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Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War: a lesson in how not to write a video game campaign

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Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War is a curious game. Not only is it one of the most content-stripped Call of Duties of the franchise's recent era, yet one which in my personal opinion is one of the most enjoyable ones to date, it also has one of the most politically minded campaigns of any game this year. It's a story about a secret history covering the late Cold War, an exciting romp to race to a nuke, one that has the potential to change history.

That campaign is also sheer garbage.

Despite being incredibly enjoyable, Cold War's campaign is a horrible mess of bad design decisions, bad story decisions, and far more. At times it is a fun, mindless run at a few interesting objectives, at other times it's the most boring take on evidence-substantiated investigation a video game has ever made. At times it's an intriguing political thriller about the Cold War, other times it's the most mind-numbingly terribly-written story Call of Duty has ever released. That duality is what makes Cold War's campaign both well-earned Call of Duty fun and an exercise in making you wish they had ever done anything with its mechanics, its themes, and its characters.

All that and more right… now.


Black Ops: Insert Conflict

Let's get the big things out of the way first. Generally, in broad strokes, the story of Cold War is a small, limited team of special operators whom are tasked with stopping Soviet agent Perseus, a larger-than-life rogue anti-Western operative whose central plan is to topple the World Order and prevent the Soviet Union from losing the Cold War.

To get to that end, players are thrust into a variety of colourful, diverse environments, as well as intriguing escapades and missions, with some element of traditional Black Ops choices, that build a narrative around stopping a nuclear threat to the West. You are two people, for most of the campaign. Alex Mason, Call of Duty darling from the original Black Ops; and 'Bell', you name them whatever you want, an operative of variable origin recently tasked to join the team. One exception comes, but we'll cover it later.

Black Ops: Cold War tries an… interesting mix of the structures of previous Call of Duty games. For starters, new optional missions fashioned off Black Ops 2-style Strike Force missions return to the series, while the presence of a strong main campaign persists, albeit broken up once every few missions by a trip to Die Landerbahn, a CIA safehouse on the outskirts of West Berlin. These missions, Operation Red Circus and Operation Chaos, help to affect the ending you get at the end, although they have no major impact during the game itself.

In fact, even with those optional missions, the campaign is incredibly short. I blasted through the entire thing on regular difficulty in about four hours; on realism, about six. Black Ops Cold War features far more stealth segments than previous Call of Duty titles – just off the top of my head, Desperate Measures, Echoes of a Cold War, Brick in the Wall and more have extensive stealth segments built into their beginning or mid-sections. Desperate Measures itself is a pinnacle of the game's spy themes, having you play a single time as KGB double agent Dimitri Belikov in an incredibly open-ended mission where you have four main options to achieve the same goal of getting a bunker key. It's incredibly fun and really well-made, and the options are just free enough that one genuinely feels like they've managed to figure out something cool with the entire matter.

Desperate Measures is also one of the big issues with the game. Not because it's got some hidden bad – not really, it accurately escalates the tension and gives players well-crafted pay-offs – but because it illustrates how god damned boring all the shooting in the game is.

For starters, enemy AI in Cold War is… bad. Not only do most enemies, even on Veteran or Realistic difficulty, fire in bursts enough for you to simply tank the shot and duck into cover, but the lack of accuracy one can experience while running around in open areas makes it even easier to approach missions. A good example is Red Light, Green Light, in which the main set-piece of the game, a Spetsnaz training course set in a mock-up of Anytown, U.S.A, is really open and offers mostly rudimentary cover along its main road. However, getting around that and the swarms of enemies is excessively easy, because enemies will often spend significant amounts of time behind cover rather than actually engaging you, allowing you to, instead of engaging swarms, engaging small groups at once, cutting them down fast and easily and subverting the entire difficulty altogether. It isn't helped by the presence of a slow-mo sniper focus that allows you to essentially freeze enemies to a degree where you can cut down entire groups of enemies all at once. That causes the main difficulty of the game to plummet. Exponentially.

The stealth sections, by contrast, are much more entertaining because even by default the stealth meter used by enemies goes up incredibly fast, which does actually encourage you to keep in cover. The pay-offs of silent kills, whether by hand or by pistol, are also much better than that of standard gunplay, because the game properly builds the excitement of taking out enemies without alerting others. But even the stealth sections don't really get more difficult when increasing difficulty. Playing on realism, enemy AI is always just dumb enough to give the player time to lockpick hard doors, or get away with extremely wacky behaviour, which, again, should not be occurring at harder stages!

The result is the campaign's overall difficulty never really raises. The swarm in Operation Chaos can be confronted the same way as a swarm in Echoes of a Cold War. The stealth of Desperate Measures can be achieved with the same ease as the stealth of Brick in the Wall – despite the fact that these missions all hold extremely different significance in the story and should have different difficulties related to their tension! That means, if you're not already invested in the story (and we will get to Cold War's trainwreck of a story), you will never feel invested in… anything. At all. Not to mention that also means the campaign's replay value is excessively low compared to other Call of Duty campaigns, because, again, you can't raise the difficulty to make it different, nor can you really make any decisions that would cause these missions to get harder.

And speaking of decisions…


Evidence is Dumb

Accompanying the optional Operations are investigations. Essentially, the game introduces to you the premise that you can go ahead with these missions, but if you don't crack the codes associated with these missions, then you might slip up and cause, for say, a Soviet spy ring in the U.S that previously nearly caused chemical attacks across the United States to persist. The missions themselves involve you eliminating high-value targets associated with Perseus. In theory, that sounds really interesting and makes for a very good feel, as well as creating more variables to care about in the game. In practice, the Operations are among the worst parts of the entire campaign.

For starters, to get the necessary evidence to crack these codes, you need to find small collectibles hidden all around missions. The fun easter egg collectibles from previous CoDs, like intel, have been excised in favour of this mechanic, likely in order to convince players to be more aware of their surroundings and to take in the environments more. However… using easter egg collectibles for critical game mechanics do run into a bit of a problem. A problem of a lot of the evidence being placed in the most unintuitive, terrible places you can imagine them being placed.

For example, to get the two evidence pieces from Red Light, Green Light, you need to take pictures of various maps hidden across the level. While three of these six maps are placed in intuitive places the player will come across, two are placed in weird out-of-the-way sections of the mission that are entirely unnecessary to pass through, and one is placed… right in the middle of a boss fight. Taking those pictures also disables your ability to respond to threats for at least a few seconds, which means that at the same time as you killing a stronger enemy, you also have to keep a look-out for… a fucking map.

Evidence collection is just the first part. It's not that infuriating compared to the other things, and honestly you could probably just bring up an online manual to check where the damn evidence is. The next part is evidence collation and analysis. That's right, you have to manually figure out what the evidence suggests. Honestly? These puzzles are actually pretty fun! Even though they're relatively simple, and can be solved with basic logic exercises, they're a decent tidbit in the campaign and the campaign could have genuinely benefited from having more of them, or having more of them be based on the player's actual proper analysis of the story and the situation. That could have made the story more engaging, and by proxy, more worth investing your time in.

The missions, by contrast, are terrible. Operation Chaos and Operation Red Circus are both really badly-made – hell, the latter is literally set on a multiplayer map – probably because unlike the main story, you do not learn anything from these missions. Not a single thing. You just swoop in, kill some people, and then leave. It isn't helped by the campaign's overly easy difficulty, it isn't helped by the lack of stealth, and it certainly isn't helped by just how… boring they are.

Yes, they are only two of the campaign's missions, optional missions at that, but when I say they are optional I mean they are fucking worthless. There is no value in finishing these missions. Finishing them does not escalate the game further, it does not make the game harder, it does not even really impact the story beyond some remarks you achieve at the very end of the game. The original Strike Force missions could cause a major story shift in the endgame of Black Ops 2, and while they also didn't have much in the way of gameplay consequences, they were at least fun breaks from the proper story and didn't completely break the immersion of the story by the virtue of being twenty-minute intrusions into an already short campaign.

And speaking of intrusions…


The Dumbest Cold War Story

Some theorise a story is only worth paying attention to if its characters are. I'm kind of in that camp, especially for video games; given that characters are among the forefront ways players end up interacting with the story.

The characters of BOCW are almost entirely flat, uninteresting, bland and worthless.

Let's start with the principal deuratoganist/antagonist, Russell Adler. Adler is your general American badass. He beats the shit out of enemies in front of you, can speak Russian, German, and somehow pass in front of Soviets while wearing the longest, most hippie hair anyone ever put in Moscow. Beyond passing remarks, Adler is really uninteresting. Lemme put him in contrast with Alex Mason from BO1.

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In BO1, Mason is introduced also as a stereotype, a bland player character. He begins only really as a kind of exercise of the existence of the story but he quickly evolves fast. The story shows you his obsession with Viktor Reznov, displays his utter frustration with numbers, and finally, in an amazing twist, makes him the protagonist of the game in a desire for revenge. The story spends a good amount of time on building his motivations in missions and outside missions, which ultimately is one of the reasons why the character is so beloved today.

In BOCW, Adler is introduced as a stereotype and never really ascends beyond that. His motivations are never really explained and you have to just presume that it's him acting as a stringent American nationalist. His background is given a chance to be explained – albeit, optionally, in a side you can only really do if you actually have the patience to sit through the story already – but he just says ‘I was in with a bad crowd’. Everything about Adler exists solely to make him look more like a caricatured American Badass.

This writing basically extends to most of the main cast, with two exceptions. Belikov and Park seem to have had their writing done by people whom are way better at the job than anyone else, because their actions and attitudes expertly make much better-fleshed-out characters than the rest. Belikov is presented with a bit of a jovial side, very loose about his attitude, but also as a capable operative that reinforces his role in the story; helped along by being the player character in most of the stealth section in Desperate Measures, already an awesome mission where you do incredible things silently and deftly. Park is a conservative but confident person with a very reserved attitude to things, whom actively defies Adler when necessary and questions him where she desires, later revealed to be a deeper result of a deep paranoia and distrust. She’s also the only character in the game whose dialogue changes by gender in a way that extends beyond pronouns, which just makes her even a little more fleshed out.

Oh, and Belikov appears for two missions and the majority of Park's appearances are in inter-mission briefings at the safehouse.

…what?

That's right, the game's two best characters are also among the characters the game doesn't want to show or thinks are disposable. Great. That means that we're stuck with Adler, the comedy corpse of Alex Mason, the bad knockoff of Frank Woods, and your character. Great. The reason for those derogatory remarks against Mason and Woods is because not only were the original VAs replaced with new ones (despite wanting to continue) whom were then instantly told to make impressions of Mason and Woods, but their characters are pretty bad too. Not only do they suffer from the main problem with Adler, they also suffer from a generally poor performance to such an extreme degree.

When I first made my character and they gave choices based on race, gender, attitude and more, I assumed that it would play into how the characters reacted to you. After all, it is a campaign whose selling point is choice, and… nothing. Basically no changes at all, except for the Park dialogue I mentioned above.

Well, we probably have to talk about Bell.


Black Ops and Bad Politics

In my first playthrough of Black Ops: Cold War, I played as a nonbinary character just to see how the game would react. It didn't. It just changed most pronouns to 'they'. I think this is an accurate depiction of how Black Ops actually thinks about everything it talks about. So this is the true spoiler-full section.

During the campaign, you find out that the United States under Eisenhower planted multiple nuclear weapons under major European cities to be used in the event that the Soviet Union did indeed invade the West, under an operation known as Greenlight. The story never brings that up again, the fact that the U.S was responsible for creating a situation in which millions of people could die, and instead spends its time focusing on Perseus.

Perseus is not one person. It's a group of various different individuals which collectively form one great spy ring; this ring of people has been collectively manipulating events around the world for decades. It leaked various manifests from the Los Alamos Testing Facility, nearly caused real-life Operation Fracture Jaw to actually become a nuclear accident in Vietnam and more.

Because of the ending.

Let's step back a bit first. So, in reality, 'Bell' is a fabrication by Adler and Park, whom captured a Soviet agent in the first mission associated with Perseus in the hopes that they could gain necessary information. The player character has been lied to, but regardless, the game presents you with one choice. You can choose to lie to Adler about where the man behind Perseus is, goading the team into a trap and allowing the nukes to be detonated, killing about 60 million people in order to enable the Soviet Union to march across Europe. You can also choose to tell the truth, which results in an underwhelming chase sequence and a standard heroic victory in which Adler suddenly turns around and fucking kills you.

That basically means Black Ops: Cold War doesn't even succeed on its own merits. It proposes choices that don't materialise, because you only actually have one choice that has an actual effect on the story, either of which have zero justification beyond the placid nonsense that counts for a narrative. A great example is in Brick in the Wall, where you're given the choice to either kill or free an anti-Stasi resistance member in East Berlin whom in reality is an undercover KGB agent; no matter what you do, you're still knocked out by Franz Kraus and still brought to the same warehouse to have the same final battle.

This runs through the entire story until that terrible fucking choice. Again, those optional missions only affect random ending slides. They don't impact the themes of the story, and they most certainly don't affect your gameplay. Choose to be a woman or non-binary? Who cares, just get some pronoun changes in. Choose to kill Robert Aldrich and his spies or not? No effect. Choose to take Qasim Javadi hostage or throw him off a roof? Don't recall.

And it also reinforces Call of Duty's running streak of 'suggesting political themes and flubbing it'.

First, Perseus has never been proven to be real. Some researchers suggest that Perseus was a project of Soviet intelligence to create a larger-than-life threat; but whatever the case, there has never been definitive proof on Perseus' existence, and the theory's main proponents have often been American warhawks with obvious reasons for promoting a version of reality where the U.S is constantly under siege from the Soviet Union. I'm not saying that using Perseus as the main antagonist is a bad thing, but you have to actually flesh Perseus out well. Perseus is not fleshed out well. He's just a random rogue baddy who seems to be fashioned off Black Ops 2's Raul Menendez, but worse.

Second, Black Ops' version of reality is outright disastrous. In various cutscenes it repeatedly implies that the Civil Rights movement is actually a Soviet attempt to undermine the United States. In fact, Operation Chaos has you outright engage in an act of state terror against someone accused of being a subversive Soviet agent; or Red Circus, which has the team marking civilians under the accusation that they are Soviet agents. Again, this isn't necessarily a bad thing. But Black Ops has neither the will nor the ability to bother with creating the nuance to bring these controversial and morally ambiguous topics together. It's a four hour fun romp that dips its toes into one of the foundational conflicts of our time and then thrashes about hoping to displace the water.

That's not even saying Cold War is problematic, because it isn't. It's too stupid and messy to figure out whether it wants to portray things as problematic. The events specifically can be construed (and most are) horrifying acts of violence we would send men to tribunals for. But Cold War? It doesn't know whether anything is problematic. In fact, it probably doesn't know anything at all. The game has a message about the Cold War. It just hasn't bothered to figure it out. Is America bad? Maybe. Is the Soviet Union bad? Maybe. Is brainwashing people and robbing their identities bad? Maybe. This isn't even a case of 'let the player decide', this is a case of 'we don't know and we don't care'.

Cold War uses real conflicts, real events, and real places. It references real fears, real problems, and real people. But it doesn't care what it says about those real events and those real places. It's happy to taper over the complicated realities that even it wants to set up to give a pathetic, 'good ending', that, I have to remind you, is still less cathartic than the bad ending. If there is a message Cold War could ever have, it was probably lost in communication-

-or, Treyarch is going to insist to me that in fact it was a Soviet spy ring that muddled it up.


Conclusion

I am fucking exhausted with expecting better from games. You might consider that childish. I'm honestly inclined to agree with you.

Just thirteen years ago, Bioshock was released. It's one of the best politically-minded games of all time. Hell, Fallout: New Vegas was 2010, and Black Ops 2 was… 2012. It's depressing to remember how far Call of Duty has fallen, from flawed but well-intentioned and almost successful stories about war to this shit.

Players deserve better. They deserve a campaign that treats them with more intelligence than the idiotic narrative of 'nuke Europe or die', a game that respects the choices they have made with respect to the plot, and a story that… doesn't rely on their lowering of standards to be considered good.

That's why Black Ops: Cold War is depressing.

Because it isn't just bad. It's willingly mediocre. It's the bare minimum a player should desire of their game's story. It's a reflection of how gaming has gone from a series of communities to a cultish industrial complex that has neither respect for its developers nor its greatest enthusiasts.

This should be my last ever Call of Duty post on this sub. No point belabering the point forever, not when it doesn't seem like anything will ever change.

Thank you for your time.

(also side note: my last post on this subreddit was a terrible one I didn't spend enough time substantiating, and I also want to apologise to one of the commenters to which I promised a reply and never got around to.)

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