Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War - Review

November 18, 2020
Also on: PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series
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Well, it’s officially that time of year again. It’s the one that parents hate, the one that editors love, the one that game developers dread and one that gamers look forward to each year. It’s the autumn release season, the period that happens once every 12 months where Ubisoft, Codemasters and Activision each put their best foot forward so that they can earn enough money to hopefully not lay off all their employees. Every November, gamers all around the world indulge in the latest Assassin's Creeds, the one-off indie darlings, and you guessed it, the Call of Duties. This year that franchise goes under the name Call of Duty Black Ops: Cold War

In this latest iteration of the world’s best-selling war crimes simulator, you take control of a soldier in the 1980s. Although this setting obviously applies to both the single and multiplayer portions of the game, in the campaign, you don the combat shoes of a CIA agent named Bell. Following an unfortunate event in the tutorial mission, where you play as one of the Black Ops series’ mainstays, you find yourself making your agent from scratch in an RPG-lite creation screen. You choose from a handful of perks, give your agent a first and last name, you decide their gender (or don’t, if you so choose) and give them a brief origin story. Then, you’re set loose to destroy the communist threat in what boils down to a pretty bog-standard Call of Duty campaign. 

Does anyone want to tell him that he has something on his head?

Over the course of about three hours, you fight your way through various places behind the Iron Curtain, engage in a handful of flashback missions, make a few moral choices and listen to a narrative that’s about what you’d expect from a Call of Duty campaign set in the 1980s. You deal with MK-Ultra, talk with former United States’ President Ronald Reagan and listen to a rant from former Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev. You commit war crimes, blow up more infrastructure than you can shake the internals of a Claymore mine at, occasionally get given a second to ponder if what you’re doing is right, then you murder the big baddie and call it a day.  

Overall, then, the campaign in Cold War isn’t bad or good; it simply exists. Although it is a bit short, it never reaches the lows of games like Black Ops 3, nor the heights of Modern Warfare 2019. There are occasionally fun missions, like one that has you Hitman your way through the Lubyanka building, but they mix with the standard set of subpar rail shooter sequences for a single-player experience that’s mediocre to a fault and completely forgettable. 

Watching the world burn and getting cancer.

This is a sentiment that applies to the game’s zombie mode, too. This time around, the overly complex mode from the previous two Black Ops games has been replaced by something that’s a lot more akin to how the horde mode was when it originated in 2008’s World at War. Although there’s still a narrative to follow if that’s your thing, and you can still craft various stuff, overall it’s a lot more simplistic than it has been in the past. 

The singular map available at launch spawns you in an open environment, where you then need to buy weapons and open doors if you want to survive. Eventually you gain access to the entire arena, which is easy enough to navigate, and all that the game asks is that you survive until you can’t anymore. Admittedly, you will need to fight bosses every five rounds and you can call in scorestreaks on the zombies, but it’s still stupidly refreshing to not have to follow a confusing narrative or to worry about memorising a convoluted layout. It is disappointing that there is only one playable arena, but even in the mode’s current state, it’s a big improvement over previous Call of Duty titles, and is very enjoyable even in its own right.

However, this doesn’t apply to the game’s multiplayer, which is undoubtedly Cold War’s low point. This iteration of the franchise’s token mode follows the same general loop that it has in every game since 2007’s Modern Warfare. You kill enemy players to gain experience, which allows you to level up, and this in turn allows you to unlock more guns to kill more players. It’s a satisfying arc that the myriad developers who make the Call of Duty games have perfected down to a science, and this is why it’s so mind-boggling that this version is so terrible.

Anybody else find it creepy how great this virtual rendition of Reagan is?

There are a number of things that this entry does to mess up this formula, starting with the increased time-to-kill and subsequently weak-feeling weapons. Although many have voiced their contempt about Modern Warfare 2019’s fast death times, Cold War goes in the opposite direction, with it taking nearly an entire magazine of an assault rifle to kill any one enemy. This results in gun battles that feel as though the winner is almost always determined randomly, with individual skill having significantly less impact on the outcome of a fight than each person’s weapon choice. 

That weapon choice also has an enormous impact because of the game’s pathetic weapon balancing. Of the game’s tiny weapon pool — there are fewer than 30 included at launch — all but five are effectively useless. Although Call of Duty is no stranger to this issue, this year, it feels broken beyond reproach, with those five weapons being objectively better in every regard when compared to the other 25. Those 25 guns feel like shooting Nerf darts at a tank, and this is especially annoying because the game’s weapon animations aren’t very good. Especially when compared to last year’s game, Cold War’s simply look and sound like a child’s first attempt at trying to make gun reloads. This all means that there is literally no reason not to use one of the five “meta” guns in the game, which makes the entire experience feel frustrating at best.

However, for as big as these issues are, they pale in comparison to the game’s inclusion of skill-based matchmaking, or SBMM for short. In essence, SBMM aims to match you with players that the game thinks are at a similar skill level by looking at your kill-death ratio, rank and so on. However, the problem is that this rarely works. In Cold War, you can exclusively expect to get into matches with either players that are infinitely better than you, or ones that may as well be bots. Obviously, this makes the entire experience entirely hit-or-miss, with the low-skill matches being too easy but the high-skill ones being infuriating.

Props to the player who killed me twelve times in one 5-minute match. 

All of this is compounded by Cold War’s insanely slow leveling process. To reach the maximum rank for any one gun, it takes upwards of two days of somewhat consistent play. Even for gun guns without any attachments, like a rocket launcher, it takes more than 300 kills to even reach half of the weapon’s maximum level. Especially considering that the attachments themselves aren’t particularly realistic — you can increase the magazine size of a standard revolver to 12 rounds, which is not possible in real life — this is a drag. All of this also applies to the game’s core leveling, too, with it taking a solid 30 hours of somewhat consistent play to reach the game’s maximum rank, and this doesn’t even include the time it will take to progress through the game’s season pass when that becomes available later this year. 

For what little it’s worth, the game’s multiplayer’s levels are absolutely fantastic. Although there are only eight included at launch, each one of them can comfortably sit among the series’ best. They all flow perfectly, are visually interesting and rarely result in people camping. It’s the one part of the game’s multiplayer that is genuinely refreshing, and when considering that there’s set to be one released every few weeks for the next year, this is the main aspect that will definitely transition well into the next iteration of the franchise. 

This applies to the game’s visuals and music, too. In typical 1980s fashion, the game looks great and has the best music that any Call of Duty has had since it launched some twenty years ago. The campaign features a handful of licensed tracks from popular ‘80s bands, and the multiplayer and zombies share some great tunes as well. The game also looks great, with each mode in the game featuring enough colour to make the overall experience look exactly like it should, given it’s set in a time where tons of people were snorting cocaine.

Welcome to war.

However, neither this nor the good maps can save Call of Duty Black Ops: Cold War from being one of the worst Call of Duty games in recent memory. With a mostly forgettable campaign, an okay zombies mode and a pathetic excuse for multiplayer, there’s little reason to buy the game over more recent instalments unless you’re really, really craving more mediocre gunplay. There are occasionally bits in the overall experience that are interesting, but taken as a whole, the game just isn’t very good.

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Call of Duty Black Ops: Cold War’s multiplayer is terrible, its campaign is forgettable and its zombies are okay, which all makes for a game that feels like a much worse iteration of previous installments into the franchise.
Derek Johnson

Somebody once told me the world was going to roll me, and they were right. I love games that let me take good-looking screenshots and ones that make me depressed, so long as the game doesn't overstay its welcome.