Ethiopia, 2065. My team of black ops special forces and I are extracting an Egyptian minister from a military-controlled airport before his scheduled execution. The part where we try to be quiet, slipping silenced bullets into the unsuspecting heads of unnamed soldiers, is over, and now we're hauling ass down a dirt road with half the army after us. I'm manning a turret on top of an armored vehicle, which is the height of Call of Duty clichés, blowing up buildings and aircraft with one or two shots.
You normally beat Call of Duty games by shooting all the bad guys like this for six hours. When the last one is dead, you've saved the world. But that's not the case in the newly-released Call of Duty: Black Ops 3, where climate change is ravaging the planet. The climate is one of the many nightmares in the game's near-future, but the only problem you can't fix with a headshot, which is an oddly helpless position for the hero of a power fantasy.
Like most action movies, Call of Duty games always open with an explosive set-piece, and the latest game in the series, Call of Duty: Black Ops 3, is no different. It's fast, loud, and your bro dude black ops partner, Hendrix, is constantly yelling at you to do this or that, punctuating with juvenile f-bombs.
We reach the extraction point and airlift the minister, but before we manage to get away I'm tackled by a robot soldier who looks like a 'roided up Chappie, who coldly and methodically tears the limbs off my body. It's a shocking moment to witness in first person.
It's okay though. Losing limbs in the year 2065 is not going to stop me from being a black ops soldier. Hell, with cybernetic technology that gives me new robot arms and legs, I'm even better. I can punch people across the room and run up walls. However, the most important upgrade your character receives is the Direct Neural Interface (DNI) developed for the military by the shady Coalescence Corporation. By plugging directly into my brain, it lets me see what my other black ops dudes see, hack any computer with my mind, and download and absorb any amount of data in a second. I know kung-fu.
Call of Duty games are fascinating because, regardless of quality or intention, they're a major pop-culture prism through we see and express our relationship with war and other geopolitical anxieties.
Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare was the first truly post-9/11 game, abandoning the black and white heroism of World War II the series dealt with exclusively up to that point, in favor of the vague morals of the war on terror. Call of Duty: Ghosts imagines how those quagmires lead to a post-American world. Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare fears a future where the military has been completely privatized.
In the same vein, Black Ops 3 is kind of a jumbled mess of technophobia. How human are we when we have hugely superior robot bodies? What will happen when we finally stop pretending and plug the internet directly into our brains, and what does that say about privacy given the government's track record with surveillance? What happens when we let an artificial intelligence (AI) loose in this hyper-connected world?
Black Ops 3 halfheartedly engages with these questions in true Call of Duty fashion, meaning it gets two and a half chin strokes in before it solves the problem by shooting it in the face and Hendrix says "fuck yeah bro," or something.
Singapore will still be flooded when there's no one left to shoot
The thing that's really interesting about Black Ops 3,though, is that it seems to subconsciously acknowledge that none of it matters. Call of Duty's general stance on war comes in different shades of "war is hell, but necessary, and also really cool—yo check out this pimped-out assault rifle."
Black Ops 3 does the same (you can pimp out your assault rifle more than ever!), but it's just going through the motions. It's going to war because it doesn't know how to do anything else and it doesn't even pretend like that will help unfuck the world.
In 2065, the world is divided into two factions that are in a constant state of war over scarce resources. There are the Winslow Accord Member Nations, which are good because they include the Unites States, and there are the Common Defense Pact nations, which are bad because they don't.
The black ops team is really good at killing the bad guys, though that never leads to victory, and even if it did, I'm not sure what they'll win. Black Ops 3 is afraid of technology, but there's something much scarier in the background. In one mission, the black ops team goes to Singapore, a huge part of which was simply surrendered to natural and manmade disasters. The city is constantly pounded by giant tsunamis, blowing over cars and buildings.
One of the cool gadgets you get for that mission, an anchor that keeps you from being washed away in the waves, is for dealing with an environment gone haywire, not other soldiers. In another mission in Egypt where I flew around in a jet, I had to rush to complete my objective and get out of there before we were hit by a giant dust storm.
"We live in uncertain times," the narrator said in the game's opening cinematic over a montage of cities overtaken by water, snow, and heat.
Like robotics and AI, these are things that are happening now. We're already experimenting with robotic limbs, neural interfaces, and Elon Musk is afraid of summoning the demon of AI, but we're also seeing unprecedented tsunamis and dust storms. The difference is that you can shoot a robot, and it's fun. One of the greatest thing about Black Ops 3 over other Call of Duty games is that you have these new metal cans to shoot at, which absorb more bullets and fall into pieces as they run at you. Rising sea levels and giant storms are very much a part of Black Ops 3's pastiche of our current geopolitical turmoil, but if you can't shoot climate change, what's the point in fighting it?
It's fitting, then, that Black Ops 3's final act takes place in the abstract space of the mind. In what is the most avant-garde level in any Call of Duty level to date, the final act takes place inside your head, where you fight against an invading AI that's trying to take over every connected technology in the world, including your connected brain.
In this dreamspace, the battlefield folds in on itself like those scenes in Christopher Nolan's Inception (Call of Duty is never above ripping off the best scenes from movies), as does time, with remixed memories of historical and future warfare. When you shoot the bad guys, they explode into a murder of crows, only to regroup into another bad guy a second later. You're shooting spectres. It's a battle of ideas.
Ostensibly, you're fighting to keep your humanity, but the notion of internal battle is the most prescient point Black Ops 3 has to offer. We can invade countries, we can fret over the use of drones and mass surveillance as we fret over all new technologies, but Singapore will still be flooded when there's no one left to shoot.
Black Ops 3 doesn't really offer a solution, but at least it suggests that the greatest challenge of our time is our own imagination, not our perceived enemies.