Call Of Duty: Black Ops Cold War review – long name, short story

This year’s Call Of Duty returns to the 80s Cold War era, with a brand new story campaign and revamped Zombies and multiplayer

So, it’s that time of year again. Despite coronavirus curtailing the usual pre-launch hype this year’s Call Of Duty is out on time and features all three branches of gameplay, with a fully-featured multiplayer, campaign mode, and Zombies. That’s quite the achievement given the difficulties of the last eight months, especially as there have been rumours long before the coronavirus of behind the scenes difficulties with the developers. You certainly can’t criticise Cold War for a lack of content, but then that’s rarely been the problem with Call Of Duty.

As usual, Activision has done its best to ensure there were no reviews of the game before its launch, not because the series ever attracts a particularly negative critical response but simply because it’s now so big that a good review would make no difference but a bad one could cause some minor problems for the hype machine. Cold War is, in almost every way, exactly what you’d expect and depending on your history with the series you can pretty much judge whether it’s for you based on that single comment.

Unlike last year’s Modern Warfare game, Cold War is not a straight reboot of the Black Ops franchise but occupies a murky middle ground where the same characters return and plot points are reused in slightly different ways, without completely contradicting what happened before. Although as ever with Call Of Duty it’s really only the multiplayer that anyone’s going to care about in the long run.

Call Of Duty: Black Ops Cold War story campaign review

It’s always difficult to be definitive when reviewing Call Of Duty’s multiplayer, given its reception ultimately depends on how it evolves over the subsequent weeks and months. That’s doubly true nowadays, when updates are more frequent and integration with the free-to-play Warzone will result in further cross-pollination of features and weapons.

The campaign gets so much focus in reviews because it’s the part of the package that’s finite and can be judged in its entirety, even though stats show most people don’t play it for more than a level or two at most (we always thought it perfectly reasonable that Black Ops 4 didn’t have a story campaign, choosing to swap it for proto-Warzone mode Blackout).

That’s not to say Call Of Duty’s campaigns aren’t worth of note though, far from it. The one for the original Modern Warfare was one of the most important games of that generation and even the worst ones have sported a cheesy arcade style charm that is sadly rare amongst modern big budget games. Last year’s game took itself very seriously though and thankfully Cold War is not such a killjoy and fully embraces a silly James Bond spy threat, involving mind control, evil Soviets, and a virtual Ronald Regan.

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This is all good fun, and the campaign does very well to pretend each level is more complex than it is, a trick the Call Of Duty games have always been good at. So while progress is very linear, with lots of following other characters and doing exactly what they tell you, there are also side quests to pursue, or ignore, and dialogue options that can often end a set piece in one of two ways – leading up to two completely separate endings.

The illusion of choice is conveyed excellently well and you vary rarely see the strings as you’re pulled through an unending series of chases and shootouts. There are slower moments as well though, with some stealth sections that, while very simple, at least involve hiding bodies – which is more than many modern games manage. At times the game almost seems like a spiritual successor to GoldenEye 007 and while it’s never really that open-ended or flexible the comparison is earned.

What lets the campaign down though is the same problems as Modern Warfare last year, in that the story throws up a number of interesting topics, about the amoral actions of the US government and whether it is in fact a force for good in the world, which it then absolutely refuses to follow through on. Call Of Duty might be happy to court controversy in terms of its violent content and portrayal of civilian deaths but it stops shy of offering any serious criticism of American imperialism. Indeed, it’s hard not to read at least one of the endings as a positive endorsement of it.

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Call Of Duty: Black Ops Cold War Zombies review

The second easiest thing to review in a Call Of Duty game is the co-op mode, which for once wasn’t Zombies last year because Modern Warfare is too serious for all that. Cold War isn’t though and since co-developer Treyarch invented the mode in the first place it’s no surprise to find it return here. It’s also, sadly, no surprise to find that it now feels very old hat.

Zombies has been in dire need of a major revamp for years now, far more than either of the other two modes, and it’s sad to say that has not happened here. It’s still the same set-up as ever, with you and three pals trying to survive for as long as possible against zombie hordes, gradually unlocking more weapons and parts of the map as you do so.

Zombies shows the most evidence of the game’s troubled development, with just a single map (a reimagined version the original Nacht Der Untoten from 2008) and missing features that were present in previous games (there’s no longer the option for computer-controlled allies if you want to play solo, for example). The Second World War setting makes no sense in the context of a game that’s literally called Cold War and it all seems terribly tired and half-hearted.

Some will no doubt be happy that the mode takes itself a bit more seriously than some entries – there are no David Hasselhoff cameos here – but the only additional content is the top-down Dead Ops Arcade, which we can’t believe anyone has ever cared about, and the PlayStation exclusive Onslaught mode. This involves you teaming up with one other player and constantly taking damage when outside of a small safe area created by a Crystal Chronicles style gem. It’s very hard but at least it’s different, and for that reason we found it more entertaining than the main mode.

The only other change for Zombies is that for the first time you can use a loadout from the standard multiplayer, which means you can have a decent weapon from the start. Your progress across both modes now unlocks the same attachments, characters, and other items, in an attempt to stop everything from seeming like three completely different games in the same package. But that doesn’t really help when Zombies itself is so unengaging and overfamiliar.

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Call Of Duty: Black Ops Cold War multiplayer review

Given the state of Zombies it will not surprise you to find that the main multiplayer is also remarkably unchanged from the last few games, despite the change in time period from last year. Given Call Of Duty’s success, with Modern Warfare being especially popular, that’s understandable though and to be fair there are some attempts at innovation, beyond the de riguer returning modes.

The objective-based Combined Arms is interesting but it’s the 40-player quasi-battle royale mode Dirty Bomb which is the most significant addition. Unfortunately, it’s a bit of a muddle as although it’s similar to playing quads in Warzone you can respawn after a short wait and rather than just being the last team standing you’re trying to complete objectives (so it’s actually closer to Plunder). The lack of focus leads to a lot of confusion and it’s absolutely pointless playing without a mic.

The new maps are a mixed bag, not least in terms of the ones which are just set in boring warehouses and other ‘realistic’ settings and nonsense ones like Armada which is filled with navy ships accessed by ziplines and jetskis. Armada is definitely fun but the best one is probably the sand dunes and wreckage of Satellite, although all of the maps suffer from the problem of being a bit too big for 6v6 matches and often strangely empty.

There’s also an issue with being able to see opponents clearly, as they hide in the darker corners of Checkmate or amongst the foliage of the Cartel map. Cold War still favours campers, and snipers, and while that will no doubt be subject to change it would’ve been nice to see it more balanced from the start.

However, it’s not right to take for granted Call Of Duty’s vaunted 60fps gunplay, which remains some of the best in the business, being both precise and highly satisfying no matter which weapon you’re using.

We’ve also played the PlayStation 5 version a little (there is no free upgrade, you either have to get a special edition or pay a £5 fee) and the DualSense is once again a highlight, with different weapons requiring more pressure on the trigger or when aiming down sights, and a simulated rumble of your heartbeat when you’re low on health.

When looking at Cold War as a whole it seems obvious that Zombies should’ve been dropped if there was neither the time or inspiration to make a better job of it. Complaining about the multiplayer in the same way seems a little pointless given the game’s popularity but although it does make more of an attempt to innovate most of the new features fall flat and the parts that work best are just the same as usual.

That’s when they do work mind, as the launch period has been plagued by connection problems and lag issues, and even hard crashes. Every online game has problems at launch but these have been particularly severe and it’s not hard to guess why. The rush to hit a deadline while everyone is working from home is the obvious reason, which is understandable even if it’s frustrating.

That aside Cold War is, for better and worse, exactly what you’d imagine: a thrillingly presented single-player campaign that avoids the hard questions presented by its own story, an ossified Zombies mode that is well past its sell-by date, and a multiplayer mode that tries to offer new experiences but only really excels in its most traditional elements. In other words, it’s Call Of Duty as usual.

Call Of Duty: Black Ops Cold War review summary

In Short: Not a standout year for Call Of Duty, as while the campaign offers some fun action and minor innovation Zombies and multiplayer are beginning to feel very tired.

Pros: Excellent gunplay and the story campaign has some great arcade style moments, as well surprisingly open-ended gameplay choices. Multiplayer is as enjoyable as ever.

Cons: Zombies just isn’t any fun outside of Onslaught, and there’s only one map at launch. Dirty Bomb doesn’t really work, which leaves the multiplayer short of new ideas. Campaign story lacks teeth.

Score: 6/10

Formats: PlayStation 4 (reviewed), Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S, PlayStation 5, and PC
Price: £59.99
Publisher: Activision
Developer: Treyarch and Raven Software
Release Date: 13th November 2020
Age Rating: 18

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