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November 16, 2015

Let’s “discuss” Call of Duty: Black Ops 3 (Part 1).


“For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God's righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.”
--Romans 3:23-26

*sigh*

Shit.


So after a round of dog-bathing one day, my brother came in and announced that he was downloading Call of Duty: Black Ops 3, because of course he was.  And then he just kept piling on the good news -- like how it meant we’d be playing online multiplayer, local multiplayer, and of course, more Zombies with a pal.  My response was something along the lines of “Why didn’t you buy us three nooses instead?”  Call of Duty just brings out the best in me.

Obviously, I’m not happy about this.  I thought that I paid my dues with Blops2.  And then I did, like, two solid months of talking about shooters so I could try and find some merit to the genre -- which didn’t end well, seeing as how it culminated with a miserable run with Battlefield 4.  But I guess I haven’t suffered enough recently, so here I am again.  And sure, I could just not play the game (a futile effort, since as of this post I pretty much had to), but I did anyway.  It may be part of a terrible franchise and part of a terrible subgenre, but Call of Duty still exists.  It has quantifiable elements to it, and as such?  As a piece of art -- or as a product, more appropriately -- it deserves to be judged critically.  Innocent until proven guilty.

With that said, how is the game?  How is this, the latest and greatest (?) installment in Activision’s favorite franchise?  Let me answer that with a question: does this game have a right to exist when Splatoon showed up earlier this year and kicked its ass up and down Bismarck, South Dakota?  And the answer to that is


All right, look.  Is it fair for a guy with obvious distaste for the franchise to declare that Blops3 is worthless and awful?  No.  That’s why this (and by extension everything else I write) isn’t a straight-up review.  I’m not even going to bother with objectivity here, unless it’s a happy coincidence.  I have to be honest here.  And if I’m being honest?  One online session with the game made me realize just how far behind CoD is behind Splatoon, even though the former should have EVERY advantage thanks to at least a decade of experience.

A note about Blops3: it’s continuing a recent trend of shooters with greater mobility.  Brink had it, Titanfall had it, Splatoon has it, and Overwatch will have it (though the extent of it will vary depending on the chosen hero).  So you’ll be able to sprint as usual, but you can also duck while sprinting to go into a slide.  Run towards a wall at an angle, and you’ll run along it.  Tap jump twice, and you’ll double-jump -- or you can hold the button down to activate your jetpack and hover around.  It makes for more movement options before, during, or after a firefight, which is cool in theory.  Here’s the question, though: how does that change the core gameplay?  And the answer to that, at least from a noob’s biased perspective, is that it doesn’t.  Blame Splatoon for that.  Why?  Well, I’ll explain -- but for the uninitiated, watch this.


Here’s the thing: in Splatoon, the high mobility is a mechanic. 

Maybe that’s a little presumptuous of me to say, since I’ve played one of those games a LOT more than the other.  On the other hand?  Splatoon leaves a strong first impression -- and it only gets better as the player gets used to running and gunning as an Inkling.  There’s a system of checks and balances in play, even if it’s not immediately obvious.  As a kid, you can shoot down enemies and expand your inky territory, i.e. come one step closer to winning a match for your team (in the default mode).  The tradeoff is that the kid has pathetic mobility, and once he/she runs out of ink (ammo), it’s over. 

As a squid, you regenerate ink while you stay submerged, but more importantly gain the mobility needed to traverse long expanses, climb up walls, pass through certain obstacles, and even sneak up on rival players.  BUT you can’t attack, meaning that you can’t spread your turf.  So if you’re doing nothing but hiding in ink -- camping, as it were (even though you’re still vulnerable regardless), then you’re not accomplishing anything.  In a game that’s less about racking up kills and more about territorial control, that’s a problem.

But it’s a system that works.  It doesn’t take long to understand that the abilities in Splatoon are there for a reason.  Everything is purposeful.  Everything contributes.  Everything adds new layers of depth and strategy.


Now here’s the other thing: in Blops3, the high mobility is a gimmick.

I recognize that the ability to run on walls or effectively dash through the air can make for some interesting dynamics (namely, taking shortcuts across maps).  The potential is there, for sure; even if I played Blops3 extensively, I doubt I could tap that potential, because by nature I’m a low-mobility fighter.  But my problem is that as a CoD ignoramus, it doesn’t feel like the new mobility changes are enough to dramatically change the game -- only add on to it.  Change for change’s sake, as it were. 

In my experience, trying out some high-speed mechanics ended up with me getting shot dead.  Running on a wall?  Shot dead -- and that’s assuming I could even find a suitable wall to run along, anyway.  Double-jumping to find a positional advantage?  Shot dead -- and that was made possible thanks to running into some invisible walls on my way up some rocks.  The only option that seems useful is sliding, in the sense that it makes you a smaller target and helps you get to cover.  But by the time you get the impulse to slide away, you’ll probably already be dead.  And that feeds directly into a big issue with Blops3, if not CoD in general.


Speaking broadly about Blops3?  I can’t see the incentive in high-mobility tactics when the basics seem to do the job just fine, if not better.  I mean that on two levels.  First off, I can still gain some points by spotting an enemy in the distance and picking them off from afar; it’s inelegant and relies VERY heavily on luck, but my firefights seem to regularly devolve into random encounters and a test of who can pull the trigger first.  (A part of me prefers that, because first-person platforming isn’t something I find ideal -- it’s not deal-breaking, but I’m starting to sympathize with Yahtzee and his take on Mirror’s Edge.)

Second, I’m working under the assumption that there are higher-level strategies out there for people who care about/are good at the game.  If that’s true, then is parkour going to be enough to make them adopt new strategies?  Will added verticality, or extra lateral movements?  I have my doubts about that; if CoD is built on spotting enemies from afar and picking them off, then it behooves skilled players to spot morons trying to be ultra-skilled ninjas and punish them for it.


I’m being presumptuous here about Blops3, of course.  But the problem is that the game lends itself to scorn and assumptions.  I recognize that there’s a level of skill that goes into the average match, but I can’t perceive that skill as easily as I would in, say, a match in Street Fighter against an A-ranked player.  It leads to frustrating situations where I killed a guy because I just happened to spot him, or I get killed for the same reason.  The sheer level of randomness and happenstance hurts the game, at least from a layman’s perspective.  That’s not to say that Splatoon is the most nuanced and surgically-precise game, because it’s not -- but it’s still miles ahead of Blops3.

The impression I get from Activision and Treyarch’s latest is that it’s a game designed to breed frustration.  That’s not inherently a bad thing, because it can motivate a player to get right back in the fight and try to exact revenge.  But in the case of Blops3, it does (for me) one of the worst things a game could ever do: all too often, the player can lose without even knowing or understanding why.  The damage level is, on average, so absurdly high that you can sneeze on an opponent and he’d keel over. 


That leads to situations where you can walk through a map with the intent to enter a firefight (i.e. play the game in general), only to die instantly.  Why?  The killcam will show you how it happened, but it’s impossible to know why it happened.  The only answer that comes to mind is “You went out into the open when you should have been playing conservatively, and checking every square inch of the map.”  Or, alternatively?  “You died because you tried to play the game.”  I know that sounds unfair -- and it is -- but I’m not in the mood to play apologist for a game that puts you in situations where you can die two seconds after respawning.  Just because you randomly dropped down into an enemy’s sights.

It’s true that there’s a map on the screen, but it doesn’t show the positions of enemies unless a power-up is active.  As helpful as that would be, it’s not a deal-breaker; Splatoon gets along fine, after all.  But the problem is that the maps and the gunplay don’t feel as impactful or intimate as Nintendo’s shooter.  In a number of instances, I’m half-heartedly shooting at a soldier on the other side of a field while he’s half-heartedly shooting at me.  Or, more than likely, I’m dead before I even have a chance to know a firefight’s started.  Even when I do, it’s still a matter of “who can pull the trigger first” -- a game whose results are as predictable as the lottery numbers. 


In Splatoon, battles take place in relative close-quarters, despite the gunplay going on.  That’s partly because the guns -- even the sniper rifles -- have a pretty steep drop-off after a certain range.  You can still kill at a distance, but there’s a level of intimacy and engagement that comes with each skirmish; between the reduced ranges and the cozy map sizes, combined with the general objectives promoting movement (and thus engagement), even amid the chaos you can figure out who’s doing what. 

Lucky shots and random kills are a part of it, but you can fight back and even win if you’re good enough.  Or, if you’re not good enough, then there are options that let you make a quick escape or launch a sneaky counterattack.  If something goes wrong -- and it probably will -- then you can at least know what happened.  You’re not left staring agape or cursing your deity of choice.


Absurd as it may be, I think it’s easier to get Splatoon than it is to get Blops3.  Everything in that game feels purposeful, no matter where you look; it helps contribute to a shooter that delivers thrills and variety while relying on simple-yet-sophisticated mechanics.  Meanwhile, what does Blops3 have?  It’s probably got more guns, but what’s the point if it only takes a half-second of firing to instantly kill anyone?  There are character classes, but I’m concerned that the differences only shine through if you build up enough meter for a super attack (the effectiveness of which is debatable).  And since you can customize your “class” however you want anyway with a mess of guns, perks, and aesthetics, doesn’t that make the whole process somewhat arbitrary?

My brother lured me into a session of Blops3 with the promise of a character that could put on Rock Armor, AKA one of my favorite tropes ever.  I was denied, to say the least; it was less a suit of earthen might and more of a slight glow that I could hardly even notice (what with the game being in first-person).  It wasn’t even all that helpful.  Instead of dying instantly from gunshots, I lived for about two extra seconds.  So it’s basically really terrible body armor -- and while the assumption is that it keeps someone from becoming 100% invincible/overpowered, surely you’d expect a special ability to have a more pronounced effect, right?  Now I have to wonder: how many of the powers are actually useful?  How many of them are duds?

I mean, Splatoon’s defensive shield does its job MUCH better -- a perfect, if temporary defense that can save you in a pinch, and more importantly pass that perfect defense to (potentially) your entire team for a decisive blitz.  So why is the latest CoD so far behind?


I don’t know.  I guess the only way to know for sure is to keep playing the game, or read up on what a real CoD match is supposed to be like.  But even if there is something I’m missing -- some essential element that my feeble mind can’t begin to grasp -- then it sure as hell isn’t evident from the outset.  Splatoon didn’t have that problem.  You just pick it up, learn the rules and controls, and boom.  It feels natural, and you evolve as you go.  Blops3 doesn’t feel natural, satisfying, or even welcoming.  It has things in it, and things happen, but the bottom line is this: those that love the franchise will continue to love it.  Those that don’t love the franchise still have no reason to give it even a second of their time.

But how about that campaign?


Oh God.  Oh no.  Am I going to have to split this post into two parts?  Wait, hold on -- there are three major selling points to Blops3, aren’t there?  Yeah, there are.  It’s the online multiplayer suite, the campaign, and --


*sigh* I’m gonna need another Bible verse.  A really long one.

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