Call of Duty: Black Ops - Cold War's endings—both of them!—might be the goofiest finales I've played in a game. Outright stupid, cynical, and, to my taste, extremely funny. I'm primarily interested in the 'bad' ending in Cold War, but they're all bad. Nothing ends well in Cold War, a game that abandons all moralising beyond quietly mumbling 'America good?' before giving the player a sledgehammer, a tank of gasoline, and free reign to tear it all down.
A finale that's meant to tug at the heartstrings, to make you feel like a monster and fearful for the future had me cackling throughout. Let's take a look together and try to derive some meaning, yeah? Just kidding, trying to read into Call of Duty: Black Ops - Cold War's endings is like trying to divine intent from a house fire.
If it wasn't already clear, we're going to spoil everything. Final warning. Turn back now, unless you wanna see some goofy soldiers die for dumb reasons.
ENDING 1: CoD Killer
A little context: As Bell, you work with the Black Ops team to find Perseus, some supposedly Soviet-affiliated super bad guy who's found out a way to nuke most of Europe and pin it on the US. You supposedly go way back with these guys, even spent some time in Vietnam together. But that was all a lie. You were actually part of Perseus's inner circle, but mortally wounded at the hands of a fellow Perseus Pal. Surprise, no one has integrity or morals in Cold War. You find out these Reagan-backed US Black Ops were on location in a series of horrific flashbacks.
Yeah, they basically saved your life only to erase your mind with some messed up brainwashing techniques and invented a new backstory for you. Black Ops plays with brainwashing often, with sleeper cells and imaginary enemies abound, but it's never felt quite so derivative.There's this whole bit that basically plays like the grand twist in Bioshock, where you find out that Alder, your CO, has been controlling you with the phrase "We have a job to do." It's BioShock, fam.
Which brings us to the 'bad' ending, in which you reverse the horrific mental programming your western buds inflicted on you and choose to lie about the location of Perseus. You say the guy's gonna be at Duga, but it's not true. A quick call to some old friends sets up an ambush
Upon arriving at Duga, you and your Perseus buds just mow down the US Black Ops team. It owns. Throughout every single Black Ops game, I've thought these guys sucked. They're cruel, brainwashed, sociopaths that use nationalist ideologies to justify infiltrating whatever country suits their hazy agenda in order to get in there and hurt some people. I mean, it's not like my character is any more righteous, but as a detached player, it's cathartic.
The way it's framed is like a grand, righteous betrayal too. A menacing Soviet-era score kicks in and each killshot gets a slow motion Sniper Elite-esque bullet travel shot. From Woods to Mason and all the way to Alder, (who I denied a last smoke) you gun down long time Black Ops series characters in extravagant slow motion. It's pretty damn dark.
ENDING 2: Trickle down death
The alternative is to consider the 'greater good' and, despite the ruthless dehumanization of the player character, accept that yeah, shadowy government operations in which anything and anyone is expendable as long as a nuke never goes off is OK. So you suck it up and tell the Black Ops crew not to worry about that whole identity erasure thing, it's no biggie, and tell them where Perseus is. You do the quintessential Call of Duty thing and plant C4 on some AA guns resulting in a world, saved. President Reagan talks to a guy that sounds like President Reagan about how the status quo has been maintained and that all the illegal stuff you did was chill.
I mean, contemporary James Bond does a ton of war crimes, but it never feels this discordant.
A final dose of cynicism for you: Some reason you and Alder are standing on an ocean cliffside now. He gives the same victory speech, going on about how infected his brain is with the notion that he, specifically, has the right to defend the status quo no matter the cost. And apparently you're too much of a flight risk, so he whips out a pistol. You do too. Cut to black.
I think Cold War trying to say, yeah, America ain't perfect either, but it skims over the war crimes bit. I don't mind shooting men in games, but the framing in Cold War bothers me. Haphazard murder is cool, long as it maintains the status quo. Because that's what I got from Cold War, that we gotta keep things as they are forever, we must maintain this precious mode of familiarity and comfort (at least for people that can afford to play videogames), even if it means killing one another in the shadows in perpetuity. But I really can't pin down any kind of cohesive conviction or moral. Cold War's endings are a montage of twists and turns in the name of 'choice' that all end terribly. Shock and spectacle are still the point here.
Call of Duty's singleplayer campaigns have always worshiped spectacle. Little at the heart of the series has changed since Call of Duty 2, each game a string of whack-a-mole firefights unpicked with constant suppressive fire, smoke grenades, and flanking maneuvers. They're good fun! But an essential part of the Call of Duty milieu are the one-off gimmick missions intended to induce shock and awe, some grim theater for the sake of it.
Modern Warfare 2's No Russian saw the player participating in a terrorist attack at a Russian airport. There's literally a Call of Duty 4 mission called Shock and Awe that ends in a nuclear explosion, waves of radiation microwaving the player character as they crawl over rubble and gore. And how about the London terror attacks in Modern Warfare 3 that see a toddler dissolved? Damn, CoD.
Nuking all of Europe and killing the series' protagonists is a natural escalation, I suppose. But with the absurd, cynical, and near self-satirizing content of Cold War's endings, I think it's safe to say there's nowhere left for Call of Duty to go. We've been to space. No higher ceiling of shock and awe left to brush beyond a multiverse nuclear war, or the invention of a brand new hyper-evil nation and superweapon combo capable of instilling fear more potent than the COVID-19, climate change, and disaster capitalism cocktail we already live with. Help me, I'm sick, because I'm curious to find out anyway.