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Monday, November 16, 2020

Review: Call of Duty - Black Ops Cold War (Sony PlayStation 5)


Review by Matt S. 

From 1945 through to 1991, the world existed in a state of perpetual tension as two superpowers - The Soviet Union and the United States - vied for control over the planet and its resources. Now, as the world heads into a second Cold War between the United States and China thanks to a monumental failure of leadership in the US over the past four years, Activision figured it was time to toss out Cold War propaganda to remind us that the United States is the righteous good guy and therefore inherently justified in whatever actions it might take.


This takes the form of an espionage-themed pile of nonsense that Tom Clancy would criticise for lacking in subtlety. However, it makes sense that Activision's word monkeys (in this case, led by Hollywood's David S. Goyer) would go with the "secret ops" espionage route since it meant they could limit the story to that of a couple of agents undertaking a "classified" mission, and save the game from therefore needing to acknowledge the stuff that we do know the Americans got up to through the Cold War. This is a long list of activities, but includes:

In 1945, at the end of World War 2, as Korea started working towards its independence from Japan, a provisional government was formed - the People's Republic of Korea. America didn't much care for this government. It was too sympathetic towards communism, so they split the country in two, installed its own government in the south, and that led to a rather famous war that, to this day, has never been formally ended. 


In 1948 America started playing kingmaker in Central and South America for the first time. That continent has always been inclined towards left-wing populism and socialism, and America was deeply concerned that the Soviets would gain influence there. Their first overt activity was in supporting the rebel's side in the Costa Rican civil war. Amusingly enough the leader of the rebels, a man names Jose Figueres Ferrer, was very much left-wing himself. America gritted its teeth to support him though, because Figueres was fighting the commies. With the support of the US he won, of course, only to become a relative thorn in the American's side in the years after. Not enough to finance further conflict, but hardly America's greatest ally. 

In 1949 America did its first bit of kingmaking in the Middle East, and of course that turned out to be a travesty in every way. It took place in Syria, and while the role of the CIA is still debated, it involved a CIA-friendly leader, Husni al-Za'im, overthrowing a democratically-elected government. And as we all know Syria has become a very stable corner of the world in the years since.

America wasn't done with screwing up the Middle East, though, oh no. In 1952 Iran elected a man called Mohammad Mosaddegh to lead the country. By all accounts, he was a pretty popular leader, being generally pro-democracy, secular, progressive by the region's standards and he introduced a number of nation-stabilising measures including social security, land reforms, and increased taxation to support government services. However he also nationalised Iran's copious oil resources, and we all know how America is when people threaten its oil. Coup time! And unlike with Syria, the CIA's involvement here is not disputed by anyone. Unfortunately, the puppet that America put in, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, was really not popular. Misjudging his ability to lead didn't stop America acting surprised and petulant when an Islamic revolution overthrew that government, though. And to this day America seems to be surprised that Iran doesn't much like them. 


In 1953 Cuba had a revolution. I'm going to assume that no one needs a snippy summary of this one. Basically, though, a cool fellow named Che Guevara and a guy named Fidel Castro rose up in revolution against a nasty right-wing dictator that Americans liked, and America never got over that. Being unable to kill or overthrow Castro (not from want of trying), they instead slapped so many embargoes on the country they very nearly starved it. Nothing shows how committed to humanitarian causes you are quite like starving a population.

Fast forward to 1960 (there was a bunch more stuff that happened in places like Indonesia and Philippines between Cuba and 1960, but I'm just highlighting the biggest ones here), America started playing around in the de-colonialising parts of Africa. Right in the middle of the continent, a massive nation, the Republic on Congo, earned its independence from Belgium. Sadly for Congo, the leader of the country, Patrice Lumumba, sought support from the Soviet Union because Belgium was financing separatist movements within the country. Congo had a lot of uranium, see, so firstly the west wanted it, and secondly the west didn't want Congo trading with the Soviets. And so, the CIA first tried to poison Lumumba via his toothpaste (a famous story, that one), and when that didn't work, they found someone in the army to overthrow him instead.

Fast-forwarding again through events in Laos, the Dominican Republic, Brazil, Iraq, and Chile, we next get to Vietnam. America went to war there because Domino Theory told them that if Vietnam falls Australia turns communist next, or some other nonsense from the same country that took Joseph McCarthy seriously to embark on anti-communist purges that they could only be described as witch hunts. That was was so utterly horrific that even the American population had enough and even Richard Nixon was unable to keep it going. 


Anyhow, this went on and on, and arguably hasn't finished. Even though the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 supposedly meant the end of the Cold War, the ongoing conflict in Syria, and the respective roles of Russia and America in that conflict, shows that its vestiges still hang around. And now there's China, and that second Cold War to look forward to.


As I mentioned at the top, Call of Duty - Black Ops doesn't engage with any of that (there are scenes set in Vietnam, but that's just a backdrop to a couple of levels for some action - there's no discussion about Vietnam in there). The point here is that even after all of the above, Activision still decided that for their game Americans would be heroes, and that heroism would be uncritical and flattering. Ronald Reagan makes a cameo in the game to tell us that whatever we, as Americans do, it's okay, because we're fighting for freedom and liberty (of Americans, not those in the democratic and/or revolutionary movements that America was opposed to. No freedom for them). 

And wowsers do you do some things in this game in "protecting" that freedom. The central plot hook is that America has deployed a bunch of active nuclear weapons across Europe, as a measure to stop the "Reds" if they ever started getting sway in Europe. Just think about that for a moment - this game is saying that it's okay to put live nuclear weapons in cities outside of your sovereign borders because you might lose influence over that city. Just think about how Americans would react if an "ally" like Saudi Arabia started hiding nuclear bombs across major cities in the US. Just in case they got too uppity as Christians again. Yes, it's a fictional story, but just stop and consider this line of thinking. No one gets punished for any of this. There's an "oh crap Europe might blow up" sentiment, but never a "are we the baddies?" moment, to lift that meme. 


And the sad thing is that's not even where the lousy thinking ends. Your squad in Black Ops Cold War wasn't responsible for the deployment of those nuclear weapons. Fine. But you're certainly responsible when you break into a Russian facility and start shooting up the place to get access to some intel. Remember that terrible nationalistic film Olympus Has Fallen, in which North Korean bad guys invade the White House and shoot everyone up? Now imagine if the bad guys were presented as heroes? That's exactly the line Black Ops Cold War takes.

All of this would be understandable if there was any indication whatsoever that the narrative was subversive, but there isn't. Goyer is a terrible writer at the best of times, but I do sympathise with him here, as the game's campaign is so uselessly abbreviated that there was no room to make the enemies anything but caricatures. Nonetheless, even with that as context, there was an opportunity that Goyer missed entirely. That same mission where you shoot up a Russian building has you spending time as a Russian turncoat for a while. Even there, in a rare quiet moment in the game where you get to walk around and talk to people, even when it's the one chance you get to see the Russians outside of a gunfight with them, and they are cartoonishly uncharismatic and/or nasty people. 

People have got to understand something here. It's all well and good to say things like "it's just a video game" or "I'm not affected by its blatant propaganda" or even "I know Cold War history so I know this game is nonsense." You could just as easily say that Triumph of the Will was just a film, and that people who understand propaganda and Nazi Germany can watch it without being influenced or inspired by it, but that's not how this stuff works. Propaganda works not on an individual level, but a cultural level, and while there are some people that do enjoy learning about history, there are an awful, awful lot of people that see name-drops like Ronald Reagan and think that there's something authentic to the way these games depict history. We've seen this in motion over and over again; I saw a lot of people comment about how "true" Call of Duty WW2 was to that conflict and the developers made a big deal of it. No. Just, no. I know the American entertainment industry likes to revise or completely ignore it whenever it suits, but you can't do that over generations, end up with a population that does take these things seriously, and then throw your arms up and say "it's just a game" when people point out how generally uninformed and malleable to propaganda a population is. Because that's where we are at with Call of Duty, and it needs to be taken seriously.


I've never played a game more thoroughly unpleasant than Black Ops Cold War, but since this is the video game industry, the only thing I'm meant to be talking about is how much fun it is to press those buttons. So, let's finish the review and do that (since I know this conclusion is all most people are going to read anyway). Yes, it is fun to press buttons. You can even press buttons in multiplayer, and after however many Call of Duty titles now, the half dozen development teams that worked on this thing know how to make multiplayer button pressing fun. There are standard multiplayer modes, and classics like Zombies are back because people like those modes. It's all very accessible since this series is as mainstream as they come and Activision would hate for people to find it overwhelming. In short, if you want to play Black Ops Cold War as a completely passive sponge, then you'll have a lot of fun pressing those buttons. This score, below, is for you. For anyone else who is even mildly interested in thinking about the games they play, I can't put into words clearly enough how unacceptable I find this game to be.



- Matt S. 
Editor-in-Chief
Find me on Twitter: @mattsainsb

The critic was provided with a copy of this game for review.

Review: Call of Duty - Black Ops Cold War (Sony PlayStation 5)
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