Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War Review
Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War is the fifth game in the series – and the first not bear a numeral after its title – but from a story perspective it’s Black Ops 1.5. If you’re familiar with the first Black Ops game’s campaign you’ll see a few familiar faces – Alex Mason, Jason, Hudson, and Frank Woods all make an appearance – but if you’re not, you’ll be fine. The campaign’s story stands completely on its own. It’s been so long since I’ve played the Black Ops campaign that I don’t remember a lot about it, and I was able to enjoy Cold War’s story of deniable operations, spy craft, and espionage.
As the game’s subtitle indicates, the campaign is set during the waning days of the Cold War and puts you at the heart of an operation authorized by the Gipper himself. The US secretly installed nukes in Western European cities during the 1950s as a failsafe against failure to stop a Soviet invasion of Europe. A rogue Soviet agent known only as Perseus is determined to get his hands on at least one of them. After becoming disillusioned by the breakdown of the Soviet state and its seeming acquiesce to the West in the final days of the Cold War, Perseus is determined to correct the mistake made by Soviet leadership by never making the war hot. I don’t want to give any more details on the story than that – if you’ve played a Black Ops game before you already know that the plot twists are an integral part of the fun, and Cold War has some big ones in store for you.
In a departure from the standard Call of Duty campaign, Cold War has you customize the story’s protagonist and will have you primarily play as that character for the length of the campaign. Your callsign will be “Bell” and that’s what you’ll be referred to when characters are speaking, but you can pick your first and last names and those will be used for in-game text. You can also select your gender – including non-binary – as well as pick two personality traits that are linked to perks that you’ll benefit from throughout the campaign.
Between missions you’ll return to your CIA safehouse with the other operatives on your team where you’ll have the opportunity to speak with them to learn more about them and the story. This is also where you’ll find the mission board, a place where you can see your completed missions, new available main and side missions, and examine the evidence that you’ve collected during your missions. An interesting thing about the side missions is that in order to achieve full success in them you’ll need to analyze evidence and use it to solve a puzzle before entering the mission. If you missed a piece of evidence, you can use the mission board to replay completed missions to track down the evidence that you missed the first time through. I really enjoyed this feature because it makes you feel more like the spy you’re supposed to be. My only complaint with it is that there weren’t more side missions tied to evidence-based puzzles.
The missions in Cold War tend to be smaller operations emphasizing stealth. You’ll get the occasional large-scale battle and vehicle-based action sequence like you do with any Call of Duty game, but combat operations typically involve two or three persons and you’ll be completely on your own in some of the espionage missions. Cold War delivers an intense campaign, but it’s a different kind of intensity than last year’s Modern Warfare delivered.
As you play, you’ll be faced with a number of choices. Some are merely dialog choices that don’t appear to affect much beyond the response you’ll get in the conversation, but some have greater consequences. Things don’t really begin to branch until the end at which you can change the final campaign mission through your choices, but in the post-campaign briefing you’ll learn how some of your other choices impacted the clandestine balance of power between the two superpowers of the 20th Century. You’ll have the opportunity to go back and replay any mission once the campaign is complete, giving you the chance to see the way other choices would have played out or to experience a different ending. Some actions will also unlock calling cards for multiplayer and Zombies, so if you want to complete your collection you’ll need to play through the campaign and then replay some of the missions. Overall, a single playthrough of the campaign will clock-in on the lower end of the Call of Duty campaign standard playthrough time. I found my time with the campaign to be enjoyable, but was left wishing it was a little longer and didn’t rely on replays to extend the experience.
Zombies mode is once again a major component of a Call of Duty game in Black Ops Cold War, but the gameplay has undergone a few modifications. The game still supports from one to four players, but instead of playing as one of four pre-set characters you’ll have access to an operator loadout system like that in multiplayer. You can manage loadouts and access the gunsmith system for your weapons, and while you’ll have a separate collection of loadouts for multiplayer and Zombies your weapon experience and unlocked attachments are shared across modes. In Cold War, Zombies mode is treated as a deniable operation in which a squad of soldiers is sent to investigate a derelict Soviet nuclear testing site. I’m sure it’s not a spoiler to tell you that the testing taking place there was the continuation of a Nazi war effort experimental program and you’ll encounter hordes of undead Nazis, as well as a few other abominations, as you explore the facility.
The core gameplay in Zombies remains familiar to anyone who’s played the mode in the past. Zombie attacks come in numbered waves of ever-increasingly stronger enemies, and you must keep them at bay while trying to solve the mystery behind the facility. Killing zombies earns currency which can be used to open pathways to new areas of the map, and that can also be spent to purchase upgrades at vending machines or new weapons at specific locations. The new weapons won’t replace your currently equipped weapon, but will instead give you another option to switch to when the situation requires – say an assault rifle for more open areas and a shotgun for tight corridors. The random Mystery Box crates also make a comeback, but in addition to weapons they contain Scorestreak bonuses as well. While playing I picked up a helicopter gunship Scorestreak that I used in the middle of a wave while my team was above ground and it was awesome mowing down the horde from above. And I also earned a new calling card for my effort.
The developers stated that one of their goals with this iteration of Zombies was to make the mode more accessible. In some ways they’ve succeeded, making progress through the narrative is more straightforward than it’s been in a while. On the other hand, the mode is still notoriously difficult to advance through, even when you know what you should probably be doing next. A new exfil option has been added that lets you extract from the area and take some bonuses with you instead of pushing forward until your squad bleeds out. Beginning after wave ten, and on every five levels thereafter, if a player returns to the starting area, they’ll find a radio there than can be used to call for an airlift. If a majority of the other players vote to be extracted, a new wave of zombies comes in to swarm the landing zone. Only after clearing the LZ will the chopper land and pull the team out. This is not really an easy way out, though. The zombies swarming the LZ are tough and relentless, and frankly you’ll have a better chance of surviving the next few rounds of zombies than you will in completing a successful exfil.
Zombies includes two additional game types. Onslaught, currently a PlayStation-exclusive mode, is playable by one or two players. This mode is set on the multiplayer mode maps as you must follow an anomaly that moves to a new location each round. The anomaly creates a safe zone around you, and leaving this zone will quickly result in death. Every few waves the anomaly morphs into an elite, and you’ll have to contend with fighting it in a constrained space while also dealing with the zombies entering the zone. I found this to be a fun Zombies variant in that it both harkens back to the pure horde-mode feel of the first Zombie modes, but still feels like something fresh and new.
Rounding out Zombies is Dead Ops Arcade, an arcade-style twin-stick shooter modeled on 1990s videogames that can be played with from one to four players. This mode is simple enough that it can be really enjoyable diversion while at the same time being something that you won’t want to play for hours in a single setting.
Multiplayer mode in Cold War brings a mix of traditional and new modes to play. This mode is fully cross-platform and cross-generation (as is Zombies), so it’s conceivable that your six-person team could be playing on five different systems. Multiplayer uses customizable operators, giving you default loadouts designed to fit multiplayer role archetypes that are fully changeable and customizable to fit your playstyle and to give you different loadout options for different modes and maps. As you level-up you’ll gain access to more weapons, equipment, and perks to allow you to specialize further. Weapons can be customized in the Gunsmith feature, not only with new skins you’ll earn as you level-up each weapon, but with attachments as well. Weapons usually allow five attachments to be equipped at once, and you’ll be able to tell at a glance how each attachment affects the weapon’s performance stats. Since Cold War is set in the 1980s, the available weapons reflect the armaments of the time.
The 6v6 playlist will be familiar to Call of Duty players – Team Deathmatch, Domination, Free for All, Kill Confirmed, Hardpoint, Search & Destroy, Hardcore Playlist, and 5-Point Domination – but Cold War does add a new mode to the mix. VIP Escort is a team-based, offense-defense mode in which the offensive team must successfully escort a designated VIP to one of two extraction zones. The defensive team must prevent this from happening, and since there are no respawns must also do so before they are all eliminated. The VIP is given a Spy Plane Scorestreak and armed with a pistol and smoke and frag grenades. All other players can use custom loadouts, but Scorestreaks are disabled. Personally, I found this mode to fall into the “occasional diversion” category and not something I went to as part of my regular rotation. You can select which subset of modes you’re willing to play in the randomized Mosh Pit mode, and I didn’t find myself adding VIP Escort to the mix. You may feel differently, but I still found myself gravitating towards the same modes that I always do, KC, Hardpoint, and Domination. That’s probably because the standard 6v6 gameplay plays it safe here – it’s good, but if it’s all that you play, you’ve played it before, just on different maps.
While on the topic of maps, I should note that there are ten maps available in the game, although some are reserved for the other multiplayer modes that I will get to shortly. The maps provided for a good variety of gameplay, including the twisting canyons of Satellite, the luxury beachfront hotel centered Miami, and the urban Moscow. Checkmate is an interesting map; the action takes place in a large warehouse with a partially disassembled Air Force One at its center. Armada is by far the most unique map, and it quickly became one of my favorites. It features a submarine tender ship at sea surrounded by support vessels. Ziplines provide access between the vessels, but you can also swim or take watercraft to reach them as well.
Cold War also includes two 12v12 Combined Arms modes. Assault has two teams fighting to capture a central zone. Once that is captured, a new zone appears in enemy territory. This tug of war continues until one team captures the other’s final zone. Domination features set control points on the map, and teams earn points for capturing and holding the zones. I enjoyed playing these modes, the larger battle size and dynamic nature of the battles as zones changed hands made for some exciting gameplay. These modes also have the right combination of gameplay and map design that give every role a chance to contribute and succeed.
The final mode is the large-scale Fireteam: Dirty Bomb mode. While this mode can be pretty confusing at first, once I caught on and spent more time with it, I began to like it increasingly more. Forty players are broken into teams of four with each team trying to accomplish the same goal. Teams are airdropped into the map and must locate uranium caches. The uranium must be transported to dirty bombs, and once a bomb has enough uranium it can be detonated. Things are further complicated by the fact that carrying uranium depletes your health and movement speed, but this also makes setting an ambush at a dirty bomb site and waiting for radiation sick players to bring the uranium to you a perfectly sound tactic. Once a bomb goes off, it makes the surrounding area radioactive and hazardous to any player within the irradiated zone. Players who are eliminated can chose to respawn on a teammate or drop into the map from the air again. The two large maps (I’m partial to the ski resort based Alpine map), the number of players, and the variety of tactics available make this a very dynamic and enjoyable mode.
That covers everything that awaits you in Black Ops Cold War – at launch at least, seasonal content is planned and launches in December. The campaign is enjoyable and the story is good, but I wish it ran a little longer. Zombies mode feels like Zombies mode, it has some interesting twists, but it’s not the most memorable iteration in the series. Onslaught mode is a nice addition, though, and I do like that the Zombie modes give you full control over your loadout and support cross-mode progression. The base multiplayer modes safely deliver the kind of gameplay you’ve played before and come to expect from a Call of Duty game. It’s good to see some chances being taken with the map design, though, and Armada hits it out of the park. Combined Arms is where I’ll be spending most of my time, though, but when I have a longer block of time available, I will certainly devote it to Fireteam: Dirty Bomb. Overall, Cold War adds some interesting new elements, but nothing stands out strongly enough on its own to make it a stand-out entry in the Call of Duty franchise. It does lay a solid foundation to build upon in the future, though, so let's see where this goes.
Final Rating: 84% - Black Ops wins one for the Gipper.