Black Ops returns with a story mission and just like the 1980s, it’s a bit embarrassing now.
The Black Ops franchise has been through a lot. While the first was a clever, twisted psychedelic shooter-adventure, the second was a straight FPS flipping between past and future events, the third flipped between bad and embarrassing and the 4th was a Battle Royale Fortnite knock off. But now, Cold War returns the series to its MK-Ultra roots.
It’s the 80s and Soviet spy ‘Perseus’ has discovered “Operation Greenlight”, a scorched-earth plan the US put in place if Germany won WWII, with neutron bombs buried over Europe – they’re still there, and now Perseus has discovered one. Disgusted with the Commies’ outrageous behaviour, Ronnie Raygun orders Hudson to create a Black Ops team to get it back - and keep Greenlight out of the news.
And what team does he assemble? There’s BO stalwarts Woods and Mason, but key character ‘Bell’ is left up to us to decide… The character creation offers personality traits that provide in-game perks, but they often conflict with the mission – why send someone who specifically states they don’t do Stealth on stealth missions? I chose an ex-KGB background because I figured it’d be fun being Comrade cat amongst the Patriotic pigeons, but apart from a few ‘can we trust her’ comments it didn’t factor. Bell is also a silent hero, so they never really contribute, and there’s no sexy Russian accent. They keep banging on about my skills, but Bell never does anything skilful and ultimately it has no baring; my Russian narrative has the same impact as the ex-CIA option, just with different dialogue. And what is the narrative?
It has about as much narrative depth as the rest of the 80s. The missions are self-contained, disconnected and feel like best-of retreads from other CoD games. We just lurch from one set-piece to another, occasionally going on a ‘Nam flashback or sneaking about somewhere and when Hudson says it’s time for the final mission, you’re like “I thought I was still in the tutorial”. It doesn’t fly by because we’re having fun, it’s short and you never get invested. There’s side missions you unlock by discovering intelligence in the main game, but they’re actually short kill missions and pointless distractions. CoD’s story missions often feel like warm-ups for the Multiplayer, but this is barely defrosted. Cold War is right. It feels like we just watched porn for the plot and missed the good stuff. And the plot was terrible too.
And that’s most noticeable in baddie Perseus. Who is he? Why’s he doing this? Barely explained. And if his extremist group of clichés sitting around a table agreeing with his desire to destroy the corrupt West is supposed to be a nod to 80s action villains, it fails. Same goes for your co-stars, especially Woods and Mason who bring a huge amount of emotional baggage and backstory, but just growl and act like a couple of hypermasculine Chads.
It’s just such an oddly uneven game. This is CoD, the OG of military hardcore shooters and the best missions are the stealth and infiltration ones, including a Soviet intelligence officer who gets called into a meeting with Gorbachev then has to find a way to sneak the team into the building while framing a rival and avoiding a KGB agent trying to find a mole in the building - you. It’s great, as is a sneak mission around the Berlin Wall. Several missions have dialogue choices and decisions, and it occasionally scratches the surface of 80s hyper-patriotism; it feels like it wants to be something else - we're even lockpicking?! - then remembers it’s CoD.
When the bullets do fly though, they fly thick and fast. It’s the standard CoD routine of against-the-odds fights and exhilarating set pieces, but there’s some clever layouts, opportunities and events that make you feel like a real 80s action star. A standout is infiltrating a Soviet base and discovering a US town façade for training, where a real firefight breaks out. It’s awesome and I’m pretty sure we just stumbled into the training ground for the US Invasion in Modern Warfare 2. Or was it 3?
Frustratingly, considering this is aligned with Black Ops 1, it seems to have forgotten it’s a BO game until the near end, when the reason why Bell was chosen for the team is revealed. Unlike the original’s interrogation room, subtle hints, and clues you picked up, or a lead character with a personality, this one just shoots its entire shot in one surreal mission reveal then shakes it off and goes back to being a standard shooter like that never happened.
Worst of all, suddenly Bell gets a moral choice to make - the ‘bad’ choice is the one truest to the character and a statement on 80’s politics and American arrogance. It’s also a lot more fun. The Good ending completely undermines everything, and its final mission is a disappointing run to stick C4 on an AA gun… We’ve been doing that in CoD for 20-odd years! 2019’s Modern Warfare at least tried to get its hands dirty as it explored the War on Terror, and WWII brought home the horror not heroism of war; this had an opportunity to do the same for the Cold War but instead, this just … exists.
Why is this single player mission even here? I expected to heat up the cold war in some ironic 80s style FPS and got a shooter that’s retro in all the wrong places. There were reports that the game suffered in early development, and it does feel disjointed, or maybe just lazy. Narratively it wastes the amazing detail and care brought to the world. It looks beautiful – it’d better do; just the single player mission and HD pack runs 161Gb for 5 hours play...
Still, it’s impossible to attack Call of Duty or Call for Change. Like Santa, it arrives once a year laden with exactly what we want, and we’ve plonked down over half a billion to buy Cold War (so far). Activision aren’t about to change the formula, but why bother with this story mission in the first place? Most gamers buy Black Ops for the MP anyway, it feels like it was done because they had to do it, as if gamers really missed it in BOIV. It didn’t remind me of Black Ops 1, it reminded me of Counter Strike Condition Zero: Deleted Scenes.