Video Games Do the Funniest Things

I don’t normally bother with E3. As the game industry’s biggest get-together of the year, there’s a disturbing amount of froth on display; bikinied models, shiny publicity booths and half-brained peripherals take up much more of the Los Angeles Convention Centre than the games themselves. And even if you do stumble across something that doesn’t have tits or a motion sensor, there’s almost zero chance that you won’t have seen it before. Sequels are E3’s byword. Year after year we’re subjected to a predictable line-up of insipid lookalikes – if you want to save yourself the trouble of going to E3, just take every game you already own and scrawl a number onto the box.

There are sometimes a few new IPs – this year we had Watch Dogs, The Last of Us and Dishonored – but generally the Expo leans toward existing franchises. E3 2012 contained more sequels than a Police Academy boxset. There was Borderlands 2, Crysis 3, Lost Planet 3, Dead Space 3, Halo 4, Hitman 5, Resident Evil 6 and Tomb Raider 9, to name but a few. Even the scant brand new games looked remarkably familiar: iPhones and motorways aside, Watch Dogs bears a striking resemblance to Assassin’s Creed. The Last of Us, on the other hand, is showing signs of Uncharted; sure there are fewer wisecracks and more violence, but the platforming elements and buddy-cop patter have a distinctly Drake-ish feel.

So all in all, E3 2012 seemed a very typical affair: none of the most exciting developers (Rockstar, Valve) had bothered to turn up, and almost every game on show was as to be expected. Content to write it off as another disaster, I only had to watch the Black Ops II trailer to confirm my suspicions that yep, video games were doomed. But then something bizarre happened: as I was watching three blokes with laser guns argue about whose turn it was to save the President, instead of getting the urge to fry my PS3’s circuit board with my own sick, I got a weird compulsion to buy the game. Against all reason, this looked really good.

What the hell was going on? For all the years I’d spent shaking my fist at videogame sequels, here I was in absolute awe of the sequeliest sequel of them all. It’s not as if it looked like anything new; take away the fancy scopes and flying turrets and Black Ops II may as well be set in the nineteen-sixties. Bad guys appear, you shoot the bad guys, the bad guys die – occasionally something explodes. Everything about Call of Duty that gets my dander up was present and correct: stupid dialogue? Check. Speed ramping? Check. Endless shooting? Check. This was CoD by numbers, and I’d grown tired of it three games ago.

But none of these things were bothering me this time; if anything, they were getting me riled up. Where Modern Warfare’s patriotic drivelling used to make me wince, now I was pumping my fists and nodding my head: hell yeah we need to get the President outta here. Let’s rock ‘n’ roll! Whenever another truck exploded, or a goon got his face snipered off, I felt a pang of excitement; watching communists die by the dozen had made me queasy in the old CoDs, but now it just looked cool.

I wondered if that paintballing weekend had done more psychological damage than I had realised; maybe years of simulated violence had left me numb to virtual blood lust. Here was Call of Duty in all its wickedness, and for the first time ever, I was smiling. And like a .50 calibre bullet to the arm, it hit me: this isn’t real.

See, what always bugged me about CoD’s gung-ho was that it took real-life wars and turned them into sport. From Nazi Germany, to Castro’s Cuba, the Vietnamese jungle and the Afghan desert, the Call of Duty series has dumbed down and blown-up some of the most important and tragic events in human history: when I play a recreation of the Tet Offensive, I expect a certain amount of conscience. Instead, I get a shotgun that can shoot fire.

Although it takes some broad swings at current affairs, Call of Duty doesn’t have much time for analysis. You’re expected to shoot young men and poor people as if they were the mutants in Doom; with levels set in Brazilian favelas and African villages, I feel uncomfortable having fun with CoD. Dropping an airstrike on five young men with AK-47s just makes me feel like a monster.

But Black Ops II is set in the future. EMP grenades, mechanised armour, robots – it’s pure fantasy, and I don’t have to feel guilty about indulging in it. Modern Warfare and Black Ops wanted it both ways: there were silly, high-concept action beats throughout, but also quotes from Bertrand Russell and Gore Vidal whenever you died. It meant that Call of Duty kept contradicting itself; explosive set-pieces felt out of step with the game’s seriousness of tone, but the philosophical pondering was contrary to all the rock music and nukes.

Without the jarring verisimilitude, Black Ops II is free to do what it wants. It’s CoD at its best: loud, raucous and unassuming. As long as Treyarch bin their Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, and avoid bogging the game down with naff General Shepherd-esque soliloquising, Black Ops II could be the best Call of Duty yet. The mechanics are wearing thin, but not since Sgt. Jackson got irradiated have we seen a war shooter with such gusto.

For me, Black Ops II couldn’t have appeared at a better time. I’d about given up on the games industry: the E3 sequel parade had me convinced that I’d never be surprised by a triple-A game ever again. But for a franchise like Call of Duty – that from a financial stand-point has no cause to make any sudden moves – to change direction so totally shows that perhaps there’s hope after all.