Somewhere between the Greatest Generation and Generation X lies a vast expanse of American history. Though World War II is safely enough in the past to explore freely, and our current war on terror close enough to inspire (occasionally uncomfortable) ripped-from-the-headlines games (and plenty of movies, books, and television), that great middle section has been largely unexplored by interactive entertainment--until now.
With a mighty stroke of the virtual pen, the Call of Duty series has single-handedly brought everyone's attention to the Cold War era. But this is not the Cold War of John le Carre or James Bond; instead the brutal small-arms firefights and squad skirmishes feel more like today's unconventional warfare in Iraq and Afghanistan, just redesigned for a different decade. It's modern warfare, just in a slightly less modern package.
Not that there's anything wrong with that. Often, the most effective way to tell a story is through time-shifting and indirect symbolism; it's pretty much the foundation of the narrative experience. Interestingly, this particular setting is uniquely underused in video games--compared even with the Civil War or various ancient conflicts. I'm not sure there's an adequate explanation as to why there have been so few Vietnam-era games (and even fewer Korean War games); perhaps the baby boom generation controlling the purse strings of game developers and publishers felt it off-limits, or inaccessible to younger gamers who had not lived through the tumultuous era.
In this case, however, it makes perfect sense. While the Modern Warfare games (also part of this Call of Duty series) managed to walk the line between cartoon action and potentially offensive realism, a somewhat similar game from earlier in 2010, Medal of Honor, generated a lot of negative heat for its portrayal of U.S. forces engaged in all-too-real modern-day shoot-outs with the Taliban.
In comparison, this is no "Apocalypse Now" or "Platoon" (or even "The Green Berets"); it's Cold War action in the Michael Bay mold, as big and explosive as games get, with all the telltale signs of big budgets and focus groups. At the same time, one has only to see a brutal torture scene early in the game to feel its connection to current events. Unlike the black-and-white patriotism of the WWII-era Call of Duty games, there are shades of gray here which, while historically appropriate for the era, also clearly reflect current-day sensibilities.
No doubt, many players will remain unaware of these threads, happy instead to lose themselves for a few hours in both the cinematic story and the separate-but-equal online competitive game, which comes off much more like a futuristic sports league than actual military combat.
The gameplay mechanics don't feel that much different than other recent Call of Duty entries, which is more of a compliment than anything else. The actual running and shooting (and occasional driving and flying) is sharp and responsive, and even the interactive menus are a treat, with Easter eggs and in-the-know jokes. If this is your kind of thing, you already know it, and likely already have logged significant game time within 24 hours of Black Ops' release.
Honestly, it doesn't matter that Call of Duty: Black Ops takes place during the Cold War. It could have been set in outer space. The real meat of COD games lies in the multiplayer, and the storyline amounts to fast-paced, entertaining window dressing. If you've played last year's Modern Warfare 2, you know exactly what you're in for.
To compare Black Ops with the actual Cold War feels absurd. This is a paperback fiction version, chock-full of conspiracy theories, brainwashing, and plenty of celebrity political cameos. It's Oliver Stone, Michael Bay, and your favorite dark comic book with a bloody shrapnel chaser. The lightning-quick bloodsport of multiplayer seems to have forced the hand of quicker single-player missions, too: we're always running to the next money shot. "Zipline to the bunker! Blow up the helicopter! Run to the next checkpoint!" Rarely, if ever, are we thinking.
If the cinema-slick jump-cuts and hopping-through-time episodic potpourri treatment of decades of Cold War conflict weren't already an indicator that you shouldn't take this war too seriously, then the included zombie multiplayer mode will. It's as fun as previous versions, but the presence of both zombies and Nazis in a Cold War game feels as ridiculous as clowns in a barber shop.
There's plenty to like about Black Ops, and perhaps there's some value in a war game that's at least aware of its presence as entertainment first, message second. It's too much to culturally analyze as far as I'm concerned, but it's certainly no more or less offensive than your average Vietnam action movie, and quite a bit more visceral.
Have the Call of Duty games become a highly commoditized formula? Of course they have, but that doesn't mean it's not still a well-made piece of consumer entertainment, and one of the slickest, most engaging games of the year. What's your take? Sound off in the comments section below, or vote in our poll.