In today’s pop culture universe there are few things bigger than Call of Duty. Activision’s first-person shooter is a juggernaut, which has sold like gangbusters for a good amount of years now. Ever since Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, the franchise has been at the top of the industry’s best sellers on an annual, holiday after holiday basis. Many billions of dollars have been made, and it doesn’t seem like the ship is going to slow down anytime soon.
It’s now the holiday season of the year 2020, which has proven to be the worst in recent history thanks to a global pandemic and the economic fallout that has resulted. Despite many people being out of work, or at least working from home, both Microsoft and Sony released new consoles this winter. Even more surprising is how well they’ve sold with everything going on, having apparently broken records out of the gate.
Just like last time, the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series S|X have had their launches met and bolstered by a brand new Call of Duty game. Last time around it was Call of Duty: Ghosts, which people weren’t crazy about but I thought was fine and enjoyable, albeit certainly not the series’ best by any means. Now it’s the Treyarch led Call of Duty: Black Ops – Cold War, which was first leaked by a shared picture of a contest-based partnership with Doritos.
As its title suggests, this newest iteration of the ever-popular Black Ops sub-series takes us back to the 1980s, when the United States of America and Russia were both engaged in the Cold War. I won’t pretend to be a history expert, but I did take quite a few of those courses back in high school, and remember the Cold War as being one of the more interesting things we covered. It was so thought provoking because it was unlike other wars. Instead of traditional battles and deadly forms of combat, most of the fighting was done through psychological warfare, as both sides played a type of chess with each other. Things were so tense that the countries had nuclear warheads set up to scare their opponents into submission. This led to the creation of mass public shelters, but things thankfully didn’t come to such devastating and planet changing blows.
Call of Duty: Black Ops – Cold War picks up as a classified team of allied operatives takes action against suspected spies and dangerous targets. It is there where we take control of a soldier whose code name just so happens to be Bell. However, unlike previous installments of this series, this particular one lets you name and customize your man just a bit. You cannot change his assigned and spoken code name, but you can give him your own first and last name, which will show on the bottom left-hand part of the screen at the beginning of missions, before being redacted for secrecy reasons. On top of that, you can also pick two different perks to carry through the campaign, such as faster reloading, increased health or additional bullet damage. If I’m not mistaken, one also lets you lessen the amount of damage you’ll take from explosives.
This is a somewhat neat addition to the story mode, which thankfully returns after 2018’s disappointing Black Ops 4 decided to forego featuring a campaign. That said, outside of the perks, this customization is mostly surface level. It does allow one to feel like a bigger part of the story, though, so that’s a plus.
The majority of this story centres upon a quest to learn the identity and whereabouts of a terrorist named Perseus. As such, the player is tasked with completing bullet-filled missions, while also looking for intel, which can be used to unlock side missions. Certain dialogue choices also play a role in determining how things play out, especially one major choice that comes near the end of the game. I won’t spoil it here, but it can really alter the ending.
During your four to maybe six hours with Cold War, you’ll meet iconic leaders like Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, both of whom starred in a neat but unfortunately forgotten (Xbox and PC) indie game called Reagan Gorbachev. Listening to these leaders during certain meetings and phone calls adds an air of realism and authenticity to what is an otherwise fictional story. Not the world’s, or the series’, best either.
Call me weird or part of the minority, but I’ve always looked forward to these games’ campaigns more than anything. I know that the main attraction has, and will likely always be the multiplayer, but I’m a single player campaign kind of guy. I grew up in an era where games came on cartridges before CDS, DVDs or Blu-rays, and when multiplayer wasn’t as prevalent. At least not multiplayer like this. While I enjoyed playing games with friends, and always had a friend over whenever I could, I was more than fine playing single player games by myself. That preference has won out in more recent years, where I find that I regularly choose narrative modes over competitive multiplayer, although I do enjoy both.
Although they’ve varied in quality somewhat, and have often been criticized for having more brawn than brains, this series’ campaigns have rarely failed to entertain me. My excitement for them has lessened over the years, but they’re still fun and something to look forward to each fall or winter. As such, I was happy to hear that Cold War would bring a campaign back to Black Ops, especially since I really enjoyed the first three.
Hell, I believe that the last Call of Duty game I truly loved was Black Ops 3. It had a really immersive campaign and some of the best multiplayer I’ve ever played, thanks to its unique operators. That woman with the bow was incredibly fun to play as.
Unfortunately, Call of Duty: Black Ops – Cold War‘s campaign doesn’t measure up to its predecessors. It’s not bad, by any means, but it’s missing a wow factor. Despite being pretty fun and immersive, something feels off, and the magic just isn’t there like it was before. Of course, part of this could be attributed to time and series fatigue, but the simple fact is that this is far from the best story mode we’ve been presented by one of these games. This doesn’t mean that it’s bad or not worth playing, though.
Mechanically, the campaign is fine and as expected, thanks to the series’ familiar mix of bullet-filled stages. You’ll do lots of shooting while both moving and hiding behind cover, with the time spent doing the latter being most dependent on your chosen difficulty level. The guns are plentiful, the combat is loud, and there continues to be tons of enemies to take out with them, or by using a helpful explosive.
The developers (whom I believe were Raven Software, for this particular portion of the game) attempted to add variety into the mix, by adding some stealth, espionage and decision making in. This resulted in the aforementioned side missions and dialogue choices, as well as missions that take being quiet into account more than ever before.
One particular level tasks you with operating as a double agent within the KGB’s headquarters. As the acting security officer, you’ve been asked to identify the mole who’s leaking information to the US government, although nobody actually knows it was you.
Things kick off with a secure phone call with Adler (the leader of the CIA’s team, of which Bell is part), where you’re asked to get the bunker key and let his team in through there. After that, you must attend a meeting with Gorbachev, where your security clearance is revoked, before trying to find a way to get your hands on another key card. Will you frame somebody else? Poison a fellow high ranking KGB agent? Or will you try to create a new key? These are the main options that are put before you, although none are particularly easy. They’ll require some smart communicating, some quiet lock picking and at least a little bit of killing no mater what.
Although it wasn’t my favourite, I enjoyed this mission and appreciated it for what it was. The tempo really changed later on, too, and brought it back to what we regularly expect from this franchise. That said, some will like it more than others. I also had to restart this level, because I randomly got a Whiskey 110 Late Tiger error code, which forced me to close the game and restart it. When I tried to resume from where I’d been in the mission, the frame rate seemed much lower than it had been, so I ended up going back to the beginning. It wasn’t awful, but it did force me to sit through the (not so skippable) meeting again.
As I sometimes do, I chose to play on veteran. I’d read that it wasn’t as difficult as it’s been at times in the past, and figured I’d see how I could do since there’s an option to change the difficulty whenever one wishes. For the most part things weren’t overly challenging, although there were a couple of parts that got a bit nuts. I considered lowering the difficulty during one particular segment where a helicopter was lifting myself and Adler up into the sky, as we stood on an exposed server’s platform. As we rose, enemies popped out on each of the building’s exposed and partially destroyed levels, and did so with some pretty incredible aim. What was surely meant to be a fun and action-packed escape took me an embarrassing amount of tries, because I was almost constantly exposed. If I hid behind one corner of the platform’s steel enclosure, I’d be open to shots from the other side, and so forth. Enemies appeared on different sides, and it was hard to kill or even spot them all before they got some shots in.
With all that having been said, this is Black Ops. It’s a sub-series that is known for messing with players’ minds, and will continue to do so here. It’s also something that is beloved for featuring bits of time travel, which is something else that factors into this take on the Cold War. What I mean is that, while you’ll go into things expecting all of the action to take place during the 80s, that won’t be the case. Some of what you’ll play will actually be set back in Vietnam, although I won’t spoil why. Familiar face(s) also make appearances, but once again, I’ll let you enjoy that without revealing who.
The last I’ll say about Call of Duty: Black Ops – Cold War‘s campaign is that it’s short — shorter than average — and features a middling story that doesn’t have the most interesting of characters or endings. If you play on a lower difficulty you may be able to beat this thing in four or five hours, but it definitely took me longer on veteran. I also tried to do both side missions, but ended up only being able to do one because I couldn’t figure out how to decipher its unlock code and adjoining saying, both of which are randomized for each player. The half-decent one that I did get to play, though, had me moving through what was basically just a snowy multiplayer map, as I shot my way through Russian control centres and satellite depots. My goal was to find and kill a specific operative before escaping via helicopter, and to even unlock this mission I had to read intel and figure out who his three associates were. This gave the hidden intel a purpose, but it felt artificial and forced.
Outside of this mode, you’ll also find the expected assortment of multiplayer options. For starters, there’s the battle royale-themed Warzone, which returns from last year’s Modern Warfare reboot. Then you’ll find Zombies, Dead Ops Arcade and the more traditional assortments of Call of Duty multiplayer modes. Things like Free-For-All, Team Deathmatch, Kill Confirmed, Domination, Hardpoint, VIP Escort, Combined Arms: Assault and Combined Arms: Domination. You’ll also see that a brand new, forty player option called Fireteam: Dirty Bomb has been added in.
Fireteam: Dirty Bomb is an objective-based mode, wherein ten squads made up of four players each must work together to take out enemies, collect uranium caches and locate dirty bombs. When located, these dirty bomb sites can be used to deposit, then destroy, collected uranium. You’ll earn score points for your team by killing enemies, detonating dirty bombs and collecting uranium.
This may once again make you think I’m boring, but like my preferences for warrior/melee classes in RPGs and excitement over Call of Duty campaigns, I find myself gravitating to three modes the most. My go to modes used to be Free-For-All and Team Deathmatch, but my preference was always the first one. When Kill Confirmed became a part of things, it became my third favourite, and I’d mostly just rotate between the three. I still do that to this day. Objective-based modes don’t do a lot for me, outside of games like Battlefield 1942 and Bad Company, both of which hooked me with theirs. I do enjoy playing them from time to time, though!
The multiplayer suite found in Black Ops – Cold War is very diverse, and provides something for just about everyone. However, despite its addition of a new mode, new operators and enhancements, it doesn’t feel as tight or as polished as previous iterations. Ever since Call of Duty: WW2, I’ve felt that the multiplayer has been a bit dated, both in look and feel. The step between the campaign and the online modes feels more severe these days, but that doesn’t mean the latter isn’t still a good amount of fun. Hell, if you asked most fans they’d tell you the multiplayer is the best part, and it’s hard to argue with them even as a fan of the campaigns. People flock to these games for the multiplayer, and it’s almost always been a degree of good to great.
Like its campaign, however, Cold War‘s multiplayer isn’t the best it’s ever been. It’s good, fun, immersive and engaging, but it’s not as good as what we got with the first three Black Ops games. This is due to the aforementioned lack of polish, the current bugs and maps that just don’t feel as inspired as they could’ve been. I believe that there are also only eight core multiplayer maps, with the ninth being the recently added Nuketown ’84.
The first time I played, I was surprised that things ran smoothly because I was downloading something. My first game was flawless, but then the lag kicked in. That was because of me, though, so I stopped playing until I paused the download. When I played again a handful of days later (I’ve been pretty busy and also under the weather), I didn’t have anything downloading but kept experiencing connection issues during matches. I’m not sure if it was on my side or the game’s, but it was there and I must mention it. After quitting out I did a multiplayer network test, and everything came back clear.
If this was a big issue it’d be widely reported, so it’s possible that my Internet was acting up somehow. As I said before I don’t have the best Internet, and things did work fine the first time I played. That second night — when the issue did arise — I kept seeing a connection error, which showed an ethernet cable and port, and both myself and my opponents were lagging. Other than that, and that strange Whiskey error that popped up out of nowhere and wouldn’t let me click OK to close it, the only other issue I had came when a checkpoint wouldn’t load after I died for the third or fifth time. That happened an hour before Whiskey 110, and also forced me to close and restart the game.
Dead Ops Arcade continues to be a somewhat fun but challenging twin-stick shooter, which allows for solo or cooperative play. In what I believe to be its third iteration, it’s dated looking but relatively enjoyable. It’s far from the best twin-stick shooter I’ve ever played, but I had a bit of fun with it, and enjoyed being able to use power-ups to go into first person.
Moving on, last year’s large-scale Warzone mode is still supported through Cold War. We won’t get into details about it, because it came out last year and continues to be what you’ve likely played before. A battle royale mode that was made free to play, and was available for download separately. I much prefer the traditional multiplayer modes, so I stick with those. To each their own though, right?
Lastly, there’s Zombies, which takes place in an abandoned Soviet bunker where an artifact’s testing lead to undead consequences. This is a colourful, challenging and cooperative mode that continues to return regularly because of its popularity. I still remember playing Zombies for the first time in World at War, and back then it was called Nazi Zombies for obvious reasons. My friends really enjoyed it but, despite really liking the other parts of the games, I just couldn’t get into it. The hit detection was poor, the core game loop wasn’t for me and it quickly became my least favourite part of these games.
Blasphemy, I know.
With that being said, I decided to go into this year’s Zombies mode (Die Maschine) with an open mind. The result was more enjoyment than before, thanks to a mode that has certainly improved this time around. The hit detection is much better, the map is decently large and it gets pretty immersive. The one thing I didn’t like about it, though, was the scarcity of ammo. It wasn’t difficult to run out of ammo and not have any points to buy another gun, after destroying cave ins and other barricades that blocked my objectives. That’s actually why I died.
If you love Zombies, you should really enjoy this take on it. It’s pretty fun and colourful, and marked the first time I’ve ever enjoyed Call of Duty‘s take on the undead.
On the presentation side of things, Call of Duty: Black Ops – Cold War is pure Call of Duty. By that I mean the explosions are loud, the levels are full of enemies — some of whom can be annoying to spot — and the guns are boisterous. Almost everything about this series is modeled after the Michael Bay style of movie making, and action is usually at the forefront. While stealth plays a more prominent role here, this mostly remains the loud and bullet-filled style of game we fell in love with back in 2007, or even earlier.
I played this thing on the Xbox Series S unit that I was sent by Microsoft Canada, as part of Eggplante’s participation in their review program. As such, I wasn’t able to experience this game at its visual best, so please take that into account. I’ve been quite impressed by how well titles have looked, played and sounded on the 1080p Series S so far, though, and this isn’t an exception. Black Ops – Cold War is generally a nice looking experience, with detailed environments and characters. Some of the character models are better than others, though, and you’ll occasionally see inconsistencies in their shadows or some pop in. That said, those types of things happen with a lot of games, especially at release.
Keep in mind that we’re talking about a cross-gen title, which is releasing right at the beginning of a new console cycle. We’re still years away from seeing everything the Xbox Series S|X and PlayStation 5 can do, but Cold War is a solid entry point, visually and audibly speaking. It’s loud, good looking and full of action, although I wouldn’t say it’s incredible looking or jaw-droppingly gorgeous. The multiplayer does look kind of dated, while the campaign features some nice next-gen horsepower.
My impressions would’ve been a lot more positive had there been fewer glitches. While I liked the look of the game, enjoyed playing it and look forward to going back to it (outside of downloading its massive patches, which hog my bandwidth for up to a day thanks to living in the country), I can’t remember having such issues with any previous installment. Games are never perfect, especially at launch, but I’m surprised by how in need of a patch this thing is. Sure, most of my time with it was fine, but the abrupt Whiskey error, the connection problems and the checkpoint issue all make me feel like this thing could’ve used some more time in the proverbial oven.
With all that having been said, it’s still easy to recommend Call of Duty to people in 2020. This series may have seen its best years pass it by a decade or more ago, but it still remains fun and that’s what matters. Thanks to an enjoyable and immersive campaign, addictive multiplayer that never lacks replay value and a Zombies mode that is perhaps the best it’s ever been, Call of Duty: Black Ops – Cold War is worth playing, provided you’re a fan of the genre and/or series. That said, it does feel as if some sort of spark is missing, and the glitches definitely marred our experience.
This review is based on the Xbox Series S version of the game, which we were provided with by Activision.
- The campaign mode has returned
- It's nice to go back to the 80s
- A lot of content in one package, which almost unlimited replay value
- Glitchier than normal, or expected
- The campaign's story isn't up to par with its predecessors, and features characters who aren't that memorable. The ending was also abrupt and disappointing.
- The maps don't feel that inspired, and it feels like the spark is starting to wear off a bit