Games

Ronald Reagan Would Love 'Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War'

The fifth installment in the paranoid 'Black Ops' franchise is sound, fury, and Reagan worship that amounts to nothing much at all.
November 20, 2020, 6:25pm
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Image: Activision

Call of Duty Black Ops Cold War opens with footage of President Ronald Reagan’s inaugural address delivered over footage of the 1980s. Punks rock out. Athletes compete in the Olympic games. Missiles roll through Red Square. “We must realize that no arsenal or no weapon in the arsenals of the world is so formidable as the will and moral courage of free men and women,” Reagan said. “It is a weapon our adversaries in today's world do not have. It is a weapon that we as Americans do have. Let that be understood by those who practice terrorism and prey upon their neighbors."

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Less than an hour later, Reagan himself sends me on a mission,, using my will and moral courage to dangle an Iranian citizen off a roof in Amsterdam. “You Americans have rules!” the Iranian citizen protests after a CIA spook named Adler tosses one of his buddies off the roof. “You have rules!”

“You took hostages,” Adler said. “The rules changed.”

During the encounter, Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War gives me multiple opportunities to throw my opponent off the roof. If I deny this base impulse multiple times, I can capture him and take him into custody. If I try to let him go, Adler will chastise me and shoot the man in the head. The message is clear—this is Reagan’s America. The rules have changed. The United States isn’t going to be pushed around anymore like the gentle peanut farmer who led the country previously.

Cold War is the 17th installment in the long running franchise and the fifth Black Ops game. Its campaign is a paranoid romp through ideas borrowed from movies and video games that used them better. It’s a tribute to American exceptionalism that lionizes the CIA and makes the bold claim that “extremism in the pursuit of liberty is no vice.”

Ronald Reagan would have loved it.

Reagan is the perfect father figure for a Call of Duty game, the perfect President to launch the Black Ops team into the fray. Large parts of America still think of Reagan as a morally upright man who gave the country its dignity back after the cultural upheaval of the 1960s and 70s. According to the myths, he won the Cold War and told America it could be good, that it could be better, and that it deserved its place in history "a shining city on a hill."

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But that is not the truth. The 1980s ushered in an era of deregulation and rightward drift in American politics that changed the country. People suffered. Reagan’s handling of the Air Traffic Controller strike was a death blow to organized labor, his tax plans hypercharged income inequality, and his handling of the AIDS crisis killed hundreds of thousands. 

But Reagan looked good on camera and he made certain kinds of Americans feel good about the country. Parts of this country will always worship Reagan, despite the reality of his actions, and think of him as a president who always made the right decisions. .

And that’s the politics of power in Call of Duty all over. Even the games that flirt with telling complicated narratives of war break down when examined. America is always the good guy and it’s always beset by Russians, Latin American dictators, and unspecified Middle Easterners. There is right and wrong, and the U.S. is always on the right side. Sometimes, in order for good men and women to live free, bad men have to step up and do bad things to bad people.

Cold War epitomizes that thinking. Reagan sends the Black Ops team to solve the Iran hostage crisis, a full 20 days before he’s inaugurated and actually becomes President. In reality, the Iran hostage crisis was a complicated mess. The Iranians were unorganized student radicals who almost took over a Soviet embassy instead. In Cold War, the hostage crisis is a Soviet backed plot to fuck with America. A few bullets solves the problem.

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The politics of Call of Duty and its Black Ops franchise in particular have always been vile, but the gameplay has rarely been this dull. The campaign is slight—a dedicated fan can finish it in four hours—and feels tacked on. There is a sense that Call of Duty is going through the motions. The old shocks that Call of Duty once delivered, think No Russian, no longer hit the same way. Cold War has many flaws, but it’s biggest sin is also the most unforgivable. It’s boring.

To complain about the gameplay in a Call of Duty campaign feels quaint. It’s a franchise that’s been about big Michael Bay-style action set piece shooting galleries for so long that it’s hard to take them seriously. In Cold War, like every other Call of Duty, I moved through a series of set piece missions pointing the targeting reticle at the bad guys and making them fall down.

Coming a year after the stellar success of Modern Warfare and running on a different engine, Cold War is shockingly dull. Modern Warfare’s story was terrible and it’s politics a reactionary nightmare. But Modern Warfare was fun to play and it looked good. On the ahistorically placed Highway of Death Mission, I wielded a sniper rifle and parted limbs from bodies as my enemies attempted to scale a hill and kill me. In Cold War, I watched a Cuban soldier trigger a landmine which flung his body with a ragdoll effect that feels 10 years old. The violence in Cold War often feels PG-13. More like the remake of Red Dawn than the 1984 original.

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The game has two interesting missions. The first is its Lubyanka mission, which opens with an American double agent working for Russian intelligence and attempting to navigate Soviet bureaucracy without getting caught. There’s multiple objectives, a bizarre rendition of Gorbachev, and some light stealth. The break from chaos is over quickly, however, and the Lubyanka mission ends in an explosion of bullets and blood. Just like any other Call of Duty mission.

It’s second interesting mission is its last, when it’s revealed that Bell—one of the operatives you’ve played as during the game—is a Soviet agent reprogrammed by the CIA. The phantasmagoric journey into Bell’s psyche as Adler and the Black Ops team try to recover critical intel that will help them stop a nuclear disaster is the most interesting Cold War ever gets. 

But even here, Cold War is a patchwork of ideas better executed in other games and movies. It’s like The Stanley Parable, Jacob’s Ladder, Bioshock, and Call of Duty Black Ops III all mixed together with a soundtrack from the Vietnam War.

For all its flaws, at least 2019's Modern Warfare had the aura of danger. It felt like a team had a discussion about what it means to make another Modern Warfare game after more than a decade of never-ending wars, and come up with something that's new without breaking what is still a very rigid formula. Cold War, by contrast, feels like it's ordering readymade sequences from a menu of Call of Duty clichés. It has a level where you grotesquely fire missile after missile into villages in Vietnam. It has a level where you snipe at the unsuspecting heads of Russian soldiers in an abandoned, frozen military outpost. It has all the things you've done before, only when you complete the mission now Reagan will pat you on the head and tell you you're doing a good job. 

Writing seriously about Cold War’s depiction of Reagan, its nuclear politics, and all the various ways it fucks with history feels like over analyzing a child’s cartoon. After 16 years of what is, at its base, the same game remixed and reserved over and over, that’s what Call of Duty feels like to me. It’s an innocuous cartoon view of history, one that feels increasingly boring and irrelevant.