Review: 'Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War': Patriot games

Todd Martens
·7 min read
In "Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War," America is ready to commit war crimes in the name of patriotism.
In "Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War," America is ready to commit war crimes in the name of patriotism. (Treyarch / Raven / Activision)

The United States of America: Boy, we sure are exhausting.

This was the conclusion I reached after finishing the single-player campaign in the latest "Call of Duty," a realization that I don't believe was entirely unintentional. These are games designed by global teams of hundreds of people, crafted largely as multiplayer powerhouses that generate money long after the initial sale. But the modern single-player "Call of Duty" campaigns are full of narrative tension that speaks to those the game publisher believes are its intended players.

Contradictions are present in the newest installment. The franchise can't break free from its pro-America stance, and the latest, a game set amid the stress of the early 1980s Cold War, frames Ronald Reagan as a movie star hero who viewed the presidency as the role of a lifetime. And yet the game also wants to show America as flawed and its military as arrogant.

Can it do both? Sure, but not without sacrifices.

Late in the game, an American agent declares that sometimes military organizations have to cross a line to ensure "the line's still there in the morning." "Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War" wants to walk a line itself, nodding equally to a heavily complex narrative and large-scale, arcade-like action sequences.

American agents infiltrate — and decimate — a KGB facility in the latest "Call of Duty."
American agents infiltrate — and decimate — a KGB facility in the latest "Call of Duty." (Treyarch / Raven / Activision)

In other words, it wants to present fun, but it also wants to impart a bit of the now-pro-forma guilt that all video games with guns must possess — the underlying wink that, yes, we all feel at least slightly bad about the $70 thing we are giving you. I mean, there's no way to feel good about the game's opening scene, in which Iranians exist solely to absorb bullets, but I want to believe it's there to argue against the thesis of the game's hard-nosed American agent.

It's a fallacy, after all, to believe a line can be held if it's crossed. "Black Ops Cold War" doesn't hold it — ultimately it lands on the side that favors patriotism above all else, even if it appears to be holding its nose as it does so.

At about two decades into the "Call of Duty" brand, the Activision-owned franchise certainly knows its audience. Maybe that's why I flinched the few times "Black Ops Cold War" tried to bring me into its fold, to argue that, "Hey, it's pretty and nice in here. Stay!" I never had a bad time with the game, and I enjoyed the missions that had me infiltrating a KGB stronghold, which provided a little exploration and attempts at puzzle solving. One scene near the end was certainly striving for some "Apocalypse Now"-inspired psychedelics when it showed how the presentation of events and facts is dependent on who's doing the manipulating. It’s a clever scene in which we’re reenacting a memory, and the deeper we probe, the foggier and more unnatural the worlds gets.

That scene alone shows that there are ambitions here, as it’s a given that “Call of Duty” games will feature moments that argue "the enemy is us," but here was a moment that seemed to question not just beliefs but the written history that comes after a war. Still, it felt restrained, handcuffed by the whole need to not stray too far from the good-versus-evil "Call of Duty"-ness of it all.

Essentially, the single-player narrative of "Black Ops Cold War" didn't seem entirely confident in itself. This is a game, ultimately, about nostalgia, of looking back toward a time when it was falsely believed that everyone felt a patriotic love for their country. One could make a quarantine drinking game out of "Black Ops Cold War": Take a sip every time an American warns that the Russians are going to destroy our way of life.

The Russians — usually presented as chain-smoking figures of bad health — make the same warning, but the only way of life we're shown on either side is one of oppression, murder, mistrust and broad generalizations. The American men, mostly wearing leather jackets, look like they belong in a retelling of "Boogie Nights"; my female protagonist was warned to give one of these stereotypes, our gruff leader Russell Adler, "wide berth." No one really likes anyone, and a brief protest that America shouldn't break the rules of war is shot down by Reagan acting like John Wayne.

So giddyap, "Black Ops Cold War" goes, leading us into conspiracy-fueled territory that takes inspiration from real life, then spins internet message group-worthy tall tales out of it. An early mission in the game is labeled "Fracture Jaw," itself a nod to a reported plan to bring nuclear weaponry into Vietnam — overruled in real life by President Johnson in 1968. The main antagonist is Russian spy Perseus, a mysterious figure whose name is an allusion to another mystery. Whether or not there was a real Russian spy who went by that name is dependent on who's doing the telling.

Narrative is delivered mostly in voice-overs, as we jump from taking on Iranian terrorists to chasing a mobster around an East Berlin checkpoint to infiltrating abandoned Russian military bases in mountain cities and even dipping into Cuba, where our CIA agents fantasize about taking out Fidel Castro, all in an effort to track down Perseus. He's a threat because he has the power to obliterate Europe, thanks to him uncovering nuclear weapons that the United States hid in the name, supposedly, of self-defense.

We, that is America, as the imperfect good guy is a key touchstone of the "Black Ops" line of "Call of Duty," which is generally one of the more realistic, true-life-inspired games in the franchise. But as the game keeps twisting around on itself, ultimately revealing a plotline revolving around the Central Intelligence Agency's Project MK-Ultra, a covert and illegal operation of extreme mind control, the game is testing our patience not to abandon our fellow agents and side with the Soviet Union.

That's an either/or choice given to us at one point, and there's no real good option. We can contribute to the launch of a hidden cache of nuclear weaponry or attempt to take down Perseus, which may give rise to an even more covert battle to spread disinformation, a.k.a. the modern world of "alternate facts." Both options, though, feed a narrative of conspiracy, of a world of hidden story lines where anyone different from us is suspicious. Throughout the game, our CIA leader Adler warns us of those who have "no true allegiance to anyone other than himself," but does so with no self-awareness of his own bullheaded patriotism.

"Black Ops Cold War" dares us, then, in its final moments to switch sides and bring the Western World to a crumble. As tired as I was at this point of hearing Reagan tell us that America's greatest weapon is its freedom — take a drink! — this felt, even for a video game in which I had personally murdered thousands of people, somewhat reckless and absurd. Here was a not so subtle statement, one framed as a revenge plot, that a rejection of a blind-faith belief in all-things-America, even its war crimes, would ultimately destroy it and result in a future even more hellish than we can imagine.

No, I don't think the developers of "Black Ops Cold War" believe that. I think they were after something more nuanced, hoping to show how the strands of the Cold War have permeated the world of 2020 and led to the wannabe internet sleuths and dangerous paramilitary civilians who do things like respond to our current president's calls to "liberate" Michigan.

Maybe — heaven forbid — that audience will eat this up, but what I found was a story that simply wanted to take a nap, a war game worn out with the very nationalism of the country it's forced, year after year, to cheerlead.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.