The world as we see it in Black Ops 4 absolutely sucks. Always viewed from behind gun sights, its levels consist of a series of battlefields where coastal villas, arctic research installations, and old stone forts have been blasted apart by ceaseless warfare. The player, as one of a series of international soldiers with names like “Ruin,” “Firebreak,” “Battery,” and “Torque,” is given no downtime to view their surroundings as anything other than a series of firing and cover positions.
In previous games, players would often begin and end missions by listening to another character speak, maybe wandering through the halls of an opulent resort or listening to a briefing on a military ship between firefights. Black Ops 4, though, has done away with the usual “campaign” mode and its trappings. There is no downtime or anything like peace. Instead, there is only a suite of largely plot-agnostic multiplayer maps, from the classic kill ‘em all deahmatches and the cooperative objective and zombie-focused modes to a dog-eat-dog “battle royale” closely modeled after PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds and Fortnite. There is no room, outside of lobby menus, for anything but combat. The world is a hellish vision of endless war.
Notably, even the scraps of narrative context provided by the Specialist HQ tutorial missions—the closest Black Ops 4 comes to a single-player mode—are hilariously over-the-top in their ugliness. A hologram of the first two Black Ops' Frank Woods teaches the player how to use their combat moves, making fun of Ajax’s call-sign (“What were your parents thinking?”), spouting unconscionable one-liners (“Hickory dickory dock, health and ammo rock”), and ceaselessly insulting enemies in the stupidest possible terms (“Ah, look,” he says after teaching how to use a cluster grenade, "It's dipstick and his buddies doing bomblet boogie.")
Its thin plot sees Savannah Mason, "the world’s first trillionaire," recruiting the specialists for a private war whose purpose is only uncovered by completing these training missions again and again. Once revealed, without going into specifics, the player learns only that they're part of a cynical, manipulative plot that involves lots and lots of simulated warfare. There is nothing to hold onto, then, but the certainty of killing and killing and killing some more across the game’s modes. All of it, from Woods’ hyper macho banter to the ruined environments of every multiplayer map, is intentionally, loudly vile.
The result, despite being the most thinly plotted Call of Duty to date, is a nasty depiction of war that revels in unending violence for its own sake. This, despite what it may sound like, is Black Ops 4's greatest success.
A Journey Through Call of Duty: Black Ops
The Black Ops games have always traded in brutality. Part of this is subseries creator Treyarch’s love of gore. Throughout the series, audiences have witnessed everything from a prisoner having his eye gouged out with a knife to soldiers vomiting to death as a nerve agent blisters their faces; from witnessing a protagonist’s legs broken in half and arms ripped off from a first-person viewpoint to a woman’s face pressed into roaring flames, her flesh melted off to the bone. Even for the hyper violent standards of most first-person shooters, these moments stand out as pointed, included to set the tone of a series intent on portraying the physical horrors of war.
Other Call of Duty games made by Infinity Ward and Sledgehammer Games are violent in their own right, but none of them detail the various wretched things that can be done to a body quite like Treyarch. It's a studio trademark, deliberate in the way Black Ops shows militarily inflicted death as an agonizing, horrific process rather than the simple end of life. The terrorist attacks depicted in Modern Warfare 2 and 3 may be upsetting, but their effect is created without the same attention to physical torment as any number of maimings and executions from Treyarch’s work.
This preoccupation with gore isn't just for show. Black Ops and Black Ops 2 follow a special operative named Alex Mason and his son through the Cold War and, in the year 2025-set Black Ops 2, construct a science fiction universe where post-war nightmares bleed from the past into the modern day. The suggestion, by the time players get to the far-future abstractions of Black Ops 3, is that war is eternal and has become—and will always continue to be—a confusing, horrific quagmire that feeds on itself. If it wasn't clear enough from their plots, the series is happy to reinforce this point with nauseatingly gory imagery.
Both games provide ample opportunity to foreground physical brutality. The first Black Ops weaves through the Vietnam War and Bay of Pigs Invasion to tell the story of CIA black ops agents questioning a psychologically broken Mason regarding his role in a Soviet brainwashing plot to attack America and usher in World War III. Both Soviet and American-affiliated forces come off badly—the Soviets as sadistic cynics and the Americans as (in some cases, literally) brainwashed killers. It, appropriately, sees American military action from this era as sickening and pointless.
Black Ops 2 picks up later in the Cold War, Mason fighting alongside a rogue's gallery of infamous historical figures in the Angolan Civil War, the Soviet-Afghan War, and the US invasion of Panama. In its version of the year 2025, these real-world events have come to a head: American interference in South American politics has birthed a fictional terrorist group led by Raul Menendez, a Nicaraguan whose family was killed by the CIA and whose country was ravaged by the American-backed Contras. If the historical context of Menendez’s revenge plot wasn’t clear enough already, he’s even directly compared to Osama Bin Laden in the game’s opening scenes—a comparison obviously meant to evoke even more recent real-world parallels between how America’s past sins have birthed terrifying modern day retributive violence.
In all of this, Black Ops suggests that the Cold War has thrown the world into chaos. Rather than make this an abstract point, it shows a direct through line from seemingly bygone history to its vision of the future, emphasizing along the way the stomach-churning human cost of these conflicts.
The Shape of Things to Come
Black Ops 4 wouldn't make much sense as a continuation of these themes if it wasn't for 3, a game that builds on the preoccupations of its predecessors by exploring the psychological costs—and Call of Duty’s own cultural responsibility for informing popular views—of modern warfare.
Black Ops 3 takes place entirely within the 2050s and ‘60s, a future where cities are wracked by even more severe environmental catastrophes, global populations are even further divided by class, and the game’s black ops agents are at war against one another after discovering details of a CIA black project involving human experimentation. Its soldiers are augmented with cybernetic body parts, fight alongside and against autonomous robots, and have neural implants (called the Direct Neural Interface or DNI) that allow them to hack computers or one another’s brains and live out simulated versions of past events (or entirely fabricated ones).
By making its soldiers’ minds into levels, the game offers a metatextual commentary on the Call of Duty series itself. Its most striking sequence is a tormented phantasmagoria set in a a shifting, dream-like vision of the Second World War as imagined by a dying agent’s mind. It’s a strong, bizarre choice, calling to mind how far the series has come from its days casting players as Allied soldiers in WWII. Now, so much later, its protagonists belong to the modern day and more recent past, where its events tried (and often failed) to comment on the mess and mire of American post-war foreign policy. At this point in the series—and the world—it’s become impossible to view US military action through the noble lens of popular WWII narratives. Call of Duty’s characters are as disoriented as any Western player sitting through them. All of which makes it appropriate to see Black Ops 3’s most feverish set of levels show a character’s mind breaking with the realization of her government’s crimes. It’s a sequence that works not only to advance the game’s plot, but also as a commentary on the murk of the modern political situation the Black Ops games have detailed to date.
The game begins asking disturbing questions after this. Has the series lost its way by continuing to cast players as vicious killers, engaged in wetwork that destabilizes and ruins the lives of other countries' populations? What is the Call of Duty series' role in all of this as one of the most prominent influences on modern popular culture? Has it failed at making its commentary clear? As the sequence continues, it even includes Nazi zombies from the staple Treyarch co-op mode. They swarm the player in the ruins of Bastogne as if to show the WWII-era history of the series’ past turned as perverse and borderline blasphemous as Call of Duty’s evolving depictions of war itself. As it comes to a delirious end, Black Ops 3’s plot describes how the evil of the CIA black project site has been made manifest as the program’s AI director, Corvus. In the most obvious bit of self-reflection in a game already full with it, the war-perpetuating software is infecting black ops agents with the horrors it witnessed, altering their minds so they can reenact its brutal vision in the material world.
The characters unravel further and further from this point, aware now that they're in a hopelessly confused situation, both politically and in terms of their own fractured, digitally-manipulated psyches. Its violence, presented through level after level of now nearly purposelessness combat, feels sickening. It's as if Treyarch has grown nauseated by considering its own work—or has thrown up its hands at the idea of making worthwhile points about war from within the framework of its never-ending, blood-soaked creations.
Wallowing in Itself
It's hard to think of how an effective sequel can be made to a game like Black Ops 3. After pressing its face against the fourth wall and allowing its action to shift decades into the future, there doesn’t seem to be many logical next steps. Still, Treyarch has managed to do so in an unexpected way. By largely discarding any attempt to tell a straightforward story, it’s freed itself to hone in on what’s always been key to Black Ops’ depiction of war—namely, the constant, futile, bloody horror of combat.
One of the most common sights in Black Ops 4’s multiplayer is the immediate aftermath of an opponent dropping a bomb onto the battlefield. The player character, shown just after their death, hits the ground as a limp mess, ragged stumps where their legs used to be. At first, it's mildly shocking. The violence in multiplayer shooters is usually so banal and expected that even the spray of blood from yet another headshot dulls into meaninglessness with enough exposure. The bomb’s effects, though, are just grotesque enough to warrant a reaction for the first few hours of matches. By the time the player’s realized that they've witnessed the sight of their avatar rendered into a limbless torso enough times that it no longer elicits disgust, Black Ops 4 seems to have made a point that fits the rest of the series: no matter how much of war’s horror it shows you, at a certain point the multiplayer bloodbath becomes numbing. War, in this context, is a background hum. Its atrocities are commonplace.
It’s only with the context of the three prior Black Ops that 4 is able to turn its nearly plot-free deathmatches into a commentary on its subject matter. Those who have played its predecessors, felt the disillusionment of each entry’s message becoming increasingly clear, and spent time gunning down endless opponents in 4 can feel the broader picture taking shape, though. The series’ view on war hasn’t changed—if anything, introducing the desperate struggles of its battle royale’s last person standing structure has only enhanced what its multiplayer shooting has always suggested.
Though the mode may initially feel like an odd fit for the more frenetic pace of popular Call of Duty modes, Black Ops 4's Blackout fits the series' nihilistic tone even better than the standard line-up of deathmatch and objective-based contests. A group of players, jumping from helicopters to fight to the death across a barren, post-apocalyptic landscape, makes the battle royale concept a perfect thematic match. There’s something intrinsically grim about these kind of games (even if Fortnite distracts with candy-colored visuals) and Blackout leans into it. The shrinking “safe zone,” the panicked murder of running into another player, and the Groundhog’s Day repetition of exploring the same play area over and over again—all of it feels like the nightmares of prior Black Ops games come to life.
Within this light, even the typically disposable-feeling Zombies mode (which, as testament to Treyarch’s love of ghoulish blood-shedding, first debuted in their 2008 World at War) is lent the inflection of the rest of the series. Undead monsters, shuffling forth to be murdered again and again—even, appropriately enough for Black Ops 4, in a gladiatorial arena—become blinking metaphors for the eternal, futile nature of modern war. Using its lack of coherent story as an advantage, Black Ops 4’s constant online battles show combat as properly depraved and hint that finding endless entertainment in it might hint at a cultural depravity, too.
Since there's no substantial single-player story mode to distract from it any longer, Black Ops 4’s multiplayer makes its point instead. Aside from the training section’s few cutscenes—cutscenes that notably include images like a soldier gasping her last breaths with half of her jaw blown off by a close-quarters gunshot—and generally bewildered, cynical machismo, there are only online battlefields left to communicate its message. Through them, unlike previous Black Ops campaigns, the killing never has to end. It goes on forever, becoming routine and good fun and something not to think too hard about. War, in them, can be as brutal as it wants without ever having to explain itself. A more hellish commentary on the future is hard to imagine.