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Black Ops

Call Of Duty: Black Ops—“Nuketown”

The beloved multiplayer stage has a bizarre origin story.

By Ryan Smith • January 29, 2013

In a strange case of art imitating art that imitates life, the Call Of Duty: Black Ops multiplayer map “Nuketown” was inspired by Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull, which itself was based on a real historic event. Black Ops’ game designer/director David Vonderhaar is on the record saying the popular map is based on a throwaway scene from the 2008 sequel in which Indy wanders onto the grounds of a nuclear test site town and discovers that he must find a way to escape an impending blast. The sequence descends further into the realm of implausibility as the aging adventurer manages to hide in a refrigerator seconds before the explosion. He’s tossed hundreds of yards away to safety while everything around him evaporates.

I once assumed that the nuclear test town–the central conceit behind that scene and Nuketown—was a fake, an idea cooked up by some hacky screenwriter overreaching for a visual metaphor that represented America’s free-floating Cold War hysteria and the illusory nature of the conformist 1950s. But it’s true, the U.S. military really did create a faux village called Survival Town and nuked its quaint suburban houses and mannequin residents to holy hell.

The purpose of the grand experiment was to determine how a normal American town could be affected by the detonation of a nuclear weapon. The results of the test seem obvious—we’d be screwed—but this was an era marked by the Army’s willingness to play the role of loopy mad scientist. And so like some early big-budget episode of Mythbusters, the military chose a bleak Nevada desert as the site for Survival Town, a collection of homes stocked with furniture, canned goods, and well-dressed department store mannequins.

Nuketown

On May 5, 1955, the Army initiated a 31-kiloton nuclear explosion nearby and filmed the destruction. The stark imagery from the stills and the propaganda-heavy newsreel video of the incident remain haunting: Nearly identical residential houses are torn to pieces and smiles are frozen on the faces of the Leave It To Beaver-style citizens after their bodies have been charred by the nuclear blast. Survival Town is a creepy dichotomy of the mundane and the terrible.

On the surface, Nuketown contains some of that same visual irony. It’s certainly jarring, at first, to see the bloody firefights of Call Of Duty multiplayer matches in a clichéd ’50s suburban neighborhood street. Most Call of Duty multiplayer maps take place in gritty battle zones—bombed-out barracks or sooty munitions factories—but Nuketown consists of a bulbous cul-de-sac dotted by several prefab two-story and ranch-style houses. Each home is surrounded by manicured green lawns, which look even more ridiculous with the lifeless brown desert visible just beyond the city limits. Found both inside and outside the homes are blank-faced mannequins, seemingly placed to reinforce post-World War II gender roles—a woman working in the kitchen, a necktie-clad man in the garage, a grade-school teacher standing by her school bus in the middle of the street.

But beyond the basics, the map is full of cheeky touches that echo the high camp of the scene from Indiana Jones. The population sign, for example, changes based on the number of players in the game, and a double rainbow in the background references the “Double Rainbow” YouTube video that went viral while the game was in development. There’s also a special Easter Egg surprise for shooting off all the mannequins’ heads within the first 15 seconds of the match. Doing so prompts the Rolling Stones’ classic rock anthem “Sympathy For The Devil” to play on loudspeakers.

But Nuketown’s enduring popularity as a multiplayer stage in Call Of Duty (it was tweaked and revived as an expansion in Black Ops 2 due to player demand) stems more from the layout of the map than its dark humor. Nuketown’s symmetrical nature—each side contains a two-story house with a fenced-in backyard, with a moving van providing another point of cover—makes it one of the fairest battlegrounds in series history. If one team decides to hunker down in the upstairs bedroom to establish a defensive position, another team can counter by doing the same thing or by firing a well-placed rocket through the window.

The tiny size of the map also makes for lots of frantic, close-up combat. Some players choose to create “Rambo” custom characters—soldiers equipped with faster running speed and submachine guns or shotguns—to zip through enemy lines amid the confusion. Nuketown can certainly devolve into chaos at times, and death by a misplaced friendly-fire grenade blast is inevitable. That’s part of the reason why a large part of the Call Of Duty: Black Ops community, especially more skilled players, despise Nuketown—impeccable tactics and hand-to-eye coordination can take a back seat to randomness.

The sadistic joke of Nuketown comes at the end of each match, when a bomb drops and obliterates everything in sight, making all of the desperate head-shooting and flag-capturing seem a bit futile. But that’s all forgotten seconds later when the scoreboard pops up and the game asks you to vote once again for a new battlefield. Ninety percent of the time, the crowd votes for yet another skirmish on Treyarch’s lark of death.

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  • Jackbert322

    I’ve never played this game, but my opa (grandfather) was actually stationed there with my pregnant oma when they did this. I’ve always been relieved my aunt doesn’t have three heads…

    • STOP_RIGHT_THERE_CRIMINAL_SCUM

      my grandfather was present during the Bikini Atoll nuclear testing and got a pretty good dose of radiation for his troubles

      he died of lung cancer, probably from smoking a shitload of cigarettes, but I doubt the A-bombs helped either 

    • http://www.gildedgreen.com/ Girard

      “This guy’s speaking Germish or somethin’!”

      (That’s an actual thing I overheard a redneck say when my friend’s German opa was talking with her German mom in public once.)

      • Jackbert322

        Heh, many rednecks are descended from Germans. All I ever understand of my opa and oma was their many utterances of “scheiße”.

        • http://www.gildedgreen.com/ Girard

           The weird thing was, this was Lancaster, which means if the guy was local, he’d probably encountered lots of rural folks speaking some form of “Germish” (most likely Pennsylvania Dutch dialect) in the past.

        • PaganPoet

          I think there’s quite a bit of Swedish and Norwegian diaspora as well, especially in the Midwest.

          I’m Spanish-descended, which for some reason people view as exotic, even though we’re basically just as white as any other Mediterranean country.

        • Jackbert322

          Poet, Carrrrrlossss Andrrrressss is a pretty exotic sounding name. I said that because “rednecks” are generally thought of to be from the Texas, Alabama, and Georgia parts, I believe were orginally, especially in Texas, settled by lotsa Germans.

    • http://twitter.com/JAggERnauTs juSTin

      opa + oma = oompa (your dad).  tell me your maternal grandparents were, lew and mpa.   

      • Jackbert322

        Hah! Actually, those are my maternal grandparents. I think my paternal grandfather’s middle name might have been Louis. If only his wife had been named Pam.

    • Effigy_Power

      My grandpa once drank an entire bottle of Shaughnessy Double Malt, but you don’t see me brag about it.

      Actually that’s kind of kickass. I like nuclear blasts (visually).

  • caspiancomic

    For people who are interested in all that nuclear age mad science, there’s a really great doc called Trinity and Beyond that features a lot of footage of American nuclear weapons tests. My favourite part of that film is the footage of a calibration test intended to develop an objective scale of the power of nuclear blasts (the kiloton, I believe), which basically involved stacking up 100 tons of TNT and blowing it all up. There’s terrific footage of these blue collar doods sitting on 100 tons of TNT, eating their lunch, playing cards, and smoking.

    Additional reading: the story of the Czar Bomb, the most powerful artificial explosion the planet has ever seen. The bomb detonated to produce that result was 57 megatons, and that was the scaled back prototype version of a 100 megaton bomb that was intended to go into production. For scale, Little Boy, the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, had blast strength of about 0.016 megatons.

    Man sometimes I read shit on Wikipedia that scares me to death.

    • STOP_RIGHT_THERE_CRIMINAL_SCUM

      a 100 megaton bomb? that’s almost fucking hilariously grim

      THAT shit would surely suck the paint off your house and give your whole family a permanent orange Afro 

      • Asinus

        If it makes you feel any better, I was reading that it would take a 50,000MT cobalt bomb to kill all life on Earth. 

        • http://pseudonymjones.com/ Pseudonym Jones

          Ah, phew. I feel much better now.

    • fieldafar

      A long time ago, I came across this page: http://www.carloslabs.com/node/20

      Type in a place, then choose a nuclear weapon to see what effect it could have on the area (the Tsar Bomb is one of the selectable weapons). Quite haunting, really.

      • Asinus

        Similarly, have you see The Fog of War? There’s that scene where McNemara  is talking about the firebombing policy that the Allies had in Japan and the huge lose of civilian life it caused. As he’s talking, there is a list of cities that were obliterated, how many it killed, and then for reference, the equivalently-sized US city that such an attack would have wiped out. 

      • Aurora Boreanaz

        Holy crap…yeah, the Tsar Bomb would wipe out Sacramento and anything in a 50-mile radius.  Let’s not play with those, thanks.

        • Effigy_Power

          Only if required for the promo of CoDBlOps 3.

    • http://www.gildedgreen.com/ Girard

       One could only hope that like the ‘Tsar Cannon’ and the ‘Tsar Bell,’ Russian audacity would end up being self-defeating and create something so big and so powerful that it couldn’t actually work… (see also: The Palace of the Soviets, and arguably the Soviet Union itself as exemplars of this trend…)

      I’m imagining a squad of Soviet soldiers pushing a 100-megaton bomb onto a bomber jet, and then it failing to take off because of some trivial engineering oversight like “Oh. It’s too heavy.”

      • Effigy_Power

        That exact thing pretty much already happened on the ground: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tsar_Tank

        • Asinus

          That is just asking to be featured in a JRPG steampunish game. 

      • Halloween_Jack

        Actually, according to the Wikipedia article, the yield was scaled down from 100 MT to 57 because a) the fallout from the higher yield would have reached populated areas of the USSR (despite being detonated on a remote island in the Arctic Circle), and b) it would have killed the crew aboard the bomber that delivered it. Even with the lower yield, it’s the single most powerful device created by humans.

    • stakkalee

      Another good documentary is The Atomic Café, which covers how American society was shaped by Cold War paranoia in the 40s, 50s and 60s.  It has a lot of civil defense films, like the “Duck And Cover” filmstrip they showed to schoolkids.  It looks like Youtube has the whole thing, so if you have 90 minutes to spare I recommend watching it.  Notable moments include Harry Truman’s ghoulish grin right before announcing the bombings in Japan, and an Army movie showing soldiers marching towards a just-detonated mushroom cloud as part of a test of whether nuclear weapons could be used tactically.

      • http://profiles.google.com/josephfinn Joseph Finn

        Atomic Cafe is also streaming in Netflix sometimes.

      • caspiancomic

         Cheers for the link, stak, I’ll check it out- I love all this nuclear age fuckery. Really scares the hell out of me. In a good way.

      • http://www.avclub.com/users/leavethesilvercity,114326/ leave_the_silver_city

        Atomic Cafe is such a fascinating movie. I bought it from a video rental place during a closing sale. Also saw it in a U.S. history course in college.

      • STOP_RIGHT_THERE_CRIMINAL_SCUM

        I watched that in 2008 to get in the mood for Fallout 3 

    • duwease

      Speaking of Trinity, has anyone played the freaky Infocom text adventure revolving around the bomb?  Possibly one of their best, although my memory is hazy after 15 years or so.

      • http://www.gildedgreen.com/ Girard

         It is really great, definitely one of their strongest efforts. The central ‘Myst’-style fantasy puzzle hubworld has some great puzzles, and the non-linear nature of the different areas you can go makes it structurally interesting. I also recall the overall thematic content being handled pretty well.

    • Asinus

      My “favorite” things about the Czar bomb: it blew out windows in Finnland over 600 miles away and the shock wave circled the Earth three times, IIRC. 

      This stuff is so horrible and awe-inspiring (though in a bad way). A good book that I wish I’d bought when I saw it on sale is A Hundred Suns, it has high speed images of detonations and some that are in that strange phase when they just look like a blob. Some of the stories in that are pretty terrifying, too. One U.S. test was supposed to be (and I’m trying to remember the numbers correctly) 7MT but the chain reaction just kind of kept going and the yield at the test ended up at 15MT. Yeah, it’s not the Czar bomb, but that had to be really, really pants-shittingly unexpected. I mean, there had to be a split second where at least a few of the scientists there who understood what was happening thought they just might be killing themselves and everyone else, for that matter. 

      • caspiancomic

         Arrrgggh, yeah, Castle Bravo, the biggest explosion ever managed by the Americans. Yield was supposed to be 5-7 megatons, but someone forgot to carry the 2, and it ended up being 2-3 times as powerful as it was supposed to be. Poisoned a bunch of the locals who were supposed to be outside the danger zone, and also nailed something like 100 fishing boats who were just minding their own business. The story of Lucky Dragon No.5, the Japanese fishing boat with the worst luck in history, is actually relatively famous. The entire crew, and their entire haul of fish, were really badly poisoned by the fallout.

        • Asinus

          Oh! I didn’t know that the bomb I described and the big Bikini Atoll annihilator were one in the same. I knew about the fall out on the fishing vessels and just thought that, well, they were being incredibly inconsiderate at Bikini (well, they were… but still).

        • Citric

          And it inspired Godzilla!

          Sorry, hooked on kaiju.

      • Effigy_Power

        Important for that is also that before the first nuclear bomb test, the scientists weren’t sure that there wasn’t a chance for the chain reaction to just keep going and incinerating the entire atmosphere.
        They did it anyways due to geopolitical pressure.
        Yay labcoats.

        • Asinus

          Who hasn’t made that decision at one time or another? 

    • Dictatortot

      This also helpfully demonstrates that “paranoia” and “hysteria” are ill-thought-out epithets w/r/t the Cold War.  The worst-case scenarios were very possible at certain points, and though retrospective scoffing at people’s fears is easy these days (thank God), it’s badly misplaced.

      • Skywarp79

        Exactly. People forget just how close we came to all-out nuclear war with the U.S.S.R. On multiple occasions. The most famous, of course, being the Cuban Missle Crisis. How do you expect people to not live in fear when they had nuclear weapons primed within striking distance?

      • http://twitter.com/RyanSmithWriter Ryan Smith

        While I agree that nuclear strikes were a possibility during that era, it still doesn’t mean that there wasn’t hysteria about it. It just means that the hysteria was more justified.

  • Fyodor Douchetoevsky

    I always thought this map was ridiculously awful whenever it came up the few times I played Black Ops. It reminds me of 2fort from TF2, which tends to just be a stalemate and turns into a boring deathmatch type game. There are servers that used to run it 24/7 with instant respawn and it was just terrible. I think it was the most popular map back then, but I’m not really sure.

    But yeah, when I played nuketown it seemed like people were constantly spawning right behind me because the map was so small and cramped. Blah. People always like the worst things.

    • fieldafar

      A pre-order exclusive for Black Ops II was the “Nuketown 2025″ map. I say it’s most likely still popular among the CoD crowd.

    • Army_Of_Fun

      Nuketown is like the opposite of 2fort. 2fort kind of plays out like trench warfare ala WW1. Whereas Nuketown more resembles the chaos of some WW2 battles that devolved into the most brutal melee combat imaginable. Whereas 2fort has a clear no-mans land, all of Nuketown is a no-mans land. The spawn points flip, almost at random. It’d probably be fine for a 3v3 sort of match, anything more than that is un-fun.

      • Fyodor Douchetoevsky

        That’s a good point actually. In 2 fort you tend to get a bunch of snipers on those balconies killing each other and anything in the middle area, While Engies just shack up near the intel making it almost impenetrable. Nuketown was just always people shooting everywhere.

        My real point of comparison was how popular the maps are and how not fun they are for me.

    • http://twitter.com/RyanSmithWriter Ryan Smith

      I totally get the complaints about Nuketown and I talk about them in my essay, but there are times I love playing the Nuketown map. 

      The worst part about it is when one side completely dominates the other and begins spawn trapping them. But if you get two well-balanced teams it’s constant action and there is very little camping.

      • ComradePig

         My friends and I are among those terrible human beings who used to dominate on said map by camping. Two people covering the windows, and one to sit over and watch the backdoor along with claymores galore.

        Alas, from MW3 on the maps and slight gameplay tweaks have made camping far more difficult and so we’re all merely mediocre.

        How we’ve fallen!

    • spacelizards

      I was coming here to mention 2Fort, since while I’ve never played Black Ops Nuketown sounds just as stalemate-filled. When a map is perfectly symmetrical that’s always the risk – it’s hard to gain an advantage but it’s easy to not gain any ground at all. I guess the appeal is that it’s balanced – but it’s too perfectly balanced.

      2Fort though is particularly awful because of the damn sentries everywhere (though similar sentries appear to be a killstreak reward in Black Ops). It’s impossible to advance because you always have to stop to destroy their sentry (which you often can’t see), and they can just build a new one immediately since everything’s so close to spawn.

      On the flip side, playing Engineer and guarding the intel on 2Fort is the dullest experience in all of gaming. 

    • Professor_Cuntburglar

       My friend and I played Nuketown once with us against the maximum number of the highest level bots. It was a massacre. Within milliseconds of coming into view of one of the bots, they would instantly execute a perfect headshot. The only strategy we had was holing up in the second floor of one of the houses, lying face down on the floor, our guns pointed at the two doors. We would stop wave after wave of the bots as our ammo slowly ran out, waiting for our inevitable defeat.

      I told my friend, this is what it will be like when the machines rise up.

  • http://thechatcast.com/ Malice Pure

    I don’t play CoD so…

    Is there a fridge??

    • Stephen Parkes

      There’s a large 50′s style one in the kitchen at each end of the map :)

    • http://twitter.com/JAggERnauTs juSTin

      you can’t get in it.  another aspect to this map was it always ended with a nuclear blast killing everyone.  ”futility of war” much? 

      • http://thechatcast.com/ Malice Pure

        They should let you in and then do a riff of the Indy theme

  • http://www.facebook.com/deejaytaufiq Mohamad Taufiq Morshidi

    I also loved the nuclear blast scene. It’s a great signification saying that “Indiana Jones has entered the nuclear age”.

    While the fridge scene was ridiculous, seeing Indy looking at a mushroom cloud was beautiful.

    Too bad the movie could have dealt with the Cold War better because as a Cold War history nerd, there are tonnes of better material for a Cold War-based Indy story, and they went for some alien crap

    • STOP_RIGHT_THERE_CRIMINAL_SCUM

      it’s ironically one of the few scenes I LIKED in the movie

      is the fridge business realistic? of course not, but come on, it’s an Indiana Jones movie, who the fuck cares?

      • The_Misanthrope

         Yeah, I never quite get it why that scene is always pointed out as the one thing that took them out of the movie.  The character is built around the notion of lucky escapes, so why is this one any more ludicrous?

        • Asinus

          I wish I could remember who posted a link to Film Critic Hulk on the AV Club (I think it was on one of the many discussions of Prometheus), but he called things like that “tangible details.” When we implicitly dislike a movie but don’t have the wherewithal to really express why, we latch onto little things like that because we can point at them and say “well this this and that!” They might be the sort of things that we’d overlook or shrug off in movies we like. It was a good read. 

        • Spacemonkey Mafia

          @The_Asinus:disqus    That’s a great term.  I would say that’s the exact reasoning we’re seeing with the fan reaction to the DmC reboot.
             It’s an emotional reaction first, with a series of ostensibly objective justifications following to alchemize an emotion into a critical response.

        • Fyodor Douchetoevsky

          That is really great @The_Asinus:disqus . Love me some Film Crit Hulk.

      • Asinus

        The CG prairie dogs were way worse than the fridge. I was surprised, after I saw it, that so many people latched onto that. And yes, what @facebook-698650979:disqus  said– there were so many better directions to go with it than they did. There’s a great clip (I think I first saw it in the Plinkett review of Crystal Skull) of Spielberg talking about Lucas coming to him with his idea for the not-aliens and he just as this, “The idea is ridiculous, but whatever” attitude about it. Lucas denies that they’re aliens and says they’re transdimensional beings as if that is a meaningful distinction.

    • http://www.gildedgreen.com/ Girard

       Apparently Lucas decided early on the premise/macguffin, and wouldn’t budge on it despite Spielberg’s misgivings. Which sounds about right, considering what we got.

      • http://www.facebook.com/davidbsweeney Dave Sweeney

        Seeing as Lucas conceded on calling the film “Indiana Jones and The Saucer Men From Mars” I think we actually got better film than we might have…..

    • Spacemonkey Mafia

      Raiders was the only film in the series to show Indiana as  really fallible and fragile.  And even then, he rode the periscope of a secret Nazi submarine through freezing water to a secret Nazi island.
         Given the more cartoony resilience he displays in the rest of the movies, what remains important to me is Jones’ constant reaction shots of utter frantic bafflement.
         So yeah, I liked the fridge scene too.  Hell, I liked that movie in general more than most people I know.  …And more than most people I don’t know.  

  • Captain Internet

    The campaigns of Black Ops 1 & 2 seemed to be the result of a writing team playing mad libs with a box of atrocities and the word ‘fuck’. I couldn’t finish Black Ops 2, simply because it was so repellent.

    But the multiplayer is great, and possibly even educational- you get to see battles in the Vietnam War through the eyes of both the US troops and the Viet Cong, and what history teacher worth their salt wouldn’t support that?

  • http://twitter.com/tapirman Kyle O’Reilly

    While my taste for CoD waned in 2008 after MW 1, I can say that no map better represents the game in its current state than a map that represents a cardboard town full of plastic people waiting to be blown up.

    The way the CoD engine looks it makes it everyone look like a matte plastic G.I. Joe doll who moves with very rigid animations. 

    • http://twitter.com/JAggERnauTs juSTin

      but WITH kung-fu action grip. 

    • Professor_Cuntburglar

       Turn the brightly colored houses into grey and brown damaged industrial stuff and you’re right.

  • http://twitter.com/JAggERnauTs juSTin

    best map really.  always a BLAST.

  • http://twitter.com/djbeema Reuben

    One of the worst maps in the history of multiplayer.