Game Review: Call of Duty Blacks Ops Cold War
I just finished Call of Duty Black Ops: Cold War (2020), the follow up to Activision’s smash hit from 2010. Cold War is the long awaited soft reboot to the Activision’s decade long Black Ops franchise, balancing fresh new ideas with a return to the franchise’s roots. After sinking my teeth into the campaign and multiplayer, I was left satisfied with the delicate mixture of nostalgia, innovation, and continuity that characterized my experience with the game, despite its clear need for further refinement and polish. Here is my review.
Played on Playstation 4.
NOTE: Review does not include the Zombies, Dead Ops, and Warzone offerings of the game.
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
The Cold War campaign starts as all Call of Duty campaigns do: with a dazzling spectacle. You begin in an Amsterdam bar, 80s music vibrating through the soundscape and the glint of neon shining off the spectacles of this mysterious new character (who looks eerily similar to Robert Redford). A chase sequence beings, gunfire is exchanged, and then something different: dialogue options. This is the first of a host of innovations spearheaded by developers Treyarch Studios and Raven Software to push the series’ needle forward. The dialogue options were not only varied, but they mattered for access to side missions and a small parcel of the ending. This dialogue system stretches throughout the campaign and works well, allowing you to better identify with the character you are playing as, nicknamed ‘Bell’. The campaign then shifts to an airstrip in Turkey and another Hollywood-esque action scene takes place. After this intro, Cold War offers a new innovation: choosing the backstory of your character. Not only did these choices change how the story plays out (albeit slightly) but they came with certain gameplay ramifications. The campaign centres around a person known as Perseus who is looking to launch nuclear weapons into Western Europe as part of a plot to win the Cold War for the Soviet Union. This premise is rather straightforward and nothing new for the franchise. However, it is how this journey from A to B unfolds, that left me impressed. Cold War introduces an investigatory/puzzle solving element to the Call of Duty franchise, where the player will find pieces of evidence scattered across campaign levels and solve cyphers or codes related to them. This was a welcomed new dimension to the formulaic Call of Duty campaign structure, adding a small element of problem solving to the otherwise constant barrage of action set pieces and bullet fire that textures most of the campaign. In addition to this, the level design in the campaign were excellent. The environments were beautifully rendered, finely detailed, and filled with opportunities to slightly go off the beaten path. One level had you running through an artificially constructed American town in a Soviet military base, another had you sneaking your way past the Stasi (East German State Security) on a rainy night in East Berlin in a thrilling stealth sequence. The most notable stealth focused mission, and the highlight of the Cold War campaign (and one of the best missions I have ever played in a Call of Duty campaign), was an infiltration by you and CIA Agent Russell Adler into the KGB Headquarters. The player is provided a multitude of different options, branching paths, and tense dialogue options. The first half of the mission can be done entirely without a single fire of the bullet. On top of this, the sighting of Imran Zakhaev — the antagonist in Call of Duty Modern Warfare — was a great surprise. The possibility that the Black Ops and Modern Warfare universes are connected opens up some fascinating doors for the franchise going forward. The second half of the mission completely shifts gears and turns into a ‘No Russian’ style march of fire into KGB security as your team attempt to make a daring escape. Another standout mission takes you back to the Vietnam War in 1968, with an excellent helicopter combat sequence. Vehicular gameplay is always a nice way to change things up in a Call of Duty campaign mission, and flying your chopper through the hills of Da Nang is a thrilling experience. Yet another mission has you revisit Cuba (a site in the original Black Ops), featuring a fun sniping component, and asks you to make a difficult choice between saving one of two allies amidst a hail of bullets from Cuban soldiers. Cold War turns the nostalgia up to 11 when one mission has you revisit Mount Yamatau, deep behind Soviet lines. This was the setting of a memorable campaign mission in the original Black Ops, and a few easter eggs are spread throughout the level to remind you of the franchise’s roots. Overall, from the dialogue options, to the emphasis on stealth, to the always thrilling action set pieces with varied sniping and vehicular combat, and the beautifully rendered and detailed levels, Black Ops’ campaign shines bright amidst the tall order given to it as a successor to the excellent Modern Warfare.
We Have a Job to Do!
The Black Ops story moves at a brisk pace, as you slowly peel off the layers to its mystery. Perseus is nearly invisible and each mission sheds more light into his identity and plans. It is near the end when all of the mystery finally pays off. It is revealed that Bell is actually a member of the shadowy Perseus network and was captured by the CIA after nearly being killed in the mission in Turkey. Bell was implanted with memories through the MK Ultra program, the centre of the original Black Ops campaign, and was brainwashed into assuming an entirely new identity. The goal was to eventually build trust between Bell and Adler so that Adler could access Bell’s deepest, most locked away memories. This twist occurs through flashbacks to Vietnam, as you repeatedly play through the same mission trying to figure out what exactly happened on that day. Its mind bending, unorthodox story telling that turned a rather conventional narrative into something more complex and sinister. The campaign ends with you being given a choice between telling Adler where Perseus plans to broadcast transmissions to activate nuclear bombs, or concealing it and rejoining with the Perseus network. The contrast between the choices is strong and, more importantly, they both make sense. The first ending has you saving Europe from nuclear destruction but being betrayed by the agency that brainwashed you. The second ending has you letting the nuclear detonation go off, but rekindling your original allegiance to Perseus (who does not betray you). I was satisfied with the ending and am excited for how they eventually tie up the loose ends they left behind, although I will admit that the twist felt too similar to the plot-changing moment in the original Black Ops, Characters in the campaign, including Adler, Sims, Park, and Lazar, are well fleshed out through dialogue options available at the East Berlin safe house that acts as your mission hub. The safe house itself has a few surprise Easter eggs, but being able to have one-on-one conversations with the characters to uncover more detail on their backstories was a clever way for the developers to give the player the agency to dive deeper into the lore. The dialogue options were dynamic, meaning, as they took place, other characters were doing other things and would react to the questions you asked and answers you received. Each character had clear motivations, although I have to admit I was disappointed by the lack of screen time given to Mason and Woods, the main characters from the original game. I do understand that the developers are looking to branch off in this new generation, but if the characters are to be included, I would have liked to known more about their stories and activities since the events of Black Ops 1. Overall, the Black Ops story plays a few old songs, but given how good they were the last time, the campaign feels satisfying.
The Sights and Sounds of War
On a technical level, Black Ops is a mixed bag. The graphics are a marked improvement to Black Ops 4, as the developers are now working within an enhanced game engine, but surprisingly looked less impressive than its 2019 predecessor. I did not play on the PS5 so I cannot, at present, comment on its leap to next generation consoles, but I will say that my PS4 was at full horsepower when playing through the campaign. The PS4/Xbox One have clearly met their limitations. The audio design is just as excellent as it was in Modern Warfare. Grenades exploring, bullets ringing, guns reloading, enemies moving by, are all some of the best rendered sounds in all of gaming. Using a surround sound headset amplifies the experience. The score is run-of-the-mill, but the incorporation of some 80s classics into the campaign was great. The gunplay is as silky smooth as ever but, strangely enough, it is a step up backward from Modern Warfare. The same level of detail in the movement was not afforded to this title, although this reduced emphasis on simulation may have been intentional. Generally, your player moves quicker, but has less options in terms of traversal (learning over walls, opening doors slowly, jumping over obstacles with specific animations, mounting your weapon, etc.). The guns feels weighty and poppy as was in Modern Warfare, but yet again, without the same level of detail. The game has also been swarmed by bugs and glitches. I experienced significant texture pop in throughout my time in the campaign and multiplayer, a few crashes when trying to use the PS4 rest mode, and a few times where the AI would simply not do anything. Again, I did not experience these bugs on Modern Warfare, so it appears that the game has simply not been as well optimized this year. Overall, while technically impressive, Cold War is a step down from its predecessor and unusually marred by bugs and glitches.
I have played Call of Duty’s multiplayer mode for 11 years now. During my time with Modern Warfare 2 and Black Ops 1, I reached max prestige each time, held down a 2.0 K/D ratio, and was on the verge of playing competitively before academic responsibilities kicked in. I loved the multiplayer and my younger years gave me enough of a twitch and sharp hand-eye coordination to keep me successful. Those days are long gone and now, as I step into a multiplayer match, I do not expect to be at the top of the leaderboards. It is thus a shame to see Cold War’s skill based matchmaking be so broken. From when I was level 1 to my current level (21), I was consistently matched up with players in the higher prestiges. These players had hundreds of hours clocked in, played in clans with clear lines of communication, and coordinated strategies. I was not looking for this level of competition. Not anymore. So it became quite frustrating to enter these lobbies and get steamrolled as my teams got locked into their spawns. Treyarch needs to take a page out of Modern Warfare’s handbook when it comes to skill based matchmaking, because at present, it creates significant accessibility issues for casual gamers. The maps in Cold War are all well designed, exquisitely detailed, and beautfiul. My favourites so far have to be Cross Roads Strike, Cartel, and The Pines. They are definitely an improvement from the unorthodox and camper friendly maps in Modern Warfare, although their constant focus on three-lane map design can get repetitive. Call of Duty brings back the gunsmith system, which provides a high level of customizability and gun detail. An excellent feature from Modern Warfare. The Pick 5 system has been implemented, forcing players to make difficult decisions about how to equip their weapons. The perks appear to be well balanced and the field upgrade ensures certain abilities are locked away from constant usage. The wildcards are interesting. However, as was my gripe with past Call of Duty games in the PS4/Xbox One era, I find this level of complication unnecessary and detrimental to the gameplay experience. With such a wide assortment of variables to consider, the effect of your skills in gunplay (accuracy, ability to control recoil, spotting from far, etc.) are lessened significantly. It becomes less of a matter of who has the best shot and can utilize their knowledge of the map to take strategic positions, and more about who has the right combination of a near dozen variables at the right time. This convolution is a big departure from how Call of Duty’s competition was distributed in the early Modern Warfare and Black Ops games, and seasoned veterans like myself prefer that level of simplicity. A few old problems remain unsolved. There are still peer-to-peer server matches, you cannot specifically choose the map you would like to play on, you are still unable to view the current score of a match before being put into it, there is still input lag, there is no squad feature, and it takes way too much time to level up. On top of these issues, there are new ones, specific to Cold War. Snipers are way too overpowered. A sniper can single handedly control the flow of the game. The M16 and MP5 still shred through enemies at an unreasonable rate. The score streaks are difficult to access given their point thresholds. These, hopefully, will be figured out with subsequent patches, but at present they do pose a serious problem to the balance of the game. The map variety and gun variety are less than they were in previous games, and this should be noted. Overall, while Cold War offers fresh new maps with good design, it is weighed down by age-old problems and a few new balancing issues. Luckily, I have not run into any particular bugs or glitches in multiplayer that were not mentioned in the single player review.
What is the Number Mason?
Call of Duty Black Ops Cold War was originally being developed by Sledgehammer and Raven Software. A year into development, Sledgehammer was dropped and Treyarch took control. The game therefore, likely, had a two year development cycle. With COVID-19, this cycle was even shorter and made more difficult, and it shows. There is a surprising lack of content in multiplayer. There is a surprising lack of polish in single player. And there is, generally, a surprising excess of bugs and glitches. Cold War could ultimately have used another six months in the oven, but Activision being Activision, likely were not going to compromise on the annual releases. This is unfortunate, as the game could have reached immense heights given more time. At present, almost every aspect of Cold War is inferior to Modern Warfare. Whether its the story, graphics, audio design, or multiplayer, Infinity Ward pushed the franchise forward at so far a distance that Treyarch is still playing catch up. Nevertheless, Black Ops Cold War is a strong return for the franchise after the disappointing Blacks Ops 3 and 4 entries. With a thrilling and complex story, new gameplay mechanics, strong level design, varied maps, and a solid foundation of smooth and silky gunplay, Cold War may not be as strong as its predecessor, but it is a worthy entry into this long running franchise.
Call of Duty Modern Warfare (2019): 9/10
Call of Duty World War 2: 7.5/10
Call of Duty Infinite Warfare: 7/10
Call of Duty Black Ops 3: 7.5/10
Call of Duty Advanced Warfare: 7/10
Call of Duty Ghosts: 7/10
Call of Duty Black Ops 2: 9/10
Call of Duty Modern Warfare 3: 9/10
Call of Duty Black Ops: 10/10
Call of Duty Modern Warfare 2: 10/10
Call of Duty World at War: 9/10
Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare: 9.5/10