A New Red Scare

HIGH It’s still that same satisfying Call of Duty gameplay…

LOW …in a severely half-baked, racist and politically screwed-up package.

WTF Someone thought a dangerously right-wing game was needed in 2020?

Being a minority in the gaming industry is hard. Headlines about Latinx folks getting screwed over seem to pop up almost every day. It’s stressful to navigate, and difficult to cling to the hope that it will get better. Hell, I still feel like my last name is too ethnic for any major publication to consider hiring me.

There’s also friction when it comes to the type of games I play, mostly in how they portray people in my ethnic group. As I get older and now have a platform to talk about games (and media as a whole) it’s given me time to reflect on my relationships with the more… problematic… things that I love. Specifically, Call of Duty.

This latest release in the massively popular first-person shooter series takes Call of Duty back to the conspiracy-laden Black Ops subseries. Set in 1981, players control “Bell,” a custom-character assisting CIA operatives Russell Adler, Alex Mason and Frank Woods in trying to stop a worldwide nuclear threat, courtesy of a generic Russian villain named Perseus. Players will travel to different locations and shoot waves of enemies — standard CoD fare.

Along the way, there will be a few missions that require stealth, some light puzzle work and tests that require the player to remember previous actions/words from events earlier in the campaign. There are also dialogue choices that can alter missions in significant ways and side objectives to complete. In short, it’s a COD game through and through. A few welcome changes are brought into the mix, but it retains the basic skeleton of COD games past, right down to the heinous story content.

While most big-budget games and films don’t do a good job of accurately pointing out the problems of our military industrial complex, the CoD games go out of their way to gloss over American war crimes (usually blaming them on other countries) while perpetuating xenophobic imagery. CoD: BO CW continues this trend, this time with an obvious right-wing slant.

Prior to release, trailers showed former president Ronald Reagan assigning the characters their mission. In BO:CW, that cutscene’s lighting and sweeping score are obviously meant to evoke heroism — as if this legendary figure of American history is sending players on a task to protect freedom. Instead, it came off more like orders to commit war crimes stroking the ego of a hyper-conservative, racist ghoul.

Missions taking place in East Berlin, Russia, Cuba, Vietnam, and Turkey all have the same goal — kill everything in sight and destroy the Soviet Union.

While FPS games naturally revolve around shooting, Cold War’s enthusiasm for carnage seemed especially sickening. This isn’t Doom. I wasn’t killing demons, I was being told to kill minorities and Soviets and to enjoy the carnage. While the tone of earlier entries emulated smart, political thrillers of the ’70s, Cold War throws subtlety and nuance out the window.

In most CoD games, there are usually cutscenes in which characters discuss the human cost of war. Everyone who played it will remember seeing a war-torn town in Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare and hearing “50,000 thousand people used to live in this city. Now it’s a ghost town.” While it isn’t the hardest-hitting commentary, I appreciated the examination of violence, even if it was cursory. Similar sentiments cropped up in other installments, but Cold War offers no hesitation in pulling a trigger or digging a knife into someone’s neck.

One example was in an early mission. I was chasing someone who had information, and I had the choice to kill or spare him. I spared him, but he was killed with prejudice anyway. Another mission features characters jumping at the chance to get into combat, happy at the prospect of “killing commies” for the sake of “freedom.”

Why Treyarch felt the need to release a game with attitudes like this in 2020 is a mystery to me. Worse, this isn’t even the first time the studio has given players a right-leaning story — it’s basically their brand now. Earlier Black Ops games were horribly racist towards Asian people, and I specifically recall a gruesome torture scene meant to look ‘badass’ along with the same sense of glee towards murder. Based on Cold War and their past work, they seem to be CoD’s designated “red team.”

I had a long discussion with my partner over the content in Cold War, and during this chat she noticed that some of the multiplayer avatars were given bios stating they fought in “Operation Condor.” This operation was a real-world United States-backed coup that killed over 60,000 in South America.

To many, this ‘trivial’ description of a character avatar will probably go unnoticed, but to myself and others, it’s a grave reminder of real-world crimes committed. The motives of both Activision and Treyarch for including elements like this must be examined. After this discovery, I not only questioned my choice in reviewing the game, but whether or not I would even play or support future installments.

Even with my unsease towards the story content, I was still eager to check out the multiplayer. Like other CoDs, it’s separate from the campaign and largely disinterested in philosophy. Here, it’s all about the shooting.

Unfortunately, as of the writing of this review, the overall package is as barebones as it gets. Only eight maps were available at launch, compared to the 10 main maps and a few mode-specific ones that launched with last year’s entry. It’s a pitiful collection. and while Treyarch has announced that all future maps will be free, it’s disappointing to see it launch with so little.

Playing multiplayer is fine and enjoyable enough, though. The twitchy, fast-paced gameplay is still there. Modes like team deathmatch provide the same adrenaline rush from games past while new modes like VIP Escort offer large-scale battles with interesting twists. I like many of the modes and I also appreciate the scorestreak system — earning points by killing enemies and performing other tasks net tactical advantages like an air strike or a care package.

Leveling up in Cold War is still the same as it was in games prior, but being able to take a multiplayer loadout and use it in the included Zombies mode is a great way to grind. There, players face off against a horde of the undead while discovering secrets and opening doors placed around a map. That said, while I have a soft spot for blasting the undead, playing on the same map gets repetitive quickly.

I normally don’t mention price in the reviews I write because everyone’s idea of “too expensive” or “too cheap” is different (not to mention discounts and sales) but I will mention I spent $70 here. The lack of multiplayer content burned me, but what really makes me feel bad about spending that cash is the political content. In examining the art I consume as a minority, did I make the right choice in supporting a studio so blatantly promoting American atrocities against minorities and foreign countries?

I’ve spent the last few months coming to terms with my place in a world that seemingly doesn’t want me, my partner, my family and those who look and sound different than some imagined ‘norm’, and I deal with outlandish racist comments and microaggressions every day. While Cold War is a part of a series I would have said that I loved, I can’t fully embrace it now knowing that this work is trucking in harmful stereotypes via patriotic-tinged gameplay.

A decent CoD multiplayer experience will likely emerge from the currently-underwhelming Cold War, but I’m going to seriously consider whether that gameplay is worth enduring (and supporting) the rest.

Rating: 5 out of 10

Disclosures: This game is published by Acitivision and developed by Raven Software and Treyarch. It is available on PS4, PS5, PC, and XB. This copy was obtained via paid download and was reviewed on PS4. Approximately 10 hours were spent in singleplayer and the game was completed. 30 hours were spent in the multiplayer and co-op modes.

Parents: According to the ESRB, this game is rated M for Blood and Gore, Drug Reference, Intense Violence, Strong Language, and Suggestive Themes. The official ESRB description reads as follows: This is a first-person shooter, set during the Cold War, in which players explore locations in Europe and Asia while engaging in combat/infiltration missions. Players use pistols, machine guns, assault rifles, and explosives to kill hostile forces in frenetic combat. Battles are highlighted by realistic gunfire, blood-splatter effects, and cries of pain. In addition to ranged combat, players have the ability to stab or pistol-whip enemies close-up, or use them as human shields. Some weapons cause characters to explode into bloody chunks of flesh. A zombie mode also depicts decapitation and dismemberment, as players use bladed weapons and guns to kill hordes of undead soldiers/creatures. In one setting, flyers with the words “peep show” and “XXX” can be seen alongside pictures of women in lingerie; a red-light-district storefront is depicted with a neon sign that reads “XXX.” During one mission, players infiltrate a drug cartel—drug packages and piles of white powder can be seen in a warehouse. The words “f**k” and “sh*t” appear in the dialogue.

Colorblind Modes: Colorblind modes are present in the options menu.

Deaf and Hard of Hearing Gamers: Subtitles are present in the single-player mode for all dialogue, as well as plenty of visual cues that alert the player to enemies. Multiplayer includes subtitles that feature play-by-play commentary as well as indicators for certain scorestreaks being used. Subtitles can be resized.

Remappable Controls: No, the controls are not remappable but there is a control diagram and several presets.The Y-axis can be changed.

Cj Salcedo
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joshua blandin
joshua blandin
2 years ago

This hurt my brain.

john adam
2 years ago

I’ve been playing battlefield 4 for a pretty long time ( COD even more) so I’m not confused at all with the attachments and I can say COD really took a thing or two from Battlefield’s book. I always take guidelines from youtube and this site downsights to improve my game. I personally love how deep the customization goes. I think they should add an “advanced stats” thing you could look at when setting the attachments.

2 years ago

hate to break it to ya bud but thats exactly what the cold war was about. America was making killing machines out of young men and shipping them off to pillage other nations. the cold war was bred on racism and thrived on the absolute destruction of other cultures. i dont blame you for not appreciating the excessive racism in the game, i know i dont either. but the truth is, thats exactly what that war was.

AJ Small
2 years ago
Reply to  bj8

I think the problem with this game – and what CJ articulates well is how uncritical the game is of the reality of war.

2 years ago

While I expect (and hope) this review pisses off a certain number of readers (read: bigots/cultists), I absolutely love the depth you go into in order to articulate your concerns about feelings about playing and experiencing this game. Art is a reflection of culture, and when that art is influenced by toxic culture, it bears discussion.

AJ Small
2 years ago

Great review – and nice reference to ‘Red Team’! I guess my only point of contention is that this has always been COD political outlook. As someone that felt obliged to play early COD (and actually worked on one as QA) – I’ve always been repulsed by COD’s jingoistic attitude towards conflict. If you note that in both Modernwarfare and Modernwarfare 2 the only time the game ever seriously dwells on the impact of war, it is only through the lense of the impact it has on America and its citizens. The AC130 mission in Modern Warfare is disquietening but… Read more »