Alex Mason, Master Chief, and the Unsatisfying Futility of War

Alex Mason has problems. That much is clear from the start. Restrained, drugged, and under interrogation by mysterious inquisitors, the main character in Call of Duty: Black Ops begins the game from a compromised position. In the dark, the voices demand that he reveals what he knows about the missions he undertook as a special forces operative during the Cold War. From this framing device, the game takes the player on several individual missions that range from the failed Bay of Pigs invasion to escaping a Soviet Prison, to invading an enemy warship. Along the way, Mason flashes back to moments of betrayal and paranoia worthy of the most frantic conspiracy theory. Alex eventually takes his quest for revenge and clarity to the jungles of Vietnam and Cambodia.

I have a hard time wrapping my head around the game mechanics at the heart of the Call of Duty games. I prefer to enter a room filled with X number of bad guys, slay them all (preferably by hiding behind something and taking a series of measured headshots, although I’m not opposed to bumrushing the bastards and circle strafing until I’m alone), and then leisurely search for treasure, ammo, and health. I feel a sense of pride when I clear a room of enemies, especially when I do so swiftly and with the efficiency of a special forces bad-ass. The best games impart a sense of identification with the gun-wielding avatar, such that when Master Chief finishes off his last brute and takes a minute to survey the carnage in Halo, the player basks in the reflected glory of the hero. In that moment, he has vanquished all foes.

The Call of Duty series asks me to eschew this slow, thoughtful approach to combat in favor of a more aggressive berserker style. In Call of Duty: Black Ops, the methodical sniping of far away enemies is stripped of any sense of satisfaction because they’ll just keep respawning until you cross a certain checkpoint. No matter how many times you kill the enemy, he is instantly replaced by an identical doppelganger who doesn’t seem to learn anything from his predecessor’s mistakes.

This “clown car” approach to combat often leads me into an existential crisis. What’s the point of shooting an enemy when another one will just take his place? My virtual warrior’s battle grinds to a halt as he ponders the futility of war. Gone is the quiet thrill of the headshot that reduces the machine-gunner who was blocking the hallways into pixellated pink mist, thus opening the way for me to slowly search the room. Instead, I find myself turning CoD campaign sessions into all-out sprints from checkpoint to checkpoint. Like WOPR in WarGames,  my tactical assessment of the combat in Black Ops is  “the only win­ning move is not to play.” Instead of working out optimal paths through enemy-occupied territory where I cautiously crouch, hide, shoot my way to that victorious moment, I guide my character Alex Mason to run like  a madman from one invisible checkpoint to another. Taking a few shots only bloodies up your screen, and if you find the best way to run forward you can complete stages without firing a single shot. I find this sort of victory hollow, yet the mechanics of the game force me into it every time. It doesn’t ruin the game,  and the thrilling set-pieces more than make up for it. The entire rooftop chase sequence in the Hong Kong level is a master class in level design and the developer Treyarch just plain brings the fun. It plays like a living John Woo movie.

I don’t know if I can really call my feelings criticism in any real sense, because the Call of Duty approach to combat has proven to be vastly successful for the franchise. Despite my enjoyment of Black Ops I am not a convert to the approach and I don’t think I’ll be playing many other Call of Duty games.

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