards, that is). It also introduced Wager Matches to multiplayer and expanded World At War’s runaway bonus zombie mode into a more fleshed-out extra, memorably featuring John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon, Robert McNamara and, er, Fidel Castro, battling the undead in the Pentagon of all places. The sequel went further still to shake things up, presenting a time-hopping campaign with a branching storyline and optional Strike Force missions, the Pick 10 system, and an even more bonkers zombie mode in TranZit.


Black Ops III, meanwhile, is the most dramatic and daring evolution the series has seen yet, moving further into the future than any game before, arming players with powerful cybernetic abilities, and pretty much turning Zombies into a full star-studded game in itself.  Black Ops III is the most complete and feature rich Call Of Duty package ever, you could say then, with multiplayer battles and undead slaughtering set to keep its legions of fans hooked for years to come (or until the next one). But it’s specifically the campaign I want to talk about here, and how I feel the Black Ops trilogy closer is unfortunately a resounding failure and sore disappointment in every way.

To be honest, as much as I’ve enjoyed them, I’ve always had issues with Treyarch’s Call Of Duty games, and I don’t just mean the obvious stuff like the first Black Ops game’s infamous napalm barrels in need of kicking.  There’s always been something about them that feels a little off, which I can’t quite put my finger on, but the extent of problems I had with Black Ops III takes things to a whole new level, and are much easier to pinpoint.

blandops3Handheld spinoffs excluded, I personally rank Black Op III’s campaign at the very bottom of the Call Of Duty chart. Yes, I think it’s even worse than the much derided Ghosts. Okay, so I can’t honestly hold my hand up and say Black Ops III’s campaign is totally terrible, because it does have some legitimate entertainment value and good ideas on show, but other than the general knowledge that the end credits were only a few hours away, meaning I might as well finish what I’d started, there was little else willing me on to see it through. No investment in the utter nonsense story or one-dimensional characters, barely a single standout set-piece to speak of, and not much in the way of variety. If it wasn’t for Call Of Duty’s first-rate shooting mechanics, which can surely make even a mediocre game a blast to play, Black Op III’s campaign wouldn’t have much going for it at all.

It’s a shame. Considering the unexpected quality and ambition of the previous two Black Ops stories, it’s deflating to find Treyarch have taken great steps backwards with their latest work. Black Ops III’s tale is a poorly told, confusing to follow and, if you ask me, downright stupid mess. Based on the constant, ear-aching heavy exposition between characters during cutscenes and gameplay, the mantra for the story seems most likely to have been tell, don’t show. That, or entire scenes have been cut and all the talking is there to paper over the cracks. Either way, it’s an unengaging method of storytelling that makes it taxing to keep track of who, what and why anything is happening. And, both within the game’s fiction and amongst its real world writers, who thought it a good idea to stick a computer chip inside soldiers’ brains? Being deliberately vague so as not to spoil anything (not that there’s much to spoil anyway), sure enough in Black Ops III’s 2065 setting where operatives are implanted with a Direct Neural Interface (DNI) to control their powerful cybernetic enhancements, things unsurprisingly take a turn for the worse.

Not only is the DNI such a dumb and obviously compromising piece of kit, it’s basically used as a cheap and lazy way to advance the plot when the writers have written themselves into a corner. When any of the characters need to do something, be it hack a computer or, no joke, enter someone’s mind (albeit one similarly infused with a DNI), all they need do is reach their hand out and touch. It can probably do the dishes, too.


And as for the ending, it left me furiously scratching my head with equal amounts of confusion and frustration. What the hell actually happened in the last seven or so hours? Yes, I am aware of the popular theory circulating the internet regarding what it was really all about, the so-fast-it’s-impossible-to-read scrolling text at each mission’s start implying something else is going on behind the scenes, but from what I gather it basically relegates the whole thing as rather pointless, and has a few problems of its own as well. Whatever the case, the story I got from actually playing the game left themes unexplored, characters underdeveloped, and me deeply unsatisfied and a little cheesed off with Treyarch for not only delivering such utter tosh, but poorly presenting it too.

blandops5So Black Ops III’s story isn’t much cop, then, but at least Treyarch have demonstrated marginal improvement with their pacing in certain respects, one particular sequence early on in the game shunning the shooting to give off an almost horror-like vibe. If it sustained the tension for a little while longer and the outcome wasn’t so predictable, though, it might have gone down as the game’s best mission, as could a later level featuring some obvious fan-service if it didn’t feel so ham-fisted (again, you can thank the DNI). Successful or not, it matters little when these all too brief interludes from the usual whiz-bang-shoot-shoot are drowned out by the, well, usual whiz-bang-shoot-shoot that typifies any other Treyarch Call Of Duty you care to mention, which of course is what Call Of Duty does best, granted. It’s just a shame Treyarch still don’t have a bead on how and when to tone things down or present the unfolding action like the best of Infinity Ward’s games do, to make it feel more than it actually is.

There’s no such skilful use of smoke and mirrors at play here, unfortunately. It all feels like a one-note shootathon, dire set-pieces failing to get the pulse racing and not even the cybernetic powers that let you spurt incendiary robotic bees from your arm or blow up machines with a flick of your wrist livening things up. While not up there with the Modern Warfare games, both Ghosts and Advanced Warfare had their fair share of high-octane action scenes and quieter jaunts under cover to break up the standard gunfights, but brief on-rails sections, which are as thrilling as a broken-down rollercoaster, and awful boss battles that recur throughout are as good and varied as the set-pieces (and overall game) get in Black Ops III. Nope, not even an obligatory stealth section. You could say the lack of scripted sequences have made way for larger sandbox-style levels to make the most of those fancy cybernetic abilities. Yet you still feel boxed in by virtue of indoor settings or the scale-reducing barriers which border outdoor locales. It’s not as if anything notably exciting occurs within any of them either, and there’s little in between to act as palate cleansers.


Now, I could go on to complain about some poor acting, how the game fails to alter certain dialogue to reflect playing as a woman (how was this missed in testing?), or the lack in environmental variety. True, Black Ops III’s globetrotting campaign whisks you away to the likes of Singapore, Egypt and Switzerland, but most levels essentially boil down to uninspired military compounds or destroyed city streets, with a universal grey and brown colour palette. But the point I want to finish up on is the one that has received the most contention over recent years – the future setting.

blandops7Call Of Duty is no stranger to whisking us away to the near and distant future, most notably in the previous game, Sledgehammer’s Advanced Warfare, which took place between 2054 and 2061. Black Ops II also jumped forward a few years, partly set in 2025 during a second Cold War, but Black Ops III moves events forty years after Raul Menendez’s devastating drone attacks on America and China. The problem with Black Ops III’s version of 2065, however, is that it’s not exactly an arresting, inspiring or original vision, presenting a war-torn world ravaged by climate change and brought to its knees by technological warfare. There’s potential for a unique sci-fi oriented Call Of Duty setting here somewhere, but, just like the story and characters, it’s generic realisation in-game means there’s scarcely a reason to invest in it or want to return to it. It’s dull, forgettable, and not very nice.

The implications in the actual gameplay are also questionable. With such advancements in technology, robots will apparently be playing a big part in warfare come 2065. As if Call Of Duty’s enemies weren’t faceless enough as it is, we now have to contend with metallic, walking bullet-sponges of varying shapes and sizes. When fighting fleshy human foes, Call Of Duty’s shooting is pitch perfect, a clean headshot bringing down an enemy instantly as expected. Not so with robots, some of which can absorb obscene amounts of bullets before keeling over, with none of the gratifying satisfaction of tearing down the robotic enemies piece by piece in Binary Domain, a game Treyarch really should have looked to for inspiration.


The biggest addition to come from the future setting is, of course, those much flaunted cybernetic abilities. Granting powers crossed between the Force, BioShock’s Plasmids and Deus Ex’s augmentations, these Cybercores give Black Ops III a somewhat fantastical edge, and for me it doesn’t sit right with the Call Of Duty branding. Call Of Duty has always prided itself on its authenticity and realism (well, as real as a game can be where you duck behind cover to regenerate your health), and while Treyarch made no claims during the promotional run that it’s based these cybernetics on fact, it’s what we’ve come to expect from the franchise over the years. That Black Ops III has taken such a drastically wild direction is difficult to get our heads around.

blandops9But let’s exclude the fact that Black Ops III’s future setting isn’t very good and its cybernetic warfare feels at odds with the rest of the franchise for a minute. While it has its fans – and the sales figures certainly suggest so – there are also a lot of players who can’t seem to get on-board with the futuristic orientation of the most recent games, myself included in the case of Black Ops III. Advanced Warfare, Black Ops and Ghosts all currently take place in the future, albeit at different points throughout the next fifty years, with their own bespoke timelines and differing styles from one another. Regardless, between the latest entries in the franchise, could it be we’ve already had our fill of future warfare? Or might it be the more fanciful the games get, the farther into the future they travel and away from the franchise’s roots, the more silly and uninteresting they become. I know that’s certainly been the case with Black Ops for me personally, although funnily enough I don’t seem to have a problem with Advanced Warfare’s more grounded and researched take on the matter, perhaps because of those very reasons.

Still, with three different series on the go, you’d think at least one of them would stick to a different time period if only for the sake of variety. Which begs the question as to where Treyarch will go next? Will they draw a line under Black Ops after three games and create a new storyline, take the series back in time, or perhaps opt for a sequel to World At War instead? There are calls from fans for Call Of Duty to return to it World War origins, and with Infinity Ward and Sledgehammer almost certainly set to continue the storylines left hanging at the ends of Ghosts and Advanced Warfare respectively, it leaves Treyarch at something of a crossroads: listen to the fans, or continue pushing the trend they set even more.


Personally, be it a fourth Black Ops or something new, I’d like to see another game set during the Cold War, an underrepresented era in games rich with possibility for some cinematic storytelling involving spies and conspiracies, and the very reason the original Black Ops stood out in the first place. I’m not averse to returning to World War II either, the recent Kickstarter success of Battalion 1944 suggesting there is a valid demand for it. So while this and next year’s instalments are most likely staying in the future, Treyarch’s return in 2018 has the potential to surprise us all with a time-travelling U-turn.  And I hope they do, because everything I’ve disliked about Black Ops III (and Black Ops II, for that matter), can be attributed to the future settings. If Call Of Duty is to return to its former glory, it may need to wind the clock back and dispose of its overly outlandish high-tech excesses.

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