header is screenshot from Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War
Worse Guys
Reid McCarter

This article discusses plot points from the entirety of Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War.

At the end of Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War, the protagonist—a CIA operative named Bell—is dosed with large quantities of an unnamed drug and ends up trapped in vivid memories of enclosed office hallways and a gunfight at the edge of a rice paddy somewhere in Vietnam. Her mind has been broken by the CIA in a process that recalls both the first Black Ops and Black Ops III, as well as the code phrase twist ending of BioShock. Her handler, a man named Russell Adler who looks like a matinee movie star with bad facial scarring and aviators, tells Bell that he and his friends in international intelligence have given her false memories, reinforced by a code-word spoken by him throughout their time together. All of this effort was expended on Bell because she, formerly an enemy agent, knows the true identity and location of a Soviet spy codenamed Perseus. Bell’s mind is ripped apart and reassembled into something else entirely for the purposes of avoiding a global nuclear disaster meant to scapegoat the United States as an international villain.

The Black Ops sub-series has always been interested in the pliability of the human mind. In the first Black Ops, that took the form of a Manchurian Candidate-indebted script about Cold War sleeper agents. In the second, it was implied through a story about the culpability of American foreign policy in creating the national “villains” its patriotic heroes feel justified in going to war against. In Black Ops III’s sci-fi twist on the series, mind control is examined through the lens of cybernetic brain manipulation and the subtle influence of everything from governments to games like Call of Duty itself in shaping individual worldviews. (In Black Ops IV, the joke, I guess, is that the mind control theme is metatextually portrayed through the regular serotonin produced by levelling up in its multiplayer-only design.)

This sort of focus makes sense, on a surface level, for games about the Cold War—a decades-long competition between superpowers fought on many fronts, not least of which being a contest of ideologies. Aside from the very real “mind control” experiments conducted through America’s MK-ULTRA and the USSR’s psychotronics research, the Cold War also gave pop culture the enduring image of the deep cover spy who, whether buttoned up like a Le Carré character or as effortlessly suave as James Bond, worked to undermine the capitalists or communists through acts of intel-gathering and sabotage. In both cases, the impression left behind is that the Cold War was a battle not fought primarily by gun-toting soldiers but by subtler acts of subversion that chipped away at the credibility and hegemony of the Western and Eastern superpowers. (Nevermind the myriad horrors of the postwar “proxy wars,” fought outright by the population of the Global South or through the installation of misery-inflicting puppet regimes.) This tracks well with Black Ops' concentration on personal and political uncertainty. Its characters often can't easily tell the difference between right and wrong, fact and fiction, and their minds reflect this in restlessly rewriting events through flashbacks and hallucinations. 

The confusion this creates connects real-world postwar mind control experiments and fictional spies with a loose grip on reality with Black Ops' players themselves. Call of Duty's Cold War stories are deliberately messy, blaming West and East alike for the brutality of the wars they portray. With the audience disoriented, the series' viewpoint is smuggled in beneath multiple, apparently opposing depictions of historical guilt. Like a verbal suggestion used to activate one of its own brainwashed characters' subconscious mission, Black Ops dead-simple ideology is hidden within a kaleidoscope of seemingly nihilistic political both-sideism.    

It makes a lot of sense, then, that Cold War would find inspiration in returning to the well of Black Ops’ psychically shattered player character and Black Ops III's surrealist ending sequence built out of American war iconography. As before, the game wants to dwell in the murk of history and suggest the ways in which that murk has created the modern world’s balance of power, as well as shaped America and Britain’s national characters. It’s fitting that last year’s Modern Warfare feels like a Black Ops sequel in all but name. It, too, told a story from the shadows of international politics, though it ends up retreating from the unreliable narration of multiple endings and psychologically tortured main characters that gives Black Ops its sense of distinction. Despite the different routes they take, both sub-series, though, end up in the same place. In Cold War’s case, that entails working through a disorienting, sometimes appropriately cynical understanding of both capitalist and communist powers before finding the ultimate suggestion that the Western governments, for all their ills, are the series’ inevitable, if morally grey heroes.

Cold Wars’ good and bad guys are, like the Black Ops games preceding it, pretty hard to tell apart. Bell’s crew consists of a Mossad agent named Eleazar "Lazar" Azoulay, Helen Park from MI6, and a group of CIA operatives that includes tech specialist Lawrence Sims, the aforementioned Adler, and series’ veteran/fellow aviator enthusiast Jason Hudson. Committed dirtbags Alex Mason and Frank Woods also return. From the start, Cold War considers its cast of Westerners a morally reprehensible bunch. They receive a mission to track down Perseus before he can detonate strategically hidden nuclear failsafes hidden in cities across Western Europe—an enormously dense plan on the West’s behalf—and blame the United States and its allies for an attack that would kill millions. It’s 1981, so Bedtime for Bonzo lead-turned-American President Ronald Reagan, eager to get a head-start on the slug trail of evil he’ll leave across the world during his time in office, is on hand to authorize a whatever means necessary approach to stopping Perseus. With carte blanche from the man himself, Bell, Adler, Mason, and pals set about testing the limits of doomsday level international diplomacy by sneaking and shooting their way through Turkish, East German, Cuban, and Ukrainian opposition. Their plan works—unless you, as Bell, decide to ignore your brainwashing and turn on the CIA-led coalition—and the end of the world is averted.

Though this sounds like a fairly clear-cut story of heroes fighting off villains, it’s important to note just how willing Cold War is to repeatedly demonstrate that its American, British, and Israeli characters are bad, morally compromised people working at the behest of bad, morally compromised governments. Their reckless actions and casual disregard for non-allied foreign lives—all given the okay by President Reagan—throughout the game occur as background indictments of the characters. But the game’s climax—the sequence in which Bell learns that her identity has been warped into a totally new one by the CIA, removing her agency and remoulding her into a government puppet—makes their evil impossible to ignore.

At this point, whatever subtlety Cold War had displayed in depicting the West’s villainy vanishes and is replaced with hammer-to-the-forehead level messaging. Bell can either grudgingly go along with her CIA manipulators’ plan and tell them how to stop Perseus or she can give them a fake lead, plan an ambush with the KGB, and kill her former allies one by one. The nukes go off, Western Europe is decimated, and the Soviets triumph. Both sides are obviously reprehensible, even if the game squirms to suggest Perseus is a rogue agent and places its multi-national spy coalition outside of the regular armed forces.

The idea here is that there are bad actors among the Western and Eastern superpowers alike. But, even if that was Cold War’s intention, the point gets lost in the game’s presentation. This is partially an issue of perspective. Every level, even one where the player guides a KGB defector through a sabotage mission at the Lubyanka, is navigated by a Western asset, whether military or spy. The enemies, then, are communists and the objective is always to thwart the communists’ plans. While it would still be more than possible to effectively use this lens to form a critique of the postwar West, a lot of smaller choices stop this viewpoint from developing.

Cold War’s interpretation of specific historical events is its most obvious tell. At one point during a mission briefing, the game mentions that a Soviet spy has been supplying Latin American drug cartels and flashes an image of Pablo Escobar on the screen. Given the 1980s setting, it’s a weirdly glaring omission that there’s no room anywhere else in the game to mention the United States’ own support of cartels and right-wing guerilla groups during this time or the enduring, grotesque influence it had on reshaping Latin America for its purposes in the postwar period. Earlier in the game, the Iran hostage crisis is summarized as an event that can somehow be blamed on the Soviets instead of one response to the West’s historic pillaging of the nation and attempts to thwart its bid for self-determination. Elsewhere, the bias is implied rather than outright stated. During the Lubyanka mission, for example, an ominous men’s choir drones menacingly on and on, summoning visions of an evil Soviet empire whose operational heart can only be portrayed like the lower circles of hell.

More telling than any of this, though, is how Cold War and the Black Ops series creates villains. There are good guys and bad guys on either side—compromised heroes and murderous nationalists—but instead of staking a (necessarily ideological) claim on which of these two mixed groups are worth defending, the series singles out those who transcend equivocations on good or bad: the worse guys. In the first Black Ops, the worse guy is Nikita Dragovich, a former Soviet general now allied with ex-Nazis and Red Army extremists in a plot to unleash nerve gas across the United States. He exists beyond politics as an unhinged serial killer with an army behind him. In Black Ops II, the worse guy is Raul Menendez, a revolutionary whose goal of overthrowing the systems that have bound the world in seemingly intractable class inequality and imperialist misery are laudable enough that he must also be portrayed as an unstable, homicidal madman—the kind of guy who digs his dead sister out of graves in the middle of the night to howl at the moon like a Hammer Horror monster. His ideology has clear benefits and the American-led forces that oppose him have a lot to answer for, but Menendez is undeniably evil. The goal becomes not to interrogate America’s sins or to elevate the heroes it fights against, but to put a crosshair over someone deranged enough that no reasonable person can defend how they pursue their goals.

In Cold War, beyond the mess of capitalist and communist ideology, there is Perseus—a worse guy so comically horrible that he’s willing to kill millions of innocent people to achieve his goals. To defeat the worse guy requires good guys to act like bad guys, which in the Black Ops worldview is excusable as long as the goal is stopping mass murder. The communists and capitalists are both frightening, Cold War says, but Perseus is on another level entirely. What’s notable is that in every case, the worse guy is aligned with an "un-American" worldview: Dragovich, Menendez, and Perseus are all either hardline communists or committed anti-capitalists. Though they’re meant to transcend the ordinary framework of nation-states, their ideology still infects them with something as intrinsically violent as the rabies virus.

Because they’re the worse guys, defeating them through the most nauseating means possible is always justified. “Some of us will cross the line, to make sure the line’s still there in the morning,” Adler says just before Cold War's final mission, echoing the rationale of the 2019 Modern Warfare’s Captain Price when he tells a green SAS sergeant that torture is a harsh but excusable way to ensure global peace. The real-world parallels to anyone familiar with Bush Jr.'s administration are obvious, but they extend beyond military terror. Concentrating on the “worse guy” is a simple way to reduce the complexities of malignant politics into a single, easily hateable villain, and it’s short-sighted for that same reason. The “worse guy” is how ideological currents end up summarized in single political figures. It’s why someone can look forward to getting back to lazy brunch time conversations once Donald Trump is out of office and express genuine surprise once a new manifestation of the same evils that brought him to power resurface again down the road. Nothing is solved by defeating a figurehead. The worse guy is legion. Or, as the Russian man we thought was Perseus tells Bell when she meets him at the end of the game and realizes he’s only one head of a conspiratorial hydra: “As if Perseus could be a single person working alone. So American ….”

The irony of Black Ops taking this wriggly, plausibly unopiniated approach to storytelling is that it ends up replicating the same, quiet form of propaganda that the series’ characters fight against over and over again. In teasers for Cold War, the game’s publisher, Activision, ran a clip of KGB defector Yuri Bezmenov discussing the “Marxist-Leninist plot” of long-term ideological subversion. Rather than use overt propaganda, Bezmenov says, a nation can be programmed through subtler means. Bezmenov was a militantly anti-communist crank who saw the secret police lurking behind every movement toward social equality, but his thoughts in Cold War’s trailers couldn’t be more appropriate as an unintended indictment of the game’s own effect.

Call of Duty occupies the curious position of being too readily dismissed by some audiences as mindlessly jingoistic and too readily accepted by other players as mindless entertainment. It should be said that these games are both far smarter and far more expertly crafted than these sort of blanket opinions, positive or negative, might suggest. The knotted meaning of these games—the ways they celebrate certain ideologies and condemn others—requires consistent untangling. They’re not blatant celebrations of American imperialism or blithe love letters to militarism. They're trickier texts that flood players with apparently contradictory opinions on history and modern events while their real worldview floats beneath the more distracting flotsam and jetsam of controversy.  

In this sense, games like Cold War are always worth keeping an eye on and engaging with not on the level of easy condemnation, but as massively influential works of pop culture that deserve a cooler kind of scrutiny. Otherwise, their messages will go unconfronted and the queasy worldview buried beneath their layers of twisting meaning and obscured by moral fog will avoid the sort of examination it deserves, going uncontested as it implants bit by bit in the opinions of its players.


Reid McCarter is a writer and a co-editor of Bullet Points Monthly. His work has appeared at The AV Club, GQ, Kill Screen, Playboy, The Washington Post, Paste, and VICE. He is also co-editor of SHOOTER and Okay, Hero, co-hosts the Bullet Points podcast, and tweets @reidmccarter.