Black Ops Cold War recalls the golden age of spy games

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After playing a large portion of the Black Ops Cold War campaign over the weekend, I came away with a mighty need: the spy-game genre seriously needs to make a comeback.

In earlier decades, mainstream video-game publishers didn’t just sprinkle in bits of espionage and stealth for occasional effect; spy games occupied significant shelf space. Games rated T or M tended to be ones with “007” in the title, and there were whole stretches of them based around blending in, unseen, and finding the right disguise. Gadgets were often more important than the guns.


Once I reached Cold War’s bombastic Vietnam sequence — which I found even more disturbing, frankly, than the infamous “No Russian” mission from Modern Warfare 2 — it felt like I was suddenly playing a different game. It was disappointing to see the game do such a one-eighty.

When Cold War lets itself be low-key — a neon-lit bar, a safehouse briefing, a foot chase through civilian housing — it’s the most fun I’ve had with a Call of Duty campaign since at least 2016’s Infinite Warfare.

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Some of the Nintendo 64 era’s greatest titles were things like Rare’s GoldenEye 007, Perfect Dark, and the criminally underappreciated Mission: Impossible (1998), developed by Infogrames. PlayStation of course had the Metal Gear Solid franchise, and the West later had its own, more grounded version of the stealth-espionage formula in Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell, a relic of Ubisoft’s pre-Assassin’s Creed years.


It’s wild to look back on Treyarch’s Quantum of Solace video-game adaptation, or the From Russia with Love game, and remember a time when licensed spy games with movie-star likenesses were essentially a perennial norm.

Now, there hasn’t been a James Bond game since 2012’s 007 Legends, near the end of the Xbox 360 generation. And Mission: Impossible — Operation Surma came out 17 years ago.

When Cold War gets things right — in the quiet moments, where you’re not mowing down hundreds of Vietnamese soldiers from a U.S. attack chopper — it feels like a throwback to the golden age of spy games, which ran from roughly 1997 to 2005. What I wouldn’t give for a Mission: Impossible game from Raven Software.

We can dream, anyway.