Black Ops: After Modern Warfare

I never meant for this to be a thing, but apparently I’m just doing a massive spread on the Call of Duty games now. It started with an article on the airport sequence in MW2 at the end of July, and then things really kicked into gear in late August. This is #8 in that string; we’re done with the Modern Warfare series, and we’re moving on to the Treyarch Black Ops trilogy. I don’t know if I’ll do the whole trilogy right now – I tend to only buy games when they’re on sale, and I’m sure as fuck not paying the full $90 for fucking BlOps II just to write a couple articles about it here. So that might come later. Anyway, let’s talk about Black Ops as a sequel.

Okay so if you aren’t aware, technically Black Ops is a sequel to World at War, a 2008 game that returned to the WW2 setting after Modern Warfare‘s focus on the modern day. That’s mostly got to do with Activision’s publishing schedule: they’ve got a couple different developers (Infinity Ward and Treyarch), and each of them was pumping out a Call of Duty game in alternate years. The original CoD was 2003, by Infinity Ward, who then also published CoD2 in 2005. Then in 2006 Treyarch produced CoD3, in 2007 Infinity Ward released Modern Warfare, and 2008 was Treyarch’s World at War. 2009 was then Infinity Ward’s Modern Warfare 2, and 2010 Treyarch’s Black Ops. What’s interesting here is that each game takes about two years to develop – so even though World at War came out after Modern Warfare, it’s fundamentally a pre-Modern Warfare game. It’s much more contiguous with the previous cycle of WW2 games. It would’ve been too far through development to respond to the massive changes initiated by Modern Warfare. Really we only see Treyarch’s full response to Modern Warfare two years later, in 2010, with Black Ops – by which time Modern Warfare 2 (2009) had also been released. So Treyarch are always kind of running behind – whatever they release ends up being a response to the game that came out three years ago. That’s one of the reasons I’m keen to play Black Ops 2 – it’ll be interesting to see how it deals with that problem.

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So Black Ops exists in this weird space where it’s responding to Modern Warfare, which came out three years earlier, as well as being the second part of Treyarch’s trilogy. We’ll talk about the Modern Warfare influence in a minute – I want to start with Black Ops as a sequel to World at War. As far as I can make out, World at War is a pretty straightforward WW2 shooter. It’s essentially commemorative, in that it’s based around historical battles, following the Americans through the Pacific theater and the Russians fighting their way to Berlin. The game’s climax even involves the Russian playable character mounting the Soviet flag on top of the Reichstag, as in Yevgeny Khaldei’s famous photo. Because the game focuses on historical events, the plot ends up being a bit choppy in order to create an emotionally satisfying narrative arc. It’s particularly obvious with the Soviet narrative, which starts at the Battle of Stalingrad in 1942, and then jumps ahead three years to the Battle of Berlin. That’s basically the Russian storyline: those dirty Germans murdered everyone in Stalingrad, and now we’re in Berlin and we’re gonna fuck their homes up instead. In order to string those events together, Treyarch had to skip over three whole years, which means the overall structure just ends up feeling a little choppy. It’s not a problem that ever exists in the Modern Warfare games, by comparison, because those games aren’t dealing with historical events.

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The other major thing about the historical/commemorative focus is that political allegiances change over time. That becomes really important when you transition from World at War into Black Ops. In World at War, the bad guys are the Nazis, and the good guys are the Allies, including the Russians. Black Ops, on the other hand, is set during the Cold War, where the Soviets are the villains. As a sequel, Black Ops is therefore concerned with showing how Russia’s national character could pivot from good to evil. And it actually has a pretty good mechanism: blame the Nazis. There’s a real thematic continuity here from World at War to Black Ops – Nazis are bad, and when the Russians start absorbing Nazi scientists, the Russians go bad too. Towards that end, there’s a big sequence in Black Ops where Reznov and Petrenko, the two main characters from the Russian campaign in World at War, are working under the orders of General Dragovich. Dragovich has befriended a Nazi scientist, who’s got some evil fuck-off nerve gas, and Dragovich decides to test the gas on Reznov and Petrenko. The whole sequence is designed to explain the change in Russia’s character: the bad Russians receive and protect Nazi scientists, and then shank the good Russians. There’s a lovely little moment when Petrenko gets gassed, actually – Reznov says that Petrenko should have died in Berlin, at the height of Russia’s victory, rather than living to see his country degenerate into such monstrous action. It’s an interesting contrast to the climactic scene of World at War, where Reznov tells Petrenko “As long as you live, the heart of this army can never be broken.” Petrenko’s death represents the death of Russia’s heart, the death of its moral compass. That’s a surprisingly thoughtful narrative beat from a game that’s often bashed for having a shit plot.

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So BlOps maintains the basic worldview from World at War, and changes around some of the historical details to suit – for example, it acts like the US never took in any Nazi scientists, because Nazis are bad. Which, you know, lol. It also borrows from Modern Warfare by largely shifting away from the massive military actions. Obviously the WW2 games are about small units taking part in huge operations – and that’s something that comes through very strongly in World at War, with the Battle of Stalingrad and the Battle of Berlin or whatever. Black Ops, on the other hand, leans into the Modern Warfare thing of having small squads of special forces units infiltrating to do sneaky shit. They don’t entirely do away with the huge set-piece battles – you still fight in the defense of Khe Sanh, for example – but by and large you’re more focused on doing little sneaky side things within a wider context. There’s this underlying idea that it’s the behind-the-scenes stuff that really makes things happen – which is very much a Modern Warfare idea. It’s especially clear in contrast with World at War, which is all about battle lines and enemy fronts and capturing airfields and shit. It’s war. Modern Warfare is way more about, like, military intervention as a type of international policing action, or military intervention as sneaky illegal shit. That’s basically the boilerplate summary of both the American and British plotlines in Modern Warfare, and it neatly applies to a bunch of moments in Black Ops too. Vietnam was described as a police action, even though we call it a war today. Black Ops also has an attempted assassination attempt on Castro (sneaky and illegal); destroying a Soviet rocket during launch (sneaky, illegal); and torturing some guy in Hong Kong (sneaky Geneva Convention violation). In terms of these different types of combat, it’s all heavily drawing on Modern Warfare.

So Black Ops exists in that weird intersection between Modern Warfare and World at War. It’s not totally willing to throw out the historical context, which is why it’s about Kennedy and McNamara and Fidel Castro and all these other major historical players. At the same time, it’s trying to react to Modern Warfare and update how it depicts combat by focusing on small elite units doing very specific things rather than lots of massive set-piece battles. From that perspective, the Cold War is a pretty good choice of setting. It’s still historical, but it’s better suited for the focus on small units, or on espionage and sneaky shit. I personally don’t particularly like the game as a whole, but I do appreciate how it gets to where it is. Anyway, there’s a bunch of other things I want to talk about, but we’re well over our limit for the week, so I should leave off. Next week, Black Ops and nationalism.

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