Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War Review
A rushed but successful launch, fueled by nostalgia and hyperactivity
The Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union was a massive failure to launch. Neither superpower deployed their nuclear arsenal, so none of their cities suffered under the power of the atom bomb. Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War might have also failed to launch, and not because of the global pandemic or because last year’s game, Modern Warfare, could have been supported for another year. Cold War reportedly had problems in development. Originally the product of Sledgehammer Games and Raven Software, irresolvable issues resulted in Treyarch taking the lead and given just 18 months to put everything together. Even with this rocky development, defying 16 years of annual releases around the launch of a new console generation would have been a disaster. And, just like the real Cold War, disaster was averted. While Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War is short on content, its speedy online action is bolstered by a strong and nostalgic campaign, and a rather enjoyable cooperative zombie mode.
Set in 1981, the campaign involves the tension between the Soviet Union and the US. In preparation for an attack, the paranoid Americans have found a few spare nukes down the back of the couch and hidden them across Europe as a sort of failsafe backup. Now an agent of communist origin, codenamed Perseus, is trying access these bombs for their own nefarious purposes. Players will undertake missions in East Berlin, Moscow, Cuba, the US, and the USSR, to prevent the Cold War from becoming a hot mess.
Cold War’s campaign is more like a direct sequel to the original Black Ops. Returning characters Mason, Hudson, and Woods help tie it together, although their new voice actors sound nothing like the originals. You will play as Mason in a few missions, but he is not the main character. That position belongs to Bell, whose back-story and perks you can customize at the start of the game for a bit of RPG flavor. Part of Bell’s history involves the Vietnam War, and you experience flashbacks to 1968 where you battle the Vietcong—the last of these is extraordinary. But in 1981, you are the newest member of a covert team, sanctioned by the US government to hunt down Perseus.
To emphasize spy craft, and to add some more RPG qualities, you will return to a safehouse between main missions. This safehouse is where you can browse an investigation board for primary and secondary missions. It is also a chance to get to know the team. The team leader, Adler, oozes with the coolness of an undercover operative thanks to a great performance by Bruce Thomas. While another team member, Park (played by Lily Cowles), is an M16 agent that brings international backing to this clandestine clique. You can talk to them via optional dialogue, shining a light on general progress and even asking personal questions. But there is not enough here to get to know the characters well. And given you only visit the safehouse a few times, it is rather underused, despite having a positive influence.
Campaign mission variety is some of the best in the franchise, with the pacing to match. It goes from surveillance, to stealth, to sniping, to shooting, all without missing a beat. When it comes to the general action, the campaign offers open spaces with plenty of spots to take cover. At one point in the story, Bell comes upon an enormous Soviet bunker that he first photographs for intel purposes. Then you are free to sneak inside, hiding bodies to avoid detection—just on stealth, it works okay but is not on the level of something like Far Cry. Later, infiltrating the KGB headquarters provides the game’s best moments, starting as a double agent and moving freely among oblivious comrades, before letting Bell in the back door. Across the campaign, many spots pay wonderful homage to the original Black Ops, like when you fly an attack chopper over Vietnam or sprint over the rooftops in Amsterdam. There are no cheap moments used for shock value, which is a great relief. It respects the original and offers a campaign that is almost as good.
While the campaign is great, it is too short. Even after completing all optional missions—including their unrewarding code-breaking puzzles—the campaign took less than six hours. But it feels considerably shorter due to the time spent in the safehouse and the limited spurts of action. Like Infinite Warfare, you will want more when the credits roll. It needed another Vietnam mission to solidify that flashback arc. It could have used another vehicle sequence and more liberal use of gadgets in general. The campaign too often stops before giving enough combat, and while this is preferable to the houses filled with battalions of soldiers in Call of Duty 4, a few more lengthy battles could have helped wash away the distaste of brevity.
The multiplayer is a flood of hyperactivity. The changes from last year’s slower game are subtle but important. There is no more mounting of weapons onto surfaces or corners, cutting down passive behavior. The limited tactical sprint has been dropped for general infinite run. The mini-map is far more useful, thankfully, showing enemies that shoot unsuppressed and the skulls of dead teammates. With good foot speed, rapid and generous mantling, the online combat takes on a frantic arcade style. Weapon handling is good across most types and they all feel considerably better after equipping a few attachments. The only part that feels slow is throwing grenades, but that, along with everything else, is something you will have to get used to if you want to score kills.
One major change is the implementation of scorestreaks that do not reset after death. This is not new, but the scoring is different. Every five consecutive kills results in a huge point bonus (the first is equivalent to 10 extra kills). In addition, score rewards for playing the objective are woeful. So a player killing four people while standing on an enemy flag in Domination will only be rewarded with around half the points as somebody killing five in an unimportant corner of the map. Those responsible for winning might not place on top of the scoreboard and they will probably not get as many scorestreak gadgets like the RC-XD, cruise missile, and attack chopper. But this also means regular Joes can eventually get the lesser rewards, like a spy plane. It is a bit like those recharging specialist abilities from Black Ops 3, and it can also lead to an avalanche of scorestreaks near the end of matches. Scorestreaks would work better with a more linear application of bonus points and a boost to the objective score.
Most of the online action still revolves around 6v6 battles across a modest selection of maps and modes. Not much has changed with the modes on offer; TDM, FFA, Control, Kill Confirmed, Domination, Hardpoint, Search & Destroy operate much as before. VIP Escort is a newer experience. It randomly makes one player a VIP and the other team’s job is to kill them before they escape via chopper extraction, assuming they don’t just cower in spawn like one of my teammates. Of course you can always eliminate the other team, but with a downed state and reviving available, it can take some time. This escort mode is an adequate replacement for the Cyber Attack mode from last year.
The eight launch maps in the smaller modes are satisfactory but not particularly memorable. Treyarch’s three-lane structure has eroded; now one or more of those lanes is generally quite open but obscured intermittently by cover, like the main road along the Miami street that is peppered with vehicles. Designs evoke memories of other games too; the African map, Satellite, is like a mini version of Sinai Desert from Battlefield 1 and the Cartel map is like something out of Medal of Honor: Warfighter, due to the washed out colors and loose structure. Nuketown ’84 is the newly released free remake of the classic fan-favorite, and its updated art style is the best one yet. One strong trend across all maps is a good one: positions of power (like sniper nests) are also vulnerable, either from finely tuned sight lines or because of many flanking options. This type of level design encourages continual movement and feeds into the speed of the game.
If you want to go bigger, then 12v12 is available via the Combined Arms mode. There are only really two maps to play it on, as the third is just Cartel with players packed like sardines and a ridiculous number of scorestreaks being dropped at once. Armada is a fun map set around boats far out to sea, and it is possible to flank by swimming underwater or taking a jet ski for a spin. Crossroads is a snow map with an open middle area and bunkers as capture points. Combined Arms is like a smaller version of Ground War from last year, with numerous flags to hold, but with more traditional random spawning and no squads. Since maps are not that huge, traversal can be done on foot or with many light transport vehicles (snowmobiles and dirt bikes) that allow shooting while driving. Tanks allow players to dominate for a bit, even with the slow turret speed, but they are easy to take out. The Combined Arms mode is still fast and hectic, and it falls into that middle ground that brings a few vehicles into a standard Call of Duty experience.
Dirty Bomb is a mode that abuses the chaotic return to speed. Its two large maps are used as the battleground for 10 squads of four players. Each squad must seek to detonate so-called dirty bombs. First you need to find uranium, which is located in chests scattered about the place; dead enemies also drop loot. Bank enough uranium into one bomb and it can be armed, releasing radioactive material on explosion. While the mode starts off at a reasonable pace, it descends into chaos when only a few bombs remain. Squads parachute from the sky or spawn in the nearby forest or call in a chopper they found in a chest, creating an incomprehensible tornado of action. It doesn’t help that both maps are filled with trees that offer innumerable hiding spots. With urban locations and/or fewer players, Dirty Bomb could offer some balanced fun.
Sometimes you just want to mow down Nazi zombies, and fortunately you can do that in the dense and enjoyable four-player co-operative level, Die Maschine. Set in Poland, players begin amidst ruins covered with graffiti before descending into an old war bunker to restore power and turn on a particle accelerator. For new players, the basic instructions given via voiceover (and fluorescent paint) will help to get started; kill zombies to open new areas and stay alive as the waves get tougher. Zombies drop useful items, like flashbangs and semtex grenades, along with crafting materials. Perks can be bought as usual, to increase run speed or health. But the rest is still confusing and one of those things you need a guide for, or a friend who has played a lot more. At least the level offers great balance in terms of above and below-ground areas, with some zones better suited for controlling zombie groups. Dividing helps to spread the horde but the boss types might need a group effort.
Die Maschine has several qualities that make it highly replayable. Firstly the voiceover commentary changes, minimizing repetition. There are randomized trials that might reward players for staying in one particular area. You can also start with any weapon, which makes the starter waves fly by—weapon leveling is thankfully shared with regular multiplayer. There is also an alternative dimension that your squad can travel to and from using portals. This is required for some objectives, and not only does it look cool, the transition offers a few seconds of respite. If you are tired of the endless waves, there is an exfil option that becomes available at level 10, and every five levels afterwards, to provide a sense of completion and extra rewards. All up, there are many tempting options in Die Maschine to keep you busy for hours across many sessions.
Cold War has less technical issues than its forebear had at launch, but it is still rough around the edges. Player animations need smoothing, although the speed of action means they’re probably never going to look natural. Combat can be unpredictable with network issues causing bullets to mysteriously vanish. Some servers had ridiculous packet loss (30-50%) and the menu also became completely unresponsive when ‘joining’ games that would eventually lose connection. Performance is good during general action though, and only a few crashes were observed across some twenty-five hours. It is still pleasing to see a lot of graphics settings available for the PC version, and crossplay will make it easy to get into matches in the future, even if the controller aim-assist and mouse can never be balanced perfectly under all conditions.
The game is a good looking package too, opting for a more realistic style than previous games in the sub-franchise. Main characters in the campaign look awesome, although some light bleeding is off putting in some scenes. Most of the multiplayer maps feature intricate ground detail and some of their art style is stunning, like the Miami night map, although the Dirty Bomb map called Ruka is ugly due to painted ground textures and bad foliage. The music in the campaign is brilliant and varied, blending seamlessly with the action at pivotal moments. It utilizes an orchestral mix of drums, synthesizer, strings, chants, and piano to convey a sense of foreboding, urgency, and subterfuge. There are even some good remixes from older Black Ops games. It is worth turning up the volume, as the songs are fleeting and quite quiet.
If you’re willing to put up with some temporary content issues then Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War is worth getting. It offers one of the best campaigns in the franchise, even if the story is brutally short. Zombies return in a rather impressive co-operative level that is dense and has strong replayability. And multiplayer is a hyperactive onslaught with enough fun moments. But Cold War is not finished yet. Free content will trickle out over the next year in the form of maps, weapons, operators, and the usual glut of customization that pays for it all. The seasonal content for last year’s Modern Warfare made up for its shortfalls and that will probably happen again here. So Cold War is an above average Call of Duty game that is missing some final pieces, and while its launch was premature, the course can be corrected on the fly.