“You can’t just turn on creativity like a faucet. You have to be in the right mood.”
“What mood is that?”
–Calvin and Hobbes, Calvin and Hobbes, Bill Watterson
On a muggy summer day in New York State, I found myself at Woodbury Premium Outlets, located in a small town some eighty kilometres north of Manhattan. We had been travelling the Eastern Seaboard, and this short excursion represented a bit of a chance to break and explore. At this point during my vacation, I had already visited major points of interest such as Washington D.C.’s White House and Capitol Building, Manhattan and the Smithsonian Museum in New York, as well as Niagra Falls’ American side. Woodbury represented was a break in the itinerary, and with a few hours to kill, I set about exploring the outdoor outlet mall. A Sony Store caught my eye, and I browsed through their electronics, including a demonstration Play Station 3 that had a first person shooter on display. The previous player left the mission on a snowy mountain forest, and after picking off several patrols on the edge of a cliff with a suppressed AUG A1, I guided the soldier through a rappel animation. I ended up rappelling down too quickly; my avatar slipped off the edge of the cliff and fell to a swift death. At this point in time, I was set to depart and head back to New York for the last day of my trip, so I left the mission there, but my curiosity had been piqued. When I returned back home, I would learn that this game was Call of Duty: Black Ops, and the mission was WMD, the eleventh mission that sees a flashback in which Jason Hudson is sent out to the Yamantau Complex on a search and destroy mission. The mission opens with a SR-71 surveillance crew, Big-Eye Six, taking position over the Soviet Union and relaying information to Kilo team on the ground during a blizzard. The blizzard recedes, and Big-Eye Six departs to refuel, leaving Kilo team finish disabling the early-warning system up on the mountain. After parachuting off the side of the mountain and landing in the main facilities below, Hudson and Kilo team find the Soviets attempting to sanitise the area of any evidence of work into the chemical weapon, Nova Six. They are locked into the control room, learn of Dragovich’s plans to use sleeper agents to disperse Nova Six and barely manage to escape on the back of a truck before an avalanche buries the area.
For me, WMD represents one of Call of Duty: Black Ops‘ finest missions, being a perfect combination of gameplay and cinematics: right from the moment Captain Mosely and Major Neitsch board the SR-71, to the transition to Hudson and his team, WMD creates a sense of urgency as players experience and drive the actions needed to figure out what Nova Six was about. Of all the missions in the Call of Duty franchise, WMD is a forgotten mission, but for me, I found it to be memorable, right up with Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare‘s All Ghillied Up in terms of engagement and immersion. In this one mission, the entire tenour of Black Ops is captured: the first Black Ops game was set almost entirely in the Cold War, an era of history that still remains relatively unexplored in games because aside from proxy conflicts, the Cold War (thankfully) never went hot into either a nuclear exchange or full-scale conventional warfare. As such, games that cover this era of history find it tricky to properly write a compelling story; Call of Duty: Black Ops was able to do so, and reception to the game was generally positive, with praise directed at the campaign (especially for its atmosphere). Since then, the Black Ops spin-off franchise has evolved in its own direction, taking things right back into present-day and the near-future. For its setting and period, then, the original Black Ops remains unique for being able to so vividly portray the atmosphere and tone surrounding the Cold War era. I originally finished Call of Duty: Black Ops some four-and-a-half years earlier, having picked up the game during a Steam Sale, and found the game particularly stand-out for its premise.
Screenshots and Commentary
- On a cold, brisk winter morning six-and-a-half years earlier, I stepped out into the dark and made to board a plane that would take me to Taiwan. This was the first time I’d ever travelled during the winter, and the resulting vacation was quite enjoyable, although lacking the means to do so then, I did not document things quite so extensively back then. At that time, I did not yet have Black Ops in my Steam library, but I was familiar with the game and its music: WMD opens with Melville, a tense song that accompanies Captain Mosely and Major Neitsch as they board a SR-71 for a recon and support mission.
- WMD begins from Mosely’s perspective, and once in the air, perspective switches over to that of Neitsch’s, who’s running the TRP screen to direct Kilo squad during a whiteout below. I do not believe the SR-71 was ever involved in a support mission of this sort: designed to replace the U-2, the SR-71 was superior in every way, boasting a longer range, greater maximum speed and operational ceiling. They were intended to be used for overflight missions over the Soviet Union, but as satellites became more commonplace, the SR-71 was retired. Once the blizzard on the ground clears, perspective of the mission permanently switches to that of Jason Hudson’s.
- For the duration of my trip to Taiwan and Hong Kong, I would enjoy comfortable winter air, and it was only upon return home that the bitterly cold weather became the norm again: I still remember just how cold -16ºC felt after getting off the flight and making the drive back home, when normally, -16ºC is something I consider to be very balmy. Of course, these temperatures pale in comparison to those of Mount Yamantau: this mountain, located deep in the Ural Mountains, is speculated to be the site of a vast Russian military bunker equivalent to the American’s Mount Cheyenne complex in Colorado.
- I’ve visited Mount Yamantau in one other game: Metro: Exodus had taken Artyom, Anna and Captain Miller to the Urals in search of a viable home, and while Miller had been enthusiastic to reach the site, it turns out that, while there had been a military bunker here, all of the crew had devolved into cannibals, luring victims here with false messages that they were the government remnants. Call of Duty: Black Ops presents a different kind of terror: Mount Yamantau is allegedly the site of Nova Six’s development.
- On the ground, Hudson starts out with the variable-zoom crossbow, an excellent stealth weapon that is superbly lethal – a single bolt will be enough to deal with any enemy soldier. Aside from standard arrow-heads, Hudson also has explosive bolts available to him. The explosive tips are decidedly less conducive for stealth, but in a pinch, can be used to deal a good amount of damage. A maximum of twenty bolts can be carried in reserve, in addition to the bolt that is already loaded into the crossbow.
- Besides the crossbow, Hudson also has a suppressed AUG A1 with a Swarovski 1.5x Scope: this weapon is better suited for dealing with large groups of enemies, and Hudson starts out with 630 rounds (twenty-one extra magazines on top of the magazine already in the weapon). With its high rate of fire in Call of Duty: Black Ops, this is a popular weapon, although it takes a modicum of skill to properly use it in the multiplayer, where the weapon’s recoil is quite noticeable.
- This is the rappelling section of the mission I found myself starting at while I was messing with the demonstration PS3 console at Woodbury nine years earlier. I remember playing around with the controls, trying to strike a balance between a speedy descent and not hitting the bottom with enough force to result in death. Woodbury came as a bit of a break in a packed itinerary: during that particular vacation, I traveled through Manhattan, Washington D.C. and Philadelphia. Along the way, I had a chance to visit the observation deck of the Empire State Building, took a boat over the Hudson River to see the State of Liberty, went to Central Park, the Smithsonian Museum, the National Mall, Jefferson Memorial, Lincoln Memorial and a handful of unique stops like the Corning Glass Museum and Hershey Factory.
- This vacation was a rather fun one, and aside from the destinations, my favourite memory would’ve been being able to have a whole steamed lobster for dinner while in Boston, and then the next day, a lobster roll made with fresh Atlantic lobster the next day. This trip also took us to the American side of the Niagara Falls, where we went on a boat ride that brought us close to the falls. I think the part of that vacation I was least fond of was the traffic jams along one of the interstate freeways, and how humid it was inside the One Niagara Visitor Centre.
- When I returned home from this vacation, I revelled in the cool, dry mountain air of my area, and promptly set about trying to learn of what game I had tried out at Woodbury. I would find my answer fairly quickly: a search for PlayStation 3 first-person shooters where one rappels down the side of a mountain yielded Call of Duty: Black Ops on very short order, and although I did possess a PC powerful enough to run the game at the time, I had no interest in the franchise at the time. I only developed a curiosity for Call of Duty after reading about All Ghillied Up and then playing Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare at a friend’s place.
- Five years after visiting the Eastern Seaboard, I ended up buying a copy during a September sale and immediately enjoyed the purchase – Call of Duty: Black Ops has a fun campaigns that take players to a variety of locations and gives one a chance to fire a range of interesting weapons, including an AK-47 with an under-barrel flamethrower. For me, WMD had some of the best visuals and atmosphere of any level, even in a game where each and every mission is highly engaging.
- Whereas I played through WMD at Woodbury some nine years earlier, ten years ago, I was doing a tour of Eastern China, which entailed visiting Beijing, Wuxi, Suzhou, Hangzhou and Shanghai. On this vacation, I remember arriving in a smoggy Beijing, travelling to famous attractions like Forbidden City and the Temple of Heaven, watched a Chinese version of the Cirque du Soleil perform and walked the Great Wall of China. Because this was two years after the 2008 Beijing Olympics, I also had a chance to check out the Bird’s Nest Stadium. If memory serves, we then flew to Wuxi in Jiangsu Province.
- From there, we took a tour of the area surrounding Lake Tai, went on more boat tours than I could remember of all the canals and lakes in Wuxi and Suzhou, and ended the tour in Hangzhou, which I remember best for a massive thunderstorm that shook the area the evening I arrived. The final leg of the journey was in Shanghai, during their 2010 Expo. With the China leg of the journey over, I flew to Hong Kong for another week before returning home.
- In the years following, I traveled less as university started getting busier, spending my summers studying or doing summer research. By the time I had the chance to play through Black Ops, I had already finished my undergraduate degree, and during my last year of graduate school, I would finally set foot on the WMD mission. The atmosphere of the mission immediately reminded me of the Christmas break season; since I picked up Black Ops, it’s been something of a New Year’s Day tradition to play through the mission after lunch, when the sun is at its highest and the snow on the ground creates a feeling very similar to the one seen in WMD.
- I had originally intended to write this post in 2016, having taken the screenshots for it in January, but never got around to writing it. Instead, I came across the screenshots in the August two years later, created a draft for the post and then found it immensely difficult to write something coherent. This post has, until today, been sitting in my “drafts” section, untouched. This is what prompts the choice of quote for the post; I didn’t really find the motivation to write it until I’d realised how long the post has been a draft for.
- One of the biggest joys about Black Ops was the fact that so many Cold War-era weapons are available. However, the game occasionally takes liberties: the Steyr AUG (Armee Universal Gewehr, “Universal Army Rifle”) that Hudson starts WMD with, is a weapon that was designed in the 1960s to replace the FN FAL. The AUG entered service in 1977, and WMD is supposed to have taken place in 1968: at that time, the SR-71 was two years old, but the AUG would not have been in service just yet.
- Once Hudson and Kilo team breaches the windows of the substation, it’s a thrilling firefight: despite the AUG being weaker on a per-bullet basis and having a considerable recoil, the weapon does perform quite well, and for me, the proper WMD experience is to go through the entire mission without once switching out the starting loadout for any other weapon. The Famas, HK-21, SK-23, Skorpion and CZ75 are also found in the mission, but there’s something about the AUG that makes it particularly well-suited for this mission.
- The most terrifying segment of WMD comes when an avalanche is triggered: players must follow Kilo team across an icy path before parachuting into the valley below, where the Nova Six facility is located. The vertical scale of WMD is impressive, bringing to mind the five hundred metre base jump made in Battlefield 3‘s Damavand Peak map as a part of the rush game mode. As Battlefield 3 came a year after Black Ops, it is conceivable that DICE took inspiration from the WMD mission in Black Ops.
- The firefight down at the Nova Six research site is rather less inspired, but represents a short, closing act to the mission. Hudson and Kilo team make their way into the facility, find a series of containers all wired together, and a computer terminal. One of the recurring themes in Black Ops is the unknown sequence of numbers that protagonist Mason struggles to remember during an interrogation: it turns out that Mason is integral to stopping a chemical weapons attack with Nova 6.
- I greatly enjoyed Black Ops, and personally found that there was enough in common between Black Ops and Higurashi: When They Cry that a crossover would not be outside the realm of possibility. Of course, with the amount of firepower available to the playable characters in Black Ops, it would be possible for Mason and Kilo team to trivially solo the whole of Miyo, the Yamainu and Banken, save Rika and the others, and be back just in time for tea.
- After getting stuck in one of the numbers rooms, Hudson and the others beat a narrow escape on the back of a truck with a mounted DShK machine gun. This brings my recollections of what is my second favourite mission in the Call of Duty franchise to a close, and with it, I finally have no more drafts in my WordPress for the first time in two years. With this post in the books, I remark that I will be writing about games for the next little while, and then do an after-three talk on Oregairu. I’m currently still deciding whether to write about Uzaki-chan Wants To Hang Out or Kanojo, Okarishimasu.
I remark here that this post actually has one of the most unusual properties of any that I’d previously written: I’d originally intended to write and post about WMD on a New Year’s Day, since the atmosphere of the mission reminded me of a cold winter afternoon, and so, the screenshots I had taken for this post were taken on New Year’s Day of 2016, when I was entering my final term of graduate school. Back then, I had just finished doing an episodic review for Gochuumon wa Usagi Desu Ka?? and was looking to start 2016 strong to finish off my Master’s Degree. However, procrastination meant I never got around to starting the post until two-and-a-half years later: in August 2018, I decided it was time to write about WMD in some capacity, but when the time came to write for the mission and how I first came upon Call of Duty: Black Ops, I found myself drawing blanks. This post, then, holds the distinct infamy of being the longest post I’ve ever held a draft on this blog: with this post done, I finally have a clean slate and no drafts older than a week remaining. It was a bit surprising to see how long I’ve procrastinated on this post; WMD was a fun mission, and my vacation to the Eastern Seaboard was similarly enjoyable (my favourite memory of that trip was the stop in Boston, where I had both whole steamed lobster for dinner and then an authentic East Coast lobster roll the next day). This post goes to show that procrastinating on a post can result in it being increasingly difficult to write for, and for those of my readers who also run a blog, the lesson to be learnt here is to not do what I did with this Call of Duty: Black Ops post; namely, have a plan to finish posts off when one’s schedule allows, or else remove posts from drafts if one is not confident in writing them out in a timely fashion.