The sixth entry in the Black Ops subseries and the seventeenth main entry in Call of Duty overall is set entirely in the 1980s, with a period sheen that has proven for me irresistibly appealing. Yet, like the decade itself, it is also a parodoxical love affair.
The Story Mode
Black Ops Cold War asks you to become involved as a CIA agent during the early 80s, just as Reagan enters the oval office. He tasks you with finding and defeating the Soviet agent Perseus, who was by all accounts a real Russian spy that did exist but was never officially killed or captured. It’s status, whether they had any sizable effect on the Western world or if they are even alive now, remains a mystery to me and supposedly intelligence agencies the world over.
Now, as it happens, I know more than a little about the history of the CIA from its creation following WW2 and its actions and behavior to the present day. Stuff I didn’t know when I played as CIA action heroes Mason and Woods in the first two BO titles back in 2010 and 2012. Even then, they framed the two protagonists as hard men who do questionable yet necessary things for a better tomorrow.
Much of what the CIA has been confirmed to have done in the near half century that makes up the Cold War was rarely, if ever “questionable, but possibly justifiable.” Much of it ran counter to the cornerstones of the institutions they supposedly were trying to protect.
They helped overthrow legitimate governments in third world countries, especially in Central/South America and the Middle East( Iran being the big one), overriding the opportunity to let those nation’s peoples democratically decide their futures, even if it led to an administration that was closer to communism than capitalism. They helped establish and work with fascist dictatorships that would be just as brutal if perhaps more so than the government that was originally in power.
Pinochet, Noriega and many other despots became infamous thanks in no small part to the country that identifies itself as the “bringer and defender of liberty.” The CIA’s actions did not stop outside of foreign nations alone. Part of their MKultra brainwashing program( which officially was a failed experiment) was targeted and tested on fellow Americans. Alongside the FBI, they also tried to curb Americans trying to better represent and put in place the value of “All men are created equal”, such as spying on and attempting to convince to suicide Martin Luther King Jr.
To keep on track, I won’t be addressing anything the CIA has been found guilty of following the Cold War, but I will say that the organization you partake in the story mode of Black Ops Cold War is not something that I would dare frame as being heroic, even to an antihero degree. I have no problem with the CIA being featured in a video game or even playing as a member, so long as it’s clear that you are not the good guy. At best, you are an evil fighting another evil like the KGB. History makes it generally clear that saying the CIA was even a necessary evil in the end dubious.
Black Ops Cold War’s story campaign is framed rather awkwardly in the middle between the CIA that was and the CIA we wish was real or were convinced through decades of propaganda was real. This plays into recent accusations that the Call of Duty series, in an attempt to appeal to as big a demographic as possible, tries not to take a complete side on any one issue, which can make the message muddled.
On the one hand, early in the story mode, Mason, Woods and new CIA best buddy of yours Adler attend a meeting about Perseus with recently inaugurated President Reagan. The swell of the music, the framing of the cutscenes all present a patriotic, approving feel to the proceedings as Reagan and the CIA discuss how to take care of Perseus.
I won’t get in to what I think of Reagan as we would certainly be here all day at this point but it’s safe to say that already the tone is hazy. Perhaps to throw a bone to the critics of the CIA, Alexander Haig: Reagan’s first Secretary of State, complains about how chasing Perseus and the scale of the mission would certainly cross into being illegal. Woods replies exasperatingly, “Are you kidding? Everything we DO is illegal!” This echoes a similar line from the CIA character of last year’s Modern Warfare reboot.
So, aside from bringing attention to itself, perhaps to not make it seem entirely tone deaf to real world criticism, it’s also to make you still like the legacy characters of Woods and Mason. The new major character, Adler, resembles my dad if he were somewhat grizzled, what with the scars across his face. Considering my dad remains a Reaganite, his presence took on an uncanny and more uncomfortable meaning for me.
What counterbalances my issues, kind of, with the very unfortunate if unsurprising political lens the game is starting off on, is the main playable character of Bell: unvoiced, and of your preferred ethnicity, gender and background.
Bell is a new addition to the team that will be going after Perseus and his plan to strike at the West. Along with Adler, Mason, and Woods you have Sims, the African American quartermaster, Park, a female MI6 operative as intelligence gatherer and Lazar, a former Mossad turned CIA agent who I guess is another gunman.
In a interactive safehouse in West Berlin, Bell and company get to decide which mission next to partake in, some of which are entirely optional side missions, as well as review and decode the evidence you can find while out and about. In a new twist on the COD story formula, you actually have to do honest to god detective work with some spy related puzzles and to make them even more challenging, they are randomized, so it’s never the same solution.
Not only can this help create different outcomes for the story of the game, it also provides subtle and not so subtle clues about both what Perseus’ plan is and who Bell really is. As the proceedings carry on, eventually Bell is put onto a stretcher following a particularly disastrous mission in Cuba and it’s not to receive medical aid. The reason is much more nefarious.
In a moment that will likely stand out as being one of the very best third acts in any Call of Duty game, you undergo one of hell of a trip inside your mind where your leader and supposed comrade in arms Adler instructs you to go through a Vietnam war “memory” of yours but following a precise set of instructions. The player can either follow Adler like a good boy/girl/ non-binary person or you can go hilariously off script disobeying Adler at every turn in your supposed recollection.
Some of the avenues you can take even involve some pretty great Easter eggs. Eventually, if you keep misbehaving or should I say, resisting Adler, he will force you down a path where you enter into actual memories. Memories of you being one of Perseus’ right hand men. In the first mission of the game where you played as series veteran Mason, Bell was one of Perseus’ agents that was betrayed by another agent who wanted to gain better favor with him without you.
Once Mason, Woods and Adler took care of that treacherous follower of Perseus, replete with an explosive plane crash on a Turkish airfield, they found you( or should I say me) barely clinging to life after being shot and left for dead. Remember my mention of MKultra in my earlier diatribe about the real CIA? Well, in the world of Black Ops, that mind control program of theirs is fully armed and operational.
I was made an agent for the CIA and an unwitting receptacle of information on Perseus just waiting to be unlocked when the time comes. It also doesn’t hurt that I’m also an expert codebreaker, hence why I’m the one who has to do all the detective work in the safe house. To insure that Adler maintained his will over me, he had a hypnotic code phrase to regularly recite: “We have a job to do.” Yes, that does sound very similar to that jaw-dropping twist from the original Bioshock, what with that game’s hero also being mind controlled with a phrase, in that case being “Would you kindly?”
In that recovered memory, in a meeting with Perseus, he reveals the location of where he will enact his plan to launch a nuclear apocalypse on Europe and blame it all on the United States. That’s due to how you discovered earlier that all of those nukes are American and were planted originally by the CIA in the event that the Soviet Union was successfully conquering its way through the continent. Oops.
Once Bell is awakened by Adler and the others, you can decide to tell them the truth of Perseus’ base and roll out to stop them and save the day, leading to the typical, expected conclusion of a COD story. Or, you can get revenge on Adler and the rest either out of spite for them or loyalty to Perseus by lying about his lair’s location, setting a trap and then going on to annihilate your entire team personally with Perseus at your side. Holy shit.
Even though that conclusion does still involve you setting off all the hidden nukes and killing who knows how many people, there is a savage sense of satisfaction I get from this ending due to the sheer irony of what it entails. You basically get to hoist the CIA from its own petard. An organization that subverts people’s wills in the name of defending people’s wills ends up punished by one of their victims. The consequences to what they do don’t just fall on their shoulders, it now falls on millions of lives.
It says much about the worldview Call of Duty permeates when a bad/evil ending makes more thematic sense than the good one.
The performance of the multiplayer modes for the latest Call of Duty leaves much to be desired, though it is gradually improving. Earlier on in its release, online connectivity was woefully inconsistent and could be downright terrible when playing through the Zombies mode in particular. The reason for the performance suffer relates to how this iteration of COD was almost certainly rushed into development.
Starting around the beginning of the last decade, Activision, the publisher of the series had three studios to make Call of Duty games, which would free up the burden on development. There was Infinity Ward, the original developer that launched the series all the way back in 2003, though much of the original staff has long since left. There was Treyarch, the creators of the Black Ops subseries, who first cut their teeth with the property in 2006 with Call of Duty 3.
The third, Sledgehammer, was created in 2009 by two key members in the Dead Space series. They codeveloped with Infinity Ward Modern Warfare 3 in 2011 and were the first developer to partake in the three year development period, to supposedly give extra time to polish each and every COD with time to spare.
Their first full game was Advanced Warfare in 2014 followed by Call of Duty:WW2 in 2017. However, the more lukewarm response to their flavor of COD compared to Infinity Ward and Treyarch by the playerbase has seemingly upended the “three year” cycle. Normally, this year would be a Sledgehammer year, not a Treyarch one, as their prior game was Black Ops 4 in 2018. However, rather suddenly, Activision ordered Treyarch to take the 2020 slot in development from Sledgehammer and thus we have Black Ops: Cold War instead of whatever Sledgehammer had cooked up.
Complicated though it may seem, I hope it made it apparent that the latest Black Ops title may well have been the victim of a rushed development cycle, an added strain that Treyarch neither wanted or asked for. Aside from the game’s initially poor performance as a multiplayer game, there is also the lack of content at launch. There are few multiplayer maps, though they are mostly of great quality, fewer weapons in the armory to unlock as you progress and a general sense that it is not as expansive a game as 2019’s Modern Warfare.
Of course, the recent post-launch arrival of “Season One”, which offers an inexpensive battle pass to gradually unlock loads of new content, including new weapons, as well as free new maps does offer compensation of a sort.
But players had to wait a month and a half for that to arrive, and the pre-existing performance issues did not inspire confidence in this new entry. Why play this when there is a perfectly good COD not just from last year but also a popular spinoff title called Warzone released earlier this year?
In order to curb some of that blow, Black Ops Cold War comes bundled with Warzone for no additional charge and even some of the content in Cold War translates directly into it, along with Modern Warfare 2019, an attempt to “unify” the playerbase in a rather unique way. Sharing weapons, vehicles and even characters across various games is an interesting experiment for a series that could use some experimentation at this point.
Another way to relieve the pressure on Treyarch’s development team is that another studio under Activision’s wing, Raven Software, did the brunt of the work in developing the story campaign while the core studio focused on multiplayer. At the same time, when comparing the innovations between Modern Warfare 2019 and Black Ops: Cold War, the latter seems much more incremental and even retro-minded.
2019’s Modern Warfare finally upgraded the look of the game with a brand new, gorgeous engine as well as improving the movement and camera system. When going into cover, you can actually peek out and tactically fight in a way that had never been done before in the series. It was a small thing that somehow translated into something fresh enough to give the series new life.
Black Ops: Cold War does not have those features and plays more traditionally, to a fault even. It’s not bad and remains perfectly serviceable but those who wanted to see more games with MW2019’s visual, mechanical format will be and are likely disappointed. The most obvious shakeup is how the player’s progression in multiplayer modes has been unified and that is indeed a welcome if overdue addition. Level up a rank in multiplayer, that applies for Zombies. Level up a weapon while in Zombies, that same rank applies in multiplayer, vice versa.
For the layman, Zombies, introduced with Treyarch’s World at War 12 years ago( yikes) involves the player with or without some friends fighting off endless hordes of the undead.
All of that while exploring the map for weapons, items to improve your chances and finding lore to understand the background story. There’s also elaborate puzzles and Easter eggs to suss out, which often results in acquiring a super weapon to vastly improve your odds. As of now, there is only one map, DIE MASCHINE, set in a supposedly abandoned Nazi bunker in Poland that was investigated by the Soviets not long after WW2’s end. As members of NATO special forces, you’re sent in to investigate the mess for yourself.
It’s a fun location, set in the snowy backdrop of a Polish forest, with various avenues of exploration, places to hold out and paths to take to best optimize the upgrades you find. To make Zombies even more inviting to newcomers and novices like myself, the mode after nine iterations finally gives you the chance to escape the map rather than eventually succumb to the endless and increasingly tougher hordes.
The act of evacuating by chopper isn’t easy but you are rewarded for escaping with crystals that allow you to improve your weapons, upgrades, and items permanently inbetween sessions so every time you enter the zombie fray, you’re always better off rather than you were before.
It’s safe to say that Black Ops Cold War’s most evident improvements to series formula is in the Zombies mode, which is appropriate considering Treyarch is the COD studio that began it. I can only hope future zombies maps carry on in what makes DIE MASCHINE work.
The base multiplayer has been the series’ biggest draw since 2007’s original Modern Warfare all but changed the game in how online multiplayer would be handled. The act of facing others online with great gunplay and map design was no longer enough. Now, that addictive draw of leveling up, and through it acquiring a host of new toys like weapons, perks, and items has helped sustain the series’ appeal for an impressive amount of time.
That being said, the franchise has had to persist and find work arounds on the philosophy of “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” It can be argued that the COD formula was all but perfected with the original Modern Warfare titles and the first two Black Ops. But Activision’s bottom line and a generally consistent playerbase keeps the franchise from ever being honorably discharged.
Most of the modes in Black Ops: Cold War are familiar favorites with only two new modes: VIP Escort and Dirty Bomb, both of which kinda suck and draw me back to the older modes of Team deathmatch, Kill Confirmed and Domination. VIP Escort has a randomly chosen member of both teams become the escort who has to carry a briefcase to a part of the map before the other does. You can’t respawn meaning you have one life in a round to get the job done. I know some like the new mode, but I’m not one of them.
The other, Dirty Bomb, place you in huge maps where you must parachute in, find some plutonium and get it over to a location with a bomb to detonate, affecting both the surrounding area and the score. It is a confusing mode both to understand and get into not helped by online performance being most notably stunted here more than anywhere else. It is quite easy to avoid.
The thing that brings me back aside from the consistently solid formula that remains entrenched in Call of Duty’s design is that the setting is just too enjoyable for myself to pass up. I mentioned early on that I have a love/hate relationship with the 1980s as a period. Yes, I was born four years after the decade ended but the popular culture of the era, especially in cinema and music, has made it one point in time that people like myself remain consistently drawn towards, a retroactive appreciation for a period many were never actually part of.
The runaway success of Stranger Things alone is a testament to the 80s’ enduring appeal, even if the politics and pretty messy even grim realities of that time have become much more discussed and harder to ignore.
AIDS alone made the 80s a nightmarish tragedy for many, many people, especially in relation to the government and medical response to it or lack thereof. It is perfectly understandable for many people around the world to view the 1980s as an era that they would rather forget than celebrate. Or, remember distinctly for very different reasons of importance.
Of course, the things I like about the 80s don’t necessarilly have to be intertwined with the things I despise. Some of that 80s’ love might be of an ironic enjoyment than genuine adulation. For instance, Rambo has become a right wing jingoistic icon who paints to a painful degree a very lop-sided perspective on the Vietnam war’s effects on people, namely American veterans, and coming away with a message that is much more unhelpful than not.
Yet, seeing a bare-chested man fire an M60 machine gun one-handed against a host of enemies without aiming in tactics that are obviously suicidal in real life just can’t help but be awesome even if I can’t help sometimes laugh at Rambo than with him. The suicidal tactics of how you play war in a match of Call of Duty isn’t too far removed from Rambo anyway. They compliment each other.
In the age of the internet, I can put on some headphones, find a near endless array of 80s music to listen to, some for the first time, as I shoot my way through location by location in multiplayer inspired by Cold War history. There’s West German and East German military bases, a crashed intelligence satellite in the deserts of Angola. Military bunkers in Soviet Uzbekistan and the Ural Mountains. A drug cartel base in Nicaragua, an armada of Soviet naval vessels in the North Atlantic.
Want something less about the proxy battlefields of the Cold War and more about that rose-colored neon and synth beauty of 80s America? Well, how about some Miami Beach at sunset or a New Jersey Mall that acts as reference to both Back to the Future and Stranger Things?
Black Ops Cold War has you covered just well enough now and stands to get better with future seasons of content at offering the past in the way you would prefer it was like than it was. Just let the music of Foreigner and New Order ease you in, among countless other selections to dig through on Wikipedia. If that doesn’t float your boat, there’s always a talky YouTube video and/or podcast.
It took a long time to finish my review of Black Ops Cold War. I wanted to see and play for myself the post release content drops that I hadn’t exactly participated in with last year’s Modern Warfare. I wanted to see the game after more of it’s performance kinks had been ironed out. I got distracted by a host of other things down the line like holidays and other big titles coming around like Cyberpunk 2077. Also, everyone’s favorite abusive friend, procrastination.
Ultimately, Black Ops Cold War mostly succeeds though it really shouldn’t. It’s flaws in optimizing the game for online performance leaves much to be desired and sadly like Cyberpunk 2077 proved as well, it seems as if developers are content to release games in manners that are not good enough for prime time. Letting the players discover all of these issues after the fact than before is a pretty raw precedent that has been set.
An industry can rarely subsist for long in not meeting the bare minimum of what is expected. How long can one tolerate a game eventually getting good well after it was released? I don’t know the answer as much as I know who and what Perseus actually is or was. For all I know, it was one big lie in a time where lying for the greater good was perhaps never more prominent.
Can we really say that the Cold War and that era of subterfuge and deception made the world better off? Much suggests from the state of the world now that the Cold War, regardless of victor, was more devastating to the world than either of the world wars.
And now, here we have a game to let you have harmless fun in a truly dark side to an era of human history.