Like death and taxes, a new Call of Duty game is inevitable every single year. The series’ first next-gen outing seemingly offers a platter that hosts everything you could ask for out of a Call of Duty game: An action-packed campaign, an addictive multiplayer, and a thrilling zombies mode. But in trying to deliver on these three very different experiences, Black Ops Cold War fails to specialize in anything. It wears many hats, but none of them fit quite right.
What Is It?
That’s a bit of a loaded question. Call of Duty Black Ops: Cold War is a direct sequel to the original Black Ops, featuring familiar characters, settings, and a plot involving espionage and conspiracies set in the geopolitical conflict of the Cold War. But it’s also a zombie-survival game where you team up with your friends to take down as many of the undead as you can, while also completing objectives and arming yourself to the teeth. Finally, it’s an exhilarating multiplayer experience that rewards you with a constant sense of progression.
The game’s three core modes couldn’t be more different, but they all have one core element in common — the rock-solid gunplay. Call of Duty has always been a well-controlling shooter that even allows a beginner to simply pick up a controller and feel right at home. It’s no different here, and with some slight gameplay adjustments that quicken the game’s pace, it might be one of the best playing boots-on-the-ground Call of Duty games to date.
Why Should I Care?
2019’s Modern Warfare was by no means a slow-paced game, but mechanics such as leaning, and mounting weapons via tripods naturally encouraged a more careful, calculated effort when dispatching your foes. Black Ops Cold War, on the other hand, eschews all of those features in favor of ones that keep the action as fast-paced as possible. Being able to sprint while reloading, and to hip-fire while tossing grenades are two welcome additions that help keep you constantly moving, quicken the pace of the moment-to-moment gameplay, and make Call of Duty feel more like a playable action movie than ever before.
I felt this sentiment echoed particularly in the game’s Combined Arms playlist. The game-type sees you participating in big-team, objective-based battles, and they’re at their best on the map Armada, created specifically for this mode. Set on open waters filled with drivable boats and cruisers connected by ziplines, I found myself playing Call of Duty in ways that I had never thought to before.
In lieu of the cover that’s normally sprinkled throughout the game’s maps, I had to make use of the next best thing — deep water. One encounter saw me faced with a boat piloted by the opposing force. Staying ashore would’ve made me an easy target, so I dove underwater, waited for the boat to pass, came up on the other side, and unloaded on my enemy’s blind spot, securing a kill.
Armada might be my favorite map, given how unique it is from the rest of them. But that’s not to say the others are bland by any means. They’re all fairly open-ended, leaving little room for slow, defensive styles of play like camping. You’re forced to move around a lot, remaining hyper-vigilant of your surroundings, as you never know where the next enemy could be coming from.
Matches are fast-paced, adrenaline rushes that compel you to play game after game, even long after you said “I’ll just play one more.” It’s the rewarding progression system that drives this feeling. If you level up during a match, you probably unlocked a new weapon, so naturally, you’ll want to see how it does in the field. Even if you don’t level up during a match, there’s a chance a weapon you’re using probably did, so you might as well see what new attachments you’ve unlocked, and determine if they’re good enough to add to your loadout.
Unfortunately, the multiplayer, while a blast to play and progress in, is sincerely lacking in variety. The game-types offered are rather limited, and aside from Combined Arms, it’s all stuff you would expect from a generic multiplayer shooter. It’s disheartening to see modes such as Gun Game and Infection, featured in last year’s Modern Warfare, not make a return in this year’s installment, especially considering the former mode originated in the original Black Ops title. Luckily, Black Ops Cold War has a little more to fall back on.
The Zombies horde mode makes a return, and it still boasts some solid cooperative gameplay that’s sure to keep you and your friends entertained for hours as you try to see how long you can survive. But while it’s exhilarating as ever, it hardly has the same charisma of its predecessors, in large part due to its playable cast, or lack thereof. Rather than the unique playable personalities present in the previous games, Zombies in Black Ops Cold War simply casts you as one of the game’s operators; while they’re effective as avatars in multiplayer, it’s hard to say these largely generic characters are as fun to play as or listen to as the outlandish cast featured prior, consisting of characters like Tank Dempsey or even Danny Trejo. It feels lacking in heart, and definitely feels like a step back from the zombies mode featured in prior games.
Perhaps the most shocking element of this package is the campaign. The lengths at which it goes to be a unique experience is impressive. It values player choice more than most other Call of Duty games have before. Dialogue options and side-objectives can be found throughout, with the latter encouraging exploration, requiring you to go off the beaten path. Given the mostly linear nature of the series’ campaigns, this is certainly a welcome change, and it’s intriguing to see how your choices can impact the mission you’re playing. There’s even optional two side missions that have different endings depending on how many pieces of evidence you find scattered around levels, which in and of themselves involve elements like puzzle solving that you wouldn’t expect to find in a Call of Duty game.
The levels themselves are surprisingly varied. Some are akin to a shooting-gallery, but certain levels feature open-ended stealth sections that I found to be thrilling, and actually left me wanting a stealth-action game with Call of Duty’s controls. One level features a segment that strips you of your weapons entirely, mandating you take down enemies with only your knife, forcing you to procure all of your weapons on-site. One level tasks you with blending in socially while attempting to incapacitate an enemy and gain access to a locked area; set in an open, non-hostile environment, it feels a level plucked straight out of a Hitman game. This level of variety in gameplay makes the campaign a genuine pleasure to play through; I just wish I could say the same about its story.
Throughout the game, our protagonists wantonly kill, violate international law, and lay waste to several buildings and military sites. Yet, they’re persistently framed as irrefutably heroic preservers of justice who will never see consequences for their actions, emphasized by the permission then-President Ronald Reagan provides them in the game’s prologue. For a story about a government-funded, extrajudicial military unit going on all sorts of top-secret, illegal missions worldwide, Black Ops Cold War’s narrative is deeply lacking in nuance. Our protagonistic and antagonistic forces are simply defined as either good or bad, and when involving real-world conflicts and figures, it comes off as propagandistic. The narrative’s lack of interest in interrogating their motivations or actions as part of some moral evaluation feels at odds with the morally grey premise that Black Ops Cold War presents. All of this ultimately makes Black Ops Cold War’s story fall flat on its face, which is a shame, considering how engaging of a gameplay experience it was.
What Makes It Worth My Time And Money?
Playing the PlayStation 5 version, I was impressed by how the game incorporates the Dualsense’s advanced haptics. Aiming down sights forces the L2 button to tense up as you hold it down, simulating the weight of holding a heavy chunk of metal to your face. Aiming for an extended period of time actually tired out my left index finger, which wasn’t used to that kind of resistance.
Adding onto that, each weapon has a different feel when firing; pulling on the R2 button, you’ll feel a higher level of resistance when firing a larger sniper rifle than you would a small sidearm. When firing an automatic weapon, the triggers convulse rhythmically under your fingers in tune with the rate of fire of your preferred weapon. The cherry on top is the incredibly specific, intricate rumble feedback from the Dualsense. As the first major first-person-shooter to make use of Sony’s revolutionary new controller, I can only hope that Black Ops Cold War’s implementation of the Dualsense’s haptic feedback serves as the template that shooters use going forward.
Black Ops Cold War is practically three games in one; it’s equal parts an arcade-style multiplayer shooter, a thrilling zombie survival game, and a balls-to-the-walls wild single-player story. But I think that lack of specialization prevents it from ever excelling in one particular area. The campaign is a rip-roaring blast to play as you experiment with the different choices you’re afforded, yet its narrative suffers from its binary view of morality. The zombies mode has the luxury of having Call of Duty’s stellar gunplay and movement to fall back on, but it lacks the heart and outlandish atmosphere exhibited in previous entries. And as addicting as the multiplayer is thanks to its constant sense of progression, it wears out its welcome quickly due to its lack of variety.
Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War feels like it’s held back in many regards, which is disappointing, especially considering this is the series’ first foray into the next generation. I’m sure that over the next year, the zombies and multiplayer modes will see a variety of updates, and that it will hardly look like the same game by the time the next entry drops in 2021. Who knows, it might even be a substantially greater experience. But at launch, it leaves a lot to be desired.