Let's discuss Avengers: Infinity War -- a movie BOUND to make you feel so good!

November 30, 2015

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

“For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.  Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you.”
--Jeremiah 29:11-12

All right.  One for the road.

Don’t worry.  We’ll get through the campaign together.  Or...part of it at least.  So let's go ahead and get bloppy one last time.

This would normally be the part where I give a quick summary of the plot, but in this case, I’m at a loss.  Like…was I not paying attention?  Is my memory failing me?  Am I that biased?  Or did I just tap out before I could even understand the plot?  The latter question probably holds water most, because I quit the game at maybe the hour-and-a-half mark -- in the middle of someone’s sentence, no less, but I’ll get to that.

The important thing is that I kind of understand some of the things, if not all of them.  You start off as a soldier-man out to rescue a captured and tortured prime minister in Africa.  But then the mission goes awry, and you end up getting your limbs torn off by robots.  And then you get the cyborg treatment so you can…uh…go after terrorists?  I assume so, because who else would it be?  (Well, one of the earlier games made all of South America the enemy, so it’s not like there isn’t a historical precedent of insane premises.)  Oh, and all of this is taking place about fifty years in the future, so you know.  SUPERIOR TECH.

Probably the first thing that’ll jump out to most people is that you can choose between playing as a male soldier or a female soldier.  Apparently, the CoD masterminds have thrown players a bone.  But there’s a caveat; for starters, the male and female options aren’t exactly diverse.  The hairstyles, such as they are, come in a couple of variations before breaking out the palette swaps.  I guess it doesn’t matter in the long run, because you’re playing a first-person game -- and while your character will talk on occasion, it’s not nearly enough to suggest he/she actually has a character.

The more pressing issue is that of the selectable choices, all of the characters are white.  I mean sure, some of them have a bit of a tan so you could maybe say they’re a different ethnicity, but apparently making a straight-up black guy was too much to ask.  I wouldn’t normally be a stickler about this -- I picked a guy with the bushiest beard of the bunch -- but this is another installment in a franchise that’s long since established itself as a chance for virtual burly white dudes to shoot all the brown dudes they can.  It’s…unfortunate, to say the least.

But let’s set that aside for now.  I’ve been mulling it over, and I think I know what the problem with Blops3 is -- because it’s not only a problem Yahtzee of Zero Punctuation fame has had over the years, but also a problem I had with Blops2: the campaign is in such a hurry to go nowhere fast.  The first thing you see are a bunch of images and blather about how the world has changed in this future timeline -- but by the time you even begin to process that it’s a sort-of-but-not-really post-apocalypse, it’s time for you to start your mission.  And then you’re crashing a plane into an enemy base for some reason, and then you’re shooting a bunch of (mostly) non-white dudes, and then the prime minister and his friend are shooting alongside you, and your squad mates show up throughout the mission, and Christ I need to take a breath.

What is the point of going so fast?  What are they trying to get to?  More half-hearted shooting at distant targets while being surrounded by partner AI that’s too dumb to shoot at people ten feet in front of them?  I sure hope it’s not the spectacle, because there’s a sequence where you ride around in an armored vehicle and shoot at stuff -- and I swear to God, I have never seen more explosions per second in anything, ever…and I was still bored out of my mind. 

I have no anchor for this story.  I don’t know what the world is like.  I don’t know what the countries, allied or enemy, are like.  I don’t know who Taylor is, or who Hendricks is, or who Hall is.  I don’t know what the objective is.  Blops3 is always in a rush to the next big moment, the next big firefight, the next setpiece, but it’s not willing to do the work to make those moments matter.  There’s not nearly enough context for anything that happens, which is kind of important when you’re dealing with geopolitical issues in a world so far-removed from ours. 

I at least managed to parse out the line “He is a terrorist, after all”, so I guess that’s all that matters.  Find the terrorist and kill him.  Or capture him, or stop him, or whatever; either way, it’s nice to know that the only thing that’s advanced from Blops2 to Blops3 -- in-universe or out of it -- is the technology.  Lord knows it’s not the plot.  Speaking of which, the technology level in this game opens up a LOT of questions that the devs probably weren’t prepared to answer.

Okay, so you bring down a plane on an enemy base -- at least I hope it’s an enemy base -- and then start your rescue mission.  So I guess the idea is to use the plane as a distraction so you can go on the offensive, while the baddies stay busy with cleanup.  But then it turns out that you’ve got guys on your team that can turn invisible via cloaking technology -- and I just sat there asking, “Wait, you can turn invisible?  Why aren’t we using that all the time?!”  The ability to turn invisible would’ve probably worked wonders for the mission, but I guess we had to do the running-and-gunning from straight out of the CoD playbook. 

I’d say there’s a disparity in the enemy’s technology and the player team’s, but then it turns out they’ve got a robot army on tap.  So I’m like, “Wait, you guys have a robot army?  Then why are you bothering with soldiers?”  I mean, the robots still go down hard and fast to your standard bullets, despite what your squad implies.  Soooooooooooo…I guess they’re just there for a dramatic reveal as they march through smoke?  And their menace is diminished minutes later when I mow through them en masse in a turret section? 

Also, I’m confused.  If Blops3 is supposed to be willing (if not eager) to toss out cyborg soldiers, then why doesn’t the player start as one?  Why does he have to go into a mission with the usual suite of guns, grenades, and flesh if he or anyone else can become a cyborg that can run on walls, double-jump, see through walls, and hack enemy technology to either control it at whim or destroy it outright?  The only drawback I can think of (besides costs and resources, which don’t get established at all because of course they don’t) is that it means he’d be implanted with the DNI system, which -- thanks to a glitch that I suspect only exists to inject “drama” into the plot -- can force users to have PTSD flashbacks, only even more intense. 

That opens up more questions than I’m willing to tackle, so let’s focus on something else.  There’s a negative consequence to Blops3 in making its player-character a non-character, even more so than usual.  The question that the game needs to answer immediately is “Why is this soldier such an integral part of the mission?”  Obviously, they wanted to make sure their fallen friend got help.  Fine.  But from then on they act like he’s the missing link to the puzzle -- like he’s the one who’ll stop terrorism forever.  But he’s a rookie, if not with DNI shenanigans, then on the battlefield. 

So why, when time is of the essence and the world is in danger, are trained soldiers who know cybernetics and the DNI inside out bothering to train a rookie who almost bit it in the game’s inaugural mission?  Wat makes him so special, especially since -- in typical CoD fashion -- you’re just following the orders, suggestions, and even motions of an AI partner?  Why bother with the player if Hendricks is the true MVP of the team?

The answer to that is simple.  Terrible, but simple.  Big boss Taylor approaches the player and tells him that “he’s turning into a badass motherfucker”.  And that’s when I turned the game off.

It’s indulgent design all over again.  It’s not about imparting themes or informing the player.  It’s not about telling a good story, or even providing some genuine thrills.  It’s all about making the player feel like the coolest guy in the room -- pandering with cheap spectacle and a story less interested in having any substance, and more interested in coddling the player.  Except Blops3 can’t even manage that; you’re tethered to an AI partner telling you what to do and when to do it, and congratulates you when you do it like a master giving his dog a treat.  So basically, CoD can’t even get that right; it’s feeding you candy, but it’s candy made from the refuse of the average trough.  And that’s not even the worst part.

So.  Let’s get real for a second.

You know, a blog that talks at length about video games and such probably isn’t the best place to bring up politics.  But here we are again with another CoD that has soldiers clawing at the concept of nobility taking on a nebulous threat -- terrorists, foreign powers, whatever -- for reasons that aren’t readily immediate.  I’ve talked at length about how there’s something VERY unsettling about the fact that these games (and others like them) would glorify warfare and the life of a soldier, and I stand by that.  If anything, I stand by it more than ever because of the reminders we’ve received from the real world.

France has seen a major tragedy recently.  People have died.  There’s been panic and confusion.  And even if some of the attackers have been taken care of, that doesn’t wash away the fact that said attackers found some semblance of victory.  If they wanted to cause terror, then they did it.  We may not be able to fully understand their reasoning for it, but those responsible are real people with real grievances, and were so steadfast in their beliefs that they would hurt innocent people.  They’re monstrous, but they’re still human.  That shouldn’t be forgotten, no matter how much justice wants -- or needs -- to be served.  But it IS forgotten, all for the sake of "fun".

It’s true that this and future conflicts will be resolved by brave men and women stepping up to fight for their ideals.  That’s appreciable.  But it won’t be simple, and it won’t be clean.  I thought that the U.S. learned that over the past decade-and-a-half; whether you’re dealing with terrorists, countries, or anyone dissenting, the moment you pull out a gun, the conversation changes.  Drastically.

War is hell.  No amount of idealization -- or defanging -- is going to change that.  So if you’re going to talk about it with fiction, you’d damn well better know what you’re doing.  If you’re serious, be serious.  If you’re parodic, be parodic.  It’s not a forbidden topic, but it requires tact to even begin to approach -- because talking about war can get almost as messy as the wars themselves.

Call of Duty doesn’t have that tact.  As far as I can tell, it doesn’t care.  Either the people behind it are incapable of moving their beloved breadwinner even an inch toward something tolerable, or they know that they only have to do the bare minimum to “succeed”.  They think that evolution of the franchise comes down to adding in more female characters, but that doesn’t mean jack shit of they don’t have even a fragment of a personality. 

Really, they act like they’re more concerned with showing off new technology for the player to screw around with, or at least engage with passively.  Look at this!  Look at that!  Here’s a cool thing!  There’s a cool thing happening!  Don’t worry, stop thinking!  No need to worry about who, what, where, when, why, or how!  Just let us lull you into a deep sleep!  There’s a treat in it for you!  You’re such a cool guy for doing exactly what we expect of you!  Now enjoy our terrible game!

It’s easy to assume the worst of the devs (and I have), whoever has CoD duty for the year.  But it’s worth remembering that they’re people too; they have wants and needs, opinions and reasoning that absolutely have to be respected.  With that said, there’s no reason to respect their product when their product can’t or won’t respect players.  Each new game provides opportunities to evolve.  To have substance.  To lay the naysayers to rest.  But that hasn’t happened yet, and I’m starting to doubt that it ever will happen.  “Why challenge when you can indulge?” the game asks as it lounges on its chair and munches on grapes.

Why, indeed.  I mean, it’s not like gamers like good things.  It’s not like there aren’t plenty of options for good games, shallow, deep, or anything in between.  Gamers just want to play the same game they played year after year with no perceivable changes to the formula -- a formula in dire need of repair.  They’ve got no problem with random, unsatisfying combat that has no sense of progress beyond the cheap thrill of a downed foe.  They revel in the chance to repeat the same modes over and over again as long as there’s something to shoot. 

And story?  Themes?  Ideas?  Quality?  There’s no time for that.  Gamers just need someone to stroke their egos and tell them how cool they are, even if it’s not earned.  Especially if it’s not earned.  They just want slop from the trough, year after year after year -- and they hope you continue to provide.  They hope that in a changing world full of complexity and uncertainty, you pare everything down to “shoot this thing because it’s fun”.

Oh, wait.  I lied.  None of that is true.

So that’s another triple-A production that I can say “screw you” to.  The list is getting shorter all the time…so maybe I’ll do myself a favor and dive back into my wheelhouse.

Come on.  What’s the worst that could happen?

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