When an August trailer revealed that the 40th president of the United States of America, Ronald Wilson Reagan, would be playing a role in the new Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War, I resolved to make my first foray into the popular first-person shooter franchise. While I had occasionally played Call of Duty (CoD) at friends’ houses growing up and completed the campaign of the much-venerated Modern Warfare 2 many years after its release, I had never before purchased a CoD game. The Gipper’s rousing speech to the CIA special-operations task force you join in the single-player campaign was more than enough to spur me to remedy that.
WARNING: Spoilers ahead
“Gentleman, you’ve been given a great task: protecting our very way of life from a great evil,” Reagan begins. “There is no higher duty, there is no higher honor, and while few people will know of your struggles, rest assured the entire free world will benefit. I know you won’t fail us,” he ends. Some reacted to the trailer by asserting that Reagan would send players “to do war crimes” in Cold War. For my part, there’s almost no limit to the amount of money I would have spent to attain the high honor he spoke of. Fortunately, it cost me only $60.
If you’ve forked over the cash for the reasons I did, you receive immediate gratification — that is, after the twelve hours it takes for the game to finish downloading — when the campaign begins by showing footage of Reagan at his 1980 inauguration. Moreover, the first two missions are preempted by a vengeful new commander in chief explaining to your task force’s supervisor that after the horror of the Iranian hostage crisis, “it’s time to send a message” to those who would do Americans harm. Some might call it fan service. I call it giving the people what they want.
Those first missions see CoD mainstays such as Alex Mason — whom you play as — and Frank Woods, led by charismatic, Aviator-clad newcomer Russell Adler, tracking down two Iranian operatives known to have participated in the hostage crisis. Interrogation of those two operatives leads Adler and his team to believe that a Russian agent with a history of stealing American nuclear secrets and material known as Perseus is once again up to no good. It’s this information that triggers Reagan’s stirring speech and signals the beginning of a new phase of the game in which you play as a new character whose background, personality traits, and name you can customize, even though you will be referred to by the rest of the team only as “Bell.”
Most of the rest of the campaign sees the team running around the Eastern Bloc — Berlin, Ukraine, even the Lubyanka Building, which served as KGB headquarters in Moscow — wreaking havoc and killing Communists everywhere you go. The exception to this rule is a flashback to Vietnam during which Bell and Adler gather intelligence on Perseus, lay waste to VC emerging through tree lines, and hop in a helicopter to provide air support for pinned-down U.S. forces. Nowhere in the campaign are you asked to fire on innocents or otherwise “do war crimes.”
After a failed attempt to bring Perseus to justice just before your last mission, it is revealed that back when you were given the impression that you were customizing Bell, you were really choosing how best to condition him. Instead of a longtime CIA contractor, the primary player-controlled character in Cold War is a minion of Perseus, betrayed by one of the Iranian operatives you hunted down as Mason earlier in the game. To Bell’s fortune or perhaps misfortune, he was rescued by Adler’s team only to be enrolled in the CIA’s MK-Ultra program. Bell never fought Charlie in Vietnam or willingly joined up with Adler’s task force, but his memories were reconstructed so that he believes he did, bonding him to Adler and instilling in him a belief in his team’s mission.
The problem with this plot twist is that it’s supposed to set up a dilemma for the players: Do you stop Perseus or take revenge on Adler and Uncle Sam for what they’ve put you through? It’s no choice at all though. Even though you spend the campaign playing as Bell, he is, quite literally, a voiceless, faceless gun. Cold War spends far more time endearing Adler, the scarred, “I wear my sunglasses at night” Vietnam vet to players than it does Bell. And besides that, there wasn’t a cold chance in hell that I was about to fall short of the Gipper’s high expectations. Sure, what Adler did to Bell was monstrous. But as Adler so often reminds you throughout the campaign, he has a job to do (this doubles as Bell’s trigger phrase — one that keeps him in line). So long as you understand that it is a Reaganesque belief in America’s righteousness, personified by Adler — not Bell — who serves as the game’s protagonist, you’ll find the campaign immensely satisfying.
In a shrill review of Cold War for the Daily Beast, Alec Kubas-Meyer writes that “Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War Is a Reagan-Worshipping Right-Wing Fever Dream.” For a culture so dominated by the Left that people such as Kubas-Meyer, who have no qualms in outright lying to their readers about the game even after completing it — he says Reagan grants Adler’s team “blanket license to massacre” — a Reagan-worshipping right-wing fever dream is just what the doctor ordered. A stellar soundtrack and cameos from an inquisitive but sure-footed James Baker and a rebuked-by-Reagan Al Haig complete the dream.
Unlike Vice, the derisive Dick Cheney biopic that many conservatives nevertheless embraced as 2019’s best superhero film, Cold War readily affirms a pro-American worldview. For that, its stunning graphics, and its well-constructed plot — to say nothing of the multiplayer and zombies modes that players have the option of utilizing — the newest installment of CoD is well worth the investments of time and capital. So get to work. You have a job to do.