It’s hard to get excited about a new Call of Duty game after 16 years of consecutive releases, but a bigger emphasis on stealth in Black Ops Cold War’s campaign and a couple of enjoyable new multiplayer modes prove that this annual franchise can still hang with the best.
While part of the Black Ops subseries, you don’t need to be familiar with the previous games to enjoy Cold War’s single-player campaign. Alex Mason, the protagonist from the first two Black Ops’ games returns for a few missions, but you’ll be playing as your own created character for most of the adventure. After an adrenaline-pumping opening chase sequence set in Turkey, you’ll get to choose your character’s gender, background, and two extra skills from a “psychological” profile. These skills include perks like extra health or faster reload speed. It’s a cool concept, but it doesn’t add much while on actual missions.
Set mostly in 1981, Cold War sees your character working with the CIA to stop Perseus, a Soviet spy who has stolen nuclear secrets and is now threatening the stability of western Europe. Along the way, you’ll be joined by Mason and Russell Adler, a scarred CIA agent who looks exactly like Robert Redford. Somehow, it’s not him, though. I checked, double checked, and then looked it up again. Redford has nothing to do with the game, though the resemblance is uncanny.
Developers Treyarch and Raven Software have done a fantastic job creating the game’s early ‘80s aesthetic, with fashion and office space seemingly lifted straight out of a movie from the era. File footage and a brief cameo from a very uncanny valley Ronald Reagan help further set the tone. Call of Duty isn’t exactly known for its soundtracks, but Cold War showcases a few big hits from the era, including Billy Squire’s “The Stroke” and Pat Benatar’s “Hit Me With Your Best Shot.” As if that weren’t enough to revive the decade of big hair and shoulder pads, Raven even managed to squeeze a few classic Activision games from the Atari 2600 into Cold War for good measure.
While Cold War retains the more realistic, heavier gunplay of last year’s Modern Warfare reboot, the move away from active battlefields lends itself to some much-needed changes to the series’ usual formula. Many missions have a much greater emphasis on infiltration and stealth. Enemies can be taken hostage and used as shields, and hiding bodies in closets is critical to success during stealth missions. Sneaking around old Soviet bases with a silenced pistol at the ready results in a strong GoldenEye 007 vibe. I didn’t expect a Call of Duty game in 2020 to emulate the classic N64 shooter, but it works well here.
All of this culminates with one of the best missions in the series’ history: a two-part heist that begins with stealth section that can be completed in multiple ways, followed by a tense shootout and escape. It feels like this is the campaign mission in which Raven put most of its efforts, and it’s such a step above everything else in the campaign that it makes me wonder what the developers could do with the series if they were able to get off the biannual release treadmill and not have to meet such a tight deadline.
I don’t want to give too much of the story away, but I will say that it takes a bizarre hallucinatory left turn after the heist mission, and then in one of the most unoriginal moves in gaming history, steals BioShock’s big twist beat-for-beat. The gameplay remains enjoyable until the very end, but the last hour or so of Cold War’s story is especially disappointing because the rest of the story is so well told. I get it. This is Call of Duty. I don’t expect a Shakespearean narrative, but some originality would’ve been nice. At least the story includes the branching choices that last appeared in Black Ops II, though they feel much less consequential here. There are two distinct endings, but the choices you make during the campaign just affect some of the voiceovers.
Another issue I ran into with the campaign while playing the PC version was a bug where no matter what I did, I couldn’t trigger the ending cutscene for the early mission “Fracture Jaw.” Apparently it’s a problem quite a few players are having. After a quick Google search, I was able to resolve it by running scan and repair on the game’s files through the Battle.net launcher, but this is a major bug that never should have made it into the final release.
Release Date: Nov. 13, 2020
Platforms: PC (reviewed), XSX, PS5, XBO, PS4
Developers: Treyarch & Raven Software
Genre: First-person Shooter
The campaign is also extremely short, even by Call of Duty standards. Accounting for the time I got stuck in “Fracture Jaw,” I was able to breeze through it in about five hours. Of course, many Call of Duty players don’t even touch single player, which is why I’m pleased to report that this year’s multiplayer release is solid, though it’s a little light on content at the moment, with only 10 maps available at launch, and two of those are exclusive to the new Fireteam mode.
The maps are well-designed, though. Thanks to improved ray-traced lighting effects, the neon-hued Miami map is easily the best looking of the bunch, and it features a good mix of interior and exterior sections in which to set up ambushes. Crossroads, a snow-covered map set in the forests of Uzbekistan, is another excellent map, with lots of perches for sniping and wide open areas you can drive snowmobiles through. But my favorite map is the large version of Armada, which is made up of multiple ships anchored in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. You travel between these ships on smaller boats and jet skis, which makes for plenty of unique encounters, but there’s also a lot of verticality. Once you get on top of the larger ships, you can pick off opponents below.
The two big mode additions to multiplayer, Fireteam and VIP Escort, appeal to very different tastes. The 40-player Fireteam mode breaks off players into 10 squads of four players each in a mad dash to kill each other as quickly as possible for pieces of uranium. The uranium is then taken to one of several points around the map to set off dirty bombs. The first squad to 500 points wins. With so many different squads to keep track of, respawning players constantly parachuting in, and detonated dirty bombs irradiating parts of the map every few minutes, Fireteam is like a smaller, more chaotic version of Warzone. So it’s good, but like the rest of Cold War’s multiplayer, I wish there was more to it.
The other new multiplayer mode is the 6v6 VIP Escort. In each two-and-a-half minute round, one player from each team is randomly selected as the VIP, who is equipped only with a pistol, smoke grenade, and UAV. The rest of the team has to protect him as he makes his way to one of two evac points. The round ends when the VIP escapes or is killed, or when all members of the opposing team are killed. The first team to win four rounds takes the match. VIP Escort has an obvious Counter-Strike influence. It’s a lot faster-paced than most other Call of Duty modes, and I enjoyed the matches I played, but I’m not sure it has the staying power of Team Deathmatch or Domination.
Rounding out the Cold War package is the Zombies mode, which returns from Black Ops 4 after a one-year hiatus. The only map available at launch, “Die Maschine,” takes place in 1983 at a graffiti-covered abandoned Nazi bunker. “Die Maschine” is actually a reimagining of the first Zombies map from 2008’s World at War, but it’s a well-made level, starting with a large, open area, and then moving into the winding underground caverns we’ve all come to expect from the Zombies mode. There are also some very cool looking paranormal hijinks to trigger as the rounds progress. The map may not be completely original, but it’s a significant step up from the original release.
One welcome change to Zombies this year is that you can now play as your custom classes and operators from multiplayer, so you can jump into a match with much stronger weapons from the start instead of having to make do with a peashooter and work your way up to something more powerful. Thankfully, this doesn’t break the game either. It’s still very easy to get overwhelmed in the later waves if you’re not careful. My only complaint about Zombies is that I wish Treyarch had leaned into the ‘80s setting more and included content similar to the retro amusement park seen in 2016’s Infinite Warfare. I suppose there’s always hope we’ll see something like that added in an update. As of now, the only other thing Zombies has to offer is the twin-stick shooter Dead Ops 3, which is really only worth checking out for a few minutes.
If you’re burned out on Call of Duty, or never got into franchise to begin with, Cold War is not the game that’s going to change your mind. There are some rough edges here, particularly in the short campaign mode. The lack of variety in multiplayer is also disappointing. But the underlying gameplay and multiplayer progression system remain compelling. Cold War may not be the best Call of Duty game, but it’s a strong showing for the series at the beginning of a new gaming generation.