Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War Review – A Good But Flawed Effort

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This year’s Black Ops Cold War offers a bit of everything to satisfy most Call of Duty fans’ desires. Not all, because some parts of the offering are a bit lacking, but most.

In short: the campaign is really good, Zombies is a step forward from BLOPS4’s iteration by being a throwback to what made BLOPS3’s Zombies so popular, and the multiplayer is a bit hit and miss.

Ultimately, COD fans who buy the game specifically for multiplayer and/or Zombies and who don’t care for the single-player campaign might feel a little short-changed this year, as in my opinion the single-player campaign is the strongest aspect of Cold War’s overall package.

Not to make excuses for its shortcomings, but there are legitimate reasons for this: the game’s development was tumultuous, with enough drama that Treyarch had to come in to take over from Sledgehammer and Raven (and this was even BEFORE the pandemic hit, which only complicated matters further), so the quality is understandably a little hit-and-miss.

It’s nothing short of a miracle, then, that the game is only a little iffy. Overall, I’d say this is a good effort, and a rock-solid Call of Duty.

Since it’s the best part, let’s talk about the single-player campaign of Black Ops Cold War first.

A campaign as great as 80s hair is stupid

After not having a campaign in the last Black Ops game, this Black Ops makes up for it with a real cracker. It’s gorgeous, the 80s nostalgia is strong (that hair!), it runs like butter, and it’s a lot of fun. The awesome soundtrack helps, too.

Cold War is a direct sequel to Black Ops 1, and takes place mostly in the 80s with a few flashbacks to the Vietnam War thrown in for good measure (and an excuse to tear up the Vietnamese countryside in a chopper).

The story is typical American bombast, with your Good Guy team led by a Robert Redford lookalike going after a slippery Russian agent who looks like a Communist Terminator to stop him from doing a Very Bad Thing that would harm the free world.

Of course, since this is a Black Ops game, nothing is as it seems, and things unfold quite dramatically as the game draws to a close, with a few fun twists and turns along the way.

Rich and varied levels

The game’s levels are a mix of traditional Call of Duty shooting galleries, and some pleasantly surprising levels that turn the usual COD formula on its head. I mean who’d have guessed we’d be sneaking around KGB headquarters this year, Hitman-style, eliminating people and stuffing them in cupboards while we explore a level that offers more than one way to get through it? Not this guy.

You definitely need some stinking badges here.

For the more traditional COD levels, where there’s lots to shoot, I found the movement and gunplay to be highly satisfying. Weapons felt and sounded like they had actual punch to them, running and sliding and shooting never got old, and reloading checkpoints was super-fast (a point I really appreciated since I died quite a bit).

But more importantly, the variety of missions was good enough that I never felt bored. It’s hard to criticise a game that takes you from a rooftop foot chase to a Vietnam shootout to a sequence where you’re flying a helicopter to a sneaky-sneaky section in Berlin for lack of variety.

Helicopter go brrrrr.

As a direct result of these richly-varied levels, the pacing of the game goes from absolutely bonkers to quite sedate, and then ramps the action up to 11 all over again, repeating this until the final mission and leaving the player breathless and a bit bamboozled but wanting more all the same. This player, at least.

Downtime… in COD? Yes.

That said, there is more downtime in this COD than others thanks to the Safe House that occupies our time between levels where we choose which mission to go on next.

The Safe House is central to your adventure.

There’s even a puzzle or two to solve that impact on how side missions play out, another unexpected but welcome surprise that had me working things out with pen and paper (in a Call of Duty game!).

Do the kids even know what this is these days?

Story-wise, I have to admit to being quite impressed with what the developers made. Cold War offers twists and turns, some of which can be affected by the player’s decisions at crucial points of the game, usually during dialogue sequences.

Oh look it’s Robert Red- oh, no, wait, that’s Russell Adler.

Impressively, choices made along the way determine which of the three possible endings play out. Even more impressively, there are dialogue choices in a Call of Duty game!

The developers very cleverly layered in a lot of nuance (another un-COD-like concept), so that when the Big Reveal comes towards the end, if you’ve been paying attention you’ll feel smart for recognising the hints that have been dropping all along.

Spectacular missions

The missions themselves are spectacular and nicely paced, dropping players into over-the-top set pieces right from the get-go. Some missions stand head and shoulders above others, of course.

Infiltrating a Russian training facility with Woods was an early favourite (also because Woods is a Certified Badass in my opinion), but it was ousted as my absolute favourite by the truly brilliant mission I mentioned earlier that saw the team sneaking into KGB headquarters.

What could this secret Russian facility be hiding?

Having to sneak around and hide bodies in cupboards Hitman-style, and being given options as to how I wanted the level to play out was a breath of fresh air.

Strangely, this is NOT a screen grab from HITMAN 3.

When the dust settled (because things inevitably go pear-shaped, this is Call of Duty after all) I was utterly exhilarated, with literal happiness-goosebumps and gasps of OH MY GOD THAT WAS AMAZING punctuating its conclusion.

Linear, but also not

The point here is that Cold War’s campaign offers more than just a linear experience; there are nuances to the design that motivate players to play the campaign more than once, especially as some scenes take on new meaning when you know what’s actually going on with the story, and the endings are so drastically different.

Speaking of the endings, when my story arc wrapped up, I was a little disappointed. All along I’d acted according to my own internal moral compass, and my reward was a rather anti-climactic conclusion as the Very Bad Thing didn’t happen because me and my team prevented it.

That’s very much like real life, I guess, where our lives continue without the world blowing up because good people do things on the down low that stop the bad stuff from happening… but still.

Good people… and these guys.

A little annoyed, I went back and changed my responses to pivotal questions; fortunately this happens right toward the end of the game and I could choose to replay missions from the menu, and BOOM.

I’ll just say that the “bad” ending is actually more interesting (and so much darker) than the good one, and I was impressed the developers even went there. It’ll be interesting to see which ending they accept as Black Ops canon, and how that affects the next game. If there is one, that is.

Overall, despite one particular mission that I absolutely detested (the Black Opsiest part of Black Ops games where the annoying mind tricks and surreal bollocks appear), I enjoyed this year’s Call of Duty campaign. It was, for me, the strongest part of the three COD pillars of Campaign, Zombies, and Multiplayer, and I will be playing it again at some point because it was just so good.

Multiplayer

 

This year’s multiplayer is bit of a mixed bag, with some good elements and some not so good ones. On the not so good side, there were only eight maps at launch. Eight is a bit low, but at the time of writing a ninth map has been added in a free update for all players: Nuketown 84.

Nuketown 84 is a touched-up version of the iconic map from the first Black Ops game and a welcome bit of fan service by the devs, and the map I had the most fun on. More maps will likely follow in the year to come as Cold War evolves, so there is potential for future greatness here.

‘Twas fun revisiting Nuketown again.

For now, though, the maps that are there offer a mix of highs and lows, as not all are fun to play on. My personal “not-favourite” is Miami, a neon-drenched 80s haircut of a map that’s just too big for 6v6 matches, with too many dark corners for campers to hide in and a layout that doesn’t flow as nicely as I would like.

Teaching bots a lesson so I can grab screenshots in Miami.

Even in Free for All, I would often not run into other players for long stretches, and sometimes when I did, I didn’t know I had until I died. Not fun. Hopefully, as Activision works on the game, they’ll add a 12v12 mode to Miami to balance things out.

On the other end of the spectrum we have Armada, a spectacular map that features three huge warships, linked by ziplines.

The tactical possibilities are excellent here, as you can stealth your way from ship to ship by swimming underwater, you can run ‘n gun to your heart’s content by zipping quickly between the ships, and there’s enough open space and closed-in spaces to shoot from that the chances of a match being boring are very low indeed. It’s beautiful to look at, really cleverly laid out, and easily my favourite map of the bunch.

The expected game modes are here (Team Deathmatch, Free for All, Confirmed Kill etc.), with some new additions like Fireteam: Dirty Bomb that don’t quite find the mark – parachuting into a map with multiple squads of four players to collect uranium to prime dirty bombs isn’t nearly as much fun as it sounds.

Your multiplayer menu, sir. And yes those are the only maps available for now. Would you like a drink with that?

No matter which mode you play, score streaks are there since they’re a mainstay of the series, but this time around they are, er, a bit more troublesome. Thanks to a tweak that doesn’t actually interrupt your accumulation of points when you’re killed, matches take on a cadence of their own, with score streak rewards like spy planes/artillery strikes/napalm strikes and UAVs being unleashed all at once as players reach the required points threshold at roughly the same time, after which matches descend into chaos.

It’s a little funny the first few times, but all the explosions and booms can be annoying, so hopefully they will be tweaked in upcoming updates.

BOOM.

There’s a lot of other stuff to cover but frankly it’s too much (Warzone, the Gunsmith, attachments, progression across modes, unlocks etc.) and this review is already too long, so let me just round off my opinion of Cold War’s multiplayer with this: there is fun to be had here, even if the time to kill is higher than it was last year and some of the maps suck.

Black Ops Cold War will evolve in the next year and get better from all the player feedback Activision will no doubt get, more maps will be added, and weapons will continue to be tweaked and balanced. The MP5 that served as everything from shotgun to sniper rifle that dominated early-release matches has already been nerfed, so Activision is definitely listening. For now, the package might feel a little light, but there’s definitely some good long-term potential here.

Is it enough to pull people away from last year’s excellent Modern Warfare reboot, though? Of that, I am not sure. Assassins’ Creed: Valhalla has taken the crown for physical sales in the UK this month, which has been Call of Duty’s spot for the last 13 years, so maybe not. As with all things, time will tell.

Zombies

Lastly, we come to Zombies. The developers have made some adjustments to the Zombies formula this year, which was getting a little bit too complicated, and focused on keeping the bits that worked in Black Ops 4’s Zombies while also making them a little simpler.

As such, Zombies is actually fun again in Black Ops Cold War. There is only one map, Die Maschine, and it’s basically a modernised (and much bigger) version of the original Zombies map from COD:WaW from way back in 2008. Thankfully, the mode is more about killing zombies and surviving waves than it is about trying to figure out what it is you’re meant to be doing, which is a relief.

And sure, there are still secrets to unearth, but players are at least given objectives to follow so that doing the basics like turning on the power and getting access to the all-important Pack-a-Punch machine aren’t hidden away.

There is a lot to look at and appreciate about Die Maschine. It’s split into several distinct areas, and is smartly laid out so that running around and shooting zombies can be done in fun and creative ways, with features and landmarks that can be kept strategically between you and the zombies in some areas, and closed-in, claustrophobic zones that must be carefully navigated in others.

Knowing where the best paths and obstacles are allows you to herd the Nazi zombie hordes where you want them to be rather than always being at risk of being overrun, which is an essential strategy to employ if you’re going to make it to the higher levels.

And that’s the point: to survive wave after wave of zombies, unlocking perks that make things easier and getting ever-more-powerful guns from the Mystery Box (if you’re lucky, that is) with which to slay them. The higher the wave level, the tougher and more numerous the zombies, making surviving for a long time a significant but fun challenge.

Call of Duty’s Zombies mode started out as a relatively simple concept that became rather over-wrought in recent years, but it’s really good this year. The simpler map makes knowing what you need to do easier, the revised perk system supports some neat survival strategies, and ploughing through waves of Nazi zombies with friends (or even alone) is a hell of a good time as a result.

I didn’t spend a lot of time on Zombies, if I’m honest, but what I saw, I enjoyed, and I will definitely be returning to it when I have a bit more free time on my hands. I’m sure fans of the mode will appreciate the attempts to simplify it and make it fun again; at the very least it’s better than the Zombies mode from Black Ops 4.

And even though there is only one map right now, that’s also likely to change as Activision builds on Cold War’s foundation in the coming year, so there are things to look forward to.

Closing thoughts

So this year’s Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War isn’t perfect. Even though its campaign is excellent, it’s a little lacking in multiplayer content right now, and what’s there is a bit of a mixed bag when it comes to quality.

But I’m willing to give the devs a break considering the game’s tumultuous development that was compounded by a global pandemic, because miraculously, they still managed to deliver a solid Call of Duty game. At the very least they provided a good foundation on which to build in the coming year.

On the list of things I’d like to see come to the game soon, optimisation and performance improvements are right at the top. I feel that my 1080Ti should not be struggling as much as it did in both single and multiplayer, as I didn’t hit 60fps at 4K/max settings very often except in the menus, and I saw my frame rate dip into the low 30s far too much.

Sure, I could tweak the huge number of graphics settings to bump my frame rate up, but those tweaks would come at a visual quality cost that I don’t want to pay. Because at full graphics settings this game is freaking gorgeous, and I don’t want to have to compromise that, or buy a 3080 just to maintain 60fps at 4K.

Lastly, a South African perspective

Ultimately, I enjoyed Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War (affectionately referred to in my head as CODBLOPSCOW). But I’m not convinced it’s worth the ridiculous asking price of R1 399 for the standard edition on console and just over a thousand bucks on PC via the Blizzard app.

This is South Africa, a country where many are struggling economically thanks to COVID, and gaming is increasingly becoming a luxury that is out of reach for all but the most well-heeled of us.

To expect the average South African gamer to fork over a large sum of money for the standard edition of a Call of Duty game that’s not super-polished and stuffed to the gills with content is a bridge too far in my opinion.

I know local distributors are also fighting the exchange rate and a government that seems to delight in making doing business difficult, but still – this shit’s getting out of hand. As game and console prices continue to rise, fewer South Africans will be able to afford them, our market will continue to shrink, and in a year or so we’ll be all but irrelevant as a region.

And that’s a crying shame, because I’d love to see more people playing AAA titles like Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War, not less.

Peace out.

Score

70% Score

Its stellar campaign and improved Zombies experience is not enough to carry Cold War to greatness thanks to content-light multiplayer options and inconsistent map quality.

Review Breakdown

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Deon du Plessis

Deon du Plessis

Deon got his first taste of PC gaming at the tender age of 11 when his father bought an 8088 XT, ostensibly to "help him with his homework". Instead, it introduced him to Leisure Suit Larry, King Graham, Sonny Bonds and many more, and Deon has been a PC gamer and hardware enthusiast ever since. He landed his first professional writing gig in 2006 at a prestigious local PC magazine, a very happy happenstance as he got to write for a living about things he loves - tech, PCs, gaming, and everything in between. He's been writing about it all ever since, and loves every minute of it.

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