We wouldn't blame you for having completely ignored the Call of Duty: Warzone story so far. Most of the 100 million people who have dived into Activision's battle royale are, after all, just playing to have fun and compete, rather than immerse themselves in the ever-unfolding narrative centred around its two PvP arenas, Verdansk and Rebirth Island. But you might want to start taking note of that narrative with Warzone season 3, which is bringing the Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War saga firmly into Verdansk's territory, and pushing it front and centre of the map's '80s inspired refresh.
While it's taken some time for Infinity Ward, Treyarch, and Raven Software to craft a story that sets the agenda of Warzone's updates, rather than follows it, the seeds that the game has been sowing since Black Ops Cold War season 1 are finally about to pay off with this latest overhaul. That means you're going to see a stronger emphasis on Warzone's live service storytelling from here onwards, complete with a more tightly integrated confluence of gameplay and narrative, where your actions in Verdansk hold greater contextual implications for the wider Warzone universe.
With that in mind, it's a good idea to refresh yourself on the story of Warzone so far, at least from the start of Black Ops Cold War season 1, where Raven and Treyarch first began to follow on from the events of that game's campaign.
The Call of Duty: Warzone story technically starts in the Modern Warfare universe, centred around Captain Price's successful efforts to stop a nuke going off in Verdansk. While Infinity Ward did a pretty decent job of contextualising the setting of its battle royale in this way, Warzone's gameplay and narrative felt fairly isolated from each other throughout much of this original story arc, being told mostly in the form of easter eggs for diehard fans to discover, rather than as a key part of the core experience.
That changed with Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War season 1, which introduced a brand new story to Warzone via the arrival of Rebirth Island; an Alcatraz-inspired map off the coast of Verdansk. This season debuted Warzone's new arch-villain, Stitch, a KGB weapons expert who headed up the production of chemical agent Nova-6 at Rebirth Island for Russia during the Cold War.
During a US raid on the island in the '60s, Stitch lost his eye to Russel Adler, developing a personal hatred for the CIA operative. He emerges as the new face of shadow terrorist organisation Perseus in the 1980's, leading Adler to believe he's back developing Nova-6 for reasons unknown. In fact, Stitch has bigger plans; to bring both America and the USSR to its knees, paving the way for the emergence of Greater Russia.
Capturing Adler, Stitch uses Nova-6 caches as a red herring to send Frank Woods and friends on a wild goose chase, buying him time. The Perseus puppeteer plans to use the Soviets' Numbers program (yes, the "numbers" that the Russians used on Mason in the original Black Ops) to activate sleeper agents across the world, including Adler, and usher in the demise of the world's two greatest superpowers.
Got all that? Good, because things are about to get a little… timey wimey.
Back in present day Verdansk, there's been a rather unfortunate zombie outbreak. A nuke is launched to wipe out the infestation (as seen in this week's Destruction of Verdansk live event), and the entire area is decimated. This blowout turns back the clock, taking players to Verdansk in 1984, where it just so happens that Stitch is now held up, and about to launch his master plan. This is the collision of worlds – Warzone and Black Ops Cold War – that season 3's marketing materials are talking about; where the two timelines, previously progressing separately, decades apart, have finally come together. Warzone has shed its Modern Warfare skin, and is officially a Black Ops Cold War battle royale.
But that story doesn't return to a static backdrop until the start of Warzone season 4. Instead, Raven and Treyarch are hoping to involve players in the fight against Stitch's nefarious plans with what it's calling a new "narrative event", known as the Hunt for Adler. The CIA agent is out there, somewhere, in Verdansk 84, and it's up to us to find him.
The Hunt for Adler
Hunt for Adler features a series of challenges across Verdansk 84 that push players into the new points of interest across the map, with the goal of rescuing him from Stitch's clutches, before it's too late. The event will be available to participate across both Warzone and Black Ops Cold War, and anyone who completes three of the six challenges will unlock access to both new lore insights and a unique Adler skin. You'll need to be quick, though, as the Hunt for Adler will only take place across the first week of season 3, before disappearing altogether.
This is just one of the ways in which Treyarch and Raven are hoping to craft a more seamless marriage of story and gameplay, so expect to see these kinds of events continue to pop up across the duration of Warzone season 3 and beyond. For Treyarch creative specialist Miles Leslie, however, the real challenge has been progressing Black Ops Cold War's comprehensive narrative, while also accommodating those players who haven't been keeping up with the story at all.
"We started out thinking of it almost like a TV series, where you have episodes and chapters in that sense," he tells GamesRadar+ at a roundtable Q&A. "We really wanted to craft a story arc that is digestible enough for any players. If you jump into season 3, you don't feel lost, but for the players that want to engage more, you're going to see those threads through Stitch and Alder having revenge, setting up that Adler's been taken, and questioning what that means for the future."
"This really is uncharted territory for us, the Black Ops Cold War multiplayer story – which is now Warzone's story – was an extension of the campaign, so we're really excited that we can show the content and let players experience it in such a unique way."
Raven and Treyarch's plans for the Warzone story are inspired, to say the least; taking two universes, two timelines, and blending them together in a way that makes sense to new players while also satisfying those who have been following the narrative threads for months, even years.
It's arguably the most ambitious story Call of Duty has ever attempted. Whether players connect with that story is another matter entirely, but – regardless of how Verdansk 84 stacks up against the highlights of the franchise's narrative history – the journey to get here has been pretty sensational all the same.