Call of Duty: Black Ops — Cold War will launch November 13 on the PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One. But this year’s big title from Activision will be “cross-generation,” meaning players will be able to play multiplayer with each other on both the current generation consoles and with next-generation players on the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X when those consoles launch.
Like last year’s Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, Cold War will be playable across platforms, so players can team up with friends in multiplayer across PlayStation, Xbox, and PC. And they’ll be able to play with each other across the current and next-generation machines in multiplayer and Warzone, Activision’s Call of Duty battle royale hit.
Black Ops: Cold War is about deniable covert operations during the Cold War, the Vietnam War, and the Reagan presidency, which takes place in the later half of the 20th century. I like it because it reaches back to tumultuous times and tries to reinterpret what that history meant, through the lens of decades of available research. It feels like how, decades from now, video games will examine 2020 to understand what’s important for future generations.
This is one of four stories about the Call of Duty: Black Ops — Cold War reveal. See our coverage of the developer Q&A, gameplay, and the Warzone/Zombies post. Treyarch and Raven Software studios unveiled the new game to the public inside Warzone today.
Black Ops: Cold War
This is a direct sequel to Call of Duty: Black Ops. That 2010 Treyarch game is about a conspiracy and the shadow war the superpowers waged in the 1960s. The other Black Ops games move forward in time.
“With our release of Call of Duty: Black Ops in 2010, Treyarch established a shadowy world of deniable covert operations,” said studio co-head Dan Bunting in a press briefing. “It wasn’t ripped from the headlines. It was about reading between the lines, conspiracy theories, propaganda, disinformation, and active measures.”
Call of Duty: Black Ops — Cold War’s story is set in 1981, during the presidency of Ronald Reagan, a character who appears in the cinematics. Reagan learns in a top-secret briefing that Perseus, a Soviet spy based on an actual historical conspiracy, is back as a threat. The president explicitly authorizes a black operation, or covert mission, to go after Perseus. It’s jarring to see Reagan in a video game, but the animated version of him looks quite good, and the dialogue captures Reagan’s essence.
If you know your history, Reagan got into trouble for allegedly trading arms for hostages, selling weapons to Iran in order to free hostages in Lebanon, and then turning around and using the money to illegally fund the Contras in Nicaragua. The Iran-Contra affair is a stain on the Reagan presidency, and here we have Reagan explicitly authorizing a deniable covert operation. Reagan says “plausible deniability” is the backbone of the enterprise, noting that the entire free world depends on a few people who can get things done in secret.
The mission falls to Russ Adler, a CIA operative and a Vietnam veteran. Adler is part-spy, part-special operations soldier. So the combat will include both stealth and the action that inevitably ensues when sneaking around fails and all hell breaks loose. Playing as Adler and other characters, the player will see locations like the White House, KGB headquarters in Moscow, the jungles and rice paddies of Vietnam, Latin America, Turkey, and Germany.
The original Black Ops had brainwashing, betrayal, and the sort of things you expect to see in a Bourne Identity movie or a Far Cry game, rather than a Call of Duty title. If it’s at all like Black Ops, the sequel will be disturbing and it will screw with your mind, making you question what is real. You see how paranoid the characters can become as they search for the elusive Perseus.
While the game takes place decades ago, the developers have seen to it that the player has some modern options. You can play as a man or a woman. You can also classify your character as gender-neutral, where the sex of the character is “classified.” That’s a first for a Call of Duty game.
Activision’s juggling act
The announcement is late in the year for a Call of Duty title. The game is coming from Raven Software and Treyarch, in an interruption of the usual three-year cycle for Activision’s Call of Duty studios. Traditionally, each major studio takes a turn making one game every three years, with Treyarch, Sledgehammer Games, and Infinity Ward taking the lead. Other Activision-owned studios like Raven and Beenox usually provide support.
But Sledgehammer fell off schedule and had a change in leadership in 2018, so Raven took the lead this year with Treyarch, the studio for the Black Ops games. If it feels like things are coming in hot, that’s probably no accident given the schedule disruption. Treyarch itself last launched a game only two years ago, Call of Duty: Black Ops 4, which had a battle royale mode dubbed Blackout and no single-player campaign.
On top of that, the teams have had to finish Black Ops: Cold War during the pandemic, working in self-isolation. That made tasks such as voice acting and motion-capture particularly difficult. The task gets even harder when you throw in development for the next-gen consoles.
“Anytime that you have a shorter dev cycle, it’s going to be a different challenge,” Bunting said. “From a campaign point of view, [Raven] had a really passionate point of view on this. Their passion was contagious. It was like a love letter to Black Ops I. It really convinced us this was the right partnership. And in a shorter timeframe, if we partnered with someone like this, we saw we could combine forces to get it done. We had been doing a lot toward building tech for the next generation. That was the thing that sealed the deal. It was too important not to do.”
Fortunately, Activision Blizzard, the parent company of Activision and its Treyarch studio, wasn’t in financial straits. Gamers new and old alike are flocking to games like Call of Duty: Warzone during the pandemic. And Activision had plenty of resources from teams across Treyarch, Raven Software, and Beenox to get the work done in two years instead of the usual three. Last year’s Call of Duty: Modern Warfare got the series back on track with record sales. More than 75 million people have downloaded Warzone, and many of those have upgraded to the full Modern Warfare game.
Black Ops: Cold War’s roots started when Sledgehammer and Raven Software couldn’t agree on a direction for their project. But Treyarch and Raven came up with the backup plan that became this game. It will be a hat trick if gamers don’t notice that this was a project that was once in trouble and could have gone off the rails.
Perseus is real, right?
Raven proposed a direct sequel to Black Ops, with a story built around Perseus, who supposedly penetrated the security at the Los Alamos lab in New Mexico (the same place where U.S. atomic bomb secrets were stolen). While three spies were caught, a fourth was never found, as far as we know. This is supposedly Perseus. Some of the information around this spy was declassified in the last four or five years, said campaign lead writer Murray Kraft. If you want to dive into the background of Perseus on the internet, it’s a huge rabbit hole.
“When I was researching this game, I was shocked at some of the things that I was learning had actually happened,” said Kraft.
Evidence for the existence of a spy came from KGB archives that were opened in the 1990s, after the fall of the Soviet Union. But whether Perseus ever existed is a valid question. It appears that the biography of the real world Perseus, at least what is known about this spy, diverges from the details that are available from Activision about the Black Ops: Cold War’s plot.
Raven creative director Dan Vondrak said that “we dove into real documents, talked to real people that were working in high positions back then. And it’s like the conspiracy theories that you think are really crazy have more truth to them than you imagine.”
The Call of Duty teaser video starts out with an actual Soviet KGB defector: Yuri Bezmenov, who escaped to the West in 1970. He describes a slow process of undermining enemy governments through “active measures” across decades. It involves the support of a Big Brother government in the U.S. during crises, with crackdowns on protests, the undermining of the economy, demoralization, and destabilization.
“Raven shared a mood video that they had produced, along with a campaign prototype that established the look and feel of 1980s Cold War,” Bunting said. “It was a concept that impressed everyone who saw it. It was just too good an opportunity.”
Vondrak said that Raven has worked on every Call of Duty over the past decade and a variety of other games over the last 30 years.
“The 1980s Cold War really gives us everything we need to create a narrative with twists and turns and build a campaign with a mix of high action and covert operations that we knew would be uniquely Black Ops,” Vondrak said.
David Goyer, an Oscar-winning Hollywood screenwriter behind The Dark Knight and the original Black Ops, worked on the story with Treyarch staffers like Murray Craft, lead writer on the campaign. It brings back characters from the original Black Ops like Sergeant Frank Woods, CIA agent Alex Mason, and CIA agent Jason Hudson. And it adds new characters like Lazar Azoulay (Damon Dayoub) Helen Park (Lily Cowles), Lawrence Sims (Reggie Waters), and Adler (Bruce Thomas). He has a “dark charisma” that always commands a room. He also has some deep scars on his face.
As Adler sits in the room discussing Perseus, you can see that it’s eating away at him. Perseus, described as a Russian boogeyman, is someone who eluded Adler’s grasp, and that’s been a major embarrassment for the CIA. After 13 years of silence, Perseus has resurfaced, and that means something big is going down.
“Adler is the kind of guy that gets pulled in for most difficult assignments,” Craft said. “We jokingly refer to him internally as ‘America’s monster.’”
And since Adler is mysterious, some of his colleagues come to question his motivations. Is he loyal? Can he be trusted? What we appear to have is a global hunt for Perseus, someone who may or may not exist. Add to that the psychedelic drug episode of a level set in Vietnam, and you have reason to wonder whether this whole thing is real or not. Adler has to remember something critical about the Vietnam mission that could be key to catching Perseus.
Stealth or action?
Players can create a character for the Cold War campaign with all kinds of options: skin tone, gender, place of birth, and military background. The idea was to make sure the player could be who they wanted to be, Vondrak said. The player can also set up a psychological profile, such as whether the character is unstable or has violent tendencies.
I saw a few levels from different parts of Black Ops: Cold War that felt like typical Call of Duty gunplay. When the player fired at the enemy, the gun performance looked awesome, as the player took down one foe with the exact number of bullets they needed. You can tell a Call of Duty game with a single look, and this one was no different. The combat appears solid, even if the guns in those days aren’t quite as good as the weapons of Modern Warfare.
The game also has a variety of mission choices. Some are optional side quests in which you unlock important evidence about the conspiracy, while others are part of the main narrative. The timeline will go back-and-forth between the 1980s and the 1960s, with more than one mission set in the Vietnam War. You can experience multiple endings depending on the choices you make. This helps the player feel like they can shape the ending and that earlier decisions matter, Vondrak said. Most Call of Duty games don’t give you that much discretion.
One mission takes you to Vietnam in 1968, when Perseus attempts to steal an American-made nuclear bomb from a U.S. base. You can play it in multiple ways, resulting in different endings.
Cold War is full of music from the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, and it takes inspiration from films like Three Days of the Condor, The French Connection, Firefox, and even modern works like The Joker and the HBO television series Chernobyl, said Ryan Butts, the lead artist at Raven Software. Frank Woods, a soldier from the first Black Ops who comes back in this sequel, may serve as the player soldier in combat scenes, while Adler would be undercover. But in many cases, the lines blurred between their roles.
“We knew the player would spend as much time undercover as they would with the louder, combat-heavier character models,” Butts said.
With next-generation consoles, the game will play at 4K resolution and refresh rates at 120hz. Cold War will use haptic controllers. The solid-state drives (SSDs) with flash memory in the new consoles will have faster load times, and that means that the loading screens will be gone, with seamless transitions between cinematics and gameplay.
“We want to make sure that the framerate is responsive, and that it feels like there’s nothing on the technical side preventing you from having a good time,” Bunting said.
The game will feature a global illumination system that makes use of real-time ray tracing. That means the lighting and shadows will be accurate, with rays of light bouncing around a scene in a realistic manner. You’ll see the effects of this in things like Woods’ pickup truck (with the fictional brand name Bannerocks), which has a run-down look that feels like it’s from another era. You see duct tape, cracked vinyl, and a CB radio in the interior.
“With the power of the next-gen systems, we’ll be able to add even more detail and put even more love into everything we create,” said Katie Sabin, a vehicle artist at Raven Software.
Lighting director Alberto Noti of Raven said that the team aimed for greater photorealism than ever before. It captured imagery of assets from the 1980s. And they would use the capabilities of the next-generation consoles to display the imagery with HDR, 4K, and wide color gamuts. The Soviet world was gray, but the team injected pink, purple, red, and other primary colors to change up the visuals in different scenes. The aim was to create a 1980s look and feel in places like an arcade or a bar.
Was Noti blowing smoke? I couldn’t tell, because I was watching a video presentation, and I didn’t get to see the game in the same room with the developers. But Call of Duty has never been a disappointment with its visuals.
The game will also have improved 3D audio, so it’s easier to figure out where the sound is coming from in a 3D environment, said David Vonderhaar of Treyarch. That means it’s taking advantage of advances in audio tech for the next-gen consoles.
“We couldn’t be happier how this new adventure for the next generation expands the universe,” Bunting said.
I would like to play and see more of the game soon. This one looks like it could make a lot of Black Ops fans happy.