Call of Duty: Black Ops — Cold War is a game that is meant to be played over and over. Not just the multiplayer and Zombies modes, but also the single-player campaign — you can play it repeatedly because it has multiple endings and different optional paths that you can take along the way. It’s like being on a treadmill, but a fun one.
Activision will launch Cold War on PC and consoles on November 13, including on the PlayStation 5 and the Xbox Series X. I played it on both the PS5 and the PC. I set myself back by mistakenly playing the PS4 version on the PS5, and I had to re-download the game. And I also had trouble in multiplayer because I didn’t set up the internet right on the PS5. It was on Wi-Fi, but I thought I had configured it for wired internet. I wasn’t very impressed with the game at all at the outset. But once I fixed these errors, I came back to a sense of relief that the game is pretty good after all.
The campaign has a paranoid story, and it’s set in the paranoid times of the 1960s and 1980s. It starts out in 1981. In an intelligence meeting, the CIA is briefing the top brass on Perseus, the codename for a real Soviet spy who infiltrated Western intelligence and was never uncovered. The sleeper agent stole American atomic weapons secrets in 1943 and then resurfaced in Vietnam in 1968. In 1981, word circulates that Perseus has returned, and CIA agent Russell Adler has to track him down. U.S. President Ronald Reagan walks into a room and orders the CIA and other agencies to take down Perseus at any cost for the sake of the free men and women of the world.
So begins this year’s installment of Call of Duty, a franchise that has sold more than 300 million copies in the past 17 years. I’ve played every installment, and this one does an admirable job of continuing the traditions of Black Ops, a popular sub-brand that first came out in 2010. I loved how Raven wove history into this campaign. But I’ve noticed a few things missing that may hearken back to the game’s difficult birth.
After Activision’s Sledgehammer Games studio finished Call of Duty: WWII in 2017, it began to work on a new game for 2020, as Activision’s three major studios always rotated the job of making a big Call of Duty game for each year. But Sledgehammer had differences with a proposal that Raven Software was working on, and it was happening at a time when Call of Duty faced fresh competition from battle royale games like PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds and Fortnite. Sledgehammer’s leaders left, as did a chunk of the studio’s staff, and Treyarch took Sledgehammer’s place. The result was that the collective team didn’t have as much time to finish the game, and the pandemic threw the schedule off even more. It was also a difficult year because of the console transition. The upshot is that this year’s Call of Duty came in hot.
I think the premise of the campaign is excellent, but the execution on the story and its ending don’t meet its promise.
A paranoid campaign
Raven started in a good place with its single-player campaign. While three of the Black Ops stories went off into the future, Cold War is a direct sequel to the bone-chilling plot of the original, with a tale involving top-secret mind-control experiments and black operations, or “deniable operations” that the public is not supposed to know about.
And the hunt for Perseus takes Adler across the globe and behind the Iron Curtain in both Berlin and Moscow, and the team goes on missions that range from stealth, such as infiltrating the headquarters of the KGB, to full-scale battles, like in Vietnam with a helicopter assault and a firefight in a rice paddy.
Fan-favorite characters like Frank Woods and Alex Mason are back, alongside Adler, to provide tough-guy comic relief. One of the funny moments is when Woods bashes down a door and takes a soldier down, only to discover it’s a practice dummy. “Not a fucking word!” Woods snarls to his comrade.
You play as a new character, and you can identify yourself as a man, woman, or nonbinary person. You get to make life-or-death choices without much real intelligence, and the game does a good job of instilling you with a sense of paranoia, not only about who you can trust but whether you can trust yourself. Your decisions have consequences, and you can rewind them as you replay the game and see how things can turn out differently if you rethink your critical decisions.
Given the shadowy nature of the intelligence world, you don’t know who to trust as you cross into East Berlin. You don’t know if there are double agents betraying you. You don’t know if your superiors are being completely honest with you, or if you’re in one of their mind control experiments. Hence, it really does feel like you’re a rat on a treadmill, at the mercy of the experimenters.
In each mission, your job is to collect all of the evidence that you can. If you miss a critical piece, you may find it harder or impossible to do later missions. That means you’ll have to go back and replay a mission, scouring every inch of the map to make sure you have all the clues.
I got a sense of accomplishment in tightening the ring around Perseus. But I felt like the game didn’t let me figure out enough of the mystery. I didn’t have to engage in any brilliant thinking to get closer to Perseus. All of the clues just fell into my lap, so long as I obsessively covered the whole map.
The writing and the characters were top notch, and that makes it easier to swallow this tactic (the rewinding of history) of stretching out what is a fairly short game.
How short should the game be?
And short it is. Perhaps the biggest flaw in the campaign is that has about 10 fleshed-out missions, plus or minus some optional content and replayable missions. I didn’t clock my hours, but I finished it in a day and a half, and I felt it was perhaps half the length of last year’s Call of Duty: Modern Warfare campaign.
I would have like to see the developers and writers do more with missions that pointed out the tension between the soldiers on the ground and the commanders in Washington. That certainly would have been an interesting storyline that would have pulled Reagan and his commanders deeper into the story. As-is, Reagan just makes a cameo.
Just when it started picking up momentum, the story came to its final mission. You could say that the narrative carries on in other parts of the game, like multiplayer, but that’s not a whole lot of extra story that gets conveyed in the seconds before the multiplayer matches start. And Zombies has a very different plot of its own, with roots in World War II.
In some past Call of Duty games, I got stuck. I would sometimes have to engage in a firefight 30 times in order to win a battle, like the Pripyat Ferris Wheel mission in Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. But I didn’t fare so badly in this one. In some ways, that makes me feel good. But it also isn’t challenging enough. I’ve gone through about two playthroughs altogether, and I’ve seen two endings.
I played the game on the hardened difficulty level or one notch above regular. I found that I wasn’t forced to refight missions because I was dying too much and there were too many enemies. Rather, the toughest missions were the ones where I blew my cover while I was supposed to be in stealth. It made me think I should have played the game on level four or level five. I’m replaying on the hardest level, Realism, now.
The mission where I felt the pressure of being a spy most intensely was the mission where you infiltrate the KGB. It is so daring that it’s unbelievable, and it’s easy to make the wrong move and draw too much attention. Standing in an elevator with a familiar officer who suspects you of being a spy is nerve-racking. When you finally get a chance to go guns blazing, it’s like a relief.
Gameplay is good
The gunplay is satisfying, as no one gets the feel of guns right like the Call of Duty developers. The sniper rifles are hard to master when it comes to aiming, but you get a sense of how difficult it is to keep a bead on a distant target when your breath can throw off the aim. The light machine-guns are great for older folks like me who need lots of bullets going at a target quickly to take down a fast-moving enemy.
The guns are very difficult at the beginning, but when you level them up with the Gunsmith using accessories like better gunsights and muzzles, you can become far more effective at hitting targets and taking them down. I got better and better, both at multiplayer and in single-player, and that’s the kind of progression you want to see in a difficult combat game.
If I had some complaints, they were small. It is cool that you can reload your weapon while you are aiming down the sights at a target. You don’t have to stop and re-aim. But it takes an interminably long time to reload sometimes. And you may wind up looking down the sights at someone who is shooting you down.
And as good as the next-generation graphics are, the hair animations aren’t that realistic. At first, I thought this was a problem because I played the PS4 code on the PS5 (don’t do that). But it also looks so-so in both the correct PS5 version and on the PC. I don’t care so much that the reflections in water are so realistic in comparison to this noticeable weakness in the visuals.
And while the loading times are shorter on the next-generation machines, you still have to deal with loading times. They’re not completely gone. Transitions to cinematics can be 5 seconds, and transitions to gameplay scenes may be akin to 20 seconds or so.
Multiplayer is awesome
As I noted in the beta test, I’m quite impressed with the multiplayer combat. More than ever, multiplayer is the reason to come back to this game.
I loved the addition of the new Combined Arms 12-vs.-12 maps, such as Cartel, Armada, and Crossroads. During the alpha and beta tests, I put a lot of hours into Domination mode on the Combined Arms maps, where you have to capture a bunch of flags and hold them.
The gunplay is awesome. There’s nothing like shooting at someone who is coming in off a zipline at high speed on the Armada map. Or sneaking up on someone through the bushes in Cartel. Or knocking out one soldier after another with a tank in Crossroads.
If there’s an anachronism, it’s that the guns feel too good for the 1980s setting. Your scopes are really effective on the guns. You can call in artillery strikes when you have a lot of kills, but those strikes are way too accurate and fast to be realistic for the era. You can pick where a shell is going to land and see which enemies you’re going to kill. I get it. It’s a video game.
And while the Cold War theme of the single-player game emphasizes stealth operations, these multiplayer modes are all hot battles from the start. You play as Russian Spetsnaz or U.S. CIA operatives, but you pretty much go in guns-blazing on the maps that the developers have showed so far.
I stuck to what I enjoyed, the larger Combined Arms battles, where 12 players fight against 12, rather than the VIP escort mission or the smaller 6-vs.-6 battles. I love Domination, where each side tries to control at least three spots on a map, because of the way the developers revised how you take a flag. In the past, you had to expose yourself in a small circle around a flag. But in the new mode, you can spread out behind cover more easily, as the flag area is larger and fits around spaces such as cars. That means there are more things to hide behind as you try to take a point.
But to each his own. There are eight 6-on-6 maps, which is plenty to have in rotation. I’ve seen steady progress in the game quality in multiplayer since the alpha test, and I’m looking forward to spending most of my time in multiplayer.
At some point, I’m pretty sure I’ll return to playing Warzone, after I’ve leveled up in multiplayer. But that’s no loss for Activision, as it’s pretty much Call of Duty year-round for me these days. Between multiplayer, Warzone, and Call of Duty: Mobile, Activision is scoring big in retention and year-round gameplay with the Call of Duty franchise now, and that will mean a lot more money.
The multiplayer matches are crossplay and cross-generation, meaning you can play with friends on different platforms, including PS4 players teaming up with PS5 players and so on. With cross-progression, you can switch platforms without losing your progress. It also has skill-based matchmaking.
It takes a little while to load each match, even with the faster SSDs of the new consoles. In an interview with Treyarch, I learned that this is one of the costs of cross-platform play, as those speedy consoles can load the maps faster. But they have to wait for the other players on the older machines to load before the match can start. You can cut this load time short by getting rid of the crossplay feature, but you might also have a harder time finding the right matches as well.
During the tests, I tried to remember to shoot higher and get some headshots as well as to keep firing at a target until I got the confirmed kill. With the better gunsights, I found I could hit some targets pretty far away with the Stoner 63 LMG, almost making it as effective as a sniper rifle.
With the sniper rifle, I learned a few things. If the enemies were charging straight at me, it was far easier to target them and hit them. If I was perched on a cliff, and they were running sideways, I couldn’t hit anything. If you can level up so you can carry both an LMG and a sniper rifle, I think that is the ideal loadout.
I fared OK in rounds with journalists and influencers, as well as with the general public in the alpha and beta tests, but I’ll be interested to see the final tweaks of multiplayer and how it all turns out.
Zombies is stressful
To me, Zombies always feels like an unwinnable game. You can team up with up to three other players in co-op mode and fight wave after wave until you can’t hold them off anymore. It’s very hard to get to the end of the game unless you’re very good or well coordinated.
This year is a little different in with the new Zombies mode, dubbed Into the Aether. Cold War gives you multiple Zombies maps for free, as Activision doesn’t want to fragment the community. That’s a big plus. The heart of the Dark Aether story is Die Maschine.
It starts in a flashback to World War II, when Russian soldiers uncover a radioactive Nazi bunker and find an experiment known as Projekt Endstation. The Russians accidentally set loose the zombies, and an international force tries to contain the outbreak.
The Americans and the Russians form a CIA-backed international response team dubbed Requiem, headed by Russian-American soldier Grigori Weaver. Requiem will go up against the Omega Group, a splinter Soviet organization bent on researching and exploiting the zombie outbreak.
For the first time in Black Ops, Zombies will offer players a chance to play as Operators from multiplayer and even see familiar faces from the single-player campaign, including Russell Adler, Lawrence Sims, and Frank Woods. It will have upgradeable Perks such as Speed Cola, Juggernog, and Quick Revive.
I managed to get some rounds in to see what it’s like. Die Maschine has a 20-round mode where you can play for a long time and still get a bathroom break when you really need it. If you can make it to the end, you’re golden. But you can also play Die Maschine Endless, where the waves just keep on coming. I did OK in my battle, but that’s because I had help from some expert Treyarch players who kept reviving me. I was able to see more of the game this way, and I liked it. When you get deep into the bunker, some weird things start to happen, and it adds to the whole mystique of the Zombies story.
After you reach Round 10, every fifth round you have the option of escaping through exfiltration. A helicopter will show up and if you can survive long enough, your team can pull out of the infestation and live to fight another day. I almost got exfiltrated, but somebody or something blew up our helicopter and we all died.
I also played some two-player rounds of Onslaught, where you are placed in a multiplayer map but can only go into a small part of it that is defined by a mysterious orb. The orb sets a smaller perimeter where you must fend of the zombies, and it keeps moving around the map. Big zombie bosses start arriving, and I was delighted to earn a Sentry Turret that gunned them down automatically.
You can earn these multiplayer rewards in Zombies now, as the Battle Pass System from multiplayer will be integrated with Zombies for the first time. All of these things are welcome additions that may get players off the fence and trying out the mode more.
I don’t know if I’ll make it that far in Zombies because I don’t know many folks who want to spend all of that time getting to the end of the story. I certainly don’t have the skill, as you can see in my gameplay videos. That means the bulk of the value for me lies in multiplayer and single-player. As I explained, multiplayer makes this whole game worth the purchase price. I have only grown more fond of it the more I have played.
But I could tell there were places where the developers had to cut corners. The hair tells me that it’s really hard to do both PS5-Xbox Series X/S and PS4/Xbox One games at the same time. The story could have had more depth, and the list of missions could have been longer. I realize the circumstances under which this game came out, and so I do think it’s a heroic effort.
But it’s not the best Call of Duty game I have played, and the specter of returning to Warzone battle royale games looms large over this game. That’s why I rate this game as 4-out-of-5 stars (and yes, I might rate it much closer to 4.5 stars out of 5, as it is a shade better than the Watch Dogs: Legion game I played recently). I don’t think it’s as good as last year’s Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, which was so disturbing and thoughtful and had an excellent and long single-player campaign.
Call of Duty: Black Ops — Cold War comes out on November 13 for PC, PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X/S, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One. The publisher gave us PS5 and PC codes for the purposes of this review.