Call of Duty: Black Ops – Cold War Review — Forgetting its History
Call of Duty: Black Ops - Cold War introduced new features to the franchise, although often innovated in the wrong direction.
If it’s November of any given year, that means there’s a new Call of Duty title gracing store shelves and digital marketplaces. This year’s title is another entry in the Black Ops series, so if you’re expecting anything similar to last year’s Modern Warfare, you’re sure to be disappointed. Instead, this year’s Call of Duty: Black Ops – Cold War took some tentative steps outside of the franchise’s comfort zone, but ended up with almost nothing to show for it.
From its first mission, Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War takes steps to demonstrate how it’s differentiating itself from other titles. Players start by ambushing a house filled with enemies ringing in the new year and chase their team’s target across rooftops. When he’s finally captured, players get to actually choose what to say in the form of a dialogue tree. At least for me, this was a huge change for a Call of Duty title. I’m more accustomed to letting the game’s characters do the talking while I have fun running and gunning.
That being said, being able to actually get involved in the game’s story is extremely welcome. Every dialogue choice has an effect on the game, from the innocuous to the explicitly obvious ones. There are multiple points where players can choose to throw that target off the roof as soon as he spills the beans, or players can capture him for further interrogation right there, changing the game’s ending in its very first mission.
Dialogue trees are just one of the many departures from the Call of Duty norm that Treyarch has decided to make. The second comes almost immediately after the first mission wraps up – you’re introduced to the new Black Ops team and the safehouse you’ll all be calling home while working to prevent the actions of Perseus, a Russian agent that has changed the balance of the Cold War every time he’s come into play. This base of operations is also where players will be spending their downtime. That’s right, there’s time spent in a Call of Duty title not purely blasting bad guys away with enormous weaponry.
And really, it’s pretty nice. For once, players will get to learn a little bit about the characters they’re working alongside. It’s something that the Call of Duty series desperately requires, or at least has for me. Take for example Captain John Price, as he was in the original Modern Warfare games. He’s beloved in the older Call of Duty groups for being an all-around badass, but outside of that, players don’t really know much of anything about him. He’s like John Wick if we only saw the parts of the movies where John Wick shot people; that’s his only personality trait. Instead, players get to actually learn a little bit about their crewmates, and I ended up taking every opportunity I could to do so. These small, short interactions reveal the most interesting pieces of dialogue in the entire game.
But once you get back to the story of Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War, things go downhill quickly. The game moves at a blisteringly fast pace and wraps up in about six hours total. Over the course of my first playthrough, I struggled to stay engaged with the game’s continually developing story of espionage, intrigue, and who stole however many American-made nuclear warheads. In fact, without looking at the notes I took while playing it, most of Black Ops Cold War‘s campaign is a blur – it all mushes together into one extended combat sequence. There are a few key sections of missions that stand out. One of these sequences places players in the shoes of a CIA plant in the Lubyanka, the center of the Soviet-era KGB. Another has players fighting through a Russian model of a typical 1980’s American suburb. These situations are fun, although only because they offer delightful changes in scenery.
Additionally, players have access to side-missions that can be accessed from the safehouse. These one-off missions don’t boast a huge amount of content, but unlocking them is the real joy. The two missions require players to gather evidence from other main story missions to be completed successfully. Once gathered, players have to use that evidence to solve puzzles, with one requiring them to pick out targets from a large group and another tasking them with decoding a message. This process is unlike anything I’ve seen in a Call of Duty title and it’s genuinely pretty fun. It plays into the entire espionage theme of the game, which makes it such a pity that the missions you end up unlocking are pretty underwhelming.
When mission variety is as drab as it is in Black Ops Cold War, the saving grace of games like these is usually gunplay, but that’s not the case here either. Guns in Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War are the worst they’ve felt in any Call of Duty title I’ve ever played. I should say that I never played Advanced Warfare or Black Ops 3 and 4, but regardless, this performance is simply poor. Every weapon lacks weight, and the ones that are supposed to have that boast an undeniable heft, like the game’s Gallo SA 12, which I recognized as the Spas-12 from other CoD titles. This hulking, automatic shotgun doesn’t let out a deep thump with every shell fired, but instead an unsatisfying “Bap!” The franchise’s staple AK-47 has its own similar quirk, dinging like a bell with every round let loose.
These issues, compounded with the extremely limited variety of weapons that players have access to over the course of the campaign makes the act of killing bad guys uninteresting and unsatisfying and is a death knell for any game based around doing that exact thing.
However, the largest issue I ran into with Black Ops Cold War was presented in its final moments. Black Ops games are known for their twists and turns, and this one is no exception. It has its mysteries, and there are hints toward something larger presented sparsely by easily-missed optional dialogue throughout the game. But when things come to a head and players are going through the game’s final mission, the biggest mystery it has is finally revealed, and just as quickly as players are made aware, it’s resolved. It was incredibly disappointing to have the most interesting plot point in this game presented and then wrapped up so quickly when it should have taken a more front and center position.
Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War does some things right. It takes some brave, new steps for the franchise; it branches out with dialogue trees, downtime, evidence, and side-missions, all of which add at least something to the game. It’s not always something of substance, but they never take away from the overall experience. I can certainly appreciate the attempt to make something different here and hope that future Treyarch CoD titles continue to implement these changes.
However, the core experience of a CoD campaign relies on a gripping story, providing consistently fun and varied missions, and solid shooting mechanics, all of which Black Ops Cold War lacks. The campaign here is worth playing through once to familiarize players with the game’s guns and mechanics, but past that, I can’t recommend playing through this story multiple times to experience each end. It’s simply not worth it.
Let me get this out of the way first: Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War does not play like 2019’s Modern Warfare. This game is much more arcadey, like most Black Ops titles before it. If you’re heading into this expecting the same experience you got from last year’s CoD title, you’re going to be disappointed.
That’s not to say that multiplayer in this year’s CoD is bad though. In fact, I genuinely really like it. It’s everything that Call of Duty multiplayer has to be; fast and heavily customizable. Of course, it’s not without its own issues Some are smaller and some are larger, game affecting ones, but overall, the multiplayer experience for Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War is still solid.
From the get-go, there are eight different main multiplayer maps for players to run and gun on, and they all follow largely the same, tried and true three-lane design. You’d imagine that level design like this would get tiring, but there are enough shortcuts, connectors, and interesting angles to keep them enjoyable. However, that also means that whenever you’re playing, you’ll always be on the alert. There is literally never a moment that goes by when I’m not concerned that someone is going to start shooting at me from some vantage point, and that’s where the game rears one of its ugly heads.
It is damn near impossible to see other player characters in this game sometimes. I’ve found this issue mostly on the more earthy levels, like Cartel, a primarily brown and green colored map set in a field of drugs. However, I’ve also ran into this issue on other maps with dark areas. The camouflage on Operator’s clothes is finally working, because against certain backgrounds, they are incredibly difficult to see. I’ve been killed multiple times by bullets flying out from seemingly nowhere, just to find that the shooter was right ahead of me in a dark corner that my eyes never could have picked up.
It doesn’t help either that time to kill, or TTK, is lightning quick in this game. Apparently, after Black Ops 4, Treyarch made extra sure that players couldn’t survive four headshots with an assault rifle before going down. Except this fix is far, far too extreme. Even in the game’s regular core modes, TTK is just a couple of seconds, leaving players almost no time to properly react if someone else gets the drop on them. While it also makes the pace of games much quicker, the negatives far outweigh the positives in this case.
One of the other major changes to the series in Black Ops Cold War is the revamping of killstreaks as scorestreaks. Your kills no longer are the only way to get a spy plane or RC XD. Instead, just about anything you do in the game, from taking objectives to shooting down other player’s score streaks, put points towards your streaks. While this design is meant to open up rewards to players that don’t have a positive kill/death ratio, in practice, it doesn’t work all that well. The score needed to actually get any scorestreaks is far, far higher than what you get from just killing other players. For example, getting a spy plane may take three kills in other games, but in Cold War, it takes more points than you’d get from killing three other players. The end result is fewer score streaks all around.
Even with all of these negatives, I still found myself enjoying how fast paced and rewarding multiplayer is overall. While the selection of weapons in multiplayer isn’t that high, what you can do with them is pretty extensive. Gunsmith and all the different attachments that come with it are a boon for the game, leaving every weapon heavily customizable so there are multiple ways to play with each. Seeing measurable stat differences with every different piece of hardware attached to your weapon is an extra, much appreciated bonus.
Likewise, there are so many different classes to put together that I found myself spending far, far too long customizing mine. Between different perks, throwables and the addition of wildcards that drastically change the makeup of any class, there is a bevy of options for players to enjoy. This kind of customization and the fact that you’re almost always unlocking something for a weapon or a new perk kept me playing Cold War’s multiplayer late into too many nights.
Multiplayer in Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War certainly doesn’t reinvent the wheel. There are some changes, but while they sound promising on paper, they are more of a detriment. Still, it’s Call of Duty multiplayer, perhaps not at its best but certainly not at its worst. I can see myself playing this for quite some time between other major releases.
To some, it may be a surprise, but this is where Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War shines. I’ve always been a fan of Treyarch’s Nazi Zombies game modes, ever since they debuted back in World at War. This year, the game mode made a triumphant return as the best reason overall to pick up Black Ops Cold War.
I’ve talked about Treyarch trying to innovate with this latest Call of Duty title but never getting it quite right. In fact, you could probably call it the theme of this entire review. But this is the one case where every single change and innovation that’s been made is to the end product’s benefit. It’s the same Zombies that players know and love but with a heap of new features that made the hours I sank into it feel like minutes.
Zombies in Cold War begins with customizing your class, and that by itself was a shock to me when I started playing. You can go into the game with any weapon you want, as long as you’ve got it unlocked. No more starting with a pistol only, unless you want to. Players also start with a piece of either offensive or support equipment. By default, the game starts you with a cryogenic weapon that freezes zombies in a small area around you, but there are others that can mix the game up.
Players can also upgrade their classes using Aetherium Crystals, a new currency obtained by playing and extracting, which we’ll get to in a bit. Using these crystals, you can upgrade the aforementioned equipment, perks, and even weapon classes themselves, making them more effective before they’re pack-a-punched.
This all adds up to the biggest change for Zombies I’ve ever seen: progression. No more starting off from square one every time you start the game up. Instead, your progress leads to actual, visible change the next time you start a game. And while the game was already filled with them, having Aetherium Crystals and other rewards on the line when only one person is left alive leads to some fantastic heart-pounding moments.
A huge part of this system is exfiltrating, which is the first time I’ve seen an actual ending built into an interaction of CoD zombies. Starting at round 10 and then every five rounds after that, players can call in a chopper to pick them up. I ended up doing this for the first time last night during a game with friends, and it was adrenaline pumping. We had made it to round 35 but things went south – one of my friends died and lost their guns, we were running out of ammo, and zombies were tanking more of our shots.
We decided it was time to leave, so we gathered up as many resources as we could to prepare. There’s an entire crafting system in Zombies now, and by using different kinds of scrap dropped by the dead-heads, players can make everything from stun grenades to score streaks. I ended up making myself a chopper gunner in case the going got tough. The game also has armor built-in, something that Warzone players should find familiar, and different tiers for each weapon, from one to five. Both of these are also purchased with scrap, and give players more options for beefing themselves up beyond buying perks and using the pack-a-punch machine, which can now upgrade weapons up to three times.
After getting everything we could together, we started up the round and I radioed the chopper. We made a mad dash to its landing zone, but had to clear it first so the thing could actually land, and that’s when I saw it. Zombies now has a variety of, well, zombies. Besides the regular undead Nazis and their canine companions, the game also has Megatons, massive, hulking, radioactive undead that fire bursts of energy at a range. They’ve got tons of health, swing like a wrecking ball, and split into two when they’re defeated. So when I saw two of them at the landing zone and told my friends, there was audible panic.
We ended up burning through all our resources, I almost died, and one of my teammates sadly didn’t make it out. But three of us ended up exfiltrating successfully, nabbing a ton of XP and Crystals as a reward. This is the first time I’ve been able to tell a story about CoD Zombies that was actually exciting to me, and not just one that went something like, “I had so many great weapons and we made it to this obscenely late round.” For once there are actual stakes, and the game benefits greatly from that.
I’ve struggled to find anything bad to say about Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War’s Zombies mode, and honestly, I can’t. It’s zombie-killing arcade perfection, the ultimate version of the game mode that I started playing over a decade ago. My one holdup is that there’s only one map for Zombies as of writing, but roadmaps for the game have already revealed that another will be coming out in December, and I can’t wait to spend way too much time up late at night playing that as well.
Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War is the very definition of a mixed bag. The quality of each of the core experiences in this game are so varied that it’s hard to imagine they’re all part of the same package. But here they are, a lackluster campaign, decent multiplayer, and perfect Zombies mode, all bundled together.
This game is a sharp rebuke of the past two Black Ops titles, and yet it still sports new innovations that don’t always work out. Treyarch continues to be a fantastic developer for the Call of Duty franchise because it is willing to work outside of the extremely rigid box that Infinity Ward constantly works inside of. While this isn’t the best example of Treyarch going in a new direction with its half of the Call of Duty series, I can certainly appreciate its attempt and the few genuinely good additions that have been made.
Altogether, this year’s entry in the Call of Duty franchise is as solid it gets. It’s not bad, and it’s certainly not fantastic like last year’s Modern Warfare. Instead, it’s par for the course as Call of Duty games go; a great first-person shooter that just about anyone can spend way, way too many hours playing.