Reviews

Call of Duty Black Ops Cold War Review: The name’s Bell, James Bell

Call of Duty has spectacularly returned to its roots in recent years. A brilliant return to WWII in 2017 was followed by a reboot of Modern Warfare last year, which was not only my favourite Call of Duty, but my favourite multiplayer shooter overall, of the PS4/Xbox One generation. It recaptured everything responsible for my borderline COD addiction in the late-2000s, and seriously upped the ante, as Infinity Ward rediscovered the missing ingredient that had eluded it most of the generation.

Now it is Treyarch’s turn, with a quasi-reboot that’s also a sequel to the original Black Ops; the franchise that split up the aforementioned vintage displays. In always trying to up its game, Black Ops 4 reached a frantic speed in 2018, as the trademark COD gameplay loop saw a rather stark change of pace with each of the last three instalments.

Call of Duty Black Ops Cold War drops things down several notches on the multiplayer front, and takes it back much closer to the sub-series’ original intent, but with pacing similar to Modern Warfare, comparatively speaking — which gives us the least drastic shift in several years.

It’s the single-player campaign where Black Ops Cold War throws away the formula and delivers a truly unique Call of Duty experience — nothing like COD as we know it.

Cold War Campaign

Black Ops has always had a more tactical focus, but Cold War exemplifies the operational narrative with a campaign that is more spy thriller than battlefield drama. It feels like a Treyarch game — and now is a good time to remember the studio developed the Quantum of Solace game all those year ago — but the narrative was largely crafted by Raven Software, perhaps auditioning for a promotion now that Sledgehammer Games has suddenly been benched. The result is a gripping new take on Call of Duty that is a lot more James Bond than large-scale army warfare.

Black Ops Cold War is a more subdued Call of Duty campaign. It still ticks the series’ iconic checkboxes — you’ll survive the mandatory helicopter crash within the opening hour — but gone are the sprawling battlefields and never-ending supply of AI soldiers to fight by your side.

A slither of the campaign is played as the returning Alex Mason, to secure Cold War’s position effectively following the original Black Ops. Most of it is experienced as your own custom avatar, who is assigned to your choice of spy organisation; M16 seemed fitting for my man, James Bond — or “Bell” as he or she will be nicknamed, regardless of your selections.

In the world of tactical espionage, Bell is tasked with infiltrating everything from a single house to several Soviet bases to secure intel without being seen, or whilst under disguise. COD has dabbled with this type of thing before, but now it’s the core focus rather than a single mission serving to disrupt the shooting. There’s far more stealth than we have ever seen in a Call of Duty campaign before, and it’s entirely done alone, or with a very small group of allies, rather than a complete squad of soldiers.

There are still some classic COD bottleneck shootouts, mostly set against the backdrop of flashbacks to the Vietnam War in the late ‘60s (whereas most of the story is set in the early ‘80s), but these serve as the change-up missions, rather than the main course. Objectives take branching paths, and basic dialogue trees give you limited choice over the direction of the narrative, introducing a genuine reason to replay the key story beats.

The opening three quarters have you selecting missions from an evidence board, where intel from previous operations that may be of assistance can be viewed. These only really play a role in two optional side missions, which require intel to be decoded, otherwise some of the baddies will escape. While the final third follows a more familiar structure, there’s a surprising amount of choice as to where to go next, and even how to approach objectives in the early missions; but it’s all still tightly controlled enough to ensure you’re always well guided. This is Call of Duty, after all.

Everything from the visual aesthetic, to the atmospheric music, and Cold War colour palette exudes Bond to me — especially early in the campaign. There are no quirky gadgets or antiquated quips, but even the villain, a USSR operative known as Perseus who has infiltrated western intelligence, harks back to the vintage era of 007. Raven and Treyarch have struck the perfect cord to recreate a ‘80s spy thriller as a modern video game.

With less time spent murdering goons, and more time gathering and actually paying attention to intel, Cold War is one of the simplest Call of Duty stories to follow — despite wacky cameos and some of the more unique level designs; one in particular presents varying memories of Vietnam like a horrible PTSD nightmare. It touches on several real world events, and people, but perhaps not as much as the reveal trailer first made it appear. It’s still your generic character and the core fictional cast who take centre stage.

On normal difficulty, Cold War clocks in at around five hours, but with several branching paths, I’ll be back on veteran to complete the narrative. These dialogue options are fairly basic, normally a choice of A or B. They’re also presented awkwardly as your character remains mute while offering a text selection in contrast to the high budget production cinematic around them. But it does leave the impression that time spent gathering optional intel has led to an informed decision that’s made a difference; even if there are only two scenarios to choose from.

Next-gen upgrades

Spider-Man Miles Morales and Watch Dogs Legion have been the poster boys for raytracing at launch on Xbox Series X and PS5, but it’s Call of Duty Black Ops Cold War that has sold me on the implementation. The campaign looks amazing with raytracing enabled at 4K, and still runs at a smooth frame rate. I strongly recommend this is how the campaign should be played.

Raytracing is also featured in multiplayer, but is far less noticeable. That is where I would consider switching to the 120 frames-per-second mode, which requires raytracing to be disabled and lowers resolution — on Xbox Series X, this has to be enabled in the system menu, and then is automatically enabled in the game menu and can’t be disabled. In our play testing, this works flawlessly in online multiplayer. If there are any frame drops in actual gameplay, they’re not visible while playing.

The PS5 version also supports the DualSense’s adaptive triggers to make each gun feel different — we’ve been playing on Xbox Series X, so haven’t tried this feature.

 

While I’ve really enjoyed the change of pace from a Call of Duty campaign like no other, there’s no denying it does’t really feel like a Call of Duty game in the traditional sense — and that’s great. After the fantastic return to Modern Warfare last year, I’m glad Black Ops has taken a different approach for its rebirth.

If it didn’t carry the COD name, it could very well have been labeled as an entirely different game marketed as “from the creators of Black Ops”. Raven and Treyarch have tried something new here, and delivered a refreshing Call of Duty single-player experience — just be aware it’s a smaller scale spy thriller, not an epic open warfare game.

Black Ops Multiplayer

The campaign is a crucial component to Call of Duty, and I’m glad to see it return to Black Ops Cold War after its disappointing omission last time. However, it’s the multiplayer that keeps COD atop the sales charts year after year; you know it, I know, and every Call of Duty developer I’ve ever spoken to certainly knows it.

Black Ops Cold War delivers a more familiar Call of Duty multiplayer experience than recent years. Going from the flummoxed Infinite Warfare, to the classic stokes of WWII, then back to the speed of Black Ops 4, before basking in the revitalised Modern Warfare took some getting used to. Cold War embodies the classic Black Ops combat loop of 2010 merged with the established traits of 2019’s Modern Warfare.

As always with Call of Duty, the more you invested in last year’s instalment, the more jarring the initial transition to something that feels similar, yet different. It’s pronounced this year, due to its comparable pacing to Modern Warfare; but on the whole Cold War feels stripped back. Whereas the Campaign spans the late ‘60s through to the early ‘80s, the multiplayer takes us back a decade in philosophy. The arsenal of guns is far less bloated the previous games, skillstreaks return, and the mixed selection of maps roll around quickly with what has suddenly become a limited supply.

It’s at once a return to basics with an old school style Call of Duty that prides itself on addictive, yet simple, multiplayer, and a little lacking in content. There is no less here than in previous Call of Duty launches, but the removal of the season pass last year has seen Modern Warfare evolve with a staggering amount of content. The unintended side effect is Black Ops Cold War feels sparse on maps when the entire community, not just those able to afford all DLC, has become accustom to the full suite 12 months later in Modern Warfare. That will be rectified in time.

The return of scorestreaks over killstreaks is a welcome one, and assimilates perfectly with Treyarch’s style and emphasis on objective based players. The developer has been working for years to encourage players to evolve past TDM. Rewarding players for everything they do — completing the objective and eliminating other players — removes the incentive to sit back with a sniper rifle to the detriment of your team’s score; although, the slight overpower and precision of snipers and shotguns have kept both in popular supply at launch.

Scorestreaks don’t reset with deaths, which means objective-focused players with high death rates are still rewarded for their less selfish play. It combines with the continued omission of kills, as Treyarch retains eliminations as the primary metric, which doesn’t differentiation between a primary kill and an assist. With more players able to earn them, scorestreaks also act as a cool down timer to ensure the battlefield isn’t bombarded with power-ups. Black Ops Cold War strikes a perfect balance between allowing all players — including casuals and those more focused on completing an objective than enhancing their kill:death ratio — to earn rewards, without unbalancing the state of play.

The classic modes all return and are already the most popular in rotation, but the newcomers are genuinely worth a look this year. VIP Escort channels elements of Rainbow Six Siege, with one player randomly assigned the role of VIP with a special loadout. With only one life per round, either eliminate all players from the other team, or just their VIP, to win the round when defending. While attacking, help your VIP escape safely for an instant win, or wipe their squad. While best when coordinating with friends, to my surprise, the simple focus still works really well with a bunch of random players unwilling to communicate with each other. It’s a less frantic mode, where a single kill is far more meaningful.

On the other side of the equation are the two large scale modes: Combined Arms, with up with 24 players, and Fireteam: Dirty Bomb, with up to 40. Combined Arms is the equivalent of Modern Warfare’s Ground War, which mirrored itself on Battlefield’s Conquest, as larger teams attempt to capture and hold six points on sprawling maps. They can be traversed on foot, or with a selection of vehicles, including tanks, gunboats and snowmobiles.

Reducing the player count from a maximum of 64 to 24 reduces the Battlefield influence, and brings it back into the arena where Call of Duty operates best. The balance between soldiers and vehicles is further refined than last year’s billowing equivalent, and it feels like vintage Call of Duty on a marginally grander scale. The purpose built maps designed for two teams of 12 elevates Combined Arms beyond a quasi Domination20 mode, as the layouts are primed for the double dose of players. It’s a great mode, and carves out a spot between the tight confines of traditional COD, and the enormous scale of Warzone.

That leaves the 40 player Fireteam: Dirty Bomb stranded in no man’s land. Ten teams of four drop into a downsized Warzone, with the intent of collecting uranium to fill and detonate several bombs. I applaud the new idea, but it’s spawned from a mash-up of existing modes and doesn’t better any of them. The larger player count loses the tight combat of Call of Duty, but it can’t rival a fully fledged battle royale. It’s trying to fill a gap best left alone.

The new class system is really last year’s structure with a Black Ops Pick 10 moustache. Treyarch has always allowed more picking and choosing than Infinity Ward, but Cold War achieves it without the convolution. It’s easy to setup a class and tweak components, seeing the pros and cons of tinkering at a glance. Or, like me, you could exclaim ‘that’ll do’ and run with the first unlocks for weapons with your favourite scope. Subbing perks, equipment and scorestreak unlocks is as easy as ever, and the wild card buff retains the simplicity, even if it’s lacking in impact.

It wouldn’t be a Treyarch game without Zombies, and the horde mode returns at its finest in Cold War. Dead Ops Arcade joins the new storyline of Die Maschine, and while it’s very similar to what you’ve played before, it’s the same sturdy blueprint. With loadouts able to be shared across multiplayer and zombies, the relentless undead mode is attempting to make itself more accessible to new players this year, but I suspect it’s something of a lost cause. Zombies fizzled out for me when Black Ops was still a trilogy; you’re either in or out at this point.

The exceptional cross play functionality that debuted last year returns as if it’s been established for generations. It’s just seamless, and easy to forget you’re playing across Xbox, PlayStation and PC. Call of Duty is truly a pioneer in bringing players together through cross play — except, of course, for its horrible counterintuitive PlayStation exclusive content that undoes some of this great work. The only option missing is a controller based filter. At the moment cross-play is either on or off, when there really should be a controllers only toggle. I understand not wanting to exclude PC players, but when there are some prime sniping positions across these maps, a lopsided PC lobby isn’t much fun for console players.

Call of Duty Black Ops Cold War is a strong start for the Xbox Series X/S and PS5 generation. It doesn’t have the same invigorating revival as last year’s Modern Warfare, but that would be an impossible expectation. Cold War delivers a very different campaign that’s more spy thriller than epic warfare, and it’s the first Call of Duty game to thrive in its quieter moments for more than a single mission. Multiplayer is still the highlight of the package, with a satisfying old meets new combat loop and a strong selection of modes. Now we’re just waiting for a few more maps. Come on, it’s been half a week already!

7 out of 10

The good

  • Great spy thriller campaign.
  • Different take on COD single-player works well.
  • Old meets new quality multiplayer.
  • Good selection of modes, with two strong newcomers(ish).

The bad

  • Bullet sponge enemies used regularly as padding to extend missions throughout the campaign.
  • Fireteam: Dirty Bomb doesn’t land.
  • Mixed map selection – feels lacking coming from Modern Warfare.

 

Call of Duty Black Ops Cold War was reviewed using a promotional code on Xbox Series X as provided by the publisher. Click here to learn more about Stevivor’s scoring scale.

Call of Duty Black Ops Cold War

13 Nov 2020 (PC PS4 | PS5 Xbox One | Series)

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About the author

Ben Salter

Ben has been writing about games in a professional capacity since 2008. He even did it full-time for a while, but his mum never really understood what that meant. He's been part of the Stevivor team since 2016. You will find his work across all sections of the site (if you look hard enough). Gamertag / PSN ID: Gryllis.