“No one gives a f*ck about you.” That’s the opening line for one of Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 (opens in new tab)’s prestige cinematic trailers, uttered by Donnie ‘Ruin’ Walsh. If you haven’t already sprinted a mile in his boots, Ruin is one of the ten Specialist characters in Black Ops 4’s multiplayer who all come with their own unique gear and ultimate abilities, adding another layer of specialization to your playstyle. They’re also the stars of Specialist HQ – a skeletal solo mode making up for the fact that this is the first Call of Duty game without a full-blown single-player campaign. Ruin’s harsh narration is ostensibly directed at the other Specialists, convincing them to join his fight – but he could just as easily be talking to a mirror, because so few players seem to care about Specialist HQ. Well, Mr. Ruin, I give an f, and I think anyone who skips Black Ops 4’s solo missions is missing out on some grade-A entertainment you won’t find anywhere else.
The numbers don’t lie. At the time of this writing, two weeks after Black Ops 4’s launch, the easiest PlayStation trophies for Specialist HQ (which basically boil down to ‘play each Specialist once’) are still marked Ultra Rare, with a mere 2.8% of the entire PS4 player base having completed them. In other words, millions of people are ignoring the intriguing story that Specialist HQ bothers to tell via a bevy of visually arresting cutscenes and a host of unlockable audio logs. As the Specialists join forces at the request of one Savannah Mason (Alex Mason’s granddaughter), Ruin and Battery start to uncover a dark conspiracy behind a botched covert op. Yes, it’s fairly predictable, and yes, Savannah’s face never leaves the uncanny valley, but the narrative in Specialist HQ is exciting all the same, proving that you don’t need an 8-hour campaign to tell a good Call of Duty story.
Your guide through this winding plot is none other than Sergeant Frank Woods, the fan-favorite soldier who always had your back in the first two Black Ops campaigns. Woods is, to put it mildly, absolutely ridiculous in Specialist HQ, greeting you with a friendly “If you don’t know who I am, tough shit.” The idea is that this Woods is an AI hologram modeled after the real deal, designed to bring each Specialist up to speed in a Matrix-esque simulation called The Immersion. But forget the explanation – what matters is that Woods is back, he’s in your face, and he’s screaming the most absurd kinds of encouragement in your ear at all times. I highly recommend that you hear everything Woods has to say for yourself, but maybe you need some convincing.
At one point, Woods seems to unironically channel Matthew McConaughey’s legendary “Alright, alright, alright!” He refers to the fallout from Battery’s cluster grenade as a “bomblet boogie,” then compliments an accurate grenade shot with an off-the-cuff “That bounce was lit AF.” Just as a reminder, this is a veteran of the Korean and Vietnam wars saying these things. Directly after dipping into such youthful slang, he suddenly switches gears to Shakespeare, saying “What light through yonder window breaks?” as a signal that it’s time to obliterate a room full of enemies using your grenade launcher. Your enemies might get elaborate nicknames like “Johnny Jackass and his merry band of idiots,” or they’re simply referred to as “dipshit.” Woods also loves coming up with militarized versions of nursery rhyme songs including ‘Hickory Dickory Dock’ and ‘Star Light, Star Bright’ for some reason, which he proudly recites to grown, gun-toting adults.
To hear all these things (and many, many more) in a mainstream AAA game like Black Ops 4 is absolutely outrageous, and I mean that in the best way possible. It’s as if the writers had free reign to makes Woods say whatever discordant things they wanted, logic be damned. Woods’ longtime voice actor James C. Burns does the honors once again here – but something about his inflection in Black Ops 4 seems to have dropped the trademark gruffness, replacing it with an unbridled army man machismo so extreme, you don’t know whether to reflexively salute or shriek with laughter. He’s become the gaming equivalent of Lieutenant Colonel Bill Kilgore in Apocalypse Now, capturing the same cartoonish wartime excess of Kilgore’s classic line: “I love the smell of napalm in the morning.” Which, of course, Woods spouts a reference to.
The amused grunts, nonsensical phrases, and congratulatory ramblings that come out of Woods’ mouth had me smiling from ear to ear, giddy to find out what non-sequitur, inexplicably silly idiom Woods would bark at me this time. I often found myself purposely taking it slow just so I made absolutely sure I heard everything he had to say before moving on. “Now they’re like Congress – deaf, dumb, and blind,” he’d shout. “The Flank Steak Special, baby – Sarge’s bar and grill!” Woods just seems so unbelievably stoked to teach you all about lethal ordnance, and his boundless energy is infectious.
Woods may be the headliner, but the Specialists themselves make a great supporting cast. The missions in Specialist HQ act as tutorials for how each Specialist’s loadout functions; like a MOBA, understanding how their abilities work also clues you in on how to best combat them. As a reward for learning their moves and making Woods proud, you’re treated to short cutscenes offering a slice of backstory behind the Specialists and their signature skills. It’s incredible how much personality is imbued into multiplayer once you’ve watched these little vignettes, which evoke the equally brilliant Operator minisodes in Rainbow Six Siege. Getting a glimpse of your favorite Specialist in a beautifully rendered cinematic, doing what they do best, makes you all the more attached, akin to Overwatch’s beloved universe and its lavish animated shorts.
Last but not least, Specialist HQ is the ideal training ground for anyone who isn’t keen on jumping straight into multiplayer the first time they boot up Black Ops 4. Not only do you learn each Specialist by playing the missions, you’ll also get a chance to use every Scorestreak, try out every match type, and explore many of the most prevalent launch maps in skirmishes populated by bots. It reminds me of the welcoming single-player experiences in hardcore old-school shooters like Unreal Tournament and Quake 3 Arena: an ideal way to learn the ropes and feel good about racking up some killstreaks before you test yourself in the online crucible.
I can’t blame anyone for missing the fact that Specialist HQ exists at all; it’s relegated to a small corner of the main menu, in a box half the size of the banners promoting the flagship Multiplayer, Blackout, and Zombies modes. But now that you know how great Specialist HQ really is, anyone who owns Black Ops 4 ought to give it a whirl for the sheer fun of it. The mode may not warrant a game purchase on its own, but it’s such a delightful chunk of a popular game that’s gone largely ignored by most players. Sure, you could watch a cutscene compilation on YouTube, but then you’ll miss out on the meaningful bond between student (you) and teacher (Woods). So get yourself to Specialist HQ, see what each Specialist has to offer, and take the fight to those oh-so-killable bots. In the immortal words of Sgt. Frank Woods, “Let’s pump these processed puddle-suckers!”
If you want to show off your favorite Specialists in Blackout mode, here’s a guide to all the Black Ops 4 Blackout character missions (opens in new tab).