Welcome to 2020! Another year, another string of cool technologies that we were supposed to have by now. So I’m finished with the block of Call of Duty games that I’ve played in previous years: the original Modern Warfare trilogy, Black Ops, and World at War. I’m kinda enjoying the series though – not the games, I mean, but writing about them on the blog. Maybe it’s developed out of doing so many on Wolfenstein. Maybe I’m finally getting some sort of stability with the video games queue. I’m happier with the balance here though – I started writing on the Call of Duty games at the end of July, and eleven of the twenty-three articles since have been CoD-related. This is twelve/twenty-four. Much healthier. Anyway – we’re into games that I’m mostly only seeing now for the first time, so I won’t quite have the same depth that I had for the other ones. Let’s tackle Black Ops II.
The relationship between Black Ops I and Black Ops II is similar to the relationship between Wolfenstein: New Order and New Colossus. Black Ops I tells the more competent, controlled story, while Black Ops II is bigger, crazier, more ambitious, and worse. As with New Colossus, some individual scenes in Black Ops II show a deeper and more meaningful artistic range than can be found in the entirety of its predecessor. However, again, as with New Colossus, the total effect is less than the sum of its parts.
So okay, let’s get specific. The campaign for Black Ops II is something of a grab bag: it moves back and forth between the Cold War and 2025. It also features some strategy-lite sections where you control groups of soldiers and can order them to move to different places in large set-piece battles. You’re able to move between controlling different soldiers, and you also have a little top-down tactical view of the whole level. The mechanic had its roots in Black Ops, with that one really shit level where you had to twiddle knobs to make dudes move around a map. It’s more fleshed out now – I’m not sure I’d call it a good addition to the game, but it’s certainly new. It adds to that grab-bag kinda feel – you’re in the Cold War, and you’ve got shit weapons, and then you’re in the future and it’s all zip-zip and cloaking devices and drones, and then you’re in the strategy sections and everything’s changing again. It never really fully settles down until the last couple levels, so I probably don’t have the most balanced view of it – it’s hard to judge the significance of everything until you finish the game, and you can go back and piece it all together. I probably need to play it through again, ugh.
In some ways, having a split plot isn’t necessarily a bad thing. There are plenty of stories that take that approach, looking to tell the story in a composite, mosaic kinda way. They let their meaning arise from the juxtaposition of parts, rather than from following one singular thread in a straightforward linear fashion. The potential concern for those kinda stories is when the parts don’t come together in a satisfying way, whether because the balance between them isn’t quite right, or because there’s an awkward unifying thread that just kinda gets in the way. We saw this issue with Stories Untold, which was a really satisfying anthology right up until it stopped being an anthology. The problem for Black Ops is that they’ve got a bunch of good individual parts that don’t mesh together.
For instance, we’ve got the Cold War setting, which within itself has a pretty compelling narrative. There’s two main dudes here: Frank Woods, one of the central figures in Black Ops, and Raul Menendez, the new villain. There’s some really great one-upmanship between the pair. We start in Angola, where the CIA was supporting rebel groups against the established Marxist government. That’s a nice clear instance of the US being a bit shit, illegally interfering in foreign countries to influence foreign governments. It’s also something that historically happened, lending the whole thing dramatic weight. Menendez captures Woods, who’s part of the CIA, and horrifically tortures and murders his whole team. Again, clearly bad, although it’s a weird bad because technically the US shouldn’t have really been in there in the first place. It’s also revealed that Menendez hates America because some US businessman burnt down a building to claim insurance and accidentally gave Menendez’s sister third degree burns in the process. So Menendez sees American capitalism as the enemy, fair enough, and decides that the appropriate course of action is to be awful – which is bad, but also the Americans made basically the same decision in reverse, so everyone sucks here. Things just keep escalating after that, climaxing with Woods going a bit bananas and accidentally grenade-murdering Menendez’s sister. In revenge, Menendez tricks Woods into shooting his CIA buddy, Alex Mason (the protagonist from Black Ops I), and leaves. That’s a solid story.
I mean, there’s still some stupid stuff in there – for instance, a bunch of mujahideen in Afghanistan betray Woods and Mason at one point, but only after standing around and allowing the pair to learn that Menendez has a mole in the CIA. That’s stupid. If you’re going to betray someone, why let them learn important information first? The writers clearly just wanted you to learn that information, and couldn’t figure out a better way to deliver it. But okay, fine, that’s not a bad story in itself. It’s got that interesting ambiguity around the Cold War, which was largely missing from the original Black Ops. There’s a great sequence where you actually play as Menendez – the CIA has invaded his compound along with Noriega, the Panama dictator, and you run around shooting all the Panama soldiers who’re bad and nasty. It’s another split level, like at the climax of Black Ops I, where you play through the same level from the perspective of Mason and then Hudson, his CIA handler. First you run this one as Menendez, and then again as Mason, fighting the same battle from both sides. That’s a really interesting way of doing it. It shows the cruelties of both sides – although, that said, the writers do try to draw a distinction between the ‘bad’ Panama soldiers under Noriega, and the ‘good’ American soldiers, who would never do naughty things like butchering civilians. Noriega serves as something of a convenience for the writers in this game: he’s portrayed as responsible for all the war crimes, which makes the US look innocent, and which also justifies America’s later decision to invade Panama and depose Noriega (which you play through in one of the later levels in the game). It’s an interesting little tension: even though the writers are ostensibly trying to show that mistakes were made on all sides during the Cold War in South America, their use of Noriega kinda undermines that. The writers use Noriega in a cynical, hypocritical way to try and absolve the Americans of as much evil as possible. They treat him, in short, in much the same way as the historical Americans portrayed in their game.
There’s a final, funny little wrinkle to this tale. Noriega died in 2017, meaning that in 2012 when Black Ops II was released, he was still alive. He sued Activision for how they depicted him in the game. The suit was thrown out, obviously, but it’s an amusing end to the story. Noriega was never just an American stooge. He helped them, but he was never controlled by them. He was never going to take this latest scapegoating lying down. I mean, I don’t want to suggest he had some massive ideological opposition to it – he was probably just looking to make a quick buck. That’s a believable Noriega response.
Oh – yeah, the 2025 thing. Uhh, so there’s a bunch of drones and stuff, and Menendez is still around, and he still hates America, but now he’s started like a grass roots revolution group or something to overthrow capitalism. It’s very Arab Spring, I guess, very Occupy. There’s also a bunch of stuff about technology and remote controlled machines, and the ethics of drone warfare, but like ehh. They have interesting building blocks that they aren’t able to muster into an intelligent commentary. They try to keep it connected to the Woods/Mason era by, ah, there’s this thing where Mason has a son (David), and he’s also a soldier, of course, and Menendez is like ‘buhh gonna ruin your kid’s life too by like destroying America,’ which like – yeah I don’t fuckin’ know. It’s a bad story.