It's confirmed: Black Ops and Modern Warfare are in the same, tangled Call of Duty universe

Kravchenko, Zakhaev, and Gorbachev.
(Image credit: Activision)

There’s a moment in the Cold War campaign where you’re invited to attend a meeting with the KGB’s inner circle. It’s not on Zoom, and you’re seated right next to Gorbachev. Closer than Jared Harris was in HBO’s Chernobyl. Close enough to pat his birthmark and rub his tummy, if you dared.

Somehow, though, the Soviet Union’s general secretary is only the third most interesting person in the room. Right across the table from you is Colonel Kravchenko, a recurring Black Ops baddie with a perma-scowl. And on his left, Imran Zakhaev, chief antagonist of Modern Warfare. It’s quite a thing to be glowered at by two villains at once, especially when, prior to this catch-up, I was under the impression that they occupied different worlds.

Zakhaev at work.

(Image credit: Activision)

Sure, Black Ops regulars like Frank Woods are starting to show up in Modern Warfare’s Warzone, but that can’t be considered canon—Woods was a Vietnam vet born in 1930, which would make him a sprightly 89 when dropping into Verdansk. By and large, COD has kept its subseries’ separate, presumably because those timelines are complicated enough.

You’re talking about juggling futures that simultaneously imagine a cold war between America and China (Black Ops), a Russian invasion of the US (Modern Warfare), a South American superpower that uses space lasers to burn down LA (Ghosts), and a united global army built to defend against men from Mars (Infinite Warfare). There comes a point where all this extrapolated geopolitics clashes and becomes incompatible. It’s been easiest to think of them as parallel universes, loosely based on our own, with an added dash of paranoid melodrama.

A tense conversation with Zakhaev.

(Image credit: Activision)

Yet here is old Imran—or rather young Imran, younger than we’ve ever seen him before. In the original Modern Warfare, he’s an ultranationalist terrorist leader, desperate to restore Russian dominance, with an adult son whose killing leads to a nuclear event. But in Black Ops - Cold War’s 1981, he’s still an up-and-coming official in the interior ministry of his beloved Soviet Union—essentially an internal affairs investigator, looking to light a fire under a KGB mole. 

Unfortunately, that mole is your player character. During the hunt, Zakhaev reveals himself as a shrewd and thorough operator with a smooth tongue—using which he’s managed to earn the full trust of Gorbachev. It’s easy to envision him gnashing his teeth throughout the ‘90s, as the Soviet Union fell apart and Russia’s leaders capitulated to the West.

Zakhaev, as he appears in COD 4.

(Image credit: Activision)

The implications of his appearance in Cold War are huge, if you’re into COD characters at all. It means that Woods and Captain Price occupy the same planet, and could feasibly meet up for a growl-off. It links the US sleeper agent conspiracy at the heart of Black Ops to Modern Warfare 2’s most notorious mission, No Russian. “For Zakhaev,” mutters the airport shooting’s perpetrator as he opens fire on police.

Given that Modern Warfare was rebooted just last year, there’s potential to tie the games more closely together, too. The ending of Infinity Ward’s campaign seeded the ascension of Zakhaev’s son, Victor. And with Warzone, his role has already grown—Victor went to school in Verdansk, and his weapon smuggling fuels its current disarray (well, that and tens of millions of players jumping out of planes).

Warzone's Victor Zakhaev.

(Image credit: Activision)

At one time I would’ve sniffed at the idea of crossover, arguing that these two worlds had distinct tones - Modern Warfare gruff and grounded, Black Ops heightened and pulpy. But the campaign Raven has built for Cold War leans less into schlock horror than previous Black Ops outings, and it’s now far easier to see where its spy stories might make room for Price, Gaz, and Ghost.

Besides, Warzone happened. Call of Duty became an ongoing service, rather than a series of distinct entries. Integration between Modern Warfare and Black Ops doesn’t end with shared levelling and gear, I’m now convinced. COD is building toward shared stories, too.