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The latest Call of Duty release, set during the early 1980s Cold War, pushes a heavy nostalgic patriotism that some may find uncomfortable. Photo: Activision/DPA

ReviewReview – Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War takes US patriotism to a whole new uncomfortable level

  • The latest instalment in the war game franchise looks at the Cold War with its usual excessive pro-US stance
  • Even as it tries to show the US as flawed and its military as arrogant, the game still pushes the patriotism
Video gaming

The United States of America: Boy, we sure are exhausting.

This was the conclusion I reached after finishing the single-player campaign in the latest Call of Duty, a realisation that I don’t believe was entirely unintentional.

These are games designed by global teams of hundreds of people, crafted largely as multiplayer powerhouses that generate money long after the initial sale. But the modern single-player Call of Duty campaigns are full of narrative tension that speaks to those the game publisher believes are its intended players.

Contradictions are present in the latest instalment. The franchise can’t break free from its pro-America stance, and the latest, a game set amid the stress of the early 1980s Cold War, frames Ronald Reagan as a movie-star hero who viewed the presidency as the role of a lifetime. And yet the game also wants to show America as flawed and its military as arrogant.

Can it do both? Sure, but not without sacrifices.

Late in the game, an American agent declares that sometimes military organisations have to cross a line to ensure “the line’s still there in the morning”. Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War wants to walk a line itself, nodding equally to a heavily complex narrative and large-scale, arcade-like action sequences.

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In other words, it wants to present fun, but it also wants to impart a bit of the guilt that all video games with guns must possess – the underlying wink that, yes, we all feel at least slightly bad about the US$70 thing we are giving you. I mean, there’s no way to feel good about the game’s opening scene, in which Iranians exist solely to absorb bullets, but I want to believe it’s there to argue against the thesis of the game’s hard-nosed American agent.


It’s a fallacy, after all, to believe a line can be held if it’s crossed. Black Ops Cold War doesn’t hold it – ultimately it lands on the side that favours patriotism above all else, even if it appears to be holding its nose as it does so.

At about two decades into the Call of Duty brand, the Activision-owned franchise certainly knows its audience. Maybe that’s why I flinched the few times Black Ops Cold War tried to bring me into its fold, to argue that, “Hey, it’s pretty and nice in here. Stay!”

The Call of Duty franchise seems unable to break free from its pro-America stance. Photo: Activision/DPA

I never had a bad time with the game, and I enjoyed the missions that had me infiltrating a KGB stronghold, which provided a little exploration and attempts at puzzle solving. But the single-player narrative of Black Ops Cold War didn’t seem entirely confident in itself.

This is a game, ultimately, about nostalgia, of looking back on a time when it was falsely believed that everyone felt a patriotic love for their country.

Narrative is delivered mostly in voice-overs, as we jump from taking on Iranian terrorists to chasing a mobster around an East Berlin checkpoint to infiltrating abandoned Russian military bases in mountain cities and even dipping into Cuba, where our CIA agents fantasise about taking out Fidel Castro, all in an effort to track down Perseus.

He’s a threat because he has the power to obliterate Europe, thanks to him uncovering nuclear weapons that the United States hid in the name, supposedly, of self-defence.

We, that is America, being the imperfect good guy, is a key touchstone of the “Black Ops” line of Call of Duty, which is generally one of the more realistic, true-life-inspired games in the franchise. But as the game keeps twisting around on itself, ultimately revealing a plotline revolving around the Central Intelligence Agency’s Project MK-Ultra, a covert and illegal operation of extreme mind control, the game is testing our patience not to abandon our fellow agents and side with the Soviet Union.

Black Ops Cold War dares us, then, in its final moments to switch sides and bring the Western World to a crumble. As tired as I was at this point of hearing Reagan tell us that America’s greatest weapon is its freedom, this felt, even for a video game in which I had personally murdered thousands of people, somewhat reckless and absurd.

Here was a not so subtle statement, one framed as a revenge plot, that a rejection of a blind-faith belief in all things America, even its war crimes, would ultimately destroy it and result in a future even more hellish than we can imagine.


No, I don’t think the developers of Black Ops Cold War believe that. I think they were after something more nuanced, hoping to show how the strands of the Cold War have permeated the world of 2020 and led to the wannabe internet sleuths and dangerous paramilitary civilians who do things like respond to the current president’s calls to “liberate” Michigan.

Maybe – heaven forbid – that audience will eat this up, but what I found was a story that simply wanted to take a nap, a war game worn out with the very nationalism of the country it’s forced, year after year, to cheerlead.