"Every mission we go on is illegal!"
After weeks of leaks, it's official: this year's Call of Duty is indeed another Black Ops. The quote above is an exclamation heard during a tense cutscene in Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War, featuring familiar characters like Alex Mason (actor Sam Worthington will not be returning) and historical figures like President Ronald Reagan. It's a statement that perhaps summarizes the essence of the Call of Duty: Black Ops series over the years; more covert espionage with a side of ludicrous drama (like brainwashing) than rah-rah military patriotism. This year's entry in the grander Call of Duty franchise is going all-in on the campaign, which the team describes as a direct sequel to Black Ops 1. It's all a big change considering 2018's Black Ops 4 skipped the single-player mode entirely.
Campaigns have long been a technical showcase for Call of Duty. In past years, they've often starred a celebrity of sorts—though that trend was ignored since last year's Modern Warfare, and now this year's Black Ops Cold War. The series has produced some of the very best shooter campaigns of all-time, from Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare to the first Call of Duty: Black Ops. Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War has the most in common with Black Ops 2, with it bringing back multiple endings (though, the studios won't clarify how many yet). It's also extending its choice-driven nature to a lot of the levels themselves.
There's less stuffiness when it comes to the Black Ops series compared to the rest of Call of Duty. The presentation we watched boasted how the new campaign is inspired by real history "between the headlines"—that is, on the conspiracy theories that ran rampant at the time and the anxiety swirling around a potential World War 3. The central plot follows the pursuit of the mythical Perseus, a Soviet Union spy who allegedly infiltrated the U.S. with the goal of destabilizing the nation (and thus, the world). It being Call of Duty, the journey promises lots of action. Players will even be able to make their own character for the campaign—however, it's limited to skin tone, military background, birth place, and gender. This can all be "classified" as well, thus allowing they/them pronouns, which is nice.
The biggest change in terms of structure is that some missions will have nonlinear pathways, meaning there are multiple variants of combat encounters and environments to explore within a single level. In an example video, Treyarch and Raven Software demonstrate one mission in which you play as a double agent of the Soviet Union who is tasked with navigating a KGB facility in Moscow. The player is able to pull up a map with side objectives and navigate through the level as they wish. Another sequence from a late-game mission flashes back to the Vietnam War and shows four different potential paths the mission can go in (via a split-screen). To better facilitate players wanting to see all possible ending outcomes and mission varieties, this year's Call of Duty will offer different save slots. In a follow-up roundtable Q&A, the studios confirmed that it isn't possible to do a non-lethal playthrough of the campaign, however.
This is also the first Call of Duty in quite some time to be breaking the typical three-year development cycle, as the series has been passed between Treyarch, Infinity Ward, and Sledgehammer Games year after year this past decade. This year, just two years after 2018's Black Ops 4, a new Black Ops is already aiming down its sights for this fall. During the Q&A, Treyarch co-studio head Dan Bunting outlined a few reasons that made the shorter turnaround possible.
The first is in its partnership with Raven Software, who are leading development on Black Ops Cold War's campaign. Before development started in earnest, Raven showed the team at Treyarch a "tonal" video of archival footage narrated by an old interview of controversial KGB defector Yuri Bezmenov. The same video released last week to tease this year's Call of Duty and led to a flurry of alt-right sentiments to flood the YouTube comments. While it is just a tonal piece that lightly frames Bezmenov and the Soviet Union as the "villain" of Black Ops Cold War (Russia is always the bad guy in Call of Duty games—surprise!), it doesn't change the fact that the flagrant use of his words is troubling for a major game publisher and developer to trot out.
Raven then developed a prototype to represent "what the Cold War could look like in a Black Ops game." (Despite, y'know, the series being set during both real and fictional Cold Wars in the past.) The prototype convinced Treyarch that "this was the right partnership" that could make a shorter development cycle possible—because it was even more of a collaborative effort than past Call of Duty games.
"I think that a lot needs to be said about how well the team rallied really quickly; they adapted really fast and started to work right away," Bunting tells us and other publications during a roundtable Q&A after the presentation.
Not even the pandemic of COVID-19 derailed development, as the team pivoted to at-home voice recording for background characters. During the presentation for Black Ops Cold War, clips of actors performing voice lines, actions, and even blood-curdling screaming all via webcam were shown. "And as I mentioned before, we'd been doing a lot of work towards building the tech out for next generation and just the opportunity of [...] when the next-gen consoles launch to have a Black Ops title be a launch title, that was just kind of the thing that sealed the deal," he says. "Just, it was too important, and we wanted to make it happen."
Activision, Treyarch, and Raven Software aren't ready to discuss how next-gen pricing will work, and gave few details on multiplayer. On Sept. 9, Activision will host a full multiplayer reveal for Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War, though additional news about Zombies will come in later weeks. Similar to Modern Warfare, Black Ops Cold War will offer post-launch content (though the fact sheet is unclear if it will be free like Modern Warfare's post-launch maps) of new multiplayer maps and Zombies-related content, as well as in-game events. The Battle Pass system will also be returning.
Warzone players will be able to retain their Operators and weapon blueprints from Modern Warfare, despite the battle royale's switch to sharing progression with Black Ops Cold War. And last of all, just as with Modern Warfare, Black Ops Cold War is a cross-play experience with shared multiplayer not just across current platforms, but cross-generation with PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X as well.
Alas, like how last year's Call of Duty: Modern Warfare spun the series in bold new directions with its new engine, free content structure, and unified progression across modes, Black Ops Cold War is seeking to take that new way of thinking to the campaign side of things. Considering the widely disliked current-gen debut of Call of Duty: Ghosts in 2013, moving forward with a potentially-polarizing Call of Duty is a worrying move. Still, we'll see if Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War's bold nonlinear campaign is able to pull it off when the game's out on Nov. 13 for Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and PC via Battle.net, with PS5 and Xbox Series X releases to follow on whatever day the platforms are released, respectively.