Video Game Review: Call of Duty: Black Ops II [Xbox 360]

Call of Duty: Black Ops II [Xbox 360]

Call of Duty: Black Ops II
System: Xbox 360 (also on PS3, PC and Wii U)
Genre: First-person shooter
Publisher: Activision
Developer: Treyarch
Release Date: November 18, 2012

Love it or hate it, the Call of Duty franchise has been an intriguing one to watch over the years. What started as a series of World War II shooters has turned into a brand split into two territories. Infinity Ward’s Modern Warfare series and Treyarch’s Black Ops have been alternating entries over the last few years, with both of them being neck-and-neck in terms of quality. With this year’s Black Ops II, Treyarch may have just taken the lead.

Building on the foundation set by its Cold War era predecessor, Black Ops II takes place in two different time periods: the 1980s and the year 2025. In the 80s, you once again take on the role of Alex Mason, the protagonist from the original game. Now retired, Mason is recruited on an unexpected mission in Angola to extract his old buddy, Frank Woods. In 2025, you play as his son, David, who has followed along in his father’s military footsteps. The common trait between the two settings is the rise of terrorist mastermind, Raul Menendez, who eventually grows to be a despicable villain seeking to create a new world war in 2025. In a nutshell, it’s the type of story you would expect from Call of Duty, but it’s so over-the-top with bombastic action set pieces and explosions that there’s never a dull moment.

Call of Duty: Black Ops II [Xbox 360]

The inclusion of a futuristic setting is an exciting and much-welcomed development, as it offers a breath of fresh air from years past. The year 2025 is host to a wide variety of new military equipment, and the game isn’t afraid to throw them into the mix. One early campaign highlight has you gliding into the jungles of Myanmar using some sort of flying squirrel outfit — one of the best introductions of any level in the series. Being able to play with new gadgets is a lot of fun, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see a greater emphasis placed on this in future installments.

Another compelling addition to the campaign is the Strike Force mission concept. These are optional levels that allow you to control and issue commands for an entire squad. The missions can be completed via an “Overwatch mode” from above, or by controlling individual soldiers/vehicles/etc. on your own. They are a nice change of pace from the normal linear structure of the main levels, though there is room for improvement. Sometimes AI units will remain stuck in a position, letting enemies run by them without firing. The controls can also take some getting used to, but still, it’s great to see Treyarch trying something new.

Completing any of the Strike Force missions can also alter events in the main campaign — in fact, there are several branching storyline options scattered throughout. Important characters can live or die by your actions, and these decisions will greatly affect the story’s ending. In this sense, there is a bit of additional replay value, which is a good thing since the campaign still only lasts approximately six hours (typical of the series).

Call of Duty: Black Ops II [Xbox 360]

But regardless of the game’s largely enjoyable single player mode, nearly everyone plays Call of Duty for its multiplayer action. In this regard, Black Ops II does not disappoint. There aren’t nearly as many groundbreaking revelations online, but there are still new features sure to entice even the most seasoned veterans.

In an effort to help even out the playing field, there is a new “Pick 10” create-a-class system in which you can only keep a total of ten items (i.e. weapons, perks, grenades, etc.) on your person. This adds an element of strategy since you have to decide what pieces are most important to your style of play. Matchmaking overall has been improved to line you up with players of similar skill, and so far the results have been quite good.

Call of Duty: Black Ops II [Xbox 360]

Another pleasing change is the removal of Killstreaks in favor of “Scorestreaks” — basically the same concept, but now these streaks can be built up by completing objectives (i.e. capture the flag) rather than just killing enemies. New scorestreak rewards are included as well, with several different options available to use based on your preference.

Essentially, this is the same Call of Duty multiplayer we have had for the past few years, just with a few new bells and whistles. There are some connection kinks that still need to be worked out — I have lost connection for no reason on more than a few occasions — but I suspect these will be cleaned up as usual over time.

Call of Duty: Black Ops II [Xbox 360]

Since this is a Treyarch game, the popular Zombies feature is back as well. Not just restricted to the familiar Survival mode, there are two new ways to play: Tranzit (a story-based version) and Grief (two teams compete against each other while fighting off the onslaught of zombies). Fans of this feature will appreciate this new group of options, though it remains best to play with people you know. I had a difficult time getting matched up with random players despite thousands being shown available. When playing with a buddy (or three), it’s just as fun as you might remember.

With a strong combination of three entirely different main game modes — campaign, multiplayer and zombies — there’s something for everyone in Black Ops II. I had a blast playing through each of them, and multiplayer junkies will especially get their money’s worth here. While a handful of minor issues keep this from being perfect, this is still another excellent entry in a series that shows no signs of slowing down. And hey, if every Call of Duty is as good as this, why bother stopping at all?

9/10

 
(A copy of this game was provided by the publisher for review.)

Movie Project #19: Paths of Glory [1957]

Due to the surprising success of my initial Movies Project, I decided to do a part two for 2012. This time around I put a greater emphasis on directors I am not familiar with, but I also tried to compile a mix of different genres and eras. This will be an ongoing project with the finish date being sometime this year.

Paths of Glory [1957]

Paths of Glory [1957]
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Genre: Drama/History/War
Starring: Kirk Douglas, Ralph Meeker, Adolphe Menjou and George Macready
Runtime: 88 minutes

War is hell. I don’t know if there is a director that has illustrated this better than Stanley Kubrick. His 1964 classic, Dr. Strangelove, was a pitch black comedy that satirized the Cold War, and 1987’s Full Metal Jacket disturbingly portrayed the dehumanization of soldiers during the Vietnam War. With Paths of Glory, Kubrick shows us how those doing the actual fighting are just pawns in the grand scheme of combat.

Set during World War I, Kirk Douglas stars as Colonel Dax, a commanding officer in the French Army who is ordered by his superiors to embark on a “suicide mission” to take over the German position known as the Anthill. His superiors, General Broulard (Adolphe Menjou) and General Mireau (George Macready), know the attack is ill-fated, but Mireau convinces himself it will succeed once he learns he may get a promotion afterward. Natually, Dax objects to the assault, but there is little he can do about it.

Dax and his soldiers commence the attack, and the results are as expected. Numerous casualties fall to the ground as the first wave makes absolutely no progress. Another group of soldiers bluntly refuse to even leave their trench because death is inevitable. Dax retreats and tries to rally the next group of men, but ultimately he realizes the onslaught is futile and he aborts the mission.

Furious that his soldiers are “cowards”, General Mireau demands punishment for their actions. After initially requesting court martials for 100 soldiers, the General is talked down to reducing the number to three — one from each company. While knowing the trial is going to be a total farce, Colonel Dax decides to defend the men anyway. He makes a strong and valiant case for each man, but it doesn’t matter. The three soldiers are sentenced to death, just as expected.

There is no happy ending in Paths of Glory. While the vast majority of directors during this time period would have opted for some sort of positive resolution, Kubrick prefers to show the sheer brutality of atrocities committed during war. While the commanders and generals make political powerplays, the private soldiers are sent to do their work for them while getting little recognition in return. It’s disgusting, but that is war in a nutshell.

Paths of Glory [1957]

It’s amazing how well Paths of Glory holds up today, some 50+ years later. The anti-war message is loud and clear, and it resonates just as much today as it did back then. It certainly helps that Kubrick was behind the camera for this one, as his work in this film is legendary. Some of the long tracking shots are unforgettable, especially when we follow Dax through the trenches as he makes his way past frightened soldiers with gunfire and explosions going off nearby. The battle scene as the men push toward Anthill is remarkable.

Even though it was strange to see American actors posing as French officers, I could not imagine anyone other than Kirk Douglas in the lead role. He is phenomenal here, delivering a performance for the ages. The supporting cast is also terrific, led by Ralph Meeker, Adolphe Menjou and George Macready.

Paths of Glory runs at a crisp and concise 88 minutes, and I almost wish it went a little longer. While I wouldn’t consider this one of Kubrick’s best (a testament to his outstanding career), this is still a powerful movie with a strong message.

8.5/10

Silent Film Review: Battleship Potemkin [1925]

Battleship Potemkin [1925]

Battleship Potemkin [1925]
Director: Sergei Eisenstein
Genre: Drama/History/War
Starring: Aleksandr Antonov, Vladimir Barsky, Grigori Aleksandrov
Runtime: 75 Minutes

This review contains spoilers of an 87 year old film.

One of the most powerful propaganda films ever created, and one that could still light a fire under the right audience even today.

Sergei Eisenstein’s second feature film focuses on the (very real) mutiny that occurred in 1905 aboard the Russian battleship Potemkin. Tired of poor working conditions and general disrespect, the ship’s crew reaches a breaking point when they are told to eat rotten meat that is crawling with maggots. The captain, in an attempt to dispel the outrage, orders those who refused to eat the food to be shot and killed underneath a tarpaulin. However, one crew member, Vakulinchu (Antonov), speaks up right before the guns are set to fire and appeals to his squadmates to ignore the orders. They agree, and a massive battle transpires, resulting in the deaths of multiple officers as well as Vakulinchuk. The Potemkin, now in control of the crew, sails to the port of Odessa where Vakulinchuk’s body is put on display, making him something of a martyr to the townspeople.

Battleship Potemkin [1925]

The revolution is underway. As more and more civilians flock to the harbor to see the body, many remain on the large flight of stairs overlooking the water. At this point, the Tsarist regime has noticed the giant gathering and begins to march in their direction, firing at anyone and anything in their paths. Men, women and even children are murdered in a disgustingly barbaric display of violence. The Potemkin fires back at known military locations, but it is too late: countless lives have already been needlessly lost.

Fearing an attack from the shore, the battleship leaves the area only to find a squadron of warships waiting to retake the Potemkin. A tense series of moments occurs as both sides prepare for war, but at the last possible second the battleship is allowed to pass through, and the Soviet brothers wave their hats in friendship. It seems brotherhood has prevailed over politics, at least in this instance.

Battleship Potemkin [1925]

There is no denying the power of Battleship Potemkin. Eisenstein expertly portrays the Tsarist regime as pure evil, especially in the legendary Odessa Steps scene. This display of brutality was unheard of in 1920s cinema, and I looked on in horror as innocent women and children were mindlessly murdered on screen. Who wants to see that? These images are blunt and forceful, and bound to stir up powerful feelings from any viewer.

While the 1905 mutiny really happened, the aforementioned massacre did not. Eisenstein clearly took some liberties with the movie, inserting the violence for dramatic effect. He wanted to hammer the point home, and he easily accomplished this goal.

Propaganda aside, Battleship Potemkin is a fascinating piece of cinematic history. The film shows both the positive and negative sides of a revolution, and it is a perfect demonstration of just how powerful the medium of film can be.

Battleship Potemkin can be viewed in its entirety for free on YouTube.

Movie Project #6: Rome, Open City [1945]

The 50 Movies Project is a personal “marathon” of mine. In June, I compiled a list of 50 movies that I felt I needed to see by the end of the year. Old, new, foreign, English — it doesn’t matter. These are all movies that I have heard a lot about and have been wanting to see for some time. This project gives me a way to stay focused on the goal.

Rome, Open City [1945]

Rome, Open City [1945]
Director: Roberto Rossellini
Genre: Drama/War
Language: Italian
Country: Italy

Going into Rome, Open City, I knew very little about it. I knew that it was set in Nazi-occupied Rome during World War II, and that it was credited for sparking Italy’s neorealism style of filmmaking. As someone unfamiliar with this movement, I didn’t know what to expect.

Right away I was intrigued by the movie’s setting. It is fascinating that director Roberto Rossellini and writers Sergio Amidei and Federico Fellini sat down and began working on the script just two months after the Allies forced the Germans out of Rome. The film began shooting in January 1945 while much of the war damage remained. The fact that they decided to create this film immediately after occupation paints an incredible portrait that was not only fresh at the time but also incredibly raw and visceral. Because everything takes place in this war-torn city, the movie has almost a documentary feel about it.

Around the halfway mark, there was a startling twist that I was not expecting. From my experience with films during this time period (admittedly Hollywood selections), this was not a regular occurrence. This major plot change was a bit jarring, but made the film feel even more “real” and authentic.

Rome, Open City [1945]

As the movie follows those involved with the Italian resistance, it’s hard not to get swept up with them. There’s Pina (Anna Magnani), a widow with two children that is pregnant with another. She is tough, and will do anything to help fight the oppression. There’s Manfredi (Marcello Pagliero), the devoted resistance leader, a strong son-of-a-gun who fights endlessly for his country. And then there’s the priest, Don Pietro (Aldo Fabrizio), who steals the show. The character development of Don Pietro is particularly stunning — at the beginning he kind of stumbles around, occasionally getting some laughs, but by the end he shows an impressive amount of bravery and becomes a powerful figure.

Rome, Open City is a great history lesson that doesn’t hold anything back. There’s torture, betrayal, and murder — all things you would expect during wartime. With brilliant documentary-esque filmmaking and some incredible acting performances, it is easy to see why this is so highly regarded even today.

Video Game Review: Homefront [Xbox 360, 2011]

Homefront [Xbox 360, 2011]

Homefront
System: Xbox 360
Publisher: THQ
Developer: Kaos Studios
Release Date: March 15, 2011

The year is 2027. North Korea has a new leader, Kim Jong-un (Kim Jong-il’s son), and he is hellbent on world domination. After uniting both North and South Korea together, the Republic has taken over Japan and has now begun a devastating assault on the United States. The US military has been incapacitated by an EMP strike, and the entire West Coast is in disarray. Small pockets of resistance forces have popped up to fight the Republic, and Homefront places you in the middle of one these renegade groups. This is a pretty interesting concept since most first person shooters are based on foreign soil, and ultimately it was this premise that inspired me to look into Homefront. Unfortunately, this great idea is poorly utilized.

The first thing I noticed about Homefront is that it looks like every other FPS on the Xbox 360. The character models and environments remind me of the Battlefield: Bad Company games, and many of the levels have similar thematic elements to Call of Duty. In essence, Homefront comes off as a poor man’s version of both.

Homefront [Xbox 360, 2011]

The single player campaign is short. Painfully short, actually. At just 4-5 hours in length, you can complete it in one evening of play, if you so desire. I can deal with short campaigns if they are well thought-out enough, but Homefront’s killer concept quickly deteriorates into a generic formulaic design. Every level is basically urban warfare where you shoot a bunch of Koreans, run to the next location, shoot some more, and then continue repeating this process. There is little in the way of variance, outside of one mission where you get to fly a helicopter. I had no attachment to any of the characters, and I found that the scenes where emotions were meant to be evoked were rather dull and lifeless. Throw in some idiotic and slow-moving AI characters (who you have to follow through the *entire* game), some ridiculous product placement (I can’t even tell you how many NOS/Full Throttle vending machines were “randomly” in the way) and just general lack of excitement, and you have a very underwhelming campaign.

Homefront’s multiplayer mode, on the other hand, is clearly where the game redeems itself. While fairly light on modes/options, the multiplayer is significantly better than its single player brethren. Online games can host as many as 32 players, which can create some crazy and chaotic experiences. Leveling up is the ultimate goal online, and the game uses a fun Battle Points system that allows for the purchase of vehicles and weapon upgrades. While the multiplayer isn’t anything groundbreaking, it is a refreshing change of pace from Call of Duty, and it has a good-sized community at the moment.

Homefront [Xbox 360, 2011]

It should be noted, however, that online play is severely limited if you buy Homefront used or if you rent the game. Without an online code found in new copies of the game, you can only build your character up to level 5, which means you will miss out on many of the great perks available at later levels. You can buy an online pass for $10, but this extra fee will surely infuriate many gamers.

In short, Homefront is a tale of two games. The single player campaign could have been great, but it didn’t even come close to living up to its full potential. The multiplayer experience is much better, and gamers who play exclusively online will get a lot more out of this. I would recommend renting Homefront if you are curious about the game, but there’s no way in hell I would advise paying its normal $60 price tag.

6/10

Hamburger Hill [1987]

Hamburger Hill [1987]

Hamburger Hill [1987]
Directors: John Irvin
Genre: Drama/War/Action
Language: English
Country: USA

As one of countless late 80’s Vietnam War movies, Hamburger Hill unfortunately became overlooked by many. Employing a cast of relative unknowns at the time, including many first major roles for some later established stars (Don Cheadle, Dylan McDermott, Courtney Vance, Steven Weber), John Irvin’s directorial effort tells the tale of a U.S. Army platoon’s battle to obtain control of the mountain known as Hill 937 (also: ‘Hamburger Hill’). This is a true story of what became a bloody 10-day assault, one that caused massive casualties for both American and North Vietnamese forces. This portrayal has frequently been named one of the most realistic war movies ever made.

While many similar genre movies at the time were about the broad scope of war, Hamburger Hill focuses entirely on the soldiers themselves. There are fourteen men in this platoon, and although character development is kept to a minimum for most of them, the film effortlessly shows the strong sense of camaraderie amongst the troops. These are men who are fighting off racial tensions that are increased by the stresses of war, all the while trying to keep morale as high as possible. This is painfully difficult to do, however, when the soldiers keep hearing what’s happening back home. “Long haired hippies” are throwing bags of dog shit at returning soldiers, parents of deceased troops are receiving hate mail, and one soldier’s girlfriend has told him that she will no longer be sending him letters because her college friends told her it is immoral. I found the tales of stories back home to be fascinating, although some may be quick to dismiss this as “anti-anti-war.”

Hamburger Hill does a great job of making you feel like you are there in the middle of the action, and it truly excels at showing the brotherly bond inside the platoon. While the movie overall does not really break any new ground, the banter and stories told by the characters are well-written enough to keep interest in between the grueling action scenes. Although a step below the top tier of Vietnam War classics such as Platoon and Apocalypse Now, Hamburger Hill is definitely still worth seeing.

7.5/10