At 17 years old, Call of Duty is not quite America’s longest war, but it’s close. When I went into the single-player story mode for Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War, I knew what to expect: a pleasing shooting gallery with familiar narrative twists (there’s always a nuke about to go off) and re-shuffled scenery (this time the walls are plastered in vintage Doritos ads). But the real twist is that I left feeling frustrated about the game it could have been.
Black Ops Cold War is the kernel of a thrilling and intimate spy story that’s tragically strapped on the front of a runaway train. The game begins in a neon-drenched bar in Amsterdam on New Year’s Eve 1980, where your CIA partner beckons you to quickly follow him away from the party. From the beginning, Cold War is gorgeous to look at, and I was surprised so much care had been given to decorating a room that you’re expected to rush out of. Moments later, after walking a couple blocks in a beautifully rendered winter town, I found myself in a roaring gunfight with a small army of heavily armed bad guys who improbably pop out of every corner like aliens in an Area 51 cabinet. That’s entirely normal stuff for Call of Duty, but as the scene faded, I wished I was back in the bar talking to New Year’s revelers.
A while later in the story, after digital Ronald Reagan orders you to blow up the world to stop a nuclear weapon, you’re tasked with infiltrating Soviet-controlled East Germany. Early in the mission, as I stood on a roof with my CIA comrade and took photos of people passing through the border checkpoint, I noticed myself purposefully trying to stay on the roof as long as possible even when there was nothing left to do there. Instead of hunting down my target, I wanted to go down to the street and play a high-fidelity version of Papers, Please. Eventually, I advanced through the mission, expecting another bombastic firefight. But there was none. Sure, I later had to take out more than a few guards, but for a Call of Duty level, the visit to East Germany was practically meditative.
I later met a contact in a warmly lit bar and felt excited to speak to her. Unfortunately, the conversation was cut short after a couple of dialogue choices, as two Stasi officers quickly entered and forced me to escape prematurely. A short while later, I had to sneak into the apartment of an adversary and tiptoe around his wife and child to plant a device in a briefcase. As soon as I was discovered and knocked out, I knew Call of Duty’s alternate universe — the one where I imagined it was a compelling spy game based on suspense and relationships — had ended. Cue the explosions and gunfire.
Cold War is filled with these loud tonal contrasts. A mission where you play as a mole inside of KGB headquarters felt like it was ripped straight out of Hitman, and it’s really fun. Your American friends need to steal the identities of double agents from a bunker under the building, and the only way to get them access is to kill or frame a Russian general who holds the key. (A good sign: I replayed the level several times to try all of the different ways you could ruin the general’s day.) But almost as soon as I got my CIA contacts into the building, the shooting began. What was the point of all that delightful subterfuge if only to blow the place up and kill everyone inside? Just when I thought I was out, Call of Duty pulled me back in and set me on its narrow path.
If Call of Duty’s teaching is the illusion of free will, Cold War’s penultimate chapter is the series’s gospel. The revelation unfolds when the game starts literally telling you what to do. As your character revisits the past, a narrator starts giving verbal commands about which paths through the jungle you should choose. Though your choices are ultimately futile, you don’t have to follow orders and, in fact, the game expects you not to. (I laughed out loud when I found out there are achievements both for resisting orders and following them unquestioningly.) I’m sure the developers didn’t intend for me to linger disobediently on that roof in East Germany, but here they explicitly asked me to reject the cues they spent two decades teaching me. And so, I resisted playing Call of Duty for as long as I could, until my character was yanked back into reality, where the story ended in a final shooting gallery.
Again, there’s not exactly anything wrong with that. Call of Duty is more sport than story, and that’s not a defect. I grew up playing shooters and to me they feel just like playing baseball or hockey, to the extent that the payoff is achieving flow: when your body and its task become one in the same. You don’t need a great story for that connection to feel good, and playing Call of Duty is like doing it in the major leagues. The narrative is just scenery, and to complain that it doesn’t match the gameplay or resemble poetry misses the point.
But as the credits rolled, I felt a strange sense of loss. Cold War is a perfectly fine dose of video game pulp, but at times it teases something vastly richer. With four huge game modes, Call of Duty is so big and complicated now that it would be easy to break off the story mode and try something different without sacrificing the core game’s sales potential. Instead of chasing another nuclear threat, I would have liked if the entirety of Cold War was set in East Germany and given more time to explore the treachery and horror of the Stasi. And while I admit that expecting the series to jettison its kinetic jingoism is a contrived fantasy, I can’t help but feel like there are double agents inside Treyarch, desperately trying to send a message past the guards at Activision.
I’ve always wondered what might have happened if the real Ronald Reagan had spent all that nuclear missile defense money on something more meaningful. Now I’m wondering what might have happened if the fake Ronald Reagan did, too.