Black Ops has returned sooner than expected. After a polarizing shift into the future with its fourth entry back in 2018, Treyarch has decided to move this iconic subseries back to the era that helped cement its place in gaming history.
Marking the return of a traditional campaign, Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War is an excellent new entry in the blockbuster series, delivering everything you’d expect alongside a few welcome surprises. It rarely rewrites the rulebook, but Treyarch has delivered a worthwhile shooter that builds upon the soft reboot of Modern Warfare in some compelling ways.
The traditional multiplayer is exactly what you would expect, but a bold new approach to campaign storytelling alongside a challenging Zombies mode help establish Black Ops Cold War as a solid new chapter in Activision’s crowning franchise. It will do nothing to change existing skeptics, but those wanting a nostalgic journey alongside Woods and Mason will find a lot to love here.
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Call of Duty Black Ops Cold War Review – Campaign
Not much physical violence really happened during the Cold War. Well, it hardly matched other global conflicts in terms of sheer bloodshed. It was a period of political turmoil and global anxiety about the capabilities of nuclear annihilation, with major superpowers sitting on a knife-edge simply waiting for one to pull the trigger.
This thankfully never happened since we’re all still alive and breathing, but the time period remains drenched in fascinating mystery. Treyarch has taken this opportunity to delve into the era to build upon the Black Ops mythos.
More so than before, this feels like a true sequel to the original Black Ops. It’s a creative spy thriller where you and a small team of iconic characters must work together to prevent the threat of nuclear war. Your heroics will never be acknowledged by the wider world, but Woods, Mason and company are the only tacticians capable of putting a stop to a deadly new opponent known as Perseus.
Operating in the shadows, Perseus is a deadly new operative capable of extraordinary things, in possession of resources that could descend our planet into oblivion with the touch of a button. To stop him, Ronald Reagan has compiled a team of experienced operatives to slowly but surely piece together his evil plans, even if it means performing a few war crimes themselves to get the job done.
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Ronald Reagan acting as the bastion of moral superiority is a comedic touch, reinforcing the conservative lense this franchise has viewed global politics through for years. Aside from the opening round of cutscenes and talking alongside Hudson in mission transitions, he’s rarely seen, so it’s an easy blemish to overlook. Upon receiving a brief on the evildoings of Perseus and embarking a bombastic opening mission, you are thrust into a hideout to plan your next move.
This is where Black Ops Cold War makes a significant departure from previous games. You begin the campaign by creating your own avatar. Name, background, perks, and gender are all taken into account when constructing a virtual operative, with the latter option even including non-binary, which is very progressive for a massive blockbuster. But it soon becomes clear that your character is little more than a blank canvas to accommodate twists and turns in the coming narrative.
You don’t say a word, despite the occasional dialogue options you’re asked to choose during missions which can influence the moral standing of your squad and the sequence of events yet to unfold. The campaign is based out of a hideout where you can interact with a small staple of characters and tackle missions from the comfort of an evidence board. Here you can absorb background information on your adversaries and the wider conflict, which is drenched in a convincing aura of Cold War intrigue
Analyzing evidence and solving puzzles can lead to more enjoyable side missions, ensuring you don’t leave behind any loose ends for the terrorists to take advantage of. It’s criminal that Black Ops Cold War only has a couple of these missions throughout the entire campaign, producing a false illusion of freedom on a rollercoaster ride that is sternly fixed to the tracks. Aside from a few choices made in the later stages, things will unfold in a similar manner with only a few small exceptions.
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Treyarch has assembled the ingredients for Call of Duty to try something truly different, but the finished product feels half-baked. It’s an identity crisis which has the campaign stuck between wanting to define itself as a linear action blockbuster and a freeform spy thriller where the player is free to tackle the threats before them however they see fit. If they went all the way, this could have been a bold slice of brilliance.
As it stands, Cold War’s campaign is an absorbing few hours of action which could have been so much more, but is held back by the hesitance to embrace its own ambition. Because of this, it arguably would have been better with a traditional structure and a spoken protagonist, since this would have done a far better job of immersing me in the story. Allies are pitched as contentious figures who served with you in Vietnam, hinting at long-lasting relationships, but these aren’t nearly developed enough to feel convincing.
The campaign is at its best when you’re free to make decisions and create set pieces of your own accord. One particular mission has you infiltrating the KGB headquarters. You’re asked to find a key and let your comrades into the building, but how you go about things is completely up to you. You can frame a colleague as an undercover mole, convince a prisoner to part with information or even hack together a key yourself.
This level of freedom initially felt alien, but I immediately embraced it, taking time to explore my surroundings and find the course of action that fit my personality best. It’s a shame that moments like this are so few and far between. Constantly switching between playable characters also undermines your avatar’s own agency. What are they doing while I’m murdering Russians as Woods and Mason? Questions like these lead to massive plot holes, especially when your true nature is revealed towards the end.
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Perhaps I’m being pedantic for picking holes in the narrative structure of Call of Duty, but the series has shown it can pull off tightly constructed stories and characters worth investing in before, and this feels like a few mere inches off the mark. With any luck, Treyarch or Infinity Ward will build upon this structure in the years to come, since there is so much potential here. If you’re looking for a brief yet bombastic Cold War adventure, the campaign still delivers.
As for the gunplay itself, it feels fantastic. I played Cold War on PS5, and the DualSense’s adaptive triggers allow the pressure of aiming and firing your weapon to feel startlingly realistic. The crunch of a shotgun is felt in your fingers as it blasts towards the enemy while aiming down your sights is greeted by a sense of momentum that mimics such a weapon being pressed against your shoulder. It’s a level of immersion I didn’t know I wanted, but now I’d struggle to ever play Call of Duty without it.
The next-gen versions also support ray tracing at 4K/60fps and the results are beautiful yet mixed. In chaotic scenarios the framerate can dip noticeably, meaning its best to abandon the feature in multiplayer where fast reflexes are paramount. Those with relevant displays can also take advantage of 120fps, which feels gorgeous in motion. The visuals and resolution are sacrificed, but it’s a worthy compromise for those on smaller monitors.
Call of Duty Black Ops Cold War Review – Multiplayer
The multiplayer element of Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War is drenched in the series’ tradition, and doesn’t venture far from established normality at all. It abandons some of the elements found in Modern Warfare such as interactive doors, resulting in a faster, more arcadey shooter experience that I honestly preferred. It’s punchy, satisfying and delivers plentiful serotonin as you push through the ranks and earn loads of unlocks.
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Your usual selection of modes such as Team Deathmatch, Hardpoint and Domination are all here, and combining them into your own personal playlist can lead to hours of expletive-ridden fun with a friend by your side. The real joy resides in Combined Arms – larger, objective-based affairs which take full advantage of Treyarch’s excellent map designs. A higher number of players across each team allows for unparalleled mayhem as you seek to conquer objectives from land, air and sea.
Armada is my personal favourite battleground. Taking place across a selection of military vessels, the open sea situated between them allows for the intuitive commandeering of smaller boats which can pindown foes with the use of oppressive gunfire. Alternatively, you could stealthily swim beneath the water, sneaking into objectives from the lower corridors for a perfect flanking attack. There are so many possibilities, and the constant flipping of objectives forces you to be creative on the fly.
Cartel is another standout map, thrusting players into the remote jungles of Nicaragua as they duke it out amongst jagged cliff sides, wooden huts and marijuana fields all perfect from impromptu cover and barbaric angular firefights. Objective points are creatively placed that they can always be conquered with a bit of creative thinking and a well-placed scorestreak, with the latter now engineered so even casual players can unleash mayhem one or twice per match.
Fireteam matches such as Dirty Bomb are the weakest new addition, with its grandiose scale and lengthy match times not working with the frenetic pace Call of Duty occupies. That, and unless you have three friends working alongside you, gathering uranium and activating all the objectives is a stressful bore that rarely feels fun to play. I’d avoid this mode or stick with Warzone unless you have a complete squad willing to accompany you.
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The roster of maps right now is rather small at just eight, but I imagine this will grow with the introduction of the first season in December. In fact, beyond a brief selection of operators and the usual create a class and scorestreaks, much about the multiplayer feels barebones right now. This isn’t surprising, but it will be a few months until the experience reaches its full potential with the implementation of Warzone and seasonal updates. Right now, it’s still incredibly fun and well worth jumping into.
Call of Duty Black Ops Cold War Review – Zombies
Zombies are back, and it’s exactly what you’re expecting. Taking place in a modern iteration of the original World at War locale, you must fend off endless hordes of the undead while activating the power, toying with machinery and slowly but surely uncovering everything the map has to offer.
It’s excellent fun with a few fellow undead dispatchers by your side, with each round adopting an addictive rhythm as you scramble desperately to survive. All of your usual perks such as pack-a-punch and quick revive are here, and you’ll even find a mystery box which could be hiding a raygun for one lucky individual.
There’s a loose narrative linking the Zombie mythos together, delivered through in-game narration as you complete objectives, and it’s delivered with enough serious conviction that I wanted to hear how things were resolved, but I’m not sure many will jump into this mode for the story alone.
Perhaps the biggest change is being able to escape the chaos. Every ten rounds you are given the opportunity to exfiltrate. Simply call in a chopper and you’ll be given an evacuation point. Survive the oncoming wave and you can retreat to safety and return to fight another day. It’s a compelling twist on the formula, and means you can wrap up a session that has been going on too long, or abandon the frontlines when things get too tough.
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Call of Duty Black Ops Cold War Review – Verdict
Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War is a solid entry in the blockbuster franchise that looks stunning on next-gen consoles.
While its campaign fails to deliver on its potential, it still takes you on a thrilling tale of explosive espionage as you uncover the true identity of Perseus. Combine this with an old-school multiplayer component and expanded Zombies mode and you’ve got a shooter experience I can easily recommend.
It also teases the beginnings of a “Call of Duty metaverse” of sorts which I’m fascinated to see develop in the coming years, as it could push the franchise into an unparalleled new direction. I’d also love for Activision to stop mining our nostalgia one of these days.
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