Title: Call of Duty: Black Ops 3
Genre: First-person shooter
Release Date: Nov. 6, 2015
This game is rated 'M' for Mature by the Electronic Software Ratings Board, because of graphic violence and language that may be inappropriate for players under 17.
I finished the campaign of Call of Duty: Black Ops 3 last night with the intention of writing a normal review. But the last two hours of the video game had me thinking more about what violence means in the medium.
At the risk of spoiling everything for you (though, by now, most of the Call of Duty acolytes have probably either finished the campaign or spent hours with its highly polished multiplayer suite and have no intention of delving into the single-player content), the story in Black Ops 3 concerns a small squad of brain-enhanced supersoldiers who are attacked by a mind-controlling virus. This has been the fodder of video games ever since the bombastic Modern Warfare burst onto the scene in 2007, taking the genre-defining franchise Call of Duty from the realistic battlefields of past World Wars and giving gamers an experience more in-line with blockbuster war films.
For about 80 percent of the Black Ops 3 experience, that's the arena you stay in - mindless shooting in an all-out pursuit of the "bad guy." There are some wrinkles, sure, but the horrid dialogue (especially from your AI companion, the hissy-fit prone Jacob Hendricks who makes Emo Kylo Ren look like Rambo) never lets the game's story truly breathe. Christopher Meloni is doing his best here to lend the narrative some gravitas, but there's only so much he can do.
That changes in the game's final act, when you're tasked with some trippy subconscious sequences that for some reason involve crows. The final mission of the game's 11-chapter opus takes place almost entirely in your mind, and would have been an excellent opportunity for the developers to create some gameplay that eschews the franchise's reputation as a virtual shooting gallery.
Instead, that's exactly what you get. Moments of exposition and character development are broken up by generic shootouts, with generic enemies, in generic locations that retread areas you've explored before in the campaign. It's a complete wasted opportunity that shows either a lack of creativity from the developers or the knowledge that, in gaming, it's better to give the people what they want then head for left field.
There's no final boss battle, which is a refreshing breath of fresh air, I suppose, given the quick-time-event-heavy final showdowns in previous titles. You won't find that here. But what you will find, as you emerge from the subconscious battlefield, a blown opportunity to give gamers another gameplay avenue to match the subversion going on in the story.
Consider Bioshock Infinite. The final chapter of the game has almost no combat, once you've destroyed the final "boss" (which is really just waves of increasingly difficult enemies). The lead designer of that game, Ken Levine, spoke with NPR almost three years ago about the need for violence in gaming to get a point across.
“A shooter answers a lot of questions for you: the main mechanic is you have this gun, you have weapons, you have enemies, you have conflict coming at you," Levine said in that interview.
The point of the final chapter of Black Ops 3, at least as I can understand it, is that there are many questions that we can never answer, or that will never be answered for us. We have to answer them for ourselves, and interpret our experience in our own heads - which may or may not be reliable. To tell that story with the dullest gameplay imaginable unfolding in between creates such cognitive dissonance that the story in the game collapses on itself - as the credits rolled, I wasn't thinking about what came next for my character, but rather the quickest I could get back to fragging my friends online.
And that's really too bad.
For a further discussion on violence in gaming, check out this episode of the Spokesman-Review Podcast, where myself, Dan Gayle and Shawn Vestal weigh in: