There’s something to be said about Call of Duty’s formula. A franchise that has built a name for itself thanks to frenetic multiplayer, cooperative experiences, and bombastic campaigns. The latter have barely changed over the years, with most single-player experiences unfolding like an action movie. Most missions revolve around moving from one exotic shooting gallery to the next, blasting enemies until the game ushers you into a big set-piece moment. While there are a few standout levels that break the mold, rarely do developers Infinity Ward and Treyarch stray too far from what fans expect. Yet, this is what makes Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War’s campaign such a surprise, as it’s finally showing that this series can be more than running and gunning.
Set during the Cold War, players assume the role of CIA operative working with a team in Europe to stop a believed Russian spy known as Perseus. Initially, Black Ops Cold War doesn’t stray too far from the militaristic fetishization we’ve come to expect. You’ll find yourself blasting enemies across rooftops and participating in an overly black and white depiction of the Vietnam War. But then the campaign twists, going in a direction that the seasoned player base may not expect. Embracing classic Hollywood spy films about this era, Cold War then eases you into the role of counterintelligence.
This includes utilizing gadgets, snapping photos of evidence, skulking around the shadows, and even doing some light puzzle work to unlock additional missions. It’s a surprising turn for a franchise that often feels like a Michael Bay movie draped in an American flag firing dual M16 assault rifles into the air. Locking content behind a pretty tricky set of puzzles is a bold step, but one that helps immerse you into its overly dramatic world. You’re no longer a faceless soldier tasked with killing whatever is in front of you, but a member of an elite group that favors brains over brawn. None of this is to say we are reaching Prey, Bioshock, or Metro Exodus levels of immersion. There are still a comical amount of bad guys more than willing to hang around until they’re all dead.
Yet, this shows that Call of Duty should take more cues from these games in the future. By adding more elements than slightly different versions of point and shoot, this franchise only stands to benefit. One of the best missions in Cold War has you playing a Russian double agent who has to retrieve a bunker code inside of a Russian government building. It’s essentially a Call of Duty riff on Hitman, as you pick locks, hide bodies inside conveniently placed lockers, and avoid detection from patrolling guards. You’re encouraged to take your time, which is something you rarely see outside of the odd stealth mission. It’s thrilling and tense, as you’re often grilled by various Russian soldiers trying to uncover a mole inside the KGB.
Cold War also experiments with dialogue options and multiple endings, another pleasant surprise. Your words will impact how scenes play out or feature prominently moments later in the story. These narrative branches have been desperately needed in Call of Duty, as the series’ storytelling has become overly predictable. Plus, these dialogue exchanges give agency to the player, giving them slightly more control on how a situation unfolds.
Sure, you can still have your cinematic gunfights, but I would love to see either developer experiment with how and when those moments happen. Players don’t want their hands held and no amount of explosions will change that. Giving users more freedom to settle into the game’s fiction will ultimately lend more weight to whatever characters and story beats they encounter.
While many players will probably ignore the campaign, I urge you to give Cold War’s a try if you’ve been a fan of the series. It’s a slightly different twist on campaign structure that has gone largely unchanged for nearly a decade. There are still problems, but this is the first time I’ve really seen some potential for Call of Duty‘s storytelling to evolve since the original Modern Warfare.