It takes more than a global pandemic to derail the annual Call of Duty roller coaster.
Yes, Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War came together amidst the unusual circumstances of 2020. There were remote mocap and voiceover sessions with boxes of gear dispatched to performers’ homes, a fully remote (and still ongoing) final sprint to completing the game, and creative problem-solving all around.
Activision let the details fly in a private briefing held the week before the official Aug. 26 reveal from Treyarch and Raven Software, the two studios tasked with building 2020’s Call of Duty game. This early look served to showcase how one of the industry’s most conventional games came together against the backdrop of a uniquely unconventional year.
Building a game on this scale is a multi-year process and so some of Cold War‘s biggest pieces were already in place before COVID-19 locked everyone into their homes. But work had only just begun on casting background and supporting characters at the time the lockdowns reached the United States.
All of a sudden, multi-million dollar performance capture studios had to be replaced with home recording kits. Voice and physical performance were captured separately. The actors themselves no longer needed to be in (or travel to) Los Angeles.
One producer pointed out during the reveal that this unintended loosening of typical production requirements opened the door to having more “native speaking talent” in the cast. Though I’m not sure that’s really something to be proud of? It shouldn’t take a global pandemic for one of the biggest games in the world to cast native speaking talent in native speaking roles.
I don’t want to paint an inaccurate picture here. Activision’s first look at Black Ops Cold War offered a promising picture of the latest Call of Duty. And maybe the point about diversity was simply a case of unclear writing in the reveal script. But it’s still worth noting before we dive into the specifics.
The story in Black Ops Cold War is billed as a direct sequel to 2010’s Black Ops. After skipping campaign mode in Black Ops IIII (2018), Treyarch and Raven are bringing back Frank Woods, Alex Mason, and Jason Hudson for what sounds in the opening pitch like Call of Duty’s spin on a 1980s spy thriller.
The Black Ops gang gets back together in Cold War to hunt down a Soviet spy, codenamed Perseus. That’s not an idea manufactured specifically for the game, mind you. Perseus is a shadowy figure of modern myth who, it is believed, infiltrated a number of secure U.S. locations, including the Manhattan Project.
There are suspicions in the real world that “Perseus” is a work of disinformation, but the introduction to Cold War suggests otherwise. This mysterious spy is a real person, and there’s enough evidence in fictional 1981 to stage an operation designed to hunt that person down.
Woods, Mason, and Hudson appear to be central characters in the game, but they’re not who you’re in control of. Instead, Black Ops Cold War kicks off with you creating your own soldier. You name them, you assign them a gender identity (and yes, gender-neutral is an option), pick a skin tone, place of birth, and military background.
There’s even a psychological profile to be filled out, along with bits and pieces that you can choose to un-redact. It’s not clear how or if any of these choices impact your character’s presence in the story, but you’d certainly expect to see a difference in temperament between someone who’s “reliable and loyal” versus someone who’s “unstable and prone to violence” in the real world.
The hunt for Perseus isn’t only confined to the early ’80s. At least some portion of the story also unfolds in the Vietnam of 1968, though the details are hazy. One piece of Activision’s presentation introduced the idea that Perseus orchestrated an unsuccessful attempt to steal a nuclear weapon from a U.S. firebase in the war zone.
A few clips of in-game footage from the Vietnam setting highlight what you’d more typically expect from a Call of Duty game: A big, expansive battlefield that’s alive with soldier movements and open combat. But there’s some trippier stuff as well, hearkening back to the earlier Black Ops stories. At one point during the demo, structures suddenly materialize in the midst of Vietnam’s jungle setting as a developer-scripted narration suggests we’re looking at a gamified exploration of your character’s memories.
Of course, that shouldn’t be much of a surprise to fans of the Black Ops line of games. Treyarch has a history of injecting its Call of Duty campaigns with mind-bending moments. In fact, that turns out to be a key piece of the plot in the first Black Ops game.
One thing that did stand out in Activision’s first look at Cold War is a step away from the open combat-focused nature of most Call of Duty games. It remains to be seen just how much the pace splits up in the finished release, but to hear Treyarch and Raven describe it there’s a big focus in this new game on breaking up the overt action with more covert ops.
Is there more mission time spent on covert ops than we’ve seen in the past?
One example highlighted a mission in which you infiltrate the headquarters of Russia’s intelligence agency, the KGB, in disguise. The objective of that mission isn’t clear at this point, but the mission itself offers multiple approaches to achieving that objective: In one brief clip, we saw how you can, alternatively, steal, bribe, blackmail, or poison your way to success.
Another example, a mission set in the U.S.S.R.-era Ukraine, sends you off to infiltrate “a mysterious Soviet structure” that looks like a massive pyramid with the top third cut off. The inside features some kind of mannequin-filled training area that’s built to recreate what one of your team members calls “Anytown, U.S.A.” The Ukraine mission looks like more of a stealth/action mix, as you quietly work your way inside and then fight your way out.
For long time Call of Duty fans, none of this is especially new. Trippy mission environments, stealth sequences, and even the kind of “social stealth” gameplay hinted at in the KGB mission have all popped up in some form or another in past games. The question, then, is how it’s all balanced: Is there more mission time spent on covert ops than we’ve seen in the past? The suggestion is yes, but it’ll take the final game to tell the whole story.
That’s not to say Black Ops Cold War doesn’t try anything new. Clips from the KGB mission hint at there being a fair degree of player choice in how you investigate and complete your objective. There was also some suggestion that optional objectives and multiple paths to success are more the norm than they have been in the past.
You can even unlock a pair of secret missions by collecting “evidence” scattered throughout the campaign. It sounds like the missions themselves are unlocked fairly easily, but you can influence how they unfold by waiting to take them on until you’ve gathered even more evidence. Whether this is the big deal it’s made out to be or just an example of reveal hype remains to be seen. It sounds cool, though.
Other assorted details
There’s still more to come from Black Ops Cold War ahead of its holiday 2020 release. Online play is obviously coming back, with the return of the Zombies survival mode alongside your more traditional Call of Duty multiplayer antics. Cold War‘s release will also have some sort of impact on the state of Warzone, Activision’s free-to-play battle royale game set in the Call of Duty universe.
With the new PlayStation and Xbox consoles launching, you can expect cross-generation support between PS4/PS5 and Xbox One/Xbox Series X, as well as the return of cross-play (meaning PlayStation and Xbox people are all in the same matchmaking pool). Activision is also sticking with the approach of making all add-on maps and modes free additions to the game, along with a seasonal content approach built around the Fortnite-style Battle Pass.
You can expect the first proper look at Black Ops Cold War‘s multiplayer mode on Sept. 9, with the reveal to be streamed on Call of Duty’s Twitch page. The typically mysterious Zombies mode – which, for those who aren’t familiar, is wave-based survival against hordes of the walking dead – will also be showcased in greater detail at some point.
Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War is set to hit PS4, Windows PCs (via Battle.net), and Xbox One on Nov. 13. The next-gen versions for PS5 and Xbox Series X will arrive when those consoles launch (though presumably not before Nov. 13, should the next PlayStation or Xbox drop in early November).