“[The numbers have] always been real Mason. This isn’t a game. We face annihilation unless you cooperate. Where is the broadcast station?!?” —Special Agent Jason Hudson
Purchased on during a sudden, unexpected Steam sale back during September, I picked up Call of Duty: Black Ops at half-price. Following CIA clandestine black operations, the story is centered around Nova 6, a biological weapon developed in Nazi Germany and refined by the Soviet Union for war against the United States. The story is told through several individuals’ perspectives, including SAD/SOG special forces operative Alex Mason, CIA agent Jason Hudson and several other characters. Each individuals’ roles come together to fill in the pieces about Nova 6: the different missions are set in a variety of locations around the world, from Vietnam to the Ural Mountains. As the story falls into place, more about Mason’s background is revealed, along with the mystery behind Nova 6. The end result is a campaign that is quite gripping, and the variety of settings means that the shooting is never too repetitive: I definitely enjoyed seeing the hunt for Nova 6 from varying perspectives and exploring the plethora of locations. Unlike Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3, the combat system feels satisfying and well-polished. Movement is responsive, so I never got stuck in the geometry or died to stray grenades. The weapons also feel quite powerful, giving a very tangible effect on enemies when fired. In fact, the effects of shotguns and explosives were reminiscent of the damage that the weapons from Wolfenstein: The New Order caused.
The story in Call of Duty: Black Ops stood out to me, not so much for the execution, but its premise. Around a year-and-a-half ago, I had just finished watching Higurashi no Naku Koro ni, an anime set in 1983 in a village known as Hinamizawa. Protagonist Keiichi Maebara, moves to Hinamizawa and befriends his new classmates Rena Ryugu, Mion Sonozaki, Rika Furude, and Satoko Houjou. Keiichi joins their after-school club activities in a peaceful setting. However, things take a turn for the ugly during an annual festival, resulting in the death of either characters or the destruction of the entire village. Dubbed Hinamizawa Syndrome, this mysterious agent forms the core of their plot, rather similar to how Nova 6 is at the heart of Call of Duty: Black Ops. While both stories are quite distinct from one another, I sometimes wonder how these separate stories might have meshed together. A fan fiction out there makes an appreciable effort at bringing these two universes together, weaving a contemplative narrative that presents the characters in a different light. In choosing to let words, rather than bullets do the talking, said fan fiction is remarkably well thought-out. I myself wonder about alternate histories: my favourite story to entertain would involve Higurashi‘s secret organisation “Tokyo” clandestinely allowing Nova 6 to be deployed at Hinamizawa to start a war between Japan and China in revenge for the Second World War’s outcome. Mason would be forced to fight through the mountains and forests of Gifu to stop this plot, as well as capture a Chinese agent who’s had a hand in Nova 6’s weaponisation. The Cold War was definitely a frightening, tense period of history, but also is sufficiently intriguing as to have yielded numerous stories.
Screenshots and Commentary
- My favourite aspect of Black Ops was the sheer diversity of locations one had the opportunity to fight through. The game starts with the Bay of Pigs invasion and features a fictionalised attempt on Fidel Castro’s life. The particle effects throughout Black Ops are incredible, especially considering that the title was released back in 2010.
- High on the list of things I’ve always wanted to do in a first person shooter is to fight my way through a Gulag camp located in the frozen Soviet wastelands. Vorkutlag was a gulag located in Siberia, 160 kilometers north of the Arctic Circle. This was a coal-mining camp, so the massive bucket seen during this mission might be plausible, although existing photographs of the gulag are few and show a more primitive camp compared to what’s seen in-game.
- An uprising at Vorkuta did happen in 1953 (rather than 1963 as depicted in Black Ops), where inmates walked off their positions, demanding a right to attorney. While the guards initially did not act, they were eventually ordered to put down the strike using lethal force when the prisoners barricaded sections of the Gulag in response to arrests of the prisoners. Here, Mason wields the the “Death Machine”, a man-portable minigun found only in this mission. With a 999-round capacity, this weapon is powerful enough to wreck vehicles and riot guards with ease.
- There’s a certain joy about fighting at the Baikonur Cosmodrome, the world’s oldest space launch facility: the mission is to sabotage a Russian launch. After the initial mission is compromised, Mason and the others manage to destroy the rocket before it launches. The same facility is taken over by terrorists intending to use the site for launching nuclear missiles in Tom Clancy’s Locked On, forcing John Clark to reassume control of Rainbow Six to regain control of Baikonur Cosmodrome and stop the launches.
- Mason is then forced to recall his time in Vietnam five years after the mission at Baikonur Cosmodrome. Fighting in the trenches with an M16A1, the mission’s goal was to investigate the possibility of Russian involvement in the Vietnam War. In reality, aside from donating military hardware and provisions to the Viet Cong, the Soviets had very little to do with the war: American involvement was motivated by a containment policy that was intended to stop the spread of communism, but the Vietnamese desire was merely a reunified nation.
- Consequently, the north Vietnamese armies fought with a far stronger resolve, eventually leading the American forces to withdraw in 1975. Here, I’m using the M60 (alternatively known as “The Gun of Rambo”) in the trenches, and in a later section of the mission, an AK-47 with an underslung flamethrower can be found. Such flamethrowers did exist, but were an uncommon sight.
- The Dragon’s Breath shots for the SPAS-12 are also real, being typically used for demonstration purposes rather than combat. In Black Ops, the weapon is surprisingly effective and will set enemies ablaze when it hits them. In general, Black Ops is rather gorier than other incarnations of Call of Duty I’ve seen: powerful weapons can blow limbs or even entire bodies apart in a similar manner as Wolfenstein.
- Besides fighting through a Gulag, Black Ops allowed me to play through another two things on my “list of things to experience in a first person shooter” at once with its “Numbers mission”: to fight through the rooftops and corridors of Kowloon Walled City with the
Koffler & Stock D17 Heckler and Koch G11. A scoped version can be found later in the level, and I rather enjoyed this mission: I’ve always felt that the shady nature of the Kowloon Walled City would be the perfect place for illegal research on biological weapons.
- While it’s clear that creative liberties were taken with the level design, it was quite rewarding to see the Yamen at the centre of the Kowloon Walled City: this lawless district resulted of the refusal of the Chinese, British and Hong Kong government to take responsibility for the land, making it suited for criminal activity. In the 1970s, haphazard build-up resulted in 14-story high buildings enclosing narrow corridors, and by 1987, the Hong Kong government’s patience was reached: they demolished the city and resettled the residents.
- Black Ops then returns to the months after WWII had ended: Nazi facilities near the Arctic Circle were being raided by the Russian forces to secure any weapons research and staff before the Allied Forces arrived. If the in-game map is to be believed, this facility would be set in Baffin Island in the most remote regions of Northern Canada, which is coincidentally, where Les Stroud shot one of his more memorable Survivorman episodes where he caught Arctic Char.
- British SAS Commandos appear later in the mission with the intent of capturing the Nazi research, and although they are technically Allied forces, they are hostile to the player. Following the end of the Second World War, the Allies scrambled to capture as much Nazi technology as they could. Werner von Braun’s capture by the United States proved to be a major boost to their space program: von Braun, who had developed the V2 rocket, would later design the Saturn V that put man on the moon.
- From the coldest tundra to the most humid jungle, Black Ops biggest strength was the diversity of the environments in the campaign. The constant change in scenery is all tied together by Mason’s interrogation, and consequently, far from feeling jarring or disconnected, the player is transported to a variety of locations that serve some roll in advancing the story, so the game never feels too repetitive or stale.
- Having access to vehicular weapons is always a blast, allowing players to wreck havoc en route to their objectives. By today, I’m finally done implementation of the multi-agent aspect of my simulation. There are still critical bugs that I need to iron out; collisions can cause the Unreal Engine to lock up entirely, but I’m hoping that the fix I’ve used for similar problems will be similarly effective. I’ll begin working on the C++ ODE components of my project now, and return next week to solve the bugs before returning my attention to my simulation’s mathematical modelling component.
- The first time I played the WMD mission was at an electronics store at Woodbury Common Premium Outlets back during my trip to New York during the summer of 2011, although I never did finish the mission. I fondly remember this summer for getting my basic driver’s license, watching Sora no Woto, K-On!, Break Blade, Ika Musume and The Disappearance of Suzumiya Haruhi, succeeding in building a fluid flow model for the nephron, travelling into the mountains on several occasions and playing Halo Reach at a friend’s place after a BBQ.
- Summer 2012 and 2013 were rather more melancholic, but the previous two summers have been as spirited as that of 2011. Returning to Black Ops, I’ll probably return in the future to do a special talk on the WMD mission: it’s easily the most memorable level in the game owing to excellent level design and atmospherics, and two screenshots is not nearly enough to fully detail all of the different elements that made WMD so immersive.
- That isn’t to say the other missions weren’t fun: a subsequently mission has Mason piloting an Mi-24 Hind in his quest to find Dragovic’s second in command and wipe him out. The terrain in Sekong, Laos is beautifully rendered. As an older game, my rig has no trouble running it on full settings at 1080p, although I did have to double check to make sure that the graphics were turned out to maximum: back during Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3, I left everything on highest rather than native, which resulted in fuzzy textures.
- One of the themes covered in Black Ops is the uncertainty of knowledge: throughout the game, Mason is portrayed as having undergone brainwashing and thus, has trouble remembering certain events, even to the point of fabricating them in his mind. That one’s memories can be tampered with or repressed is a very real and frightening possibility, usually occurring under great duress.
- After getting through to Mason, the location of the enigmatic numbers station is finally revealed, and a final assault is launched to stop the deployment of Nova 6. The broadcast is stopped when Mason destroys the station, averting a crisis. Covering a plethora of intriguing Cold War topics, Black Ops was a thrilling ride from start to finish. I finished the campaign over six hours of gameplay, so the game is rather short. With that being said, while gamers have complained about short campaigns in shooters, I remark that older shooters like 007 Nightfire have short campaigns: I beat Nightfire in roughly four hours for a single play-through, excluding repeat missions for unlocking stuff.
- With the end of this Black Ops post, a glance at my upcoming programme finds that I will need to write the post for the Yuru Yuri Summer OVAs. Besides the now-weekly posts on Gochuumon wa Usagi Desu Ka??, I’ve also got some special topics posts that I’ll roll out later this month. I suddenly recall that Black Ops III is coming out in two days, but it’s not a game I’m likely to pick up (even if my PC is capable of running it).
I’ve only played a few rounds of Zombies, the game-mode that Black Ops is best known for. In comparison to the main story, Zombies adds a degree of humour and changes up the mood in the game. While defending the Pentagon, I was playing as John F. Kennedy, and it was remarkably amusing to hear him give a one-liner after killing a zombie. I’ve yet to delve deeper into the story, but the inclusion of a single-player zombies mode was most welcome. All-in-all, Call of Duty: Black Ops was an excellent ride, marking one of the few recent Call of Duty titles to be set during the Cold War. The premise of modern warfare has been explored to exhaustion by present-day titles, so it is refreshing to see shooters set in different eras, and the Cold War allows for more intriguing stories to be developed. The next Black Ops title will be set somewhere in the future. At present, it appears that the near future is what’s trending amongst developers, but one must wonder whether or not shooters set in World War II or the Cold War, could be written to have a compelling story while simultaneously sporting current visual and graphical elements. Presently, Black Ops shows that it is possible to develop a reasonably coherent story set during the Cold War, and with the campaign completed, I will probably return to Call of Duty: Black Ops to experience the zombies game-mode in all its glory.