Call of Duty: Warzone 2.0 introduced DMZ mode to the series, drawing on the recent explosion of extraction shooters like Escape from Tarkov, Hunt Showdown, and Marauders. In it, players are pit not only against each other, but NPCs, attempting to complete as many objectives as they can and extract from the city of Al-Mazrah with the best loot possible, or die trying and lose everything. It is the most Call of Duty that Call of Duty has ever been.
Since the release of the original Modern Warfare, the series has built its identity around the fantasy of the Tier-One Operator. The heavily bearded, heavily armed (and mostly fictional) special operative who does the dirty work that needs to be done to “keep America safe”. The kind of man who kicks in a door, and fires off five shots to kill five men before any of them can manage to stand up. Modern military violence, through this lens, is the optimal mix of brutal efficiency and graceful spectacle.
However, this fantasy has generally been limited to the series’ campaigns. The carefully orchestrated mission structure allows the series to generate moments where the player is railroaded into perfect tacticool efficiency—the kind of violence popularized in the cultural imaginary by films like Zero Dark Thirty, in which intricately planned violence is done without compromise. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare (2019) itself modeled one of its levels off of the raid on Osama Bin Laden’s compound as depicted in Zero Dark Thirty. But campaigns end. They can be replayed, sure, but eventually their content is so well worn as to undercut the grim fantasy.
In addition to the wear and tear of replaying the same campaign missions, Call of Duty’s rollercoaster-esque campaigns are so scripted as to remove all weight from the actual actions your player character is doing. Deviating from the path results in an almost immediate game over. They are Tier One Operator themed rides, not platforms through which that fantasy can be expressed through player action.
Other games have, of course, tried to capture this feeling. The most notable of which, Rainbow Six: Siege, focuses on tense, 5v5 battles between highly trained, well-equipped special operatives. However, Rainbow Six: Siege’s obsession with military technology separates it from the fantasy of the Tier One Operator. Yes, players are expected to fight one another with tactical precision in close quarters, and to execute intricately planned breaching strategies. However, while the actual abilities and objectives of Siege’s operatives are asymmetrical, their power is not.
The Tier One Operator as a cultural idea is utterly dominant over their enemies in ways that the characters of Siege cannot be. The Tier One Operator can be well equipped, certainly, but what sets them apart from other soldiers is not their equipment but their capacity for violence. You cannot just do violence efficiently, you must do the most violence efficiently. Utterly wiping out a compound, or a room, or a village, in a matter of seconds, while at a numerical disadvantage. You cannot do that in a 5v5 competitive shooter, in which you are playing against real people who are at your skill level.
Call of Duty’s multiplayer has mostly been built around fast, movement heavy scrambles. You sprint, full speed, into a room as an enemy player does the same. One of you jumps and flails in the air to displace their hitbox, the other throws themselves to the ground. Both players open fire. One of you lives, the other dies. The survivor sprints back out of the room, and onto their next target.
This design allows for a significant amount of player skill expression, combining movement, aiming, and map knowledge to create intense, sudden bouts of violence. This repeats until someone has completed the violent loop 50 or so times, and the multiplayer match ends. This is not a tacticool fantasy, but a competition in which you can prove that you have better reaction time and more unpredictable movement than other players.
Players will always find a way to push a game’s systems to their limits to get an advantage over their competitors. This boundary pushing, inevitably, results in the adoption of glitches and exploits in basic play. Humans don’t bunny hop, but players do. Humans don’t tap jump, or slide cancel, but players do. These systems, intentional or not, make these games better competitive experiences, but less tacticool power fantasies.
Warzone’s DMZ mode bridges the gap between the fantasy of the Tier One Operator, and the high skill expression, exploit heavy thrill of the series’ multiplayer. Players are offered both modes of violence. You begin the game from the perspective of an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle, watching from above. The kind of perspective most clearly associated with drone strikes and their video game representations. It zooms in to you and your squad, checking your tablets for objectives.
Non-player characters are scattered throughout the map, weapons at the ready. They range from lightly armored insurgents, to heavily armored members of some unnamed military or PMC. They are designed to be fodder for the player, fodder that can occasionally put up a fight or threaten a solo player, but fodder nonetheless.
They are organized into small compounds, or squads, or in positions throughout a border town—positions designed to give players a manageable, but engaging fight. They are, of course, quicker to die than player characters and slower to react. They are, simultaneously, framed as threats to the player, and weaklings to be farmed for currency. These NPCs are designed to make any player feel strong—to, like the threat of losing your items in the DMZ, provide the illusion of disempowerment, and, in doing so, create the opportunity for the power fantasy of utter domination against all odds.
It extends this feeling to every player, instead of just the top 10 percent of the playebase that can consistently dominate their human opponents. You do not need to slide cancel or bunny hop to take out a group of NPCs. All you need to do is move the mouse, or stick, and click on the enemy’s head. You can do that walking down the street, landing every shot, against enemies with stormtrooper accuracy. And the guns feel good, because they are designed to feel good.
Occasionally, you’ll bump into other players and experience the frenetic combat which the series has popularized. You will dash between buildings, throw yourself to the ground, and utilize movement exploits like dolphin hopping to outmaneuver your foes. For those who seek it, and those who can pull it off, the thrill of traditional Call of Duty multiplayer is still there—as is its constant threat for those who don’t.
Even if you aren’t always under attack by other players, you certainly feel that way. The game’s NPCs are, from most engagement ranges, identical to real players. The only real difference is in their behavior. This prevents the game from feeling, as many Call of Duty campaigns eventually do, like riskless shooting galleries. The constant threat of a real fight contributes to the illusion of disempowerment which DMZ thrives on, and provides ample opportunity for dedicated players to hone and express their skills for hours on end.
The game’s map is peppered with objectives: Strongholds to raid, High Value Targets to assassinate, supply caches to blow up, the list goes on. These objectives can be completed alone, with a squad, or even in collaboration with random players who could, at any moment, turn their weapons on you. Completing them earns you experience towards the game’s battle pass, and earns you money, which you can either use to buy weapons and gear in the field, or turn into experience at the end of the match.
All of this violence is done in service of the tacticool dopamine hit of finding heavily customized weapon after heavily customized weapon, firing every possible variation of the M4 scavenged from a High Value Target. The quality of a weapon in DMZ is not determined by how worn it is, or how expensive it was to produce, or how reliably it performs, but how accessorized it is. One M4 is superior to another if it has a laser sight, regardless of whether or not the player ever uses it.
This is nothing new to the series, which has, since Modern Warfare, built its multiplayer progression around weapon customization. However, DMZ melds the aesthetic of the modern military rifle with the feeling of domination and control which those weapons have always represented.
Each foray into the DMZ is an opportunity to complete contracts for one of three shadowy Private Military Companies. Contracts range from checklist objectives like defeating a certain number of players, to providing you with specific Strongholds and bases to target. For these fictional companies the city of Al-Mazrah is a playground from which they can extract the maximum amount of profit, and you are their perfectly efficient hand.
Like any live service game with this structure, it encourages players to return to the game day after day. And so, in DMZ, Call of Duty has built its own forever war. It is the series’ American imperial fantasy at its most boldfaced and disquieting.