Call of Duty Black Ops Cold War Campaign Preview – CIA Spooks and Redacted Secrecy

Coming November 13, Call of Duty Black Ops Cold War is a return to Treyarch’s Black Ops roots. Not a complete reboot of the Black Ops franchise in the same way 2019’s Modern Warfare reset the canon, Black Ops Cold War being billed as a direct sequel to the original Black Ops. Set (mostly) in 1981, its narrative falls in the large gap between Black Ops and Black Ops II. It sees the return of beloved characters like Alex Mason, Frank Woods, and Jason Hudson, while adding a few new faces to the mix, including the enigmatic Russell Adler, a CIA black box with a kind of dark charisma that will most certainly become a new favorite. Whether he turns out to be hero, villain, or someone that falls in that dark area in between remains to be seen.

Developers Treyarch and Raven sat down with us (via remote presentation) to offer a first look at the upcoming game. First, the elephant in the room. Yes, the Cold War is not traditionally the war you’d think of when it comes to Call of Duty’s explosive battlefields that present an interactive theater of combat. By definition, the Cold War was not fought in the public eye or on a strictly defined battlefield. But Black Ops games have always been about reading between the headlines, the conspiracy, and the propaganda. By definition they are about off-book black ops. So what happened during Cold War that the public wasn’t aware of? The secret missions, the espionage, and the paranoia of double agents and “spies next door.”

Call of Duty Black Ops Cold War Campaign Preview – [Classified]

For Black Ops Cold War, you won’t be playing as Mason, Hudson, or in fact any of the main characters from the franchise. Players will create their own character, entering data in a “classified” intel file. You can name your character, select their gender, military background, country of origin, etc. It seems that some of these options will impact gameplay in some way, as quick video of the character creation process showed certain bonuses when selecting options under the “Psychological Profile” section. Players can also choose to keep any of the fields Classified, which in the case of gender will change all dialogue in the game to gender-neutral terms regarding the player character.

Call of Duty Black Ops cold War campaign preview

-A new character, quintessentially ’80s CIA spook Russell Adler is a black box of dark charisma.-

The player character will not speak, despite playing a role in the story. The goal here was to never speak for the player, letting the player’s voice be the voice of the character. I personally don’t like voiceless “grey box” protagonists over more defined characters, as they seem to be more passive participants than actively engaged in the story—like a theme park ride. I feel that’s it’s very hard for the “player’s voice” to actually meaningfully interact with the other characters in a way that feels engaging, despite the philosophical choice in wanting the player to take on that role. I am rather curious at the choice to do a player-created character, however, as Treyarch never makes decisions like this lightly. I’m certain it plays a large role in the “mindfuckery” that is to come, so I’m willing to see this one out and let them try to sell me on the grey box protagonist idea. It’s certainly not a deal-breaker, just a personal preference.

Black Ops Cold War is deviating from the typical Call of Duty formula by offering plenty of optional objectives, semi-open mission design with mutliple paths, and optional side missions that unlock as you discover intel regarding them. Players will make choices at various points throughout the game which will play into the multiple endings you can get. The exact scope of these decisions and endings aren’t clear just yet, but Treyarch and Raven said it’s enough that players will feel the impact on the world as they shape their own experience and ending. You’ll be well-aware how your decisions are affecting things. They stopped short of citing just how many ending variations were possible.

To concoct a narrative thread that ran back through the original Black Ops, the team recruited David S. Goyer to return and consult on the story. Yes, the same David S. Goyer that wrote the Blade and Dark Knight trilogies, Batman v. Superman, and numerous TV series. He wrote the first two Black Ops games, and returns for this mid-quel set between the two, so you can bet the overall feel is more dark conspiracy and less near-future wallrunning and jetpacks. Players are chasing down a mysterious figure known only as Perseus, a codename pulled directly from actual Cold War-era documentation. Everything is rooted in truth, but there will be a lot of reading between the lines.

Call of Duty Black Ops cold War campaign preview

-Deniable operations will take you deep inside enemy territory.-

While set mostly in the early 1980s, portions of the game will flash back to the Vietnam War in 1968. We were shown brief segments of these psychedelic levels, and the flashback mechanic allows Black Ops Cold War to do some really trippy things otherwise impossible in a more straightforward military shooter. Enormous bunker doors falling from the sky while a formless voice booms from the sky? Replayability with the level changing as you learn and discover new things?  Treyarch and Raven used recently declassified documents around the Vietnam War to add even more flavor and mystery to this part of the story. They said it “really messes with your head” and was designed to be unexpected, making the player question what’s real and what’s not.

We also got a look at two additional levels. One was the infiltration of a Spetsnaz training course decked out like a suburban Anywhere, USA, quickly going from stealthy to explosive action, and all set to Pat Benatar’s quintessentially ’80s hit, “Hit Me With Your Best Shot.” The second was a mission in the KGB headquarters as an undercover agent, a level that showcased the open mission design that lets players tackle the objectives how and when they want to. This mission implements a new map mechanic to navigate the level. The video then split into four parts labeled Steal, Poison, Bribe, and Blackmail, showing different gameplay for each one.

Call of Duty Black Ops cold War campaign preview

-It’s not all clandestine espionage. Expect vehicle portions and explosive action set pieces.-

It’s a decidedly different approach to Call of Duty—while the series has had its fair share of undercover and stealth-oriented levels, never has that aspect been a large focus. You’ll spend just as much time as undercover characters as you will in open combat, with the visual language of the character’s outfits communicating what type of mission you’re about to embark on. Now, that’s not to say they aren’t huge fights and ridiculous action setpieces. One of the missions ended with a more-or-less on-rails, bullet-riddled, and explosive car chase sequence, because how else are you supposed to escape Soviet agents who have made you?

Call of Duty Black Ops Cold War Campaign Preview – Know Your History

To say there was a certain amount of trepidation surrounding Call of Duty 2020 would be an understatement. Reports last year—which turned out to be true—put Sledgehammer Games on the back burner for the time being, bumping Treyarch up in line to put out another Call of Duty just two years after Black Ops 4. I can only surmise as to the reasons for this shift, but from where I’m standing I see next-gen consoles on the horizon and the free-to-play Warzone integration to support, two enormous initiatives that Activision certainly doesn’t want to fumble on. There are then two things to consider: 1) Infinity Ward’s Call of Duty Ghosts was the 2013 cross-gen title and relatively wasn’t received as well as other Call of Duty games, and 2) Sledgehammer is relatively “new” to the Call of Duty development lineup, and doesn’t yet have an established sub-franchise (like Modern Warfare and Black Ops are).

So how to conquer the awkward cross-gen transition, the first Call of Duty game on next-gen consoles, and support the massive new undertaking that is evolving Warzone support from Modern Warfare to the next game? A return to the familiar and the beloved. Again, I can only speculate as to the reason Sledgehammer’s next game was pushed back, with their last one now being 2017’s WWII, but Treyarch’s Dan Bunting said they were excited about the opportunity to develop the first Call of Duty game for a brand new console when asked about the shortened development cycle, which makes it seem like that was a factor that played into it. And the “shortened” development time wasn’t an issue because Raven had already been hard at work prototyping Cold War and setting the stage.

Call of Duty Black Ops cold War campaign preview

-Vietnam War-era missions are key to understanding the mystery, and offer some trippy and weird gameplay to screw with your mind.-

One word I’ve consistently heard used at Treyarch since visiting for the Black Ops III reveal back in 2015 is “mindfuckery,” and sure enough, it came up once again in our campaign preview for Black Ops Cold War. This time, however, it was a dev from Raven Software who said it. Raven’s Call of Duty experience is monumental, having worked in some capacity on every Call of Duty game in the last decade. With this newest entry focused on deniable operations, paranoia, and “mindfuckery,” Raven is stepping out of the shadows as a support studio and taking co-billing with Treyarch. In fact, the entire idea stemmed from a concept mood video and story concept Raven presented to Treyarch about what a direct sequel to Black Ops could be. You’ve actually seen a little bit of that publicly in the form of the Call of Duty Black Ops Cold War ARG teaser trailer.

In order to capture the mood of the era, they didn’t want to simply add vintage color filters or visual post-processing. They wanted it to feel like the ’80s at its core. Every character’s fashion, as well as other items spread throughout the game, are wholly representative of the period. Black Ops Cold War uses the same photogrammetry technology that Modern Warfare used, and Treyarch said its offices ended up smelling like a musty vintage goods shop by the time they were done collecting items to be scanned. It’s mood through authenticity so it doesn’t feel manufactured. Watching a scene of series mainstays Woods, Hudson, and Mason in a clandestine meeting—a dark boardroom with new CIA spook Russell Adler and President Ronald Reagan—highlighted this approach, as well as showcasing the depth in the performances coming from the actors.

Call of Duty Black Ops cold War campaign preview

-Just who is Russell Adler? Can he be trusted, and even if he can’t, do you have any choice?-

In fact, the scope of the actors’ performances is incredible, given that much of the recording was done post-pandemic lockdowns being initiated and the studios beginning to work from home. Home studio kits were sent to the actors, including full at-home acoustic treatments to help get a professional quality tracking. Body, voice, and face each got recorded separately. Yes, that means these actors were doing mo-cap from home. It also allowed the studio to recruit more native-speaking talent for characters, as they weren’t required to come into the studio in LA to read lines.

Both Treyarch and Raven left us with a lot of mystery regarding the game’s story, at one point even having to pause to make sure he didn’t accidentally reveal the names of the mission we were being shown. Black Ops games have usually been replete with twists and “WTF” moments that change our perception of things, and it looks like this one is no different. Small details could be gleaned from additional trailer shots, including the return of the RC-XD car, but they are playing this one notriously close to the chest for now. All of the footage we saw was labeled as “Captured on PS5.”

Call of Duty Black Ops cold War campaign preview

-Treyarch’s lighting engine went through a massive overhaul.-

Limited information regarding anything outside the campaign is available. It was confirmed that Black Ops Cold War will have cross-generation play, will integrate with Warzone, and that Treyarch’s infamous Zombies mode will be back. The Battle Pass system from Modern Warfare/Warzone returns, as well as cross-progression and free post-launch content to keep the player base together. More information on multiplayer, Zombies, and the Warzone integration will be forthcoming at a later date. Specifically, Activision announced a worldwide first-look multiplayer reveal to come September 9th.

Call of Duty Black Ops Cold War releases on November 13 for PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X, and PC, with the next-gen versions specifically coming whenever those consoles are available.

Activision invited us to a digital preview event to get early eyes on the Call of Duty Black Ops Cold War campaign.