After a few days with Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War, I’ve played through the campaign twice to see both main endings, spent some time in multiplayer, and scratched the surface of Zombies. I still need to play more multiplayer (particularly on live servers) and delve much deeper into Zombies before this review is final, so keep in mind that details, including the score, are subject to change in the coming days.
The key takeaway from Cold War thus far is that Call of Duty fares far better when it errs on the side of fantasy. This is true within Cold War’s campaign, where the inclusion of Ronald Reagan is a bizarre fit for an otherwise larger-than-life story about espionage and brainwashing, and it’s true when comparing its story to that of last year’s overly serious Modern Warfare. Cold War plays up its far-fetched premise, and that extends to some of its more inventive and creative multiplayer maps, too.
Like any Call of Duty campaign, Cold War is theatrical. From the ’80s-themed montage that opens the campaign to a Vietnam flashback set to Steppenwolf–along with plenty of explosions, helicopter crashes, and slo-mo shootouts–Cold War’s campaign is as action-movie as you’d expect. It largely works with the inherent over-the-top nature of a Black Ops story, and although some bits can be kind of goofy, it’s both easy and fun to buy into the spy drama and massive gunfights in equal measure.
That’s partially thanks to good comedic timing in the dialogue, which helps prevent most scenes from coming across as too self-serious. You’re also given plenty of choice throughout the campaign, including optional side missions, whether to kill or capture particular antagonists, and various dialogue options that range from lawful good to cheeky to loose cannon. While most decisions don’t materially affect the overall story, I had fun playing around with them and going back to previous levels to try the more chaotic options, like throwing an enemy spy off a building instead of capturing him.
Most levels give you multiple options in terms of your approach to combat, too, and some even account for blunders on your part. For example, an early mission tasks you with assassinating a target before he boards a plane and gets away. You’ll screw up the assassination regardless, but the first time I did it, I was too slow and didn’t even get a shot off before he began to escape; the second time, I did it “correctly” and shot at him, but the shot ended up hitting someone else and the target began to escape anyway. Even though the scene proceeds the same way no matter what, the illusion of flexibility, at least, makes Cold War’s campaign dynamic and exciting–it often feels like you’re just barely getting away with whatever hijinks you’re trying to pull.
Simple stealth mechanics add to this feeling. Most missions have at least some stealth, which means staying out of sight, relying on silent takedowns, and then hiding a body before someone can find it. In some instances I felt like I got away with more than I realistically should have, especially when noisily stabbing someone right behind someone else. But there are a few missions that create satisfying tension, as if you could be caught doing your spy business at any moment if you aren’t quick and careful.
The level design is par for the course for Call of Duty, with clear objectives and bombastic set-pieces. Hidden intel and the occasional optional objective mix it up a bit and encourage you to explore places like a well-realized East Berlin or a clever and creative Soviet training facility. One level, however, really stands out as a showcase for both stealth and freedom of choice, giving you free rein inside a KGB building and multiple options for completing your objective. I spent more time in this mission than in any of the others, exploring all the possibilities and sneaking into restricted areas just to see what was behind each door.
You have plenty of opportunities to go loud, of course, and the shooting is as tight as ever. I’ll never get tired of the satisfying thump that confirms a kill, whether I’m using a sniper rifle or an attack helicopter’s minigun. Weapons are responsive and distinct from each other, and on PS5, the DualSense controller’s adaptive triggers further differentiate one weapon from the next–I’ll get to that a bit later on.
Cold War largely avoids specific real-life events in its missions and overall story–at least to my knowledge–and instead uses the backdrop of the Cold War and the Iran hostage crisis to establish a sense of place and a main conflict (though the CIA is no stranger to illegal and questionable operations like those in Cold War’s missions). One bizarre intrusion of real life comes in the form of Ronald Reagan, who only appears in a brief scene at the beginning and via a few voice lines toward the end of the game. While the recreation of his likeness and manner of speech is undeniably striking–a technical feat to be sure–he comes across as a weirdly benign grandpa in a room full of rough-talking, chain-smoking badasses discussing illegal military operations. It has very little to do with Reagan’s real-life foreign or military policy, and he himself really has no impact on the trajectory of Cold War’s story. He might as well have been any generic president in any American political drama, and his appearance sticks out as an attempt to force “realism” into an otherwise fantastical story.
It’s overall a fun action-movie story that absolutely delivers on the quintessential Black Ops twists and turns, but it ultimately walks back its more interesting and relevant questions.
Cold War’s biggest miss, in terms of story, is giving the United States very little grief for its imagined ills. Without going into too much detail, the US is ultimately responsible for the main (and completely fictional) issue at the center of the game’s campaign, all due to an absolutely bonkers anti-Soviet strategy gone awry. The protagonists’ main concern is that the US will be blamed for how the Soviets use this to their advantage, rather than that the US is indeed guilty of a major foreign policy blunder and human rights violation in the first place. There are moments in one of the two major endings where the game flirts with the idea that the US is not blameless, but it’s ostensibly the bad ending; completing its objectives made me feel guilty, which ultimately solidified my suspicion that the US was meant to be the good guys all along and that the ends justified the questionable means.
It’s clear that a core theme of Cold War’s story is that things are more complicated than just good or evil, and the ways in which this sequel plays off the original Black Ops underscore that. But like many Call of Duty stories, it only gestures at a greater point and stops short of making it. It’s overall a fun action-movie story that absolutely delivers on the quintessential Black Ops twists and turns, but it ultimately walks back its more interesting and relevant questions–though I was completely invested in the story for the entire duration.
As with any Call of Duty game, the standard suite of 6v6 multiplayer modes is back. There’s not much to say about the modes themselves that hasn’t been said before; they’re the bread and butter of the multiplayer CoD experience, and there’s been no need to fix what isn’t broken. I need to spend more time with the maps to see how they fare from mode to mode, but I haven’t encountered any glaring spawn or balance issues thus far.
Combined Arms, an objective-based mode that includes vehicles prominently, is my favorite of the new modes so far, largely thanks to one of its maps. Called Armada, the map pits you against another team across several ships, with ziplines connecting the various areas to one another. You can swim if you want, but you can also take a jet ski or a larger boat equipped with a turret to capture an objective and move on to the next. Deciding which method to use on your way to an objective is genuinely fun, and it’s also an easy-to-read map with strong long-range sightlines across ships and plenty of close-quarters areas within each.
The other Combined Arms map I played, Cartel, is less successful with its vehicles. While the ships and jetskis of Armada give you an efficient way of navigating a water-based map (and add an element of silliness to it), Cartel’s motorcycles don’t serve much of a purpose besides alerting everyone to your position. And while the water-based vehicles are easy to pilot–you just have to use the analog sticks to move like normal–I wished that the motorcycles controlled more tightly to suit the bumpy roads and smaller spaces on Cartel.
Fireteam: Dirty Bomb, another new mode, suffers under the weight of its large player count. The 40-player mode isn’t battle royale, but it borrows ideas from battle royale games, including dropping out of a plane and playing against quite a few teams of four. However, it lacks the stakes that make this realm of battle royale exciting. You can respawn over and over again after a short cooldown, and the objectives are scattered around the map–which means it’s never quite clear which one you should be moving toward and where other teams might be moving in relation to you. It’s easy to get flanked by multiple teams because you can’t be sure where they’re likely to come from, resulting in frustration. That said, I definitely need to spend more time with this mode, since I was playing without mics during the pre-release access period–communication and better map and objective literacy could improve things.
Using The DualSense
On PS5, Cold War utilizes the DualSense controller’s various features, including nuanced haptic feedback and the much-touted adaptive triggers. When you’re low on health, you can feel your heartbeat in your hands as it thumps in your ears and flashes red on the screen. When switching weapons, you can feel the difference in ADS speed through the left trigger’s level of resistance; you can feel the difference in fire rate depending on how snappy (or not) the right trigger is, and the intensity of the vibration changes depending on the firepower and recoil you’re working with.
So far, I’ve only experimented with a few pre-made classes, so I’m especially curious to see if there’s a discernible difference in feedback depending on how you customize a weapon. Does adding a stock reduce the recoil vibration you’d feel in the right trigger? Does adding a scope affect the pressure you need to aim down sights? I’ll be testing out some theories in the coming days, but from what I’ve played, it’s exciting that the DualSense can make weapons feel far more distinct and therefore inform what you use, at least in part.
While the DualSense features provide engaging feedback, they may not necessarily improve your Call of Duty game. Some guns, like long-range ones, require far more pressure to aim down sights than a standard assault rifle, which made my left pointer finger sore after a few hours of matches. That might sound kind of silly, but over time, having to put a lot of pressure on a trigger adds up, and I found myself switching to the much more forgiving AK-47 to offset this. Haptic feedback, too, could potentially interfere with your aim, though personally, I’m here to have a good time rather than nail a lot of headshots. If you prefer a more traditional controller feel, you can disable the features entirely in the game’s settings.
Zombies is the biggest question mark so far, and I haven’t had much time to dig in deep with the mode yet. It does have shared progression with multiplayer and Warzone, which is a plus. I’ll be spending a lot of time playing in the coming days and will update this review with full impressions when I’ve gotten a handle on it.
That’s true for multiplayer, too, so stay tuned for the final review.