The Starbucks latte of first-person shooters is back again, and similar to last year’s soft reboot/prequel of Modern Warfare, in 2020, we have a soft reboot/sequel to Black Ops. Call of Duty campaigns never fail to deliver the big-budget thrill moments, but their quality varies pretty widely when it comes to gameplay, design, and story. So, is Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War a return to the hard-hitting, interesting narratives of the original Black Ops? Or is it more of the unfocused nonsense of Black Ops III?
Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War’s campaign was developed by Raven Software, who were famously behind Jedi Outcast, Quake 4, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, and Singularity, but they have been primarily acting as a support studio for Activision over the last decade. So, I was excited to see what they could do if given control of a CoD campaign. Cold War was being billed as a direct sequel to the first Black Ops game, and while this is true, it’s a bit of a spin-off as well. While you do play as Black Ops hero Alex Mason during a few missions, and series regulars Frank Woods and Jason Hudson are featured prominently, the game is primarily focused on another CIA task force tracking down a Soviet operative called Perseus. This force is made up of the Robert Redford-esque Russel Adler, another American named Lawrence Sims, an MI6 agent named Helen Park, a Mossad agent named Lazar, and the primary player character, code-named Bell.
Bell is technically a “created character,” but you don’t get to select very much – you choose a name, a skin tone, a place of birth, and a gender, with none of them coming into play at all during gameplay, beyond the skin tone of your fingers and the pronoun Bell is referred to as. The gender option adding “non-binary” as a selectable has caused some controversy, but due to how the story is structured, it’s pretty clear that Bell being male is the only way it makes sense in canon. The first mission in which you play as Bell has you fighting alongside Adler and Sims in Vietnam, and there weren’t a lot of women or non-binary folk fighting for the Americans in that war. Some things happen in the story which re-contextualize that mission later, but not enough to have the gender choice really make sense.
The biggest downside to the character “creation” aspect isn’t the essentially pointless addition of divisive politics, though; it’s the fact that Bell is, at most, a sketch of a character who doesn’t really feel like part of the story until the final few missions. The original Black Ops had you play as Mason and Hudson, giving you two characters with personalities, conflicts, and goals to sink your teeth into. You could hear them talk in missions, and it was a lot more engaging than the silent protagonist we have in Cold War. That being said, Raven does quite well when it comes to giving the player a bit of agency while using Bell.
Black Ops Cold War has a surprising number of dialogue choices, which are frequently used to milk a bit of lore out of the other characters during the briefing sequences and make choices that affect the game’s story/structure. This is where Cold War really starts to excel and feel fresh, as while there is no shortage of high-intensity gunfights, there are quite a few missions that are wide, if not open, in their design. You can pick up side objectives, as well as use stealth and dialogue choices to solve problems without pulling the trigger. Some of these side objectives affect how the main story is told. They don’t dramatically alter the outcomes, but they do change enough to add a bit of replay value, which Call of Duty campaigns have often struggled with. A mission called Desperate Measures is very open and has you sneaking around KGB headquarters, solving your mission in a number of ways, and none of them involve using guns. You play as a Russian double agent in this mission and are tasked with acquiring a keycard to let two of the CIA operatives into the building. I started by planning to poison an officer, then stealing his card, but I had such a good time exploring the building and fiddling with the side objectives that I accidentally solved it in a completely different way. The stealth is simplistic but forgiving enough that it wasn’t frustrating, and the calm of the first part of the mission made the storm of gunfights that cap it off feel very rewarding.
There are also two completely optional missions, a concept which made its first appearance as the hybrid RTS missions in Black Ops II. The optional missions in Cold War are functionally not very unique – both are essentially “fight your way past a bunch of dudes, kill a specific dude, take a picture of him and fight your way to extraction.” However, before you launch these missions, you have the option of solving some spy puzzles, which change their outcome in the story. The puzzles involve finding evidence in the main campaign missions, then decrypting a floppy disk for one, and determining which Soviet agents are high-value assets in the other. Both puzzles involve enough brain power to be interesting without being so obtuse that they seem impossible to solve, and they were certainly decent incentives to be thorough about searching for secrets.
Sadly two things make these optional missions and their even more optional puzzles a missed opportunity. First of all, their impact on the story comes in the form of a unique voiceover over some still images during the ending, so they don’t impact the story, so much as impact the epilogue slightly. And while I’m not going to be tackling the multiplayer modes in this video, the drought of operators during multiplayer modes, particularly on team communism, is pretty severe, and a lot of the requirements to unlock them are fairly steep. I did manage to snag the dude in the balaclava who requires fifteen executions, though. I even got so many in one game that I MUST have pissed off a few people. Had completing the optional missions, with the puzzles solved, unlocked the target characters as operators, that might’ve been a decent incentive for not only campaign players to take the time to solve the puzzles but also for those who focus on the multiplayer modes to fire up the campaign and dig into the story content deeper than they otherwise may have.
As it stands, the optional missions’ main benefit is that they pad out the campaign’s extremely lean runtime. I finished the campaign on hardened difficulty, effectively in three sittings, and two of those were in one day, broken up by dinner and a bit of multiplayer. This shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone who has played a Call of Duty campaign, but Black Ops Cold War is absolutely not a good value if you only intend to play for the story. Being generous, this game is five hours long, and, sadly, Call of Duty games aren’t famous for having deep sales, so unless you’re a big Cold War spy fiction junkie, I can’t recommend purchasing this game for the campaign alone. However, if you are interested in playing multiplayer and zombies, this is one of the better Call of Duty campaigns, and one that you shouldn’t skip if you decide to buy the game. I was a bit disappointed that the cover mount ability from Modern Warfare was removed, as I really liked what that did for the campaign gameplay, but in exchange, they appear to have ramped up the speed of movement and combat. While you still have to take cover to regenerate health, I found that most of the battles involve moving forward and mowing down communists at speeds that seem closer to a Quake game – though, oddly enough, faster than the Quake game which Raven Software made themselves. So, while the slower stealth and dialogue segments are there, Cold War is still a solid bet if you’re looking for those fast Michael Bay moments as well.
There are a few new gameplay changes, other than the apparent boost in the pace. The first is that when you have a sniper rifle equipped, holding the breath button will throw the game into bullet time, even on realism difficulty. Not a game-changer, but it certainly made for some slick sniping sections. You can also grab enemies and use them as human shields, which is pretty effective, but I kept forgetting it was an option.
As for the narrative itself, it’s quite good overall. Beware of a few spoilers ahead.
For the most part, it’s a straightforward espionage story, but in Black Ops tradition, some elements make it a bit more cerebral, with experiments like MK-Ultra being used for both a big twist and a cool Jacob’s Ladder-like segment toward the end. Players of the original Black Ops will remember MK-Ultra also being used as a premise for Mason’s brainwashing, and I was happy when “the numbers” got a nod during a mission that has you, as Mason, return to Yamantau Mountain. The story doesn’t quite have the punch that the ending of Black Ops 1 had, but it is pretty engaging throughout, and the multiple paths which lead to multiple endings are a nice touch. One ending is very clearly canon, but the “what if” scenario alternate ending is a cool option and stops the game from feeling one-and-done like last year’s Modern Warfare campaign. I also liked that they make it clear that, despite the game featuring a lot of ambiguous morality, they don’t try to paint the Soviets as being simply misunderstood to please the depressingly growing number of real, modern-day communists. The Soviets are the bad guys, and in the ending where they win, millions of people die. Also, there are some member berries for players of the Modern Warfare games, with an important character making a cameo, which, as far as I know, is the first time Black Ops and Modern Warfare have ever been explicitly put in the same canon. So, the day in which a young Captain Price teams up with an old Frank Woods to take down a terrorist threat in the 90s might be approaching, and if you find that exciting, that should underline why Bell being a blank slate was a bad call. The characters in Call of Duty are all definitely on the thin side, but from where I’m standing, there’s a clear line between the more interesting, authored characters like Price, Woods, Mason, and Farah from last year’s game and the completely blank slates like Bell or the even more forgettable player character from Black Ops III.
From a technical standpoint, Cold War is incredibly impressive. I mean, Activision pumps hundreds of millions of dollars a year into the Call of Duty budget, so it should be, but some aspects are worth pointing out. First of all, this is NOT being made on the same IW 8.0 engine that Modern Warfare was. Instead, Cold War is based on older tech, with some features and flourishes from IW 8.0, notably the ray-traced reflections. On the PC, there are several settings for frame rate caps, different levels of ray tracing, and the black magic that is Nvidia’s DLSS. All of these things combine to make this one of the most technically impressive shooters in existence and a great example of how awesome ray-traced reflections can look when they aren’t tanking game performance. The wet city streets, shiny marble floors, and ominous sunglasses of Adler all look very impressive. Considering the features of the Xbox series X and PS5, I’m assuming the quality will be comparable, though due to a lack of resources – meaning all of Canada is totally sold out of both consoles with no relief in sight – I wasn’t able to see first-hand.
Overall, Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War is a solid campaign and does a lot of things that add both flexibility in missions and replay value. It’s shorter in raw length than Modern Warfare but has a lot more replayability. Should you buy this game at full price just to play this campaign? Absolutely not; that’s a crazy proposition unless you are absolutely in love with Cold War spy fiction. But if this year’s Call of Duty interests you for other reasons as well, be it for multiplayer or zombies, then you won’t be disappointed by investing time into playing through the campaign. At the beginning of this review, I referred to Call of Duty as the Starbucks latte of video games, and I meant it. It’s very mainstream, it is overpriced considering how long it takes to drink, and there is better coffee out there if you’re willing to go looking, but it’s still pretty good, and you’ll enjoy it if you want to spend the money.