Another year passes and another Call of Duty title is upon us; yet this year the franchise finds itself in the curious position of being amid a generational leap, as Xbox and PlayStation finally release their respective new consoles. Call of Duty is no stranger to finding itself in this situation due to the yearly release cycle being constant for over a decade now, but with this generation, the pressure is on Activision to deliver a title that can successfully display a new step for the franchise. While Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War marks itself as an interesting entry in many ways, it still finds itself feeling like an uneven package.
As is standard for the franchise at this point, the game is split into three modes: Campaign, Multiplayer, and Zombies. With these game modes being so separate from one another, it is best to discuss them as individuals before considering their place in the package that is Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War.
Much like 2019’s reboot of the Modern Warfare subsection of Call of Duty games, Black Ops Cold War seeks to bring new life into the other equally popular line of games, with Black Ops being a seemingly dead area after the underwhelming Black Ops 4. The campaign functions as a semi-sequel/semi-reboot of the world presented in the original Black Ops games, especially concerning the original 2010 title. Those familiar with the first title’s story will be happy to see some familiar faces reworked in the graphically impressive new engine, which stay closer to the original character models than the redone Captain Price did.
From the very first mission, Cold War already shows some distinct differences from the many campaigns before it, offering instances of dialogue options, as well as brief optional objectives. It is not exactly going for a Quantic Dream-level of multiple paths, yet it certainly provides an interesting diversion for the franchise, with a few different endings and mission paths being up for grabs. The entire mission structure is also somewhat different, presenting the player with an evidence board that aids in amplifying the whole secretive nature that the game strives for, with two missions only being playable after completing some surprisingly head-scratching logic puzzles. Sadly, though, it never seems to be willing to commit to these new directions that the campaign introduces, with the majority of the embarrassingly short four-hour story being the same old tired mission type that has become a staple of the franchise.
Things do begin to ramp up towards the end as the narrative goes fully in on its over-the-top themes, with the story successfully playing with these ideas and presenting a standout mission that perhaps ranks as one of the most memorable in the franchise’s history. If only the entire campaign was willing to go the extra mile and truly the embrace these ideas it has towards the end, then the campaign would stand as a strong milestone in the franchise. For now, it serves as another enjoyable—while certainly problematic—romp through some intense action set-pieces, with a solid eighties aesthetic to keep things somewhat fresh.
The online PvP aspect of Cold War is a tricky one. If you have already found yourself sinking hundreds of hours into the multiplayer aspect of Call of Duty games over the years, then chances are you will probably be doing the same here. Although I haven’t personally been finding the online modes in Call of Duty particularly grabbing over the last several entries (other than Warzone of course), 2019’s Modern Warfare was a decent return to the boots on the ground nature of the franchise’s heyday. While Cold War again opts for the classic arcade nature of the franchise, it also introduces some new game modes that, while offering a nice distraction from the same formula, come across as a poor imitation of the franchise’s key competition.
The biggest change in multiplayer comes from the scale that a few of the game modes go for, with the biggest diversion from the norm being the new Fireteam mode. On the surface, it appears to be a sort of mini-Warzone idea, with forty players in ten squads of four dropping into a large map. Rather than aiming to be the last team standing, the mode is far more objective-based, tasking each squad with collecting Uranium, which feels like the Plunder mode also featured in Warzone. There’s also Combined Arms, which functions as a mode that feels as if Rush and Conquest were taking from Battlefield and meshed into some weird mixture. Sure, it is great to see these game modes included, but it is hard to see the long-term appeal of these modes outside of a quick few matches to test the waters. Every year Call of Duty seems to try and add a new mode to shake the formula up, yet they never seem to land, clearly shown in the fact that no mode seems to ever stay past a single iteration.
Outside of these changes, the gameplay feels incredibly fast-paced, which may be a huge point of contention for you depending on your playstyle. More than ever before, you seem to be dead before you can even aim your gun at the enemy—often finding yourself swiftly shot in the back by someone camping in a corner. Progression is almost identical to the previous entry, with the menus and interface feeling the same and only minor changes to keep the game from feeling completely familiar. You shoot, you rank up, you unlock a gun, you repeat—at the end of the day, it’s another Call of Duty multiplayer mode. It has the same problems that all Call of Duty games have at this point, and it does make one wonder if these issues can ever really be ironed out and fixed. Yet, if you find yourself getting into a decent flow with a powerful weapon, you’ll be sure to get some quick gratification from it; whether the online mode has the legs to carry it on past these next few months remains to be seen.
The fact that Treyarch has still managed to keep the Zombies mode (for lack of a better term) alive this past decade is nothing short of impressive when you consider the modest roots the mode had a bonus mode in World at War. Zombies has certainly had a fluctuating level of quality over the years, with other Call of Duty developers all at some point putting their spin on the mode, yet Cold War once again shows why Treyarch are the masters of this game mode.
Working both as a return to the mode’s humble roots as well as a natural evolution into a new gameplay style, the Zombies mode in Cold War is perhaps the most fun Zombies has been since Black Ops 3. The premise remains the same: you, by yourself or with a team of three, land in a zombie-infested map that becomes increasingly more dangerous as the round count begins to crawl up. The challenge remains seeing how long you and your team can survive for—and this is still an engaging loop, with the zombies feeling incredible to kill thanks to the introduction of a health bar (like one would see in Borderlands), allowing you to always understand what damage you are outputting and when it is time to make an upgrade on your weaponry. A major change this time around is the ability to call it quits when the going seems to be getting too tough and using the option to “exfil” as a means to escape the map without the outcome of death being your only endpoint. With some extra experience points and a frantic dash to the chopper as you try to finish off a set number of enemies before the exfil is deemed safe, it makes for an exciting addition that, although doesn’t offer a huge reward, is a great way to end a game before someone needs to call it quits.
Outside of these larger gameplay changes, it is the smaller quality of life improvements that Cold War offers that makes everything truly come together. A huge time sink for me was the ability for the infamous easter eggs to be doable and accessible both solo and in a group—these were often an impossible process without a full squad. The easter egg, which provides the player with some more backstory for the map as well as a mini-boss wave that comes before completion, isn’t exactly easy to work out, but it ranks as perhaps the easiest and most enjoyable the concept has ever been. Some die-hards may be disappointed in the shorter quest that revolves around the easter egg, yet the fact that I, as a pretty poor Zombie easter egg hunter, was able to complete and enjoy the process is a step in the right direction.
The introduction of the player being able to pick up salvage as they slay hundreds of Zombies throughout the rounds, allowing them to not only protect themselves with armor, craftable items, and weapon upgrades but also acquire killstreaks, is a fantastic addition that will hopefully be expanded upon further with the upcoming maps. For long-time fans of the mode, these changes won’t go unnoticed, with the smallest modifications adding up to create a fluent experience that will harken back to the old days of camping on the walkway of Der Riese. Zombies is back, and despite only having one core map—as well as the bonus of the return of the great Dead Ops Arcade—it has been the definitive highlight of my time with Cold War and will keep me coming back for many months.
On PS5, it must be commended that Treyarch have implemented the DualSense controller haptics incredibly well, providing every type of gun with their unique pressure on the triggers—shotguns feel heavy to push down compared to a pistol, which can be shot with relative ease. It’s a fantastic enticement to play through the game again for those who purchased the cross-gen bundle, as the capabilities not only in terms of graphics of the PS5 but also the haptic feedback truly add a new level of immersion to the proceedings across every mode.
Overall, 2020’s iteration of the long-winded franchise is once again a mixed bag, which sadly has become the norm with the series. A campaign that, while widely entertaining and for the most part interesting, is cut far too short to have any real substantial worth, a multiplayer mode that tries to do some new things but ultimately feels far too same-y with the old frustrations rearing their ugly head, and finally, a fantastic Zombies mode that entertains when playing alone or with friends adds up to a package that feels disjointed. The sooner that Activision decides to allow consumers to purchase elements of the game as separate entities the better, as the Zombies mode alone is worth a spin, just not at the full asking price.
[A copy of the game was provided by the publisher for this review.]