Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War Review – Old reliable, with a twist

Reviewed on November 18, 2020

Platforms:

Xbox One, PS4, PC, PS5, Xbox Series X

Released:

November 13, 2020

Publisher:

Activision

Developers:

Treyarch, Raven Software

Another year, another Call of Duty, but in 2020 it feels a little bit different. The reboot of Modern Warfare last year was a big success for the franchise, and the inclusion of the now-free Warzone battle royale mode has meant that Call of Duty as a whole has found a new rhythm over the past 12 months. Now, with a new console generation in our hands and taking up large spaces in our TV cabinets, Treyarch and Raven Software have combined forces to bring us back into the sometimes bizarre world of Black Ops, via Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War. 2018’s Black Ops 4 controversially made the decision to get rid of the campaign component of the series for the first time ever, so it’s a delight to see that Black Ops Cold War has brought it back. Better still, it’s one of the most interesting and engaging Call of Duty campaigns I’ve ever played. Packaged with the trademark multiplayer and always-fun Zombies mode, and the team have generated yet another successful entry into the COD universe.

Not your regular COD campaign

Set in the 80’s, you’ll set up your character “Bell” with a handful of traits before quickly being slotted into the story. They’ve nailed the 80’s vibe with neon arcades and a seriously good soundtrack to boot, and before you know it you’ll be shooting through baddies and chasing down a suspect on a rooftop, before making the decision to kill him or jail him. It’s one of many decisions you’ll encounter in Black Ops: Cold War, and later on the pieces start falling together where some of these choices make a direct impact. While the story focuses on taking down Perseus, an evil figure who takes down governments and so on, there is also plenty of trademark Black Ops mindf***ery that comes up as well, showing that the series has not let go of its more interesting, hallucinogenic roots.

While the story might feel by-the-numbers in terms of setup, the execution and delivery is anything but. Sure, there are absolutely trademark COD moments that have more explosions than a Michael Bay movie, but in direct contrast to that there are plenty of times your gun is holstered and you have to find other means to navigate a scene. Part of this is spent talking to other characters in your base of operations; not a compulsory task, but one that adds extra flavour and dimension to the folk you’re fighting alongside. More excitingly, there is a whole mission with multiple different non-hostile paths for completion, where you play as a character trying to infiltrate a KGB base. It’s entirely refreshing to play a game that’s known for its gun-play in this stealthy, tactical style, and given you can achieve your goal in any number of ways, makes it very replayable and one of my favourite missions from the genre in recent memory.

“…the restraint in the quieter moments is what makes this story more memorable than others…”

That’s not to say there aren’t other more action-packed sequences that you would have become accustomed to with the series. Moments of using photography to gather evidence and stealthily infiltrating an enemy base are balanced by more bombastic scenes, like a memorable early moment with an RC car and flashbacks to more active battlefields littered throughout. The AI remains pretty dumb, serving as more of a shooting gallery than anything to be seriously contended with. One “heavy” iteration of enemies is more of a pain to kill in a bullet-sponge kind of way, but otherwise it’s fairly standard shooter fare that’s balanced nicely by the far more interesting non-combat components.

The campaign only lasts about five or six hours, but it’s always moving and has no wasted motion, with very little padding. It even offers up to side-quests within it, that force you to, again, put down your gun and do some old-fashioned mystery solving, using gathered evidence from previous missions, utilising the process of elimination and trying to solve riddles before you’re allowed to go in for the kill. Again, the commitment to activities that are certainly outside the scope of what a Call of Duty campaign normally provides gives Black Ops: Cold War an absolute edge for me. I mean, I enjoy blowing things up and shooting through enemies like any shooter fan, but the restraint in the quieter moments is what makes this story more memorable than others, and I applaud them for that. With several different endings, it’s worth coming back to.

It’s worth noting that this is by far the best looking COD game I’ve ever seen. Playing on the Xbox Series X, it utilises a great graphical update including ray-tracing, and I spent plenty of moments during the campaign stopping to admire the view. It’s less prevalent in multiplayer mostly because in that mode you’re spending most of your time focused on killing your opponents with almost no downtime, but it’s absolutely impressive to see a shooter look this good on the next generation of consoles, and is a great way to show off your expensive new hardware just after launch.

The reason you buy COD

Of course, many folk only invest in COD every year for the tried-and-true multiplayer formula that has been real anchor-point for the series for a long time now. The standard suite of gaming modes is available in quick match, with classics like Team Deathmatch, Kill Confirmed, Domination and Hardpoint, along with new additions like VIP Escort, which, while I appreciate the attempt, I mostly didn’t enjoy that much. It kind of goes against the fast-paced style I’m used to, and fits in better within games like Rainbow Six Siege which it’s clearly emulating.

Overall, the gameplay feels slick, fast-paced and intense like you would expect, with responsive guns that feel good to shoot. There are also some quality-of-life improvements that really come down to personal taste. The time-to-kill is slightly longer, which sometimes means that an enemy will get away from you with a slither of health, but on the flipside means that if it’s not a headshot, you can sometimes dive to cover just in time to prevent getting taken down. That being said, snipers are absolutely still the biggest threat on the map. I’ve lost count of the amount of times I got sniped handily without even knowing I was being targeted, and some maps really do tend to give snipers an advantage. Also, I know the devs want everyone to play together, but as an Xbox Series X player with a controller, it just feels unfair to be thrown into a match with a bunch of PC players. I turned off cross-play as soon as I could, and it’s a shame there isn’t a cross-play option for “controller users” at least, as opposed to just blocking it to Xbox folk only.

The bigger changes for multiplayer are the new squad-based modes, Fireteam: Dirty Bomb and Combined Arms, each pitting several teams of four against each other. Dirty Bomb is more unique with 40 players on the battlefield, where you have to collect uranium from crates or by getting kills, to then cause a nuclear explosion with points rewarded for doing so. It takes some cues from Warzone: Blood Money, replacing cash with uranium, but it is a good change of pace from the frantic run-gun-respawn style of the other modes. Combined Arms only has six teams of 24, and feels like a great addition as well, taking modes like Domination and making them feel more valuable with more opponents on the map to compete against.

“…it’s a modest start, but still an entertaining one.”

Frustratingly, maps tend to come up fairly often in rotation, by nature of the fact that there are only eight on launch in the core multiplayer playlists. There are separate additional ones for the larger Fireteam and Combined Arms matches, but considering there are normally double the available maps on launch of a COD title, it is disappointing to see so little here. I imagine they’ll be adding more of course, but if you’re a seasoned player coming in from Modern Warfare, you might find the lack of variety to be a big downside.

Still, the maps available are all serviceable. One of my squad-mates particularly laments Satellite for its sandy dunes that offer a lot of opportunity for those pesky snipers, but I found ways to counter them and overall appreciated what is one of the more visually impressive maps out of the bunch, utlising caves and sneaky crevices to get an upper hand where possible. Armada is another one that I can see people either loving or hating. Two cruiseships that can be accessed from adjoining ziplines or by taking a speedboat across the water (or, just by swimming) creates a lot of verticality and options for different playstyles. Some maps, however, feel too big for the standard 6v6 combat loop. Miami in particular, while gorgeous with its neon signage, beach-side battles and empty hotel rooms, is too vast for such a small player-count. With Domination and Hardpoint ferrying players to specific zones it’s fine, but in your TDM or Kill Confirmed, I’d sometimes spend 30 seconds to a minute between kills, just running around trying to find someone to shoot.

At the end of the day, this is not a massive leap forward for the multiplayer in the franchise, and in many ways, it feels like a more “back to basics” approach, which still absolutely satisfies that multiplayer fix that only COD can provide. I wish there were more maps, but I actually enjoy the other new multiplayer modes, that feel like they’ve taken some notes from Warzone and added something different to the mechanics. But they, like Warzone, absolutely play best when you have a full squad of four friends that can coordinate and communicate. With more additions and balancing sure to come, it’s a modest start, but still an entertaining one.

Hungry for brains

Last but certainly not least, those damn Nazi’s had all kinds of ghastly experiments, which has led to Zombies being included once again in Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War. Within the mode, players of previous versions may be disappointed to learn that it’s only the one map available at launch (as opposed to the four that were present in Black Ops 4). However, this is a recreation of the map from the original Zombies mode back in 2008, and the good thing there (apart from nostalgia for those who remember it) is that the map itself has many different moving parts that keep the action feeling fresh and exciting despite being the same location.

It’s a huge space, that starts above ground and, as you progress through, takes you into a bunker that is full of its own challenges, including portals to other dimensions that ramp up the chaos even further. There are also plenty of different upgrades to discover, and the map itself is well designed in the way it loops around, but often still forces you to keep funneling through when you get overwhelmed. The fact that it does have so many elements to be aware of means that it does save on the repetition somewhat, and blasting through hordes of undead with your mates is just as satisfying as it ever was. This, and the promise of more free content and updates to Zombies over the course of the games lifespan, rounds out the package nicely.

Better still, the loadout you choose to use in regular multiplayer is also used in Zombies, which means that you can continue to work on levelling up and upgrading your gun and the related perks across both game modes. This universal approach to working on your preferred weapon is a welcome one, as previous editions would have you figuring out different loadouts for each. This does remove some of the need for spending on weapons within the Zombies mode, as you’ll likely already have a decent weapon kitted out, but I like that it allowed me as a seasoned player to get in on the action faster and focus on other meaningful upgrades rather than having to drop zombie money on a gun every time I played.

8

Great

Positive:

  • Campaign is unique and engaging throughout
  • Multiplayer is as fast-paced and exciting as it ever was
  • Zombies is still a great addition and a lot of fun
  • Visually gorgeous on next-gen, and gameplay feels slick

Negative:

  • Campaign is still a bit short overall
  • Multiplayer maps wear out their welcome quickly
  • Only one Zombie map at launch

Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War is once again a solid, comprehensive entry for COD fans across the board. This time around however, not only does it satisfy with its multiplayer and zombie offerings, but it also packages in a campaign that is one of the strongest the series has ever seen. The missions feel different, the added layer of espionage is nice, and it still manages to be bombastic and silly the only way COD knows how. The multiplayer that many will purchase this game for feels as strong as ever, but is modest in some ways with its small amount of maps, despite a couple of interesting new game modes. You could argue it’s an issue that permeates into the much-loved Zombies mode as well with its one gigantic map, and that lack of initial variety could definitely use an injection of an update or two to really flesh it out properly. Still, as a total package, this is some of the most fun I’ve had with Call of Duty in years.