This review is pointless. As I type these words, Treyarch’s latest Call of Duty is stampeding off shelves worldwide, cheerfully tweaking the cheeks of products unwise enough to contest its preeminence. The high-scoring Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood has been unable, so far, to shaft it. Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit, similarly acclaimed, is choking in the dust. Microsoft’s Kinect has been carelessly waved aside (on the third or fourth attempt, after turning the lights right up and painting the walls white). Mission accomplished, Activision. Do pass “go”, do collect umpteen billion dollars, do thumb your nose at any belated attempts to rock the boat.
Of course, where CoD is concerned most reviews are pointless, whether they beat the rush or bring up the rear. The franchise is a phenomenon, like FarmVille and the Wii, to which standard rules of engagement no longer apply, and the most many “pro” critics can hope for is to accentuate or qualify that success, to scuff the game’s armour or shine its boots. With its action blockbuster stylings and full-fat multiplayer, CoD enjoys a reputation among recession-hit consumers as the safest bet, the one necessity in a sea of maybes, the recreational baseline.
Which is more than a little ironic, as series campaigns routinely stake their claim to your eyeballs on constant, near-cataclysmic insecurity, probing the brink of sensory and psychological breakdown. Black Ops taps the motherlode in this department, warping us back to the Cold War – birthplace of all political thrillers – and Sam Worthington’s Alex Mason, a state-sponsored assassin hopped up on meds and electricity in a Pentagon interrogation chamber. Mason knows something, Something Important, but that Something is buried deep in his cerebellum, and to get at it, you’ll have to relive his career one daisy-chain of spawn points at a time.
Compacted into montages of “top secret” letter heading, grainy archive footage and queasy light sculpture, the plot is designed less to entertain as to overwhelm. Scraps of contextual detail are blocked out in black marker as missions load, leaving only names, dates and places visible in panicky red print. The interrogation chamber (which you’ll view in first-person, with a degree of camera control) is dominated by a bank of monitors, scenes of bloodshed and skulduggery twitching back and forth. Every other of Worthington’s lines is a sleep-deprived expletive. Among the bigger names at the mic, Ed Harris ably fills out the shades and collar of a CIA handler, while Gary Oldman chews vowels as Mason’s brother-from-another-mother Reznov.
For all the cinematic jars and jerks, however, you’ll have no trouble second-guessing the twists, and the baddies of the piece – a trio of clownish rogue commies and fugitive Nazis, on loan from the Wolfenstein series – are dead on arrival. Given the proximity to wartorn Vietnam, habitat for some of cinema’s greatest villains, Treyarch’s lack of vision here is especially disappointing.
The fracturing of Mason’s inner landscapes does, at least, provide an excuse to devastate an assortment of external ones, ranging from US-invaded Cuba to the streets of Hue during the Tet Offensive, winding the decades back at one point to visit an ice-locked research facility at the close of World War II. Among the handful of vehicle sequences is a trip up the Mekong river in Laos, worth experiencing more for its soundtrack than anything else. You’ll also shoot down a Soviet space rocket, snipe Viet Cong from the hull of a wrecked bomber, and escape a Gulag alongside troupes of suicidally patriotic Ruskies. As a sort of shell-shocked global package tour for the out of pocket, it ticks most of the boxes.
Mind you, the repetitiveness of the locking and popping ensures that settings soon blur into one. Let’s not mince words here: it’s high time the campaign formula perfected in Modern Warfare breathed its last – not just because cleansing an area from behind cover is old hat – after all, plenty of worthy structures or devices are old hat – but because there’s absolutely no skill required, only persistence and the short-term memory of a goldfish. You’ll proceed from flecked rock to gouged door frame to grungy closet to overturned table, reading the patterns and dogging the footsteps of various NPC nursemaids, till at last the boredom of it all prompts a Rambo and (usually) the loading of a checkpoint.