There is an upside to the way that Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War treats history: the clothes. If you’re going to chew the past and blow it up like bubblegum, as if culture were sweet and thin and ready to pop, then you may as well enjoy the flavour before it fades. And what are the juicy notes of 1981, when the game takes place? The best are worn by Russell Adler, a C.I.A. spook, and they include: gold-rimmed aviator sunglasses, cream chinos, a caramel leather jacket, and a herringbone cardigan the colour of smoke. He has a sideswept cliff of blonde hair, and we’re meant to think of Robert Redford, who patrolled that paranoid era—in films like Three Days of the Condor and All the President’s Men—in shirtsleeves and soft, brown blazers. The war may have been cold, but that was no reason not to smoulder.
The plot (written by David S. Goyer and Brent Friedman) is set in the seething aftermath of the Iran Hostage Crisis, and puts you on the trail of the perpetrators. The first words we hear, in the midst of a grainy television montage, belong to Ronald Reagan: “No arsenal or no weapon in the arsenals of the world is so formidable as the will and moral courage of free men and women.” A rousing sentiment—somewhat undercut, moments later, when we’re offered a choice between an “MP5 + Microflex LED,” a “Milano 821 + Talon Reflex + Foregrip,” and an “AK-74u + Kodiak Recon.” Moral courage, it seems, will only get you so far. The search begins in the back alley of a bar in Amsterdam. We start off playing as Alex Mason, a man about whom much is classified; with us is Adler and Frank Woods, who often wears an olive-green bandana, as though the jungles of Vietnam had followed him home.
You might recall that Alex Mason was the protagonist of Call of Duty: Black Ops, back in 2010. Then again, you might not. He was voiced by Sam Worthington, and wrapped in a narrative—about Russian sleeper agents and activation code words—that didn’t seem to progress so much as shake and sweat with a dose of audiovisual flu. During a recent attempt to revisit it, I had to stop and lie down after ten minutes, with a thrumming headache and a threatening suspicion that my state loyalties were beginning to slip. Black Ops Cold War—as you may be able to glean from the non-committal ramble of its title—is somewhere between a sequel and a reboot; it is, in contrast to the first game, a thoughtful meditation on the same themes.
These are: dark rooms furnished with a fog of cigarettes, state-sponsored mind-control programmes, Soviet conspiracies, and, above all, explosions. Indeed, there is a current of sly comedy running underneath the scenes of exposition (none more risible than when Reagan himself graces us with his graphical presence, sporting, as he seemed to in real life, a waxy finish). I smirked through the briefings—solemn affairs on the health of the world and the hawkish need for discreet intervention—safe in the knowledge that we would soon be blowing things up. Sure enough, we get our share of collateral—bodies hurled from rooftops and crunching onto cars, a truck barrelling down a runway in pursuit of a plane. But what I didn’t expect from the new Call of Duty was downtime, and the suggestion, at least in the first half, that guns, while great for going in blazing, can provide just as potent a thrill when holstered.
One mission, entitled “Brick in the Wall,” is set in East Berlin, with freezing rain in the air. We start in a safehouse, pulled straight from the one in Ronin—puddled concrete floors, swirling tape reels, and pictures of targets pinned on an evidence board. Minutes later, we’re meeting a contact in a bar (she’ll be in possession of a blue umbrella), taking out a pack of smokes, within which is concealed a parabolic microphone, and pointing it at another table. For those who look hopefully, and fruitlessly, to the likes of Ubisoft or Konami for a hit of espionage—those who needed to be swept off the floor last month, after the announcement of a new Bond game—sequences like this one, in Berlin, will be bittersweet bliss. At first I thought, Christ, I’m getting a Cold War spy thriller smuggled inside the new Call of Duty! Followed by the more sombre, Oh, what a sorry state of affairs that I’m getting my spy kicks from Call of Duty now.
Nowhere is this tension, between sleuthing and all-out slaughter, more potent than in “Desperate Measures,” a mini-sandbox sequence that meanders through the sickly Neo-Baroque slab of the Lubyanka building—the headquarters of the KGB, in Moscow. You play as a mole, pilfering files, bribing guards, and swiping those yellow strips of card, punched with holes, that computers would chew over. This passage gives us the chance to see what would happen if Hitman or Dishonored were fed through the factory of Call of Duty, with a bloated budget and a stripped-out simplicity. It’s a machine-tooled block of pop gaming, with a light twist of complexity, that, in the end, holds with those who favor gunfire.
The second half of this mission—plentifully stuffed with duffel bags, body armour, and semi-automatic shotguns—brims with the sort of carnage that abounds in most of the campaign. And exactly what the majority of players will have paid for. On PlayStation 5, I am happy to report that the DualSense is put to good use; the crackle of weaponry clacks pleasingly in the triggers, and the haptic feedback judders in time with your rate of fire. (Naturally, a bow and arrow sneaks its way into the action, thus allowing us to draw back the bow string and feel the controller clench.) Combat, as you would expect, is as oiled and polished as the guns; as such it’s easy to allow one’s appreciation to slip off it, but it’s worth taking note of how few developers are capable of cranking out spectacle that’s glazed with this kind of ease—and just how many developers are involved in the cranking. On loading the game, you’ll see the logos of Activision, Treyarch, Raven Software, Beenox, High Moon Studios, Sledgehammer Games, Activision Shanghai Studio, and Demonware. Pretty formidable, as far as the arsenals of the world go.
Granted, lots of these studios will be put to work on the multiplayer, which comes bearing everything that you would expect (as well it should, given that, on PS5 at least, 133GB of your hard drive will hum in service of its joys). The standard suite—comprising the likes of Kill Confirmed, Team Deathmatch, Hardpoint, Domination, and dizzyingly more—is joined by the zombies mode, the central appeal of which, after all these years, refuses to moulder. And Combined Arms, which puts you in a large battlefield, buzzed by vehicles, and pits two teams of 12 against each other in a fight to capture objectives. As much as I lamented the assassination of the single-player campaign in Treyarch’s last entry, Call of Duty: Black Ops 4, I was blown away by the wealth of things to do, long after release.
The same is true of the multiplayer here. This is where most of the fans, I would guess, will spend the coming months, mining their money’s worth. Power to them—the PS5 version costs £64.99. And while that price may moisten the eyes, consider this: the game supports cross-platform and cross-gen play, meaning Xbox One, Xbox Series X, PlayStation 4, and PC players can all enter the fracas, without having to buy the extra hardware necessary to play with their friends. In other words, publisher Activision has increased military spending, decreased social spending, and deregulated domestic markets. President Reagan would be proud.
Developer: Treyarch, Raven Software
Available on: PlayStation 5 [reviewed on], PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Xbox Series S / X, PC
Release Date: November 13, 2020
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