There’s plenty of people out there, myself included, who have always enjoyed the popcorn thriller-style nature of the Call of Duty campaigns. And for those people, you’ll be pleased to know that Black Ops Cold War does some interesting things with the COD formula. Or, at least as much as you could expect from a Call of Duty game.
Treyarch’s original Call Of Duty: Black Ops diverged from the typical on-rails COD campaign, and I’d argue it was the first game where the studio really found their straps with the franchise. So it’s no surprise that the first return to a Cold War setting has brought with it a ton of ideas from other games.
So while the Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War campaign is still very Call of Duty — Americans slaughtering people good, Russians bad, the American military complex is morally justifiable and everything that entails — there is one mission that’s a genuine surprise to see in a Call of Duty game.
Fair warning: if you haven’t played Call of Duty Black Ops Cold War, some light spoilers are going to follow.
The mission, called Desperate Measures, is typical COD absurdism. You’re hunting down a spy network embedded in the United States and elsewhere to avoid the detonation of several nuclear devices across Europe. Naturally, everything falls apart. So the only place left to collect the intel you need on the sleeper network, naturally, is within Russia itself.
Time to break into the KGB.
Technically you’re breaking into the Lubyanka Building, since that’s the home of the former KGB and now the Federal Security Service (FSB), Russia’s security services. In Cold War‘s timeline, head of security Dimitri Belikov is a Western asset. And since President Ronald Reagan’s black ops team wants to break into the KGB, they’re going to need Belikov’s help.
To get what they need, the Americans require a bunker key. But there’s a problem: as soon as you’re done with your encrypted phone call, you’re summoned into a meeting with An Obviously Very Bad Russian Guy who looks like he wants to interrogate everyone in every room he’s ever been in.
There’s a mole in the KGB, and Zakhaev wants to root them out. Security is massively increased as a result, and Zakhaev recommends limiting access to the bunker as a result.
You’re given a choice as to who should keep a bunker key. I recommended limiting access to the generals, and Zakhaev further restricted access to just one general. So when the meeting was finished, I was posed with a few problems. How do I get the key from the general? Do I kill them? Can I steal the key? Alternatively, can I get a bunker key another way? Is it possible to frame the General as the mole? Can I reactivate one of the bunker keys that Zakhaev just cancelled?
And this is the fun part: you can answer all of these questions.
The mission gives you a few different ways to get the bunker key you need, and there’s some optional stuff you can do along the way. Earlier in the campaign, I’d chosen to save an informant who turned out to be a KGB spy. You’re told that he’s in the building today, and if possible, it’d be lovely if you could break his neck or something like that.
But Black Ops Cold War has other things to discover as well. There are pieces of evidence — basically collectibles — littered throughout missions that you need to acquire to help you finish off other side missions. In this case, there’s a small watch that helps uncover the names of three double agents working within the spy ring of Perseus, the antagonist for this year’s edition of Call of Duty. There’s a little puzzle to uncover who the double agents are — and you can do that side mission without having all the evidence if you want — but it’s a fun way to get you to spend more time in the level. And it’s also just neat to see a Call of Duty game branching out a little more with its campaign structure.
Black Ops Cold War still has plenty of run and gun moments — it’s a COD game, after all. But the campaign really shines when everything slows down and gives you time to think, and Desperate Measures does that really well.
The phone call you took at the start of the mission becomes a problem, too. One of the executive officers says they’ve discovered an unauthorised connection to a computer within the building, and they’re tracking down who’s responsible. That’s you, of course, so you’ve also got to find a way to take the heat off yourself.
This made the path forward fairly simple. I was thinking about having the general poisoned, which would — or could have — interrogating a prisoner and convincing them to do it for me. But instead, I figured I’d frame the general for the unauthorised communications, and I’d swipe a new keycard while I was at it.
This section is a pretty straightforward stealth sequence. Monitor the patrol patterns, dodge around, grab the evidence from the obnoxiously loud dot matrix printer — which the guards don’t pay attention to, because it’s Call of Duty — and then head back.
You don’t have to frame Charkov, of course, but it’s neat to have the option and see how differently things play out. And while it’s not the first time choices have been a factor in Call of Duty — Treyarch introduced them in Black Ops 2. But it’s fun to have a little more freedom than just picking one of two people to kill, and it’s also good to see optional elements introduced as a result of choices you made earlier in the campaign.
When you do eventually get the bunker key, however you get it, the mission then swaps to the perspective of the two Americans breaking in. You’re in for an extended firefight through the tunnels, one that feels a little in speed and style like Call of Duty 4‘s iconic “Mile High Club” mission.
You still have to go back to the main KGB lobby, though. So naturally, the elevator just happens to have some Fallout-style Power Armour that can absorb 40 million bullets. It’s back to regular COD duties from that point: a lot of bodies, a lot of explosions, moving cars and holding down the right trigger/Mouse 1 for about 10 minutes straight. You can see part of that in a gameplay video below; there’s no spoilers, and if you’re into ray tracing, you can see some of that too.
There’s much more that could be said about Call of Duty‘s campaign generally, and how these games replicate the US military complex’s place in the world (or, rather, excuse much of their actions). Black Ops Cold War takes cues from something like Spec Ops: The Line in its final moments, but it also does so while never engaging with a lot of the US’s actions in conflicts like Vietnam, the Cold War, or elsewhere.
But I’m not here to deconstruct COD‘s messaging, or to argue that you shouldn’t play the campaign (or Black Ops Cold War more generally) because of its failure to actually address the player’s actions, America’s role in it all, or the kinds of ethical conundrums that made games like Spec Ops: The Line so memorable. There are others who have made that argument more thoroughly, and better, and you should give those a read if that’s your cup of tea.
There are also many who just enjoy COD the same way they like the Transformers movies: as popcorn entertainment, the video game equivalent of reality TV where you shut your brain off entirely and zone out from the troubles of the world. COD‘s speed and structure has fulfilled this role well for over a decade, and for people who enjoy the COD campaigns in that vein, Black Ops Cold War works well.
It’s mechanically engaging, as all COD games are, but the campaign also makes the quieter moments the most interesting elements of the story. Battlefield 1 and Battlefield 5 tried this to various degrees, but not successfully. Their quieter moments were just extended stealth sequences and reading patrol patterns. Cold War at least introduces more reason and impetus for going down the garden path, whether it’s for clues to other side missions, or because you’ll get a meaningful reward, or just because the game was designed in a way that you feel encouraged to give it a shot.
That said, I still think the maligned Infinite Warfare was more interesting just because of how many risks that game took. But if you’ve been wanting a true successor to Call of Duty: Black Ops, you’ll appreciate what Treyarch has done. I’d still love to see them make a really subversive game with COD‘s airtight mechanics — the developers are clearly thinking about it. And COD needs to find ways to keep the formula interesting anyway. We’ve already shot up an airport, watched infants get dissolved by nuclear blasts, and dabbled in a bit of physical and psychological torture. So maybe there’s more appetite within Activision and its various studios to really create something truly critical of the American military complex. Stranger things have happened.