Call of Duty: Black Ops has now set the record for the largest entertainment launch in history. Selling 5.6 million copies within 24 hours of being released and pulling in $360 million, it's clear that this is a defining product. It's a shame, because it's a game that wants to be a movie so much that it hurts. More so than the previous games, Black Ops completely hobbles the player's agency and interactivity to the point where his presence is rendered moot (not mute, given that the game now features talking protagonists and not simply a developer painfully breathing into a microphone). It's perfectly pointed out in this video, which shows that the game robs even the player's main mode of communication with the world (i.e. a gun) of all meaning.
Say what you will of Modern Warfare 2's "No Russian" level, at least it was an attempt to actually make use of the strict linearity that the Call of Duty franchise has developed. Black Ops takes its linearity for granted. One sequence in particular is a striking offender. The player is running down a catwalk, fleeing a facility about to be hit by an avalanche. On the opposite edge, an enemy carrying an RPG appears. He cannot be shot, since he needs to blow up that catwalk. When he does, the game so desperately wants the player to be in one particular spot that it teleports him there if he's not. A later level actually has objective markers popping up at every junction in a maze of laboratories, so he knows exactly where he needs to go. If at any time the player doesn't do as he's told, the game ends with a specific message stating what he did wrong (or didn't do at all). The level of scripting is carried so far that NPCs fail to even look directly at the player when he's not where the game expects him to be.
There's also no effort made to mask the game's influences. Quite the opposite, in fact. I'm unsure whether Treyarch is trying to live up to the standards set by Infinity Ward, or if it is actively trying to outdo them. The fact that Black Ops is the medium's most profitable product leads me to compare it to the likes of Transformers: big summer blockbusters that keep their audience occupied with explosions and lens flares to hide their shallow and vacuous natures. While Black Ops' story has received favour from critics, it's only because its yardstick is the stories in other Call of Duty games. As an actual movie, it would be a direct-to-video action flick starring Jean-Claude Van Seagal.
It's all a matter of complacency, also neatly illustrated by a technologically crude PC version which proved nigh-on unplayable for most people until a patch was released. It seems to me that the foreknowledge that Black Ops would sell (due in no small part to its considerable pre-release hype) curbed any incentive to do anything more than is expected of a Call of Duty game. I realise full well that multiplayer is Black Ops' true playing field, but its single-player component simply plays by the very numbers that permeate every inch of the story.
Welcome to Playthroughline, a personal blog focused on the implementation of stories in games. In addition to general musings about narrative design, you’ll also find a collection of scripts that basically do for videogames what The Editing Room does for movies.