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Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War review - solid action with the potential for greatness

Somewhere in the 80s.

Treyarch delivers an impressive package considering the circumstances, but Black Ops Cold War feels like a step back from last year.

Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War, the latest in Activision's annual first-person shooter series, is a solid effort. Playing through its campaign, multiplayer and zombies modes - Call of Duty's golden triangle - there is a lot to like. And I do believe Black Ops Cold War is probably the best game it has any right to be under the circumstances - circumstances that were troubled even before the pandemic forced the developers at Raven and Treyarch and the enormous quality assurance effort that goes into a Call of Duty to switch to work from home. Like a Black Ops operation behind enemy lines, Cold War is something of a miraculous rescue job, the result of what I have no doubt was a crushing effort to meet Activision's launch deadline. That there is a solid game to play at all is a fantastic achievement. But, every now and then, you can really tell Black Ops Cold War wasn't the smoothest op ever.

Black Ops Cold War is a clunky name for a fun setting. Treyarch's previous COD, Black Ops 4, suffered from a lack of a campaign, so it's good there's one this time around. COD campaigns, apart from offering solo players a handful of hours of explosive entertainment, ground each game, help solidify their aesthetic and hammer home their tone. Black Ops Cold War, a Black Ops 1 sequel set in the early '80s, certainly does that.

The story kicks off in an '80s-drenched bar, with all the big hair you'd expect. Your supposed CIA ally - although you're never really sure of his motivations throughout - is a newcomer called Russell Adler who's a dead ringer for Robert Redford circa All the President's Men. Your base of operations is a safehouse in Berlin, the city that defined the '80s in many respects. Neon lights course through the plot, a globetrotting yarn that fuses traditional linear Call of Duty levels with some genuine genre surprises, including a Hitman-esque infiltration of the KGB headquarters in Moscow, and flashback missions set during the Vietnam War. There's even some dialogue to pick from when talking to NPCs, a few choices to make that determine your ending, and a smattering of puzzle solving.

So, Black Ops Cold War is not your typical Call of Duty campaign, which is great, really. What missteps there are come from the fact the campaign has to do Call of Duty things, aka war crimes such as napalming what feels like half of Vietnam. You get to choose whether to let go, capture or execute a couple of high-profile terrorists. If you choose to execute, Black Ops Cold War doesn't bat an eyelid, and your actions are consigned to a footnote at the end of the game. I didn't bat an eyelid, either - Call of Duty has long since lost its shock value.

The setup is an initially straightforward hunt for a Soviet spy codenamed Perseus (apparently inspired by a real-life Soviet spy called Perseus who infiltrated the Manhattan Project) that becomes an unravelling of a CIA conspiracy-type yarn. But any brownie points awarded to Black Ops Cold War for its cool paranoia-fuelled thriller are undone when an uncanny valley Ronald Reagan gives your team a pep talk.

Black Ops Cold War lets you create your character - it's the first game in the series to do so - and while you don't get to pick how you look, you do get to pick your gender from four options: classified, male, female and non-binary. If you pick non-binary, characters use "they" and "them" pronouns when they address you in dialogue. The option to pick non-binary is progress, particularly in a triple-A shooter such as Call of Duty. But I find it hard to believe Ronald Reagan, whose response to the HIV/AIDS crisis left a blot on his presidential record, would greenlight a war crime spearheaded by an openly non-binary soldier.

These schisms are unfortunate, because there really is a lot to like about the Black Ops campaign. It's fun in an over-the-top kind of way, and where it does deviate from the norm, it does so well. Raven, the developer that has for so many years flown under the radar even as it propped up the Call of Duty franchise, has created some fantastic-looking setpieces, some cool new ideas and admirable character animation work. But let's be honest: the developers of Hitman won't all of a sudden worry about Call of Duty raining on their parade. The KGB HQ level, while cool for COD, is a basic stealth mission that lets you complete the objective in a variety of ways, but it is not groundbreaking. It's immersive sim-ish, but all routes lead to the same explosive getaway.

The KGB HQ spy mission lets you choose how to complete your objective using an in-game map.

Back at your hideout, you're able to take on side missions that can be launched as soon as they're available, but you're encouraged to wait until you've found evidence and solved an associated puzzle beforehand. The puzzles have a random element that means the solutions are different each time you play, but the methodology is always the same. I imagine most players will google how to solve the puzzles just to get them out of the way, and the side missions themselves are nothing to write home about.

The campaign ends up running out of steam, and you'll spot the twist a mile off. But it does end with a trippy level that's right up every Black Ops conspiracy theorist's street. Does Black Ops Cold War have much to say beyond the CIA and the KGB are both as bad as each other? Not really. But by the end of the campaign I felt I'd had a good time, and there are a few reasons for a second playthrough, which I'm not used to saying about a Call of Duty campaign.

There are some dialogue choices to make as you talk to NPCs, but your decisions don't matter much.

It's short, though - like, five hours or so short - and I think this is the thing about Black Ops Cold War. It's a bit barebones at launch. The competitive multiplayer has a raft of modes, but it feels short on maps (there are only eight available for quick play - previous Call of Dutys had more at launch), and the maps that are included are of varying quality.

Treyarch, which was parachuted in to handle Black Ops Cold War's multiplayer in double-quick time, sensibly stuck with a number of successful features Infinity Ward created for 2019's Modern Warfare. The wonderful gunsmith, for example, makes its way into Black Ops, and I'm delighted with that. Here you're able to customise your weapons with various attachments you unlock as you play. It worked in Modern Warfare and it works in Black Ops Cold War.

Black Ops Cold War also connects to the battle royale, Warzone, as Modern Warfare does, which I think is sensible. You're earning XP for Black Ops weapons as you use them in both games. Eventually Black Ops' season pass will become one with Warzone, and I can see myself dipping between the two quite seamlessly. You're never wasting time, essentially.

Miami feels like the signature Black Ops Cold War multiplayer map, and is so, so '80s. Unfortunately it's the worst map in the game.

But there are some big differences between Modern Warfare and Black Ops Cold War when it comes to multiplayer, some good, some bad. Black Ops Cold War's maps are much less cluttered and much less campy, which I think is a good thing. It feels like a more fluid game while also feeling less lethal. There are no doors here to barge through. Maps are less vertical. There's a decent flow to most of them, particularly in 6v6 modes. In fact, I think Black Ops Cold War is a superb 6v6 game. Moscow, for example, is an easy to understand map, offering clean flow through its considerable concrete. Cartel is chaotic fun - despite the bushes. Satellite's dunes, which look like something out of a Star Wars Battlefront game, offer tense sniping, while the debris gives players something to cower behind. The new VIP Escort mode, which chooses a player at random who must be extracted by their teammates to win the round, offers more coordinated action, but it's still action-packed. Where Modern Warfare encouraged players to creep about, Black Ops Cold War encourages players to sprint all over the shop. There's less stuff to get snagged on, fewer windows to be sniped from. It just feels more fun.

The bigger the maps get, though, the less fun Black Ops Cold War gets. Miami has all sorts of problems, including poor visibility, an ill-thought out layout and a large part of the map that often goes unused. I quite hate Miami, in fact, and always vote for the other map when it comes up. It's Black Ops Cold War's Piccadilly.

And the modes with the bigger player counts and thus bigger scale battles feel at odds with the kind of shooter Black Ops Cold War wants to be. Combined Arms is 16-24 players with vehicles on the Domination and Assault modes. It's a bit like Battlefield, just not as good. And then there's Fireteam: Dirty Bomb mode, which feels like battle royale's younger sibling. This mode parachutes squads of four players onto a huge map and tasks them with collecting uranium that must then be deposited to prime dirty bombs. Blackout - the now forgotten Call of Duty battle royale of 2018 - proved the series and Treyarch's brand of Call of Duty could do battle royale wonderfully well. But I see no reason to play Fireteam over Warzone, particularly when you consider Black Ops Cold War progress can be made in Infinity Ward's game.

Cover image for YouTube video

It's an interesting comparison, I think. Modern Warfare is a technical marvel, with an astonishing attention to detail. Infinity Ward's weapon animation, audio and visual work is the best I've seen in a Call of Duty game. Love it or hate it, Modern Warfare moved the series forward in many important respects, and in some cases Black Ops Cold War is a step back.

Take, for example, the weapons. Black Ops Cold War's guns don't have the oomph Modern Warfare's do. They don't look as detailed, carry the same weight, and they sound tinny. Perhaps Treyarch was going for a stripped-back, cleaner game, focusing on gameplay and clarity above realism and visuals. That's fine, but the upshot is Black Ops Cold War doesn't have the impact of its predecessor, controller in hand.

This difference in philosophy is felt most in the new Scorestreaks system. Now, score carries across lives, whereas before you'd lose your score upon death. I like this idea in principle, as it gives more players a chance to unlock a high level Killstreak than before. But it definitely needs some work. What tends to happen in a typical multiplayer game is you get Scorestreak spam at roughly the same points in time during a match. Most players, for example, hit the right number of points to unlock, say, the Spy Plane at roughly the same time. So then, at early game, you end up with "the Spy Plane moment", when there are loads of the things in the sky.

And then at mid-game, most players have enough score to unlock the Cruise Missile, and so you die to those. And then at late game, most players have just enough score to call in the heavy stuff: a Chopper Gunner, perhaps. Like clockwork these things appear. Treyarch's doing the right thing here, I think, in trying to level the playing field, but in doing so it's created a rather boring, predictable Scorestreak spam.

Cover image for YouTube videoCall of Duty®: Black Ops Cold War - Zombies First Look

Zombies returns in fantastic form with a map that rekindles memories of Treyarch's early, ground-breaking effort in World at War. There's a load of fan service in the Die Maschine map, with plenty of Easter eggs to uncover. It's also accessible. I think it's fair to say Zombies had become somewhat impenetrable, so this new map, which is easy to understand, is welcome. Progression in Zombies is the same as elsewhere, so you're leveling up the weapons you're already leveling up in other parts of the game as you play. In fact, you play as one of the existing operators in Black Ops Cold War's Zombies, not a character played by a Hollywood actor as in previous Black Ops games. There's a familiarity in Zombies that campaign and multiplayer fans will find welcoming. As someone who's always steered clear of Zombies mode because it didn't help with "the grind", this new system has encouraged me to spend time killing the undead.

But there's just one Zombies map, and this is symptomatic of Black Ops Cold War's big throughline issue: it is at launch a game of potential not yet realised. There are fewer than 30 weapons currently in the game, and it already feels like there's a lack of gun variety in multiplayer. The MP5 is currently too popular and I'm sure Treyarch will move to address that sooner rather than later. The game needs new operators fast. It also needs new maps (Black Ops favourite Nuketown hits Cold War in '80s form soon). And a Scorestreak tweak is probably in the offing. It currently takes way too long to level up weapons and unlock their attachments. It's hard not to think the grind was set as it is precisely because of this lack of content.

There's always something Activision does with each Call of Duty to let the side down, of course, and this year it's PlayStation exclusive content. Those who play the game on PlayStation 4 and PlayStation 5 get two extra create-a-class slots, extra tier skips, extra weapon XP and exclusive double XP events. All this is in addition to a 12-month exclusive on the two-player co-op Zombies Onslaught mode. Black Ops Cold War is a cross-generation game: all players on all consoles and PC can play together and against each other. This is fantastic, of course, but when you're giving players on one platform an XP boost, it creates an unfair advantage.

At launch, ahead of the release of the game's first season, Black Ops Cold War is a good shooter and a wonderful achievement, but it is far from being the great competitive multiplayer shooter it should be. I'm confident it can get there. Modern Warfare ended up with some fantastic updates during its first year of life, after all. So I'm sticking with Black Ops Cold War - for now.