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Black Ops 6 needs to top the best Call of Duty campaign of the decade

Black Ops Cold War was the last truly great Call of Duty campaign, and four years later Treyarch have the chance to top it in Black Ops 6.

Call of Duty Black Ops 6 campaign: An image of Woods and Alder in Black Ops Cold War.

With a new Call of Duty game wheeled off the Activision conveyor belt every year, it can be easy to forget the entries that take risks and attempt to push the tried-and-test FPS franchise forward. Black Ops Cold War is one of those rare moments in recent COD history, largely thanks to its superb campaign that balances familiarity with fresh ideas. It’s easily the best Call of Duty campaign of the decade, and Black Ops 6 has big boots to fill when it arrives later this year.

Before the Call of Duty series saw Black Ops Cold War break new ground for its storytelling mechanics, I was left mostly, well, cold by what had come before it. Ever since the original Modern Warfare 2 introduced the formula of Michael Bay influenced blockbuster experiences, entries like Ghosts, Advanced Warfare, and even Treyarch’s Black Ops 3 felt like lesser versions of this notion. For all of its faults, I admittedly commend Infinite Warfare for trying to push the thematic content of the franchise into an interstellar direction, even if again, the approach to storytelling was a rinse-and-repeat job.

Black Ops 2 and the OG Modern Warfare 3 were the last of the great COD stories, with the former using a choice based narrative and multiple endings to switch up the campaign recipe. But Call of Duty games are often like a McDonald’s meal – reliable and tasty, sure, but signs of innovation won’t be found. And while that might be fine for other FPS game franchises, Call of Duty’s reputation as arguably the gold standard for mainstream shooters means it can’t rest on the laurels of its past. That’s why Black Ops Cold War was such a breath of fresh air for the series.

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Treyarch has always been the Call of Duty studio privy to championing the exploration of new and sometimes divisive ideas. While it doesn’t always work out for the developer (see Black Ops 4 and MW3 Zombies), it can lead to pure shooter gold like World at War or Cold War. The latter chooses to throw away most of the franchise’s rule book, putting direct autonomy into the hands of the player. How does Cold War begin? Chasing down informants on the rooftops of Amsterdam, with its action-packed opening, presenting the first major change for Call of Duty storytelling in the simplicity of dialogue trees.

Of course, it isn’t going to bear the weight of a massive RPG game experience like Starfield. However, it’s an entry point for the player to control the stakes in a means other than just shooting your way to a resolution. In a game about the whispers of covert espionage, each narrative choice attempts to feel like a thread pulling from the fabric of your allegiances. Your part within that is more vital than ever, as you’re seemingly just some snot-nosed rookie joining a ragtag team like Task Force 141. Cold War links the player character, known as ‘Bell’, to your own miniature customization suite.

For the first time in the franchise’s history, Treyarch lets you choose your character’s real name, their place of birth, skin tone, gender, military background, and perks that enhance your gunfights. It’s a level of personalization that tailors the campaign to your experience, placing you directly into the narrative as not just a bystander to chaos, but as an active participant whether you like it or not. Can you even trust yourself in these paranoid times? Cold War encourages you to blur those lines.

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Cold War’s hub, in a dingy warehouse, asks you to piece together the plans of elusive villain Perseus in a lite version of something akin to that of Alan Wake 2‘s Mind Place or Writer’s Room. Layered on top of dialogue trees, detective work, and customization is Treyarch’s tip-top level design. It might be linear, for the most part, but there are opportunities to carve your own unique trail of bullets along the way. Desperate Measures is a mission so removed from the COD formula that it veers, in a good way, into Hitman territory. The mission contains five different means of completing its core objective, and three various ways of heading into its final moments.

It’s a pulse-pounding story beat that throws you directly into the KGB’s headquarters, and only your wits available to progress forward. It’s such a brilliant mission, from its design ethos all the way up to its well-placed callbacks to other moments in Call of Duty history. Not only that, but it undoubtedly set the template for Infinity Ward and Sledgehammer Games to experiment with these ideas in the MW2 missions (2022) Recon by Fire and Alone, or MW3’s half-baked Open Combat Missions. Other Cold War missions like End of the Line force you into tough decisions that will sever your friendships, literally, before descending into the mind-game delirium that 2010s Black Ops excelled at.

When it comes down to the game’s finale, it can go one of two ways, both of resulting in grave implications for the future. It leaves you with a sense of dread beyond mindless action set pieces, and proves that Call of Duty games can be more than that. Why shouldn’t a COD campaign try to emulate the storytelling successes of the best games of recent years, like Red Dead Redemption? I want to feel that level of investment, and just because it’s a shooter doesn’t mean it shouldn’t try to invoke that.

Black Ops 6 has been in development for four years, and it has a large task ahead of it to compete with Cold War in my eyes. The game’s marketing is already enticing, and has me going through the annual phases of believing that “we’re back” as the hype cycle unfolds. However, I’m hopeful that Treyarch will deliver the goods once more.

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In related news, you can pick up Black Ops Cold War for $20 right now in this massive Call of Duty sale on Xbox, and Black Ops 6 Zombies might be referencing COD Vanguard in this mysterious teaser.