As I died for what must have been the fiftieth time in Black Ops IIII's competitive multiplayer modes, a strange feeling of serenity settled upon my troubled mind. Thing is – and this is not unusual in Call of Duty – I almost never see who or what kills me: or, sometimes, I get a half-second glimpse and then I'm dead. This has always been a quickfire multiplayer experience, one where speed and overlapping waves of respawning players can quickly build into complete chaos.
One of my early surprises in Blops the Fourth was that I quickly moved on from the much-anticipated battle royale mode Blackout, great though it is, and immersed myself once more in the straight-up PvP side. That rhythm of unlocks and perks, tweaked though it may be, now has the familiarity only a decade can bring: it's one of those aspects of annual series that, amid the sneering, is kind of lost. There's a nostalgic quality to seeing the latest form of a game you've known for so many years and, as you begin unlocking new optics and attachments and perks, you also feel what has stayed the same.
This time, however, something else was different. Call of Duty multiplayer has always been one of the fastest shooters out there, and it's pretty much built around constant respawns and simple objective-type modes. I've always understood why a certain strain of FPS purist looks down on this style when compared to more considered alternatives like Counter-Strike: Global Offensive or Rainbow Six: Siege, but at the same time I enjoy the hectic nature of COD far too much to ever do the same. I've played almost every game in this series, to various extents, and even the low points are never less than fun.
I'm still not sure where on my own personal scale Black Ops IIII's multiplayer is going to end up, simply because so far this thing is so wild I can barely get a handle on it. Obviously there are many patches and updates to come but, at the time of writing, the game's competitive modes very frequently end up in a not-unfamiliar situation for COD: you hit a certain point in the match, then scorestreaks can start absolutely dominating. I've played entire rounds where from start to finish I've spawned, run forwards a few steps, heard a whistle, then the camera suddenly switches to third person as my avatar's corpse pinwheels off with bloody stumps where the limbs used to be. Hellfire missile.
If it's not those (it very often is), then there's the attack choppers, the gunships, the air strikes, or the drones. To be clear, I'm not grumbling about getting killed by scorestreaks; that's the COD life. But the way Black Ops IIII's multiplayer is structured does throw up these rounds where your team is gonna get utterly squashed as it tries to escape spawn, and there's not really much one can do about it.
Something like this would occasionally happen in the CODs of old, a few of which launched with terrible scorestreak stuff going on that was (mostly) later patched. Here, I started to get a bit zen about it: after all, they eventually pass. But there are these long stretches of play in Black Ops IIII where the only game in town is to take a few steps forward on the battlefield, brace oneself, and accept what's coming. I've been in games where my whole team's huddled in a little house, the roof of which is amusingly able to withstand the barrage, just looking at each other while everything outside explodes. I've been in matches where we've been boxed-in by choppers and some clever dick rounds the corner with a flamethrower and toasts an entire special ops unit in two seconds.
And I've been on the other side, already romping ahead 2-0 and then watching in pleasant bemusement as my team's scorestreaks begin round 3 in a swarm of gleaming metal dragonflies and missile impacts. I watch a distant part of the map bang and crackle, while doing not much of anything, and score prompts scroll down through the enemy dead and assists. Given the usual intensity of these matches, it feels like a strange privilege: a brief taste of field commander mode, perhaps.
During a match of Control, an objective gametype where teams take turns to seize two objectives, my team came under one of these assaults and, as I died three times in a row to Hellfire missiles, I realised this was one of the few authentic moments that Call of Duty's otherwise rah-rah depiction of war has ever managed. This is a series that uncritically fetishes both the military and military hardware. Each game's development involves specialist advice and the incorporation of real-life weaponry, and its massive success has led to the establishment of a veteran's endowment. In Call of Duty, war means amazing guns, cool military jargon, and not much else.
Somewhat more questionably, these links have led to attempts both in-game and without to deal with the question of authenticity. This was particularly marked in the pre-launch chatter around last year's COD: WW2 but it's been around for years, perhaps the most tone-deaf example coming from Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare's depiction of a military funeral, where the player is prompted to "Hold X to Pay Respects."
The meaning of authenticity to Call of Duty, in this example and elsewhere, seems to be respect for the military. And fair enough. Even clumsy ideas like the funeral scene, when sincerely motivated, are forgivable.
But I'm not sure authenticity just means respect for the military. I'm especially not sure that, in the context of a war game intended as entertainment, authenticity is possible or even worth striving for. Call of Duty is just such an enormous abstraction from the thing it's aping that, no matter how good the animations and textures get, this will always be closer to toy soldiers than the real thing.
Maybe that's why the above scene sticks in the memory. It doesn't feel like military funerals should exist in Call of Duty.
Call of Duty is an entertainment product first, and everything else second. The nature of war is, for this series, one-dimensional: it is an event where one team shoots at another team and the first to a certain score wins. You could criticise the individual game, or simply see it as a symptom of the wider issue of how war is sanitised and sold to the public.
Strange however that, at its most gung-ho, Black Ops IIII creates these pockets where something other than entertainment happens. Sure they only last a minute or two, and then back to the fantasy. But in that time the battlefield becomes a meat-grinder, teammates panic, explosions are everywhere, and you die without having any idea what killed you. I'm not going to call that authentic, because I wouldn't know. But I suspect that these recurring vignettes are a lot closer to modern warfare than anything else in the game, and they certainly beat a QTE send-off.
As I ran around the virtual battlefield of Black Ops IIII, dying in a bewildered manner over and over with things booming all around, it began to remind me of a book. Not a searing Vietnam memoir or a brick-like tome about World War 2, either, but Stendhal’s novel The Charterhouse of Parma. This contains a depiction of war from the individual's perspective: a young Italian called Fabrice del Dongo, who runs off enthusiastically to join Napoleon’s army, and ends up at the Battle of Waterloo.
Here's what happens: Fabrice gets hit on the head, sees soldiers running around, shoots a retreating opponent, and gets stabbed in the leg by one of his own side. Then he faints. The whole thing’s a mess. Fabrice and the reader have no idea what’s going on. After which Fabrice returns to Parma wounded, broke and dejected, wondering if he really was at Waterloo.
This isn't strictly relevant but, to finish the story (spoilers!) — by the end of the novel Fabrice is an old man, and spoken of with reverence as one of Napoleon’s key captains.
That piece of writing's always lodged in the memory because Stendhal captures the kind of matter-of-fact way that extraordinary horrors unfold. The confusion. The slide-show of odd details. The absence of a bigger picture beyond survival. The arbitrary, callous violence. And then that half-rhetorical questioning of whether it really happened at all.
Pretty heavy stuff for 6v6 Control, but your mind does wander when continually respawning. Last time I was in one of these situations I noticed, as the missiles and withering fire ripped into my team, an opponent had typed 'ez'. In the circumstances it did seem a fair observation even though, as my legs once more separated from my torso, I knew there was nothing fair about it.