Review Copy provided by Activision. Reviewed on PC.
Cold War’s biggest strength is that it takes itself seriously, and that’s the best compliment it could get from someone who stopped playing the single-player campaign of these games after Call of Duty Ghost.
While not as original, remarkable, and confident as 2010’s Black Ops, Cold War adds some subtle new features that emphasize a little bit on player choices and actions, all the while retaining its bombastic gameplay and adrenaline-pumping scripted sequences, thereby making it one of the most promising Call Of Duty campaigns in the last decade.
This review is divided into four categories and you can jump straight ahead to a section of your liking. Although no major spoilers are presented, you may want to skip the story section to keep things entirely fresh.
Narrative & Story
As the name suggests, Black Ops Cold War is inspired by the events that took place during the actual Cold War between the Soviet Union and Americans during the mid to late 90s. CIA Agent Russell Adler and his team are tasked to bring down Soviet Agent Perseus who poses a monumental threat to the United States. Plot-wise, the game is a direct sequel to 2010’s Black Ops and so expect to see a few familiar faces such as Alex Mason and Woods. While players do get the chance to play as Mason for a few missions, he isn’t the game’s main protagonist so to speak. That honor goes to “Bell” who is, well, you, the player.
Speaking of which, players have the freedom to choose their past which includes some tangible attributes such as Military Background and Psychological Profile, all of which provide significant gameplay bonuses. For example, selecting “Paranoid” as one’s psychological profile allows them to have 100% increased aiming speed, whereas selecting “Violent Tendencies” will increase their bullet damage by 25%. Other passive attributes include skin color, gender, etc.
Interestingly, these are not the only changes that embrace the campaign of this year’s Call of Duty. Ditching its linear storyline, Cold War’s campaign takes a more sandbox approach by letting players take a couple of key decisions throughout the game that can lead to either of the two endings it offers.
While it’s a surprising direction for a Call of Duty game, it benefits thoroughly in the course of its fresh, six to seven hours long campaign, that otherwise struggles to recapitulate the twists and turns that made the narrative of the original Black Ops so compelling.
Cold War’s inspiration lies everywhere and it’s such a relief to see this long-running series finally overhaul its single-player campaign to an extent that it meets the modern standard. For instance, it takes a cue right out of the recent Wolfenstein Games where players can visit a safehouse in between missions to chat with their allies, interact with a computer to gain additional intel, and much more. There’s even a locked room that I found on my second visit that requires a combination to open. The addition of multiple dialogue choices makes the conversation more interesting and I even ended up, indirectly, flirting with one of the key characters- Helen Parker. Speaking of characters, Woods and Mason take a back seat this time around, only occasionally venturing on less prioritized missions, while Bell does the heavy work.
Seeing familiar faces is a treat but not if they are there for the mere sake of being there. In the case of Mason, that, unfortunately, seems to be the situation here as his arch barely progressed through the course of the story. I would have loved to see the game’s narrative shed some light on Mason’s personality since the course of the last game but that seems to be minimum here. There does come a moment where the infamous numbers start to pop up on the screen which got me all excited thinking he was, after all, a much more important piece in Bell’s story. Unfortunately, that turned out not to be the case and both Mason and Woods’ story arch felt inadequate, not to mention unnecessary.
Russell Adler, however, takes the spotlight most of the time and it shines brilliantly over his scar-filled, chiseled personality with aviator shades that reminded me of Brad Pitt. Voice Actor Bruce Thomas brings to life immense charisma and wit to Adler’s character, who holds this unlikely group of ex-CIA and MI6 agents together.
As mentioned before, Cold War’s story doesn’t reach the highs of 2010’s Black Ops. What it does, however, is allow players to explore the story at their own pace, making them feel like they are part of the narrative, hence making it much more engaging. Players can discover the context for the story scattered around. Whether it is by accessing the computer terminal that gives background info on all the characters, or by reading Hudson’s private conversation with his superior Black after every mission, or just by talking to their comrades which leads to some hilarious conversations.
At one point, Parker suggests Bell not to ask Adler about how he got his battle scars. Interestingly, that same dialogue option pops up several times during conversations with Adler and it’s hard resisting not asking him about this before a volatile covert operation. Moments like these make up for an otherwise traditional Call Of Duty Story, that reaches its peak ten minutes before the credits roll.
Visuals & Aesthetics
On PC, Call of Duty Black Ops Cold War is undoubtedly the best looking Call Of Duty game ever made. Fuzzy neon lights plague the streets of Berlin that look gorgeous with or without raytracing enabled. Snow-capped peaks of Mount Yamantau serves as a breather from all the gloominess that came before it, whereas the vibrant jungles of Vietnam serve as a vivid reflection of what the real word Fracture Jaw operation could have been if it had unfolded.
Characters models on the other hand look outdated. As intimidating Adler may seem in the cutscenes with his finely detailed scars, he looks incredibly rough in-game. This is the same for every other main character as well. The textures on Parker’s hair wafting above her ear was put to shame three years ago when players met Aloy in Horizon Zero Dawn. On the other hand, the clothes of every prominent character are highly detailed. The buttons on Adler’s Leather Jacket almost seem life-like. None of this is, however, immensely distracting. What is distracting and even annoying at times is the game’s lighting.
While it looks fine most of the time, especially in missions that take place during daytime, it flusters during stealth segments that take place during the night, and there’s really a ton of those.
Even on a 4K HDR TV, the lighting is all over the place. At times it’s so dark, I could barely distinguish whether it’s an enemy standing in front of me or a destructible barrel. Heck, I couldn’t even see the semi-automatic pistol that I was holding firmly in my hands. This was all still bearable until I logged into once in the safe house only to find everything darkened. None of the characters were visible and hilariously not a single word over the mission board was visible. I don’t know if this is something that happened only to me, or is something that is exclusive to the PC platform, or the others, but it sure is frustrating and immersion-breaking.
Ray-tracing is a huge part of next-generation games and Black Ops Cold War doesn’t shy away from flaunting it time after time. The campaign kicks off in a sleazy bar somewhere in Amsterdam. The late ’90s aesthetics is in full swing with red and blue neon lights buzzing the streets. This is a common sight in the entirety of Cold War’s campaign and it suits well because the game looks absolutely gorgeous in these moments.
However, people expecting the game to accurately represent the ‘90s may be disappointed. While there are tiny details referencing the rise of pop culture in the West that adds to the aesthetics, it does a few absurd things that may disappoint the nitpickers. For example, there’s this poster of a band that I came across a couple of times. It’s from the 1971 UK Tour of “Duchess Blue.” I appreciate such tiny details in the games I play as it makes the experience more authentic. Since I didn’t know whether “Duchess Blue” is an actual band, I googled it and found that, unfortunately, it’s not. The closest I got to was a Scottish band called “Blue” which came into existence in 1973. So I don’t know whether it’s loosely based on that, or just a vague poster that I’m looking too much into. Again, while this doesn’t break the game in any way, it does disappoint in a little considering how many other AAA games are heavily referencing brands accurately nowadays.
Gameplay & Level Design
Call of Duty has been a staple of the FPS genre over the years and Black Ops Cold War is no different. The gunplay remains fast, fluid, precise, and ultimately addictive. Playing through Cold War’s campaign reminded me of how much I have missed these enthralling moments that can only be found in a solid first-person shooter. (Sorry Doom Eternal)
Every weapon from the Cold War-era feels distinct and carries a subtle weight, be it the M16, the LMG RPD, or a trusty old Gallo SA12 Shotgun. Alas, it’s also liberating to not be a victim of bullet sponges since Black Ops Cold War is not another FPS with pseudo-role-playing elements.
While playing with a Mouse and Keyboard is always a better option when it comes to FPS, I found myself enjoying Black Ops Cold War much more so with a controller. It’s also worth mentioning that auto-aim is switched on the moment players transition from mouse to a controller, however, it doesn’t rob the fun of the combat like in titles such as Red Dead Redemption 2.
Cold War’s six to seven hours long campaign takes places across all those locations that players have learned to expect from games such as these. This includes high-security enemy encampments, dense forests, snow-covered mountain peaks, and so forth. The game appropriately paces these distinct and diverse locations and I never found myself getting fatigued, so much that I could have finished the game in one go if I didn’t have a raging headache all the time. While there is no shortage of games that last less than ten hours or so, very few manage to fill in ample amounts of locations to keep players content even in such a short span of time. Black Ops Cold War does it well over the course of 16 missions, each of which feels vastly different, thereby keeping things fresh till the credits roll.
One specific mission completely overhauls the game and makes it a sandbox adventure, taking cues from a popular mission in Dishonored named, “Lady Boyle’s Last Party.” Without spoiling much, long time fans will be surprised to find so many non-lethal ways to infiltrate a target.
While every Call Of Duty game follows the “If ain’t broken, don’t fix it” formula, Black Ops Cold War, surprisingly ends up adding a few new elements that make the experience much better than its predecessors. For example, players now have the freedom to either barge in every door or open it quietly. It isn’t groundbreaking but it respects player freedom which is always appreciated. Moreover, players can sneak up to an enemy and through them upfront among their comrades with a grenade in their mouth. This is a cool new addition that remained fun even after I have blasted off hundreds of enemies. Though it’s hilarious since it works even when the player character doesn’t have a grenade in stock. Speaking of stealth, players can even mark off enemies via their camera. The camera can also be used to take pictures in the game that provides more intel and ultimately unlocks side missions that players can undertake. All of these subtle yet fair changes make up for one of the best single-player Call Of Duty campaigns in years.
For a next-generation game, Call Of Duty Black Ops Cold War is well optimized even for older GPUs. I played it on an Nvidia 1660Ti at high settings, at upscaled 4K resolution, and the FPS never dipped below 59 in its most chaotic moments. Additionally, I didn’t see any major game-breaking issues that could hamper my experience, aside from occasional misbehaving AI’s.
The single-player campaign of Call Of Duty Black Ops Cold War is a modernized return to form and serves as a treat to the fans who used to care about the game’s single-player mode prior to the Advanced Warfare era. The six to seven hours long campaign offers immense variety in its action-packed globe-trotting missions while providing more laid-back moments in between them. Its uninspiring attempt to recapitulate the mind-bending narrative of the first game may not surprise everyone, but its subtle focus on freedom and choice in both story and gameplay makes up for it.