There comes a time in every man, woman or videogame studio's life when you need to shrug on the trousers. A time to lead, to strike your colours. A time to say something along the lines of: "no, Soap, why don't you wait for me to open the goddamn door, you massive, load-pause-disguising control freak, oh and I'll be driving the cars in future, you scowling excuse for on-rails level design." It's all part of growing up, finding yourself, making your mark.
Treyarch has been Call of Duty's "B-team" for years, stalwartly and mostly good-humouredly filling the gaps between Infinity Ward releases, the "real" Call of Duty games. Its labours have met with high scores, high sales and massive derision. All Call of Duties are a due a post-review pasting under unwritten internet law, but as the products of a "copycat" supporting studio, World at War and Black Ops have undergone a nastier grilling than most. It's unfair, and it's also desperately short-sighted, because with Black Ops, Treyarch turned in some of the wilder twists in Call of Duty's long-running tale. And the unconfirmed, hotly rumoured Black Ops 2? If it's true to form, it could be Call of Duty's next Call of Duty 4.
Black Ops isn't a perfect game. It commits many - most - of the same sins Modern Warfare 1 and 2 did. The campaign is a drawn-out scream of reloads and respawns. Going online is like clambering into a sack of angry ferrets, thanks to souped-up perks and killstreaks. And the plot is barely clever enough to be nonsense, elaborating its Cold War premise with all the elegance of an amateur dodgeball team. The narrative frame is different - flashbacks from an interrogation chamber as against a VR-tastic "Overlord" global view - but the pacing is just as spasmodic. The game's themes, faces and places degenerate into a queasy purple-yellow smear, as protagonist Mason catapults through history at the behest of Ed Harris and his encouraging electrodes.
But Black Ops has a bit more to it than the Interesting Adventures of Captain Price. The hallucinogen-infused storytelling is a sly commentary on Modern Warfare's general tendency to knock you sideways, Mason's scatter-gun recollections mirroring the disorientation players feel every time they're paradropped into a new scenario. You can make similar claims about Mason's imaginary Russian pal Reznov. An invulnerable, teleporting AI partner who's actually, it transpires, a byproduct of hypnosis? In a game that strains the illusion of control so consistently and dangerously? The irony steams and wriggles like a pile of mating goats.
We shouldn't give Treyarch too much credit here - another take on the above tricks is that they're lifted unscientifically from films like Fight Club - but it's fair to say that Black Ops operates at a remove to some of the things Modern Warfare takes for granted; it's no satire, but it's very self-aware, and that self-awareness makes it easier to swallow the stupider bits. Easier, at least, than those of Modern Warfare 3. Infinity Ward and its co-devs don't necessarily err in resorting to macho, patriotic, jargon-lade, hyperactive twaddle for dramatic purposes, but they do err in expecting you to take everything seriously. Treyarch dodges that particular bullet.