Six years after the death of Saddam Hussein—just a couple of days ago—I decided to watch the video of his death for the first time. I did this because in Call of Duty: Black Ops II's attempt to explain its plot, I was shown a brief glimpse of a YouTube video showcasing the director of the FBI being burned alive. This shocks me for a second—is that something that could really happen, or is that somewhere the game takes liberty in its fiction? Could I just hop online and watch a recent high profile figure...die on a major media website? I can, of course—Saddam is a testament to that. In the moment that this hit me, I started to realize that the world of David Mason—son of Alex Mason, and the new primary protagonist—is one we are familiar with, one we may already be living in barring the existence of a few futuristic weapons. It's all less "near future" than you'd think.
Black Ops II tells the sometimes confusing story of psychotic narco-terrorist Raul Menendez, alternating between segments in the past narrated by Frank Woods that explain why Menendez harbors intense hatred toward Americans and "present day" segments that see David Mason trying to hunt Menendez down. This all occurs in a world where terrorist organizations have Twitter accounts, YouTube accounts. Compare to the real-world—where we have things like announcements made by Anonymous on Twitter, or videos of war crimes uploaded to Wikileaks.
The game exists in a reality that is similar enough to our own that I felt enticed by the ideas and the politics it presented to me, yes, but particularly what these things say about the society that borne them. Though a small detail—Black Ops II is full of them, if we look beyond the competent set-piece shooter—the video of the FBI director caused me to try to understand something that I couldn't encroach when I was just 16. I'm talking about the ruthless happiness that overtook most people I knew who heard the news that Saddam is dead. We did it, we did it, and there's the proof. Go on, watch it.
I couldn't watch it then. I was unnerved by a war I did not understand, unnerved by death claiming a man I knew little about beyond the constant assurance that he was "bad." The bad man died, so I should derive pleasure from watching his neck break. Like a good American. More than that: like a devout consumer of technology, of information.
Deep down, I think I felt that something was changing—something that now, wouldn't even seem that odd. Oh, did so and so die? Yeah, someone captured it on their cell phone, check it out on YouTube. Did that guy swindle the nation? Yep, that's what the Internet says—here's the link. The age of transparency: we can see everything, yet retain the luxury of remaining ignorant.
I don't believe the things Black Ops II will make the observant among us reflect about are intentional, but elements like these remain the most fascinating thing about the title. I say this in spite of playing the prototypical Call of Duty experience many of us are familiar with: yes, the game is mechanically great. You will feel powerful as you play, you will experience thrills as you go between shooting sections, vehicle sections, drone segments, even stealth segments. You, single soldier, luck out to find reality practically bending to your will with the help of a gun and the occasional high tech toy.
Explosions will always barely miss you, and you will narrowly do the impossible with enough frequency that you begin to wonder if some higher force is involved—not to part the red sea, but to allow you to play through the full glory of American individualism one set piece at a time. I have a difficult time explaining some of the crazy, implausible things I did otherwise—like dragging a mostly dead man through a legion of enemies in the jungle or jumping into the cockpit of an aircraft I have 0 experience with (the game itself makes sure to point this out!) yet piloting it with ease. Or blacking out a number of times in a row in a period of five minutes, but still being fine. The scripted world waits for you, and only you, before anything is allowed to happen—so you get the feeling that this is likely how the world thinks an American perceives things.
I also say the ideas in Black Ops II are the most interesting part of the title even though the game features some of the biggest changes to the franchise in years. Notably, your choices matter and can cause branching storylines with different endings. Comparing notes with Kotaku's editor-in-chief Stephen Totilo, we found that we got wildly different details leading to very different outcomes. Some of the fluctuations are easy to foretell: someone either lives, or they die. Simple enough.
Other possibilities are difficult to discern, though the end of every level greeted me with the results of my operations. I am inclined to read this screen as one that presents variables of a malleable story, making me wonder what I had to do to experience something different. Baseline, I knew that Strike Force Missions—optional squad-based levels that one can fail—can change things immensely. In one main-story mission, I failed to rescue a high value target. A SFM appeared, where we tracked down the target's location. This meant that I had a second shot at rescuing the target, and, had I ignored it, my story would have been missing an important character.
Seeing all the different possibilities—should they exist—is good enough reason to replay the game, if that's your thing. SFMs are also worth experiencing if you are interested in spending more time with robotics and drones. The main campaign gives you access to these on occasion, but not too much—it mostly continues the paradigm of one-super-soldier-taking-matters-into-his-own-hands. A premise that I can't help but wonder how long it takes before it is phased out judging from real-world drone efforts; it already feels a tad disingenuous when Frank Woods says the world will always need men like him.
But all that stuff was of little consequence to me. For all that we bemoan the saturation of the shooter genre, I don't think finding a shooter that feels enjoyable or entertaining to play is particularly noteworthy anymore. Obviously some developers falter, but in the realm of AAA, certainly when deciding between major Call of Duty iterations, it's like we're picking between different cuts of steak.
Intentional or not, Black Ops II made me think. It's not a cerebral title or anything, but it doesn't have to be. For instance: part of what a near-future Call of Duty required was the imagining of new weapons. Or should I say new toys to play with? Gadget lust was in full force while I played, with me almost salivating over some of the tech the game gave to me.
The problem—if you would call it that—with a tech-fueled war is that we think is tech is cool. We
want the newest iPod, the newest console with the touch screen. It doesn't even have to be things we can buy. I know I've personally watched videos breathlessly—with some terror, but mostly with admiration—of high-tech weapons and gadgets on sites like Gizmodo. I'm talking like, things that DARPA might upload—maybe a robot learning how to move, or a gun that fires no shot but is capable of incapacitating a human being with ease.
As if Call of Duty didn't already fetishize and celebrate war! Now it appeals to the consumerist in us, the one that will appreciate a futuristic gun not just through its mechanical merits, but through its technological excellence as well. There's a gun that lets me see through walls. There's a gun that highlights, with a red diamond, where the enemy's head is at—for headshot convenience, of course. There's a gadget that allowed me to go invisible. Once I got a hold of toys like these, the segments that took place in the past with Frank Woods and Alex Mason felt like they dragged on. War wasn't cool or novel in the past, not anymore—not in comparison to this.
Realizing all of these truths troubled me. I began suspecting that if somehow we could, say, watch atomic bombs go off safely, without harming anything, we'd probably do it—despite it being a weapon, despite what it represents, despite the lives it's taken. Ethic and moral quandaries fade into the background if something is entertaining enough. Games like Call of Duty and Medal of Honor, along with no shortage of other similar media, are evidence here.
Though the game makes sure that we understand that there are issues revolving around drones, the primary focus is that technology renders us vulnerable to hackers. We should be afraid of those like Raul Menendez, who want to control all the [insert hackable things here] according to the game. Not discounting that this is probably a very real issue, the game ignores the bulk of what makes up drone concerns: how remote controlling them might change our perception of war, or whether or not drones detach us too much from our actions, and so on. Despite this, I feel that Black Ops still explores the overarching questions that we have with drones, only with its futuristic guns.
If part of the worry is that we become more reckless, more ruthless, or less humane when we man drones, weapons that highlight enemies for you postulate a similar problem. Perhaps worse.
You no longer have to think about your actions or who your enemies are when they are clearly marked. You just have to worry about the next red target. Literally. To my morbid amusement, I couldn't help but think that in reality, tech that picks up on people of interest is optimized to recognize Caucasians. In the battlefield, I'm guessing weaponry would have the exact opposite optimization, eh? There are no shortage of things to consider as you play.
On the less meditative side of things, we have Zombies and multiplayer—both at first glance seemingly robust enough to warrant bafflement at how Treyarch manages to fit so much content onto one measly disc. Unfortunately, assessments on these pre-release is of little use to anyone. For now, I will say that zombies looks deliciously insane, and multiplayer seems more viciously twitchy and cutthroat than ever before thanks to the new high tech weapons. We will make sure to update you on the multiplayer, if not give a separate verdict on Zombies, later in the week.
Black Ops II is a great shooter, but that alone doesn't make it worth playing to me. Black Ops II's triumph is found in how it assembles modern-day issues, ultimately making it impossible not to feel like I was staring into the mirror of my society. If the the constant question with games of Call of Duty's ilk is whether or not they hold some responsibility in what they depict, then Black Ops II feels like an answer. An answer that shows that the things that make us reconsider things, as "responsible" media does, do not always have that intention—and they don't have to. I think that lacking that explicit purpose actually accentuated the crisis I felt as I realized that as much as I enjoyed what I was playing, I didn't like what the game revealed.
I've spent the last week playing Call of Duty: Black Ops II's multiplayer; arguably the real reason many will purchase the game. While I still have a lot to experience-the number of unlocks is ridiculous, and the competitive metagame is difficult to discern this early-I still think... More »