Thursday, 17 January 2013

When I died for the 1000th time

Among my friends, I have a justifiable reputation for playing a lot of videogames. But while it’s certainly true that I play games a lot, I don’t actually play a lot of different games. In fact, most years I only get through 4 or 5 titles, and some years a single title can suck up almost all of my gaming hours (yes, I’m looking right at you Fallout 3).

So it’s perhaps not too surprising that the whole warfare genre typified by the likes of the Call of Duty and Medal of Honour series has almost completely passed me by. Particularly so given my penchant for sci-fi-esque titles that broadly eschew the gritty realism that such titles purport to represent in order to favour high-power lasers or gravity guns.

However, my innocence is all over now. As just one of a succession of (fabulous) birthday presents from C, I received Call of Duty: Black Ops II, the latest in that game series, and apparently one of the headline titles for the games industry for Christmas 2012 (and, by coincidence, the same game that I bought my brother for his Christmas). Clearly she knows me far too well.

So, what’s it all about, and how did I get on?

To answer the first, the setup is an interesting mash-up of infamous CIA interventions from the 1980s, with near-future cyber-terrorism from 2025. The common thread is Raul Menendez, leader of a family drug cartel during the Cold War, and professional kill-the-rich rabble-rouser in a future world that pits China et al. against the US in a new cold war.

In the past, you (generally) play as Alex Mason on a series of missions, the black ops of the title, in Africa, Afghanistan and Central America. In the future, you play as his orphaned son, David Mason, through a series of high-tech assaults in exotic, usually Asian locales. But in both time zones, Menendez is the accomplished antagonist against whom the Masons, both father and son, are pitted. Along the way, periodic cut scenes involving Alex Mason’s comrade, Frank Woods, shed a flickering light for David on Menendez’s history and what his ostensibly nefarious plans are.

To begin to answer the second, I would direct the reader to the title of this post. The thing that sticks most prominently in my mind about Black Ops II is how often I died. Initially, this was just down to me having to get used to new controls, and developing a new “situational awareness”. But I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that, for me at least, the game was pretty fiendishly difficult. Of course, because of my long history and vast experience of shooting the heads off of virtual enemies, I did choose to play on one of the harder skill levels, but I suspect I’d have still gotten seriously nailed regardless of the skill level.

In large part, my repeated deaths and reincarnations were just down to Black Ops II simply being so much more frenetic than what I'm used to. No sooner has one arrived in a new combat zone than you’re being shot at from every direction by a veritable army of people with a much better grip on the situation than you do, and it just doesn’t let up. Normally, I play titles where I've either got a more limited set of foes to deal with, or stealthily taking bad guys out one-by-one is more of an option. Not so here.

Instead, the game is a roller-coaster of running and gunning from one hidey-hole to another (at least as I played it!), all the time trying one’s hardest not to miss shooting all of the many assailants put in place to stop you. You do get a lot of help from friendlies (including some semi-immortal close colleagues), but in the heat of battle I frequently found myself gunning these red shirts down because I was so paranoid about getting wasted by an errant enemy that I’d somehow missed blowing away.

But is it any good?

The short answer is that I'm probably not the best person to ask. As this type of game is a whole new world for me, overall it was a pretty fresh experience. Sure, I've run around and shot NPCs for years (actually, as of now, they've probably shot me more on balance), but I can now appreciate that warfare games are (or can be) more than just doing the same as usual but in combat fatigues carrying realistically-modelled weapons.

On the plus side, it's a solid piece of enjoyable action. It looks and sounds great, has a pretty engaging (if short) story, and has enough variety in setting and combat to never become boring. And I particularly liked the way that the game shoved actual historical figures (or references to them - the U.S.S. Obama!) into the storyline. The worryingly-plausible robot weapons were pretty fun too.

On the down side, getting killed so often can get a tad frustrating - especially when respawning puts you immediately back in harms way. The game's health system is also a little bit ludicrous - you can basically replace half your body weight with enemy bullets so long as you take the precaution of letting this happen gradually. And for all of the interesting places that you visit, the relentless pace pretty much kills careful exploration dead. Finally, the much vaunted system of "choices" and "multiple endings" is really quite lame compared to other titles I've played - until I consulted Wikipedia after finishing, I hadn't realised that I'd actually made choices.

That said, and stepping back a bit, I'd also have to add that - for me at least - the game really captures something of the whole "fog of war" experience. While I eventually found my nerve, I did spend a large fraction of my time effectively panicking on the battlefield and making all kinds of misjudgements. More than in any other game I've played, Black Ops II makes it easy to see how quickly confusion can set in, and why mistakes get made on battlefields. I was responsible for more than my fair share of friendly fire incidents.

Another aspect that pleasantly surprised me a little was that, though it's all rather gung-ho, the game is unexpectedly ambiguous about the black hat / white hat distinction. "Unexpectedly" for a game that is - that the CIA doesn't wear a white hat is hardly news. But Black Ops II is really (again - for a game) quite nuanced in its treatment of Menendez. He does bad things, but he has both personal and social reasons for doing them. As I got more and more of his backstory, I even began to wonder if the game might offer a side-switching choice for David Mason.

So, overall, I really enjoyed myself, despite the game's short length and my low battlefield half-life. I won't be switching over to games like this, but it was definitely fun. How it stacks up against its rivals is, however, something I can't answer. Yet, anyway.

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