I’ll be posting my “Call of Duty: Black Ops” review tomorrow morning, but before I do so, I thought it best to explain a little bit about how this part-time game critic has managed to avoid playing this console generation’s biggest hit franchise.
Though I bought my Xbox 360 at launch in 2005 and picked up “Call of Duty 2,” Infinity Ward’s acclaimed shooter’s World War II setting seemed very much a been-there-done-that sort of thing. I majored in history at the University of Wisconsin and took a WWII class taught by “Band of Brothers” author Stephen Ambrose (a visiting professor at the time) that, while informative, left a sour taste in my mouth. My desire to revisit that conflict in “Call of Duty 2” was minimal, and I quickly put it down when I discovered that it didn’t really bring anything new to the table, narratively. The feeling carried over both to Treyarch’s “Call of Duty 3” and “Call of Duty: World at War,” set in the Pacific Theater.
“Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare,” however, should have interested me more. But at the time the game came out, I was playing online with friends averse to gaming with profanity-spewing teens, and the lack of any kind of co-op or computer-controlled bots made that game a nonstarter with my friends. Plus, “Halo 3” had just come out, and that occupied a ton of our time. I also hadn’t started blogging about games yet, and my column was much less review-oriented than it is now, so I sort of let “Modern Warfare” slip through the cracks.
The same thing shouldn’t have happened last year with “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2,” but it did. The game came out the same week as “Left 4 Dead 2,” and for my friends and I, Valve’s latest zombie game was a no-brainer pickup. The fact that January and February, which saw the releases of “Bayonetta,” “Mass Effect 2” and “Bioshock 2” — still three of my top five games for the year — were so busy also prevented me from playing catch-up on fall’s hot titles.
Once I saw “Call of Duty: Black Ops” at E3 in June, I knew this fall would be different. The fact that the game was set during the Vietnam War appealed to my history major-sensibilities. Because the Vietnam War-era period was one of the most divisive and conflict-riven eras in American history, it’s always held my interest better than World War II’s good guys vs. bad guys aesthetic. The fact that I went to Madison, Wis., and lived in Berkeley, both hotbeds of protest during the Vietnam War, stoked my interest, as did another colege course taught by Alfred W. McCoy. (I mention McCoy not to drop his name, so much as to urge the curious to check out his books, particularly the excellent “The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia.”)
“Black Ops,” in other words, was right in my history nerd wheelhouse. While it’s very much the gaming equivalent of a summer popcorn movie, a game set in one of the most divisive periods in U.S. history seemed infinitely more appealing than yet another World War II shooter or the umpteenth game ripped from modern headlines. Missing out on the two “Modern Warfare” games was a mistake, and I wasn’t interested in letting history repeat itself again. My review will be up tomorrow, although it’s very much written from the perspective of an avid gamer who’s new to the series.
Edit: Expanded a bit the section on my interest in Vietnam War-era U.S. history. I had to rush out the door at the end of writing this post, and it didn’t come out the way I wanted.