Review: Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War

A decade ago, Treyarch altered their perception in the Call of Duty community. Widely seen as the “B” team at the time, Call of Duty: Black Ops allowed the studio to rise out of Infinity Ward’s shadow thanks to its mind-bending campaign, in-depth and customizable approach to multiplayer, and of course, Zombies. While the Black Ops games have remained strong titles, there’s no denying that they’ve become gimmicky (wall-running, hero mechanics, no campaign, etc.) in recent entries. Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War, a collaboration between Treyarch and Raven Software, takes us back to the Cold War, eliminating those gimmicks in an attempt to bring back what grabbed players so thoroughly ten years ago. Can Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War recapture that Black Ops feeling or should this adventure remain classified?

Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War takes place in 1981 and is set between the events of Black Ops and the Cold War segments of Black Ops II. A Soviet spy known as Perseus has reactivated, putting the global balance of power at risk. To counteract this threat, the CIA puts together an elite task force headed by Russel Adler, a mysterious operative well versed in Soviet activities. You play as Bell, a new operative brought in to help locate, and ultimately, take down Perseus. Black Ops Cold War contains all the usual Black Ops trappings. Classic Black Ops characters like Mason, Woods and Hudson return alongside new characters. The story is expansive, sending players across the globe to collect evidence, spy, and of course, engage in high-stakes gunfights. Tying it all together is a high level of intrigue and mystery that remains gripping throughout.

Call of Duty: Black Ops II was the first game in the franchise to have players make story-altering decisions. It was a novel concept that drastically changed how events proceeded during the game. Black Ops Cold War takes that further with optional side missions, in-game choices and even letting you choose some attributes of your character, Bell. It’s all well and good, but the game never delivers on its promise. Whereas Black Ops II directly showed you the consequences of your actions, Black Ops Cold War resorts to merely telling players outside of one particular instance. It’s a cool concept, but there needed to be more showing and less telling. The remainder of the story is told competently. Players switch between Mason and Bell’s perspective often during the campaign, which leads up to satisfying moments and interesting plot twists. While longtime Black Ops players will expect a plot twist, Black Ops Cold War still manages to surprise.

Holding back the campaign is its length and side characters. While new character Russel Adler gets plenty of screentime, the remaining members of your team don’t. There’s no emotional connection, making some elements of the plot feel comical. It’s also relatively short if you skip the two side missions. Adding them in brings Black Ops Cold War more in line with recent Call of Duty titles, but skipping them does cut the playtime.

It’s at least a fun romp while it lasts. Black Ops Cold War combines that classic Call of Duty formula with a level of spying not seen before in a Call of Duty title. You have your typical run-and-gun, sniper and setpiece levels you’d expect from a Call of Duty game. What sets Cold War apart are its more Black Ops missions. In one level, players will go full spy mode, using a camera to identify targets, collect evidence and evade police. Another puts players deep into enemy lines, giving them several ways to complete objectives without blowing their cover. There’s also a mission towards the end that is easily, hands down, the most creative level in Call of Duty history. Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War’s campaign might be short, but the level of variety and creativity here helps offset the length. Like previous Call of Duty titles, the remainder of Black Ops Cold War is divided into multiplayer and co-op. As is tradition with Treyarch Call of Duty games, the co-op mode is Zombies. While Warzone remains, it is its own separate mode.

It goes without saying if you’ve played a Call of Duty game in the past decade, you should have no trouble hopping into Black Ops Cold War. All the familiar trappings are here, aiming down the sights, create-a-class, three-lane maps and an assortment of weapons, perks and attachments. The game also sheds many of the gimmicks and mechanics of previous entries, including doors, weapon mounting, manual healing, Pick 10 and Specialists. It’s the most traditional Call of Duty has been in years and a breath of fresh air for the franchise.

Multiplayer remains fun, though not without a handful of flaws. While there are no Specialists to speak of or Modern Warfare style mechanics, Black Ops Cold War retains many qualities players associate with Treyarch entries. This includes a longer time-to-kill, tighter three-lane map design, plenty of customization options split across multiplayer and Zombies, and the occasional overpowered weapon (it’s the Gallo SA12 at launch). It’s a fast and frantic multiplayer experience that always encourages players to keep moving, which is a welcome departure from Modern Warfare’s slower, campier style.

General map design remains a strength in Black Ops Cold War. Treyarch’s penchant for three-lane map design keeps engagements high and wandering about minimal. Variety is high, featuring locations in snowy mountains, the middle of the sea, forests, training facilities and outposts. Out of all the maps, there are only one or two maps that stand out as mediocre, one of course being Miami. The bigger issue is that there aren’t many of them. In total, there are 10 maps with 8 of them for traditional 6v6 modes (Team Deathmatch, Kill Confirmed, Control, Hardpoint, etc). Three of those are also used for Combined Arms, the big game mode replacing Modern Warfare’s Ground War mode. Finally, the last two are reserved for the Fireteam, a mini-Warzone like mode. It’s an improvement from last year’s paltry six 6v6 maps, but Modern Warfare also launched with additional games modes like Gunfight and Ground War that had their own unique maps. As it stands, the map selection isn’t bad, but it’s disappointing there aren’t more. To date, this is the least amount of maps in any Black Ops title at launch.

That sentiment rears its head in other areas. On a pure numbers count, Black Ops Cold War has less weapons (29 vs. 39) and Operators (14 vs. 18) than Modern Warfare at launch. On paper, it’s disappointing, in execution though, Black Ops Cold War might fare better with fewer weapons as more feel viable in combat. It’s a quality vs. quantity debate here. More Operators would have been nice, especially since only two per faction are unlocked from the start. There’s also less Zombies maps in Black Ops Cold War than in Black Ops 4, which actually works in the game’s favor. The singular focus on Die Maschine has yielded a solid Zombies experience that expands on the original Aether storyline that ended in Black Ops 4 and pays homage to the first Zombies map, Nacht der Untoten. This new Zombies storyline kicks off with the Soviet Union uncovering a secret Nazi bunker. Opening it unleashes a zombie plague, forcing the newly-formed Requiem team to swoop in and help put a stop to the menace.

All the familiar Zombies trappings are here. Wall-buys, the Mystery Box, Pack-a-Punch and Perks are all back along with plenty of secrets and Easter Eggs to uncover. Rather than simply stopping there, Treyarch opted to expand the mode in new and exciting ways. Players now deploy with their loadouts, choose to exfil out of a mission for bonuses and collect intel that expands the Zombies story. The map is wonderfully built and offers the right level of escalating challenge for Zombies veterans. It’s also isn’t as complicated on the surface like recent Zombies maps, making it easier for new players to hop in for some zombie slaying.

Outside of traditional Zombies, Black Ops Cold War brings back the classic Dead Ops Arcade mode. It’s just as goofy as ever and a great way to kill some time. What isn’t so great is the new Zombies Onslaught mode, which is exclusive to PS5 and PS4 for a whole year. It’s a straightforward two-player King-of-the-Hill style game mode where players hold spots on multiplayer maps for an amount of time as more and more zombies come after you. It’s a throwaway mode, and Xbox and PC players aren’t missing anything special.

Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War arrives as the first Call of Duty on next-gen consoles. That fact, combined with Modern Warfare’s giant leap in graphics technology last year, means expectations are high for this year’s title. For the most part, Treyarch and Raven Software meet that benchmark, despite not utilizing Modern Warfare’s engine. Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War looks drop-dead gorgeous in the right areas, particularly in the campaign. Visual effects and lighting, in particular, are standouts. You’ll traipse through rain-soaked streets, bathe in ’80s neon lights and take down enemies with spectacularly-detailed weapons. The game makes great use of the next-gen consoles to up facial and environmental detail and increase the number of explosions on-screen. Set piece moments have never felt so bombastic. Visuals do take a hit in multiplayer and Zombies, though. The maps are still vibrant, and the weapons remain just as detailed as in the single player campaign, but there’s a noticeable dip in environmental detail. This is also true of the animations, which oftentimes look robotic in multiplayer. Considering that the game is cross-play across both next-gen and current-gen consoles and PC, a downgrade was inevitable. It’s not terrible to look at, but it’s a step down from the campaign.

PS5 owners are in for a special treat thanks to Treyarch’s use of the DualSense. The developer uses haptic feedback and adaptive triggers to provide every weapon a unique feel when pulling the trigger. It’s an impressive showcase for the controller. Something that both next-gen consoles can enjoy is the vastly improved load times in the single player campaign. As the multiplayer is tied to connection speeds, the SSDs don’t change much.

The audio side of things is excellent. The Black Ops franchise is known for its bombastic sounds and acting, and Black Ops Cold War succeeds on that front. The soundtrack is perfect, mixing great ’80s classics with an original score. Performances delivered by the main cast are also strong, though numerous iconic voices are missing. Despite featuring iconic Black Ops characters like Woods, Hudson and Mason, none of the original voice actors reprise their roles. The replacements are suitable, but you can hear the difference.

Closing Comments:

Call of Duty: Black Ops lost its way post-Black Ops III. While Black Ops III and 4 were fun in their own ways, they were also a massive departure from the core Black Ops experience. Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War reins it all in, dumping the past two entries’ gimmicks in favor of a more traditional experience. The campaign is short and relies too much on telling rather than showing, but it’s bombastic, intriguing and filled with some of the most creative levels yet in a Call of Duty game. Multiplayer is fast and frantic, keeping players active with mostly well-designed maps and a stable of viable guns. The amount of multiplayer content is concerning, especially when it comes to maps, which there are really only 8 of, a significant downgrade from Black Ops 4. There may be only one Zombies map in the game, but it’s well designed and an experience both hardcore and casual Zombies fans can enjoy. As a next-gen launch title, the presentation delivers excellent lighting and effects across its campaign, but multiplayer does get hit with a visual downgrade. Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War is a reliable package that brings the Black Ops franchise back to its roots. This Call of Duty is safe to declassify.