The incoherence of Black Ops 2

I finished Black Ops 2 yesterday. Is it too much to ask that games make some sort of sense?

Treyarch clearly wanted to differentiate itself from previous, formulaic Calls of Duty, but has instead created an awful mess. The contents of my brain after the credits, unencumbered by such things as post-hoc verification:

The year is 2025, but sometimes 1970 or 1989. There’s Noriega, baseball-capped, slouching like a teenager against a wall. He’s oily and diminutive in the way these games usually depict Hispanic people.

The main villain wears a light sports jacket and a facial scar: Abu Hamza with a subscription to Monocle. He planned to be captured, of course. He plucks out his eyeball and smashes it to reveal a SIM card containing a virus that cripples the world’s militaries.

Touchscreens, holograms, and hacking: all drain any sort of momentum (“Wait here while the techs override the door lock!”). A “data glove” whose function is unclear. After rescuing a pilot, you commandeer her plane for a tediously death-defying dogfight over downtown Futureville. When you fly off the unmarked map the scene resets, and you sigh.

A regrettable flirtation with top-down strategy hampered by dopey AI. A gunfight in a nightclub (dancing is still the uncanny valley of CGI) that is still pretty cool because it was ripped off Vice City and has – yes really – a Skrillex soundtrack.

A wheelchaired veteran clearly COSTMONEY. The camera lingers on his expensive, expressive face. He does ANGUISH. Then RAGE. After the credits, he rocks out with Avenged Sevenfold in an embarrassing tie-in that proves that adults weren’t expected to finish this game.

Big Dog evolutions and Parrot drones that kill you from fucking nowhere. Bullets fly fast and penetrate walls but enemies still absorb a few gutshots before falling. A scene featuring horseback riding and Stinger missiles, like a mundane Shadow of the Colossus. The horses shoot lasers from their eyes and are made entirely of QR codes.

And amid this drunken Millennial incoherence, a game engine that, while functionally competent, lacks any kind of embodiment. Rather than being immersed in this ridiculous action, you sit atop it. Even the futuristic guns are limp. A grenade explodes behind you with a flat pop. The grenade indicator is so faint that you find yourself tripping over the damn things at random. You get shot, but it’s not really clear by whom, from where, and why you should care.

For all their gung-ho predictability, the Modern Warfare games feel great. They give great feedback. They throw you into the noise and the light. Their undeniable set-piece excess is still bounded within sensible limits of intelligibility. Black Ops 2, by contrast, is wild, flabby and virtually unfathomable.