The Gaming Club

Call of Duty: Black Ops Is Tirelessly Stupid
The art of play.
Dec. 15 2010 4:04 PM

The Gaming Club

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Still from Call of Duty. Click image to expand.

For starters, I'd like to suggest a possible reason why Chris felt like throwing his controller against a wall while playing Black Ops: It is tirelessly, prodigally stupid in its storytelling. I agree with Seth: Junk food has its place and can be enjoyed. But great video game junk food is, to me, the Gears of War series or something like Kane & Lynch 2. Those are video game Big Macs, and they're delicious. Playing the single-player campaign in Black Ops is more like eating a dead rat served between two moldy Pop-Tarts. This is a game that imagines that a character portrayed by Ice Cube would be a viable candidate to enter the Soviet Union as a secret agent in 1963. This is a game that turns Robert McNamara—one of the most intelligent and interesting men to ever helm the Defense Department—into a weaselly little Pentagon tour guide who waves his arm at a wall of portraits and says, in a triumphant non sequitur, "honored heroes." This is a game in which operatives within the super secret Special Operations Group have "S.O.G." tattooed on their arms, which you'd think you'd want to avoid, as secret agents.

People will say Black Ops is supposed to be goofy and over the top. I say this has become a huge copout among game-makers, who seem so weirdly and frustratingly terrified of expressing what David Foster Wallace once called "single-entendre" sentiments. The end result is products of fascinatingly misplaced ambition. Black Ops (to say nothing of the equally loathsome Modern Warfare 2) fails because it's playing with incendiary fictional material while not realizing that such material requires you to rise to its level. Assassinations, politics, massacre, war, death: These are huge topics that the first-person-shooter genre seems amazingly well-situated to explore in an interesting way. But despite Black Ops's budget and the sum total of thought put behind its conception—and the fact that, at this point, millions of people are going to buy it no matter what—we get a shitty, fourth-rate cartoon that makes Transformers look like Schindler's List. So junk food, yes. Garbage, no. (I do like the multiplayer, though.)

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I may be in the minority here, but I never really consciously look for innovation or "something new" in video games. The whole form still feels plenty new to me. What I look for is an interesting or alarming or well-designed experience that makes me forget I'm holding a controller and transports me into another reality. That's really all I want. Like John, I'm happy that the old modernist virtue of Difficulty at All Costs has, in literature, mostly been discarded, and if there's one thing I wish those who are serious about their video games would put to rest, it's this ridiculous desire for Novelty at All Costs. I don't demand that the novels I read reinvent that form, and I don't expect every game to give me something totally brand-new either. Even if Red Dead Redemption is modeled on the GTA style of open-world gameplay and design, you've still got a whole new world and whole new characters to meet and deal with and learn about. Novelty to me is in those things: character, incident, emotion. In that sense, at least, I liked Heavy Rain quite a bit. The acting was patchy, the dialogue was occasionally ridiculous, and the plot made precisely no sense, but cutting off Ethan's finger was maybe the most electric, traumatizing feeling I've ever had while playing a game.

Which brings me nicely around to the games I really liked this year: Enslaved, Kane & Lynch 2, and Comic Jumper: The Adventures of Captain Smiley. Enslaved was a pretty good platforming-and-fighting game elevated to a place of real achievement by startling vocal performances and some wonderfully understated, subtle dialogue. Imagine: A video game in which characters say things they might not feel and feel things they might not say! It's a love story without anyone ever saying "I love you," and I found the whole thing unexpectedly moving. Credit goes to the writer Alex Garland here, I'm quite sure, which says to me that it's bunk to suggest that games have not been well-written because the form itself is hostile to narrative.

Kane & Lynch 2 was a game a lot of critics and gamers reviled, and I revile them all right back. Playing this game is like being punched in the head for about four hours by a guy with whiskey breath, and I mean that in the nicest possible way. The gunplay is pretty good and the characters are on intralibrary loan from the Michael Mann Collection, but the visuals are spectacular. What Kane & Lynch 2 did—quite daringly, I would say—is take a medium prized for its graphical fidelity and pixel count and muddify it with purposefully crappy shaky-cam visuals, as though the gamer were running around Shanghai with a hand-held digital camera, recording Kane and Lynch as they take cover in pirated DVD shops and behind glass cabinets in ricky-ticky Chinese mini-malls. It's easily one of the most visually arresting games ever made.

Comic Jumper I loved because it was so funny. It's definitely the game that made me laugh out loud most often this year, which goes a long way with me. It imagines a superhero named Captain Smiley (and his sidekick, Star, which is, well, a star that speaks out of Captain Smiley's chest … it sounds weirder when I explain it) getting kicked out of his own comic book and then having to "work" for other comic books to raise his profile and make some money. You get a nice pastiche here: fantasy comics, '50s-style comics, and manga, all of which are stylishly ceded their own levels and also given a nice and genial thrashing. I don't want to say more about the game because it deserves to be experienced freshly and fully, but I will say this: The gameplay is straight-up platforming and shooting with absolutely no new twists, and the difficulty is sometimes disquietingly severe. But I'll forgive anything in a game whose stats screen has its own theme song.

Yrs,
TCB

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Tom Bissell is the author of several books, including the essay collection Magic Hours, which will be published in April. He writes about video games for Grantland, ESPN's sports and pop culture website, and is a past winner of the Rome Prize and a 2010 Guggenheim Fellow.

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