Call of Duty (yet again)! The Walking Dead!

This Play Time is a little later than the previous two because, for a week after publishing the last, there was nothing new to say. I played yet more Need for Speed: Most Wanted, Call of Duty: Black Ops II and Halo 4. My opinions on all haven't changed (they remain excellent), and I've no great new insight to share regarding any of them.

Well, except for Black Ops II. Oh, and then I bought The Walking Dead. Here is the story of the (artificially extended) week, starting Monday the 19th of November 2012.

Call of Duty: Blacks Ops II #2

With the excitement of enjoying Call of Duty multiplayer all over again carrying me away I completely forgot about how I finished the game's campaign, and how much it surprised me. Black Ops II's story is all about one thing: choice. Aren't you a little tired of hearing that this generation of consoles? It's the newest revelation: the player's decisions matter. But when the drum of player agency is beaten the loudest is when it's most often underwhelmed. Games such as BioShock and Mass Effect thrust choice in your face as a series of clear, unmistakeable moral acts that require immediate and definitive resolution. Save or sacrifice! Help or hinder! Good or evil! Deeeeecide! (Push 'X' to be a hero, 'Y' to be a villain.)

Promising real choice, then delivering primary colour Saturday matinee moralising has been the unfortunate reality. So, if big, complicated and supposedly more thoughtful games like BioShock and Mass Effect can only write their conundrums in toddler-safe crayon, what hope does the meathead that is Call of Duty have?

Enough to make it work, it seems. In the pre-release info that peppered the internet, the hype machine focused on Strike Missions, the optional secondary tier of levels that complemented - and possibly modified - the main story arc. These missions, however, are only a small part of the new territory covered within the game, and what else is there is even more compelling.

So it goes like this: there's the regular Call of Duty campaign template in the form of a series of sequential missions to undertake. The narrative, and individual missions, hops between the 1980s and 2025. In the future, there's a cold war being fought via a series of proxy wars and every now and again the game will ask you to undertake a Strike Mission - deploying somewhere in Asia to complete an objective to strengthen the USA's position in this conflict. In addition to the impact those Strike Missions have, during the main story missions there are multiple points (sometimes more than one in each level) where the story can diverge through your actions. The most curious part of this is that it's often not signposted as such. It's incredibly well-positioned, often subtle, and hugely meaningful for how the story unfolds.

Take, for example, one mission. A giant firefight has broken out on a tropical resort and a small army of mercenaries is tearing through the island's security personnel and holidaymakers. So you traverse the level while explosions are going off all around, terrorists are rappelling through skylights firing their machine guns into innocent tourists and hectic radio chatter is cluttering your speakers. Except that, for once, if you were paying attention to what's being said rather than going into automatic and drinking in the cacophony of violence, you'd realise your teammate is telling you that the bad guy is getting away, and he has the target you came to grab with him. There's no "FOLLOW" ubiquitously stamped on screen and no ominous countdown timer; your team's waiting on your initiative. The first time I played the level I ignored the information and just chewed through the gunfights methodically, and the bad guy got away along with the target. This significantly changed the subsequent story, as I discovered upon replaying the mission. The second time, I pounded through the resort, dodging fire and crossing ground quickly to get to the bad guy before he boarded a chopper and taking him out.

Events like this one are presented regularly throughout the game. The developers, Treyarch, have quite intelligently put together a dynamically changing story that, functionally, is both very well-made and a lot more intriguing than most shooters manage. The plot diverges to such a degree that you could discuss the game's events with a fellow player and come up with two radically different accounts of events. Most importantly, the events within the missions that cause the story to branch aren't telegraphed in insultingly obvious moments where progression depends on you plainly picking one or the other. In fact, if you're not paying attention, you may miss them entirely. This had further consequences to how I played the game: I was suddenly alert, trying to keep on my toes and do my utmost to complete my objectives and be aware of my surroundings. Past Call of Duty campaigns had asked me to be a good boy and trudge obediently after the big boys who'll take care of all the important things for me. Black Ops II has, thankfully, added another aspect to the well-trodden "shooting folk when they pop from cover" game play. It even made the campaign worth playing more than a grand total of once.

The Walking Dead

The other game I've been playing the last few days has had another interesting take on player choice. Where Black Ops II did a great job in obfuscating when exactly impactful moments were taking place in the storyline, The Walking Dead does something equally admirable but entirely different: it makes unclear the consequences of your decisions. This is something I think games haven't explored very much, which is surprising considering that most of our lives are spent not knowing what the consequences of our actions will be. Lots of choices given to players in games may be morally difficult, but their effects are usually clearly communicated before being made. When doing something will change the balance of a resource, the game will indicate in what direction if not outright providing a number. In this respect, video games try to quanitfy and rationalise choice: it becomes a numbers game, "how much is doing the right thing worth?"

I'll use an example from another, older, game to illustrate my point. In Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II, there is a small event that takes place when you first enter the hub world of Nar Shaddaa: a beggar man shuffles up to you and asks for some money for food. The player is given two options: tell him to go away or give him some money for food. Being an upstanding Jedi, I opted for the latter, then witnessed a short cut-scene that showed the grateful man round a corner later and being mugged for his cash, cash that the thieves had seen me given him. It wasn't a big event in the game world, but it was hugely memorable as a moment that subverted my expectations. Thanks to my previous experience with these sorts of systems in games, I assumed the information being presented was clear: I could trade some credits for moral standing, or, in other words, was being a good guy worth this much money? What happened was not that: I gave him my money, the poor man was beaten, I felt rotten and the game chided me for being so naive.

Having bought the entire season of The Walking Dead in last week's Autumn Steam Sale and playing through the first two episodes (so far), the game's biggest success is not giving the player information at the critical moments, just like KotORII didn't for me years ago. The difference is that The Walking Dead does it repeatedly and convincingly. There are no illusions that the game is trying to deceive me like I felt knowledge of game systems led me to be deceived with the beggar man. All The Walking Dead does is put me in a situation, ask me if I want to do 'A' or 'B', then sit in the corner wearing a world-class poker face and counting down to zero. I don't know which is the 'right' thing to do, which will reap the greatest rewards. All I, and every other person playing this game, can do is stop trying to game the system and try to do what they think they'd really do were they faced with such a scenario. It doesn't help calm my nerves that most of the outcomes make me feel rotten. It is extremely interesting, at the end of each episode, to be presented with a statistics screen that tells me what other players did, as well as leading me to think things like, "man, 39% of people are just arseholes!" and "82% did that? Grow some balls, 82%ers!"

I need to play through the last three episodes to cement my opinion on the game as a whole. So far, it's good, but there are a few problems I have with it, too.

So it's been an interesting week. Two games I never thought I would be able to compare have come together to submit fascinating takes on the same concept, and both have done so with aplomb. Black Ops II doesn't telegraph when you're making choices, The Walking Dead doesn't telegraph what will happen as a result of them. They're both better games as a result.

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