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March 13, 2013

Let's "discuss" Call of Duty: Black Ops 2.

…Give us this day our daily bread
And forgive us our trespasses
As we forgive those who trespass against us.
And lead us not into temptation
But deliver us from evil.

For thine is the kingdom
The power, and the glory,
Forever and ever.

…So.  I tried CoD’s campaign the other day.

Let me back up a bit and say this: I don’t bear (too much) ill will against the Call of Duty franchise.  I’ll poke fun of it and its audience, just like anyone else -- just as there are people who poke fun of fighting games, strategy games, JRPGs, and the people who play them.  But considering that I didn’t really have too much experience with the games, I couldn’t confirm or deny their quality.

Still, I’ve got a buddy who’ll gladly buy a CoD game -- used or not -- should the need arise…i.e. if he’s in the mood for a new multiplayer game.  And so it was that he picked up Black Ops 2, or as it’s more affectionately known, CoDBlops2.  So one weekend he brought it over, and played it alongside me and my brother.

I’ll be honest.  I REALLY don’t see the appeal of the game.

Keep in mind that this is coming from someone with no aptitude or taste in shooters, so don’t take my word as law.  But I am just having a hell of a time trying to figure out how this game is supposed to be fun.  Okay, I admit that the three of us -- and a CPU player -- were in maps best suited for more than a dozen players, but even so it’s still a bothersome game.  Why is it that even if I’m trying to watch my back and play cautiously, I still end up getting shot in the back?  Or if I turn around to check if anyone’s sneaking up on me, I end up getting shot from the back anyway?  Why does it seem like whoever spots the other player first wins without a struggle?  Is that how wars work?  Even if it is, how is that supposed to make the game compelling?  How is it that I -- a n00b in every sense of the word -- can score kills off my much-more skilled gaming partners?  How is it that they can whine about how they have no idea where they are, or where anyone else is, or how they died just as much as the scourge-like tweens that dominate the online space?  Why do so many of the multiplayer skirmishes feel like random chance, where thought takes a backseat to running around as fast as you can and hoping you spot someone first?

Maybe it would help if I got in some practice, or paid more attention to the map (side note: is this another game where you can’t see your opponents’ position on the map, or did they take that out?  And if so, what the hell for?).  I guess that’s a sentiment my brother felt, because he asked if he could borrow Blops2 while loaning out the spectacular Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance.  “Gotta brush up on my skills,” he declared, as if those matches he lost didn’t count.  “Gonna play some DOOT!”

I knew instinctively that he didn’t mean the campaign, but I joked around and suggested he give it a try.  He “politely” refused.  But a part of me wanted to see the campaign for myself.  Was it really as bad as Yahtzee said?  Was it as forgettable (at best) that gamers seemed to imply?  Was it -- the campaign, the game, and the franchise itself -- deserving of its scorn?  I knew I couldn’t say anything too extensive about the game unless I played it for myself.  And of course, the only way to come to my own conclusions was to play it for myself.  I had to set aside the voices and opinions of supporters and detractors alike, and judge if the game was right for me.  The multiplayer’s a bust, and I’m still rightly pissed that “Zombies” is even a mode unto itself (and an obtuse one at that; anyone want to explain to me why zombies will materialize behind you even after you’ve just finished inspecting the holes they’d spawn out of?).  That just left the campaign.  So I gave it a fair shake.

That was a mistake.

I’ve looked at some great games for the purpose of this blog.  And I’ve looked at some terrible games, too.  Where Blops2 fits should be obvious…emphasis on “should”.  In reality, Blops2 has to be the most baffling game I’ve ever played, in the sense that it’s utterly incomprehensible nonsense I’m almost certain is designed to alienate and frustrate the player.  And even if I were to sort out the game, I’m pretty sure I don’t want to; the jingoism on display here is both absurd and undeserved, considering how annoying its leads are.  I can’t even do a proper Let’s Discuss post because it was so ridiculous (and not fun, of course) that I couldn’t bring myself to play for what I hope was no more than an hour…maybe no more than thirty minutes.  How am I supposed to work with that?  If I was the type to give out scores, then on a scale of one to ten Blops2 would get a mushroom.

So in the end, I’ll just do what I’ve always done: report my findings, gather my thoughts, and vomit words all over virtual pages.

First off, this is what you see after you start a new save file.

And these are the first couple of missions, and the “context” leading up to and after it.

Okay.  So here’s my immediate question: who is the main character of this game?  I ask this because the game seems as utterly confused as I am.  I can buy Blops2 setting up a framing device, but the problem is that it feels like there about three of them going on at once.  The obvious choice would be having Woods be the point-of-view character, considering that we’re flashing back to events he played a part in.  Except you don’t get to play as Woods, but as Mason Sr. during a flashback…okay, so I guess Woods is just telling the story of how Mason and Hudson went to Angola and fought to rescue him, and he’s just recounting the story from their point of view.  Why, exactly, is beyond me, because it’d just take a little bit of retooling to make Woods the viewpoint character in the midst of all the action.

But the more you think about it, the more it starts to fall apart.  What exactly is the point of having Mason Jr., Mason Sr., AND Woods all vying for attention?  Woods is our connection to the past and the story’s main villain (presumably), so Mason Sr. is inherently extraneous, especially if my guess is correct and the only three details regarding his character are “soldier”, “dad”, and “asshole”.  Come to think of it, what is the point of playing in the past in general?  If the tagline for this game is “The future is black,” why put us in the past -- especially if it’s a means to eschew the “modern warfare” aspect peddled by the other, earlier games?  They’re events that already happened.  The terrorist guy is terrorizing the world today.  Focus on that instead of events that already happened -- and in the grand scheme of things, events that are less important than what’s happening right now.

I also suspect that this game has absolutely no idea how to pace itself or provide a cohesive narrative; I’ve seen Mexican jumping beans that could show more self-control.  That video has a roughly one-minute gap between the end of the mission in Angola and the start of a mission in Vietnam.  That is one hell of a narrative leap, but the most connective tissue we get from one sequence to the next is Woods explaining the torture and imprisonment he had to endure…and again, why isn’t he the playable character throughout all this?  There was apparently some action that went down, based on that minute-long cutscene between the two stages.  Why are we playing as Mason?  Why are key events that turned Woods into the foul-mouthed veteran and vital piece of the terrorist puzzle that he is today completely glossed over in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cutscene?

And the cutscenes we do get don’t do anything to put my mind at ease.  In what universe is a father who calls his son a baby for being weaker than him even remotely sympathetic (outside of an episode of The Simpsons, and even then it’s in jest)?  What kind of son uses ham-fisted dialogue like “Go back to the army, like you did when Mom died” -- and then not three minutes later, he’s begging his dad not to go back to the army?  What is the purpose of loading Woods’ dialogue with “dipshit” over and over?  Why is the guy who sounds like The Walking Dead’s Merle practically shouting his lines about this Menendez fellow being a terrorist?  And if Menendez just waltzed into whatever facility this little pow wow is taking place in, how the hell do the soldiers not know where he’s gone?  Are there no cameras?  Why would he venture out into the open if he’s a wanted terrorist?  How did Menendez make it there in the first place?  Come to think of it, what is that place?  Is it a nursing home?  Woods’ private estate?  What the hell is going on?     

I had a hard time keeping up with these characters.  With so little to grasp about their characters, they’re not only indistinct, but they help make the story even more alienating.  Who are these people, and why should I care?  Why are they doing what they do besides “there are bad guys here, so shoot them”?  Where am I, and why?  When am I?  But I soldiered on anyway, confused, but at least relatively able to piece together what was going on.  My brother didn’t fare quite as well; Hudson, Mason, and Woods all might as well have been an ethnic-averse Cerberus, for all he knew.  “I thought you were Woods?” he’d pipe in, scratching his head.  “Wait, so who’s Hudson?”  “Which Mason are you, then?”

Pro tip: if Bad Dudes has a better story than yours, you might as well pack up and go home.

So yes, the campaign’s a bust.  It’s bad, but it’s an almost-fascinating badness.  I know it’s a little unfair to judge a game based on roughly its first twenty-to-thirty minutes, but then again that didn’t stop me from immediately and rightfully calling Final Fantasy 13-2 a bust.  I never knew that the games -- or this game at least -- really was just a means to shuttle the player from one “action-packed” battlefield to the next.  I would call it sensory overload, but it’s not even that; the first stage has you trotting across a flat, nigh-featureless battlefield shooting at non-white people who are more likely to charge at enemies with machetes instead of use guns (so yes, this game is utterly unapologetic about trying to establish you as a badass soldier, even if it means stacking the deck so far in your favor you could use it for an Olympic high dive).  The second stage has you on a boat, jumping on turrets to shoot at other incoming boats, and if you don’t do so fast enough you’ll get boarded by more dudes.  And woe to you for trying to figure out whether the guy you’re staring at is either your enemy or your ally.

You might think that the game would at least offer you some compelling gameplay to compensate for its dead-on-arrival story, but no such luck.  Like I said, the first stage is pretty much like shooting screaming expendable fish in a barrel, and everything is rendered in an orange-brown tint that wears on the senses about eighteen seconds into the start of the sequence.  And it IS nothing more than a sequence; they didn’t even have the courtesy to make the “intense” first person sequences a quick-time event (though maybe I should be thankful for that), preferring to let everything happen in a scripted, non-interactive cutscene.  There are moments where it’s less about being able to explore environments and more about the developers showing off what barges full of money can buy. 

But the moment when I immediately had an urge to slap someone in the face as hard as I could came in the first stage, when I was asked to call in air support (because remember, the deck is stacked).  I’d taken a few stray shots, and decided to look for cover before triggering the air support with the D-pad.  So I spotted a nearby rock and started moving forward a bit…and I died.  “Okay, so I guess I’m not invincible during this section,” I said to myself with a nod.  Luckily I’d just triggered a checkpoint, so it was just a matter of venturing a little ways.  Still, I didn’t want to stand around the middle of a battlefield like a loon, so I headed forward again…and died.  That was when I started getting frustrated.  So as soon as the level reloaded, I ignored everything around me and walked forward -- and lo and behold, I died instantly.

I’d heard the rumors.  I’d heard the complaints.  But I’d never seen it for myself until now.  It’s true: if you don’t move exactly as the game -- or its developers -- dictate, you automatically fail the mission.  That’s unacceptable game design, much less good design.  How a game can penalize you for walking even a millimeter out of line is completely beyond me…but, here we are, with all the more reason to hate the companies and the franchise responsible for transforming the industry.  And you know what?  This isn’t an isolated incident.  In the Vietnam stage, there’s a moment where you’re carrying Woods, and you and Hudson are sneaking around a densely-forested area (or jungle, or swamp, or something…actually, are we even in Vietnam at that point?  Wait, so we’re still in Angola?  Shit, they sure fooled me).  Hudson says that it’s time to get moving, and on his mark you’re supposed to make a run for it.  You’re crouched behind a rock with some foliage, and Hudson is just a bit farther out than you.  Hudson stands up and starts moving forward, expecting you to run after him.  Naturally, I decided to move a bit closer to him so I wouldn’t lose him in the ensuing run.  I stand up.  And in spite of having a big rock and foliage surrounding me, and Hudson standing up -- and more visible than me -- I end up getting spotted and shot dead.

I could go on, but…really, what else is there to say?  An entirely-preventable mishap brought about by a non-interactive cutscene; another shootout that was ten times harder because apparently, I didn’t pick up the sniper rifle randomly lying around in the wilderness; if you use a melee attack on an enemy, their head will pop off in an almost embarrassing fashion, even though you use a downward swing and you’re not even aiming for the head.  The level of incompetence in this game is completely and utterly baffling -- it’s disproportionate to the amount of funding put into it.  And before you ask, no, having a bombastic multiplayer suite does NOT excuse you from having a completely absurd campaign.  If you’re not going to make a good story, then don’t write one.  Especially if plenty of people are just going to ignore it.  Either step up your game, or don’t bother wasting resources on it.  If you make the campaign good instead of a forgettable mess, then maybe people will be more likely to give it the time of day…but as-is -- and given the precedents, I’d wager -- there’s nothing to latch onto.  Nothing to give the games merit besides more chances to indulge in gameplay that, in my eyes, is a failure in its own right.

I guess what I’m getting at here is that CoDBlops2 and its kin aren’t for me.  They aren’t designed for me, and they never will be.  And that’s fine…to an extent.  Think about it: wouldn’t it be better to create a product that DOES garner universal praise?  Wouldn’t it be better to make a game deserving of credit instead of having its success spoon-fed by undiscerning masses, and its content actually entertaining instead of a potpourri of violence and groan-worthy chest-beating?  In the grand scheme of things, what is the point of this game? 

No, scratch that.  In the grand scheme of things, why is this game -- all the CoD games, and their imitators by extension -- so popular?  Is it really that fulfilling?  Is it really that satisfying?  Is this the new gold standard for video games?  Is this the new generation, and the old guard’s days are numbered?  Is this the apex of style and substance, to be adored and engraved into the public consciousness alongside the classics?

I don’t understand a thing.  And maybe that’s the most baffling part about my brief experience with CoDBlops2 -- it defies definition, but lives and grows with each reincarnation.  It may not be for me, but in the end, I guess I have no choice but to live with it.  Because if it keeps growing unchecked, Lord knows it’ll be living with me soon enough.  Because by the time you finish reading this sentence, they’ll have made enough money to buy every southwestern state, a chunk of the Pacific Ocean, and a helicarrier big enough to cart them all into the sky.

And that’ll do it for now.  See you guys…wait.  What?  What’s that, CoD wiki?  You want to show me what's past the end credits?  Well, all right…

Mushroom.  Definitely a mushroom.


  1. You sure are far more open-minded than I. Even watching people play the games is unbearably boring.
    Typically people buy the games for the multiplayer, so it's not shocking that single-player mode is awful. (But forced direction? Really?! I'll never complain about linear gameplay ever again.)
    Personally, I strongly prefer single-player games, since no one else can see how badly I play. Multiplayer - especially online - has never interested me. As a result, COD was doomed to ever appeal to me in the first place.

    At least you gave COD a look.

  2. I'll admit that I'm not a fan of multiplayer games either (at least not online). It just seems kind of...well, dumb. What is the point of playing against other people if -- because there's often no way of interacting with them -- you have no chance of ever establishing a bond with them? How are you even supposed to know you're playing against another human? Yeah, they have certain tendencies (like "Flowchart Kens" in Street Fighter 4), but there's a huge element that goes missing in online games...well, except when the other player has their mic on and you can hear some pretty colorful language.

    I would say it doesn't make sense, but...well, to some extent I get it. I've been playing a little bit of PlayStation All-Stars online recently, and while it has a lot of the same problems as other online games, jumping into a free-for-all online is one of the best ways to enjoy the game. So in a way, I get it. It's dumb fun...though the "fun" is debatable, but that's neither here nor there.

    But tangent aside, I just had to see for myself if CoD's campaign was as groan-worthy as I'd heard. It is. But you know what the funny thing is? From what I've heard, Blops2's campaign is actually a STEP UP, and the best the series has seen so far. That is not a comforting thought in the slightest...though I have a sneaking suspicion that when the next game comes around, that'll have the best campaign yet.

  3. Regarding it's momentous popularity, perhaps it's just an easy way for people to get their ego stroke? I mean, I never hear anyone who's terrible at the game praise it. It's always those guys, ritually pwning noobs, "prestiging them fools," that seem to gain the most enjoyment out of the game. At least that's what I've gathered, after many a beatdown from older brother and friends.

  4. "Prestiging them fools"? That's a new one...and one I hope doesn't go into universal rotation.

    I admit that there's a chance that I don't like CoD because I'm bad at it. On the other hand, I also admit that even though I currently have the chance to get better, I still don't feel like even touching the disc, let alone play it of my own free will. The gameplay rubs me the wrong way, and the campaign is the clincher. There's just nothing there for me...and that's fine. It just means I don't have to waste my time with it, that's all.

    I still can't help but feel like there's something wrong with the whole "ego stroking" aspect that CoD tends to cater to. I guess there's just a different response to victory from player to player. Whether it's scoring a hit or winning a match in Smash Bros. or PlayStation All-Stars, I tend to be pretty humble (though I'll take shots every now and then). When my brother wins, he's sure to celebrate as cockily as he can and play the martyr -- he's "overcome the odds", as he might say. When my buddy wins, he's about ready to blow the roof off with shouts and cheers...and rub in how badly he slaughtered my bro. I guess CoD brings in those who celebrate/enjoy victory in a certain way.

    Side note: I played the game yesterday (regrettably), and it turns out that by default, the player's mini-map only shows where other players are when shots are fired; otherwise, you're walking around corners blindly and hoping you get in the first shot. There's an option that turns on player locations if you dig around in the menus, but I find it baffling that such a basic -- and vital -- gameplay element has been removed when other games in the series had it on...and had it on for a reason.

    Side note to the side note: there's a neat article over on Penny Arcade that discusses CoD. I'd recommend a look.

  5. I actually do like the multiplayer - LOCAL multiplayer, that is. I have some friends that have it, and I head over to play some rounds of Zombie Mode - the only really worthwhile aspect of the game, though I'll admit it's because I've got a huge stiffy for anything zombie-related. But even then, it's because I'm hanging out with friends and bonding with them that makes it worthwhile; why I would ever want to play in an online match with screaming 12-year olds is beyond me.

    I don't get why it's so popular, though. Sure, it's fun every now and then to turn your mind off and shoot zombies in the face to let off steam, but as a general rule I like my games to engage my mind while playing them. But what really rubs me the wrong way about the whole series, and modern-day FPS's as well, is the ANGER and VITROL most people who constantly play them have. I don't know if they were already like that and the games just bring that side of them out, or if the games actually induce this behavior in them, but I can't stand it. When I hang out with friends I want to have a good time and enjoy myself, not be constantly on edge about not sending one of my friends (who is the one who's been playing these games nonstop since Halo 1 came out) into a raging fit.

    ...Why am I hanging out with him, now that I think about it?

    As for the campaign, I've got another confession; I actually kinda like MW1's campaign, when it first came out. It felt fresh and new at the time, and that part in the middle where you were in the middle of a nuclear explosion actually got to me as a person; ever since that scene, I've been a huge opponent for nuclear weapons. But then it turned into a typical revenge sequence and I lost interest. Every CoD campaign since then has been boring or even downright pisses me off; particularly the gall MW2 has of blowing up the International Space Station, fuck you guys I LIKE the ISS! And the extremely linear design just pisses me off too; it's one of the absolute worst things I've seen in modern gaming, and in general is what makes me disinterested in most modern games these days. At least the really popular ones.

  6. I've heard that MW1 actually had a pretty good campaign (though I never tried it out for myself; I just gave the multiplayer a shot, and quickly decided it wasn't the game for me). So unless I go and watch a playthrough of it on YouTube, I'll gladly take your word for it -- especially on the "fresh and new" bit. Like Guitar Hero and Tony Hawk before it (and Assassin's Creed, more recently), it's starting to look like yearly releases of CoD are starting to hurt the franchise. Even the positive reviews I've read seem to be a little tired of I can only imagine how many regular gamers want CoD to just, I don't know, take a nap for a few years.

    If I had to play CoD -- and I have, and will again -- then it'll be because of local multiplayer. At least then, you can at least learn how the people playing next to you think and operate, and you can at least TRY to figure out how to counter that. But even in a match with three players right next to each other, it still feels like there's an absurdly-high amount of randomness from moment to moment. I'm not good at shooters, but it seems like if I try to use some strategy and play defensively, or just try to move to a good location, I end up getting shot in the back. In fact, most of my kills have been snagged by just running into someone before they saw me and pulling the trigger. My guess is that randomness leads to rage (and plenty of it), in that a good player can still lose to a bad player, and they're out for revenge. But then again, is "playing with rage" any sort of way to play a game? Randomness and probability are a part of any game, so it's just something you have to deal with. Is that really anything worth getting sour about?

    I don't just seems like the opposite of what a game should do. We play games to have fun, not to go into berserker fits. But considering that my brother's playing (and getting infuriated by) Street Fighter X Tekken as I type, maybe there's just something addictive about that anger.

  7. I'm right with you there on the minimap issue. The turning off of player characters on the minimap should be relegated to a handicap for experienced players who want to rely on map memorization, rather than an inconvenient default. For those like me, who get terribly disoriented with first-person anythings, not knowing where anything is makes my CoD experience comparable to the plight of the proverbial headless chicken. Meh, at least I can draw my own maps in Etrian Odyssey or Wizardry.
    The PA article raises some interesting points about how the current generation of console FPSs requires less skill to get good at, and I hadn't realized online matchmaking actively tries to keep experienced players away from noobs. However, I feel no amount of breaking balance for mass market appeal is going to make the game any more appealing to us role-playing, strategy folk. This is simply not our frontier. Which I guess is understandable; I don't think I'm ever going to get my FPS fanatic friends to willingly start a new game of Persona 4 or Katawa Shoujo. To each his own.

  8. Well, I wouldn't count out Katawa Shoujo -- at least not automatically. As they say, that game hits you right in the feels.

    ...On the other hand, the premise alone may be too much for some. Their loss, I guess.