I don’t typically look to Call of Duty to be surprised. That’s why it was so impressive when Infinity Ward dropped Modern Warfare, a reboot with completely reworked ballistics and weapon progression. After watching a private livestreamed presentation of Call of Duty: Black Ops - Cold War’s campaign hosted by developers, I still have some big questions, like whether Modern Warfare’s foundational gameplay improvements are getting left behind.
Call of Duty whiplash is a real thing. One year you have a dog, the next you have jetpacks, then laser drones, then, oops, it’s WWII again. The constant flip-flopping makes me wish a single CoD style was given time to grow and flourish before it's jettisoned for the next. But yes, a direct sequel to 2010’s Black Ops set in 1981 is better than the flavorless futures we saw in Black Ops 3 and Infinite Warfare.
I didn’t get hands-on during the Cold War campaign presentation, but Activision did show trailers, cutscenes, and gameplay sequences. Black Ops scholars will notice that Cold War is set in the same decade as portions of Black Ops 2. Raven, the main studio behind the campaign, implied that Cold War is only really concerned with the events of the first Black Ops, so don’t expect it to tie into the other sequels.
While old stars like Frank Woods and Alex Mason (of numbers fame) are back, Raven was more interested in new characters that take larger roles in Cold War’s story. The presentation spent the most time on CIA special agent Russell Adler, a ruthless, anything-it-takes hardass leading the task force to hunt down a Soviet spy codenamed Perseus. I couldn’t tell how much we’re supposed to view Adler as a hero or villain (a likely intentional quandary), though an early scene involving President Ronald Reagan does imply an uncritical blessing of their covert war.
In the cutscene, Reagan walks into a briefing just long enough to grant Adler unchecked approval to eliminate Perseus and deliver a monologue about thankless heroes, necessary measures, and protecting the free world. It was an uncomfortably patriotic moment for what was essentially the christening of an illegal international kill squad. The scene is content to paint Reagan as the guy that cuts through the red tape and lets the CIA go kill the bad guys, as if the Iran-Contra affair, which funded war crimes, had been the right thing to do in retrospect. That isn't too surprising from a series that once consulted with and featured a cameo from Oliver North, one of the Iran-Contra scandal's primary actors.
For the first time in a CoD campaign, players have some say in the creation of Cold War’s silent protagonist. Presented with a mostly redacted file, you can fill in the blanks of your background and psychological profile. Military background doesn’t make a difference in-game, but your psychological traits double as perks—Paranoid is a permanent boost to ADS time, Violent Tendencies is a damage buff, etc.
You can also choose your skin tone and gender. I raised an eyebrow at the three gender options of Male, Female, and Classified, the last of which will refer to the player with gender-neutral pronouns. A gender-neutral character option is a positive step for Call of Duty, but calling it “Classified” comes off as insecure. It implies that people who use neutral pronouns are hiding their gender, which is not how I’ve heard anyone describe their non-binary identity. If I were to be cynical, it feels like an attempt to military-up an effort to be inclusive so that it doesn't look too much like an effort to be inclusive.
Raven describes the campaign as “deniable operations” that consist of both covert and military missions, but the gameplay we were shown was heavy on traditional CoD. In one sequence, the player and Woods infiltrate a Soviet training course built to simulate an American city block similar to the famous Nuketown multiplayer map. I expected this to be where some subtle espionage would be in order since they were heavily outnumbered. Instead, you can probably guess how it all went down—Woods opened fire on the first Russians he saw, firefights ensued, explosions happened, and then an on-rails turret sequence.
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I did eventually get a brief glimpse at some real spycraft. Raven showed off snippets of a mission starring a Soviet double agent sneaking around the KGB Moscow headquarters. The size of the explorable office building and non-linear objectives were reminiscent of a tiny Hitman level, though I doubt the seemingly one-off venture will require the timing and finesse of an Agent 47 kill. This actually isn’t the first time this exact style of mission has been done in a CoD campaign. Call of Duty: WWII’s underrated campaign has a surprisingly well-made stealth mission in the shoes of a French spy infiltrating a Nazi-occupied Paris stronghold.
Raven is trying something similar here, but in true CoD fashion, a flash forward in our presentation showed that the mission eventually turns bloody. Your character breaks stealth, armors up, blows up the KGB offices, and shoots their way out.
So yes, it sounds like Cold War’s missions will be fairly recognizable to play. Despite a change in hands from Treyarch to Raven, the studio is aiming for the same paranoid, conspiratorial vibes that cemented the first game’s reputation. Campaign lead writer Murray Kraft, who also worked on the original Black Ops, promises a story with all of the “mystery and conspiracy that you would expect in a Black Ops. We’re really messing with people’s heads and giving people what they’re not expecting. We want people to ask, ‘What is real?’” Raven showed a mission set in the Vietnam War that had a bit of Blops weirdness. It was hard to tell without context, but it seemed like Adler was trying to mind-heist some buried Perseus info out of a character through his memories of Vietnam.
Similar to the winding story of Black Ops 2, the Cold War campaign has occasional moments of player choice where you can take on an optional side mission or choose between a few dialogue options. Raven said these choices aren't just for flavor, they'll also influence which ending to the story you'll get.
Devil in the details
I will play the heck out of another Blops campaign, but campaigns aren’t the reason I like Call of Duty. I’m here for tight, arcadey gunplay and deep progression that Infinity Ward set a new standard for in its Modern Warfare reboot. I spent much of the presentation closely examining the gameplay clips to see how Cold War will stack up against Infinity Ward’s buttery gunplay.
Based only on sight and sound, Cold War’s shooting seems a bit… older? What I consider to be Modern Warfare’s greatest achievements didn’t pop out in my presentation. The player is back to holding their weapon straight ahead instead of the cooler at-rest lowered angle in MW. Weapon SFX were noticeably less punchy and loud. I also didn’t hear MW’s acoustic simulations that make an assault rifle tear through eardrums in an enclosed space. Raven/Treyarch also ditched MW’s downright intoxicating hit marker “ding” sound for a more generic “goosh,” which I simply cannot abide by. Reload animations didn’t have as much personality either, but I was glad to see what I believe was the return of reloading while aiming.
Obviously I’m deep in the weeds here, but the little things matter in Call of Duty. If the basics of movement and gunplay aren’t as fun as the CoD I’m already playing, I’m not confident that Cold War can keep my interest. Modern Warfare releases meaningful new weapons, modes, and maps at an impressive pace (even if it mercilessly plunders my PC’s hard drive in the process). It’s designed to be the only Call of Duty I’ll ever need. As far as I know, those updates aren’t suddenly going to end when Cold War drops.
The ultra-popular battle royale spinoff Warzone definitely isn’t going anywhere either. In fact, Cold War will have “shared progression features” with Warzone. A fact sheet provided by Activision says that certain “inventory items” can be used in both games, whatever that means. The publisher has previously implied that Warzone will have a long life as a vehicle for announcements and promotions.
I’m still perfectly happy occasionally grinding away at weapon levels in Modern Warfare/Warzone’s seemingly endless progression. Though Activision showed me frustratingly little in this early demo, I haven’t seen anything that sells Cold War as the next big thing. That will largely be up to the multiplayer, a topic that Activision is holding for another day. Multiplayer seems to be where Treyarch has put in its brunt of the work, so I’m eager to see how it will react to Modern Warfare’s evolutional year in the sun.
Activision has confirmed that Call of Duty: Black Ops - Cold War's release date will maintain a November window despite a later reveal than usual. Cross-gen multiplayer and the return of Zombies mode has also been revealed.