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By now, Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 has been all but confirmed via leaks. The news has been greeted by the usual chorus of negativity. The fact is, though, that Black Ops was the best thing to happen to Call of Duty in years. Its sequel could be a big step forward as well.
Before Black Ops’ release in 2010, the COD series had only explored two eras: World War II and the modern-day. The main enemies of these eras were Nazis and fictional terrorist groups, respectively. There was no moral ambiguity here. Players are defending against a terrorist plot or thwarting an invasion. These enemies are evil and batshit crazy and the only proper thing to do is wipe them off the face of the Earth. You don’t even need a story. Put a Nazi or an AK47-wielding terrorist in front of a player and give them a weapon and they know what to do.
Black Ops, however, focuses on the Cold War era. The Cold War is one of the darker periods in American history. In an effort to stop the Soviet Union and communism, we built up massive stockpiles of nuclear arms, engineered regime changes throughout the world, and engaged in proxy wars like Vietnam. I’m not going to get into a full assessment of the Cold War here; much smarter people have written volumes on the subject. The point is, though, it’s a much less black-and-white conflict than World War 2. The Bay of Pigs invasion does not stir patriotic feelings as D-Day does.
The main plot Black Ops’ could be considered a “madman wants to blow up America” yarn like Modern Warfare. However, what elevated Black Ops’ plot above the other COD games was the main character, Alex Mason. He’s not the usual boy scout. Alex Mason isn’t Captain America. He’s a trained government assassin who’s been brainwashed by the Soviets to carry out their own mission. This character really sums up the paranoia and ruthlessness of the Cold War era, an era where assassinations and mind control were both seen as acceptable policies.
The Cold War, source of countless conspiracy theories, enabled Treyarch to let their hair down. They weren’t beholden to a strict historical account as they were with World War 2; they were free to experiment. Players could now wield James Bond-like guns like crossbows with explosive bolts and ballistic knives. One segment put players in the cockpit of a spy plane. Black Ops offered players the “fun parts” of the Cold War to off-set the serious and sometimes disturbing plot.
The game’s playful tone extended beyond the campaign. The multiplayer sported several new game modes. The highlight for me was “One in the Chamber,” which gave every player a pistol with one bullet. Also notable was the “Sharpshooter” mode switched everyone’s weapons at random every 45 seconds. The co-op zombie mode also made a return, but with an epic twist: players could take on the role of Fidel Castro, President Kennedy, President Nixon, and Secretary of State Robert McNamara. A hidden minigame called Dead Ops Arcade provided players with some additional zombie-slaying fun. Black Ops was a game that didn’t take itself too seriously; Treyarch simply focused on making it fun and it was.
The key thing about Black Ops is that Treyarch took a risk. They decided to explore a period of history that wasn’t featured in the series before, and hasn’t really been seen in many games at all. The main criticism of Call of Duty is that the games don’t change much from year to year. Well, Treyarch bucked that trend with Black Ops. It wasn’t a perfect game but it definitely stood out from its predecessors. I can’t see how Black Ops 2 would be a bad idea.