Every Friday, A.V. Club staffers kick off our weekly open thread for the discussion of gaming plans and recent gaming glories, but of course, the real action is down in the comments, where we invite you to answer our eternal question: What Are You Playing This Weekend?
The single-player campaigns in the Black Ops sub-series of Call Of Duty games are almost always defined by their narrative gimmicks. The first game in the series took place in the ’60s and was about an American soldier named Mason who had been captured by the Soviet Union and brainwashed, with some late-game twists establishing that Mason hadn’t been an entirely reliable narrator during your time in his head. It wasn’t the most clever plot in the history of plots, but as far as video games go—especially the traditionally straightforward Call Of Duty series—it made a nice impact.
Black Ops Cold War, the latest game in the Call Of Duty series, and a semi-sequel/reboot of the Black Ops series set in the ’80s, essentially pulls the same trick. Near the end of the game you find out that your player character isn’t who they think they are, but the developers—led by the Black Ops creators at Treyarch, but consisting of a half-dozen other Activision-backed studios—don’t just repeat a cool trick that worked the first time around. They repeat cool tricks that were done better in other games, too.
Chronologically, the first time you’ll feel the twinge of familiarity is in a mission where you play as a Soviet double-agent trying to sneak the main protagonists into the KGB headquarters. To do this, you must procure a one-of-a-kind key in the possession of a Soviet general, but to do that, you have some options: You can, for instance, plant evidence to frame him as a mole. That requires getting and faking the evidence, though, which means going through areas you’re not allowed to be in. Luckily, you can sneak around and knock out patrolling guards, stuffing their bodies in conveniently placed lockers so other guards don’t find them. Once you’ve done that and procured the key, you deliver a couple of uniforms to your American buddies so they can then sneak through the base after you.
If stuffing people into lockers and swapping outfits to avoid detection wasn’t a clear-enough clue, the whole thing is extremely Hitman. It’s not the playground of wacky murder that IO Interactive’s excellent series has become, but it’s close enough that you’d almost expect to see a tall bald guy skulking around, dropping suspiciously ominous double entendres about killing people while everyone conveniently ignores him. For big Call Of Duty fans, the level also features a surprise cameo from Modern Warfare villain Imran Zakhaev, making this one of the few times ever that one Call Of Duty sub-series has explicitly acknowledged another Call Of Duty sub-series. It’s a more overt version of the apparent Hitman nod, with Cold War essentially saying, “Look! It’s like the thing you like! Now you should also like us!”
Cold War more or less resists the temptation to pull something like this again until the end of the game, when your character—code-named Bell, though you can pick some other details about them—undergoes a surprise psychological torture thing from Adler, your distractingly Robert Redford-esque boss. After he injects you with something, the game jumps to a Vietnam flashback set shortly after when you first met Adler on his quest to capture a notorious KGB spy called Perseus (as established in an earlier flashback).
The sequence starts with you waking up after a helicopter crash, surrounded by enemy soldiers, and Adler’s narration of your memory (an early red flag) says something to the effect of “The first thing you did was pick up an M16.” You don’t have to pick up an M16, though, and that’s when the cracks appear. You can follow Adler’s voice, ignoring the fact that it’s more of a command than a commentary, and move straight through the story. Or, when presented with a fork in the road and the voice in your head saying, “You went right,” you can go left. When the voice says, “Go into the cave,” you can do everything in your power to avoid the cave. Reality begins to shift to draw you to the cave. Adler becomes more and more frustrated. You eventually end up in a secret bunker with a hallway that loops back in on itself until you give in and open a door that Adler wants you to open.
To cut to the chase, it’s a whole lot like The Stanley Parable, Davey Wreden and William Pugh’s brilliant indie game about an office worker going about a relatively normal day—at least until you ignore the narrator’s insistence that it’s a normal day and go the wrong way at a fork in the road, like Cold War. The Stanley Parable doesn’t own that gimmick, but it was one of the first video games to do it very, very well. The looping hallway in Cold War is also a trick that’s been done before, most famously in horror game/demo P.T., though there’s no ghost chasing you here. There’s nothing wrong with Cold War paying homage to other games, intentionally or otherwise, but it’s bizarre for this game to build its entire series-mandated twist on multiple things that have famously been done before rather than coming up with an angle of its own.
To make things worse, that’s not even where the familiarity ends. The looping hallway concludes with a reveal that your character is actually a KGB spy who was kidnapped and brainwashed by the CIA, with Adler planting a trigger phrase (“We’ve got a job to do”) in your memories to cover up the changes he’s made to your personality. Then, to hammer it home, the game quickly flashes through moments in the game where Adler said the phrase just before a mission, making it clear that everything you did was because he made you do it. The trigger phrase is different, but the plot point and the way it’s underlined is straight out of BioShock—with its “would you kindly?” reveal possibly being one of the most famous video game twists ever that doesn’t involve cake being a lie.
Really, it’s almost a shock that there isn’t a nod to that Portal scene in Cold War, if only because it would’ve been so absurd that it might have been an indication that the developers knew what they were doing with all of these obvious nods to other games. Instead, it just feels like a cheap attempt to make a new thing by mashing together some old things, like a highlight reel of fond memories rather than something wholly new and exciting—which could be said for a whole lot of Cold War, unfortunately.