Another year another Call of Duty, but at least 2020’s rendition is stripping things back to basics by returning to one of the franchise’s most beloved subseries in Black Ops. Better yet, there’s not one ounce of future tech in sight, with the brand instead coating itself in the same sense of espionage, mystery and deceit that made the original entry so unique. This is the true direct sequel to 2010’s Black Ops we’ve all been waiting for. And while the Campaign and Zombies portions play it safe for the most part, slight tweaks to the competitive multiplayer and great DualSense controller integration on PS5 sees the series back on top to kick off a new console generation.
As well as being an absolute mouthful to say, Call of Duty:Black Ops Cold War delivers players a jam-packed but relatively familiar value proposition. What you’re getting here is the expected trio of modes in campaign, PVP multiplayer and Zombies, all themed in the iconography of the early and late 80s; Spirit in the Sky is blasting on the radio, neon street signs are a common occurrence, and multiple operative members are seemingly in competition to see who can wear a pair of Aviators the best. But while such an approach could have been a little garish and distracting at times, Treyarch and Raven Software thankfully also know when to reign it in and replace it with the shady antics of the USA versus USSR cold war, at a time when international tensions were high.
Coming in at around 5 or 6 hours, the campaign is your expected mix of bombastic spectacle and cinematic action only this time with some slower-paced sections sprinkled in. It picks up around 20 years on from where we last left characters like Frank Woods, Jason Hudson and Alex Mason in the first game, though sadly, most of the original voice cast has been replaced so that there’s less Hollywood glam. Even still, I’d be lying if I said that undertaking covert missions with this lot again wasn’t like slipping on an old glove, and most of the new talent do a good job embodying these characters.
The team’s mission this time around revolves around tracking Perseus, a rogue KGB agent who suddenly has found access to nukes and is an enemy with origins dating as far back as the Vietnam war. His threat remains largely absent right up until the very end but sets the stage for an 80s-set globe-trotting adventure, where you must shoot, sneak and negotiate your way through Berlin, Istanbul and various other locations. It is a little disappointing that Cold War doesn’t make more of Alex Mason’s Sleeper Agent history aside from the odd mention or text entry; Instead the story chooses to largely stay separated and standalone, though similar themes of military experimentation are again touched upon.
For much of it you actually play as your own a custom protagonist, playable as male, female or a non-binary identifying character. This does unfortunately lead to you to remain a silent watcher during most in-engine story sequences, but it’s made up for by the ability to select specific dialogue instances (that can sometimes affect how action plays out) and a multiplayer-esque perk system where you can equip two abilities – like Quick Aiming or Fast reloading – to your psych report. It creates a slightly more personalised campaign experience.
Set pieces are mostly solid, as already mentioned, running the gamut between gunning down enemy towers from above and riding a care package up to a helicopter as you lay down suppressing fire. How Cold War manages to differentiate itself from other entries, however, is by leaning into to the slower-paced side of its titular conflict. One memorable mission has you patiently navigate a Russian base while staying undercover as a double agent, for instance, while an early trip in East Berlin tasks you to evade patrols through the scantily lit city streets. Cold War isn’t short on spectacle, both in loud and quieter moments.
Sadly, for all the slight glimmers of ambition, the campaign does end up wrapping up rather abruptly as you brute force your way through various twists and left turns. This, coupled with the poor handling of the main villain and our nature to know where Mason, Woods and Hudson all end up, ultimately doesn’t allow Cold War to beat out the original’s overall storyline – even if it is much broader in scope and features multiple endings.
Cold War’s multiplayer portion is slightly more successful, providing a familiar take on competitive FPS action yet with some slight changes to the established Call of Duty formula. The biggest example of this is the much longer time to kill, which might disappoint some veteran players yet serves to benefit all. Gunning enemies down in Team Deathmatch or Kill Confirmed simply isn’t as fast paced as it was in Modern Warfare, mainly because the gun selection is less advanced but more so due to enemy life bars. You heard that correct!
Whereas previously whoever started firing first would win nine times out of ten during gun battles, maintaining a lock to deal damage is now equally important. Another change comes from how online kills are actually handled, as no longer is it just the person who gets the last shot in that is awarded the point. Instead, it’s fairer and a tad easier to gain scorestreaks, because now it’s not just one person who gets what’s called an elimination but anyone who managed to land a hit and contribute towards the kill. It’s a small yet clever way to keep offering die-hard players decent feedback without ever disheartening those who perhaps aren’t as quick on the trigger.
The map selection available in Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War at launch is small but well-designed enough to hold your attention. The long sight lines of Miami and Armada ensures that Sniper-preferring players can get in on the action just as much as anybody else, while the close quarters constraint of Crossroads is the perfect grounds for fast hit madness a la Call of Duty 4’s Shipment. Treyarch is already adding new maps beginning with Nuke Town ’84, so variety will only continue to grow.
As for zombies, well it’s just about business as usual. You and up to three friends see how long you can survive against legions of the undead, gaining power-ups and unlocking new sections of the map as you go. It looks and plays better than ever before just like the other two pieces of the Call of Duty puzzle, but it is disappointing that there’s only one Zombies map to play at launch – and even then it’s just an expanded version of the very first location from World at War. It worked back then, and it works just as well now. The twin-stick shooter mode Dead Ops also makes its return since it was last seen in Black Ops III.
Finally, it’s worth mentioning that Cold War makes excellent use of the DualSense’s haptic feedback functionality when played on PS5. This is mainly because the tension of both L2 and R2 remain separate at any one time, changing depending on the gun you happen to be using. Aiming down the sight of a sniper scope feels vastly different to simply unleashing rounds with a handgun. What’s more, feeling the rumble of an enemy attack chopper as it roars overhead adds to the intensity of online matches. For this reason, it’ll be hard to go back to Modern Warfare’s multiplayer on PS4.
Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War is a relatively safe franchise entry in the grand scheme of things, it’s aim being to act as a greatest hits album of sorts that offers some slight experimentation in its campaign and multiplayer but never to that extent that either become unrecognisable. Its story and characters get the job done but don’t live up to the potential established in the first Black Ops game, Zombies has never felt more like comfort food yet, leaving it to PVP to serve up some fresh action. It just about does. As far as next-gen launch titles go, I can’t think of a better FPS to take for a spin.
This year's Call of Duty effort is the true sequel to 2010's Call of Duty: Black Ops we've all been waiting for, with new campaign developer Raven Software delivering a bombast-filled, yet surprisingly subtle at times, single-player adventure. The zombies portion of the three-pronged package might leave a lot desired, but slight tweaks to the PVP multiplayer makes it the best it's ever been. Black Ops Cold War doesn't disappoint.
Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War is out now on PC, Xbox, PS5 and PS4
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