I Hope for More from Call of Duty, will Cold War Fulfil That?
Call of Duty, or CoD as it's more commonly known, is a leading first-person-shooter franchise which is known for its engaging multiplayer, (mostly) interesting and often controversial campaign modes.
CoD in its prime, and even more recently with the release of Modern Warfare which received fairly favourable reviews, was just straightforwardly fun, innovative and compelling. They managed to capture a sense of cool, of danger, awe, excitement and skill. Whilst it was audacious and a haven for teenage boys, CoD was a cultural staple in its prime.
When I talk about CoD's "prime", I refer from 2007 - 2012, from Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare to Call of Duty: Black Ops II, because it is generally and commonly cited by the fanbase as their prime, with notorious campaigns, missions and characters, such as Captain Price, ‘Soap’ MacTavish and Viktor Reznov.
However, in terms of quality, CoD has been lacking as of late. After Black Ops II, we saw a spur of mediocre to straight up awful campaigns, Ghosts and Infinite Warfare stick out to me, the former of which had great action and compelling characters but poor storytelling, and the latter unfortunately didn't have the privilege of any redeeming factors.
Personally, one of the other stains on the CoD franchise is their portrayal of war, international relations, terrorism and essentially anything that has garnered them public controversy over the past decade or so. CoD have an issue with good and fair political storytelling which leaves them flailing at times.
Amongst potentially insensitive missions where you commit acts of terrorism (like with Modern Warfare 2’s infamous No Russian mission) and play as child soldiers, there are frank historical inaccuracies to suit a pro-US narrative, like the recent Modern Warfare's Highway of Death which depicted heavy Russian forces assaulting a small group of Urzikstani rebels aided by CIA soldiers, when instead the Highway of Death in real life was named so in reference to the war crimes the US committed there. This pro-US narrative has persisted for years. For example, within Call of Duty 4 we saw a glorified display of American post-9/11 counter-terrorism measures play out as the player hunts for Khaled Al-Asad after he is seen as a threat to the West.
Don't get me wrong, CoD has had its moments of reflection on America's skewed involvement in war; despite Modern Warfare's controversy, there is a telling situation where Laswell, a CIA Station Chief, reveals that the Urzikstani rebel group were now on the foreign terrorism watchlist, despite aiding the US in hunting down main antagonist Roman Barkov, which causes outrage from the key characters. It's reminiscent again of post-9/11 hysteria, the idea that anyone who could be deemed as a threat is automatically a serious threat, and perhaps a criticism of this.
There's also a stark contrast to this narrative in Advanced Warfare, Call of Duty’s 2014 title which featured Kevin Spacey prior to his sex scandels being outed in 2017, and there's reason why I didn't reference it earlier.
Advanced Warfare was a masterpiece in effective political (and somewhat philosophical) commentary. In my opinion, it was one of the first games in the franchise that really saw America as a threat in a future where they host a corporation that offers soldiers for hire led by Jonathan Irons, a businessman turned UN Security Council member. He explores ideas of democracy, and advocates passionately for the lack of it, saying that:
“Democracy is not what these people need, hell, it’s not even what they want! … People don’t want freedom, they want boundaries, rules, protection...”
And when addressing other representatives at the UN General Assembly upon his inauguration as the first CEO of a private company to be integrated into the UN, he remarks this:
“The United Nations is a relic from a time when nations were unique in their ability to solve the world’s problems.”
It's an interesting exploration into the role of militaristic and technological advancements in warfare and American democracy.
So, since the rumination of Black Ops: Cold War, I've been very excited to see how it represents the history of the Cold War era and how it hints to messages on today's global political landscape, particularly focusing on the US.
With the release of the teaser trailer, named "Know Your History", I was almost immediately drawn in by its reflection of potentially very real threats to the US, but I misunderstood it at first. They use a clip from KGB defector Yuri Bezmenov, who speaks about “active measures” the Soviet Union uses against the West to create communist states, and why that will be dangerous. Upon my my most recent watch (which was actually whilst doing research for this piece), I realised the teaser was just part anti-communist, pro-US propaganda and part sensationalist scaremongering.
The reason I did initially misunderstand the point of that trailer, is that Bezmenov talks about opposing totalitarian government control and surveillance, which initially led me to believe it was a warning about the current US government. Since we are starting to see startling usage of the National Guard, voter suppression techniques, fake news and one president who doesn’t want to give up power. I thought when he spoke about “active measures”, he meant in the internal dismantling of democracy.
The main story trailer itself doesn't point to a clear answer either. There are moments, particularly at the beginning, that show the pointlessness of the Cold War, yet it still seems as if it’ll be a anti-Soviet propaganda effort. Through the exploration of agent Perseus they could either explore the shortcomings of the US and their policy, or use them to install fear.
This is what I’m struggling to grasp, what sort of narrative is it going to take?
Option 1: something a little different from what we’ve seen before. A true, balanced representation of the tension of the Cold War, and the foul play on each side. Something that would challenge the traditional American Cold War narrative and that would be, in my opinion, more digestible for its intrigue.
Option 2: pretty similar to what we’ve seen before, but maybe “worse”. All released trailers signal to me that this may be what we see here. Something that appeals to their audience and which perhaps takes it further, aligning themselves overtly as opposition to the political left. It would make sense to take this angle, despite potentially sparking controversy, it has worked for them before.
However, I sincerely hope it’s the first option. If they can marry that with a fun, action-packed campaign, then they may be onto a winner.