Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War Review (Xbox Series X)
Reviewed by Nick Akerman
One ending in Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War is so daring and unexpected that it really should have been made the default finale. The short campaign loses its impact if you opt for the safest choices. Pick the ‘bad’ ending and the game comes to a genuinely jaw-dropping end, a high point for a package that never reaches its potential.
Cold War’s campaign is built upon a jingoistic view of war, one that puts Hero America against the Big Bad Russia. The writing is largely formulaic, made up of men saying manly things, which does take away from some exhilarating moments of gameplay in the 5-6 hour runtime.
The usual COD touches are here; slick set pieces, explosions that knock out your hearing as they fling you back, and plenty of faceless goons to chop down. There’s also show-stealing stealth missions and an emphasis on finding evidence that naturally weaves story elements with gameplay in a natural way.
"Cold War’s campaign is built upon a jingoistic view of war, one that puts Hero America against the Big Bad Russia"
The two best missions slow things down and hit on the one element that is missing when you’re all guns blazing: tension. One section has you creeping around an enemy’s house in search of a vital object. His child calls out for him while you slowly move around the tight corridors that are imposingly tall when you’re crouching and searching for a safe path forward. Every step feels like it could give you away.
This is completely different to the second stealth mission, a more ambitious section which tasks you with double-crossing the KGB at their headquarters in Moscow. You must find a way to let the American contingent inside without detection, a job made tougher by Russian intelligence that a mole is operating within their base.
You could choose to sneakily take out guards as you look for access, or you could try to frame another big player to take the heat off any suspicious colleagues. It’s excellent from start to finish, concluding with a surprising antithesis to a certain controversial airport scene from Modern Warfare 2 over a decade ago.
Undoubtedly the other highlight of the campaign is the final mission, which flips everything on its head before you even get to making the choices that will define your ending. There’s fun twists and a heightened sense of horror as your character’s backstory comes to prominence after having little personality for the rest of the game.
"The two best missions slow things down and hit on the one element that is missing when you’re all guns blazing: tension"
Cold War’s campaign looks sharp on the Xbox Series X. The opening level is a decent showcase of the console’s graphical fidelity with neon signs lighting up the smoke-filled bar that kicks the ‘80s setting into life with its jukebox soundtrack. Another highlight is a moment that lets you walk through a beautiful arcade, filled with old Activision games to play, and the aforementioned KGB building has some of the shiniest floors seen on console to date.
There’s plenty of standard fare though—a snowy level, an airport hangar and Vietnam—as things flit between feeling fresh and well-worn. The term ‘standard fare’ can also be applied to multiplayer, which feels pretty sparse compared to last year’s Modern Warfare and Warzone offerings. With just eight new maps and some obviously overpowered loadouts, it’s a step backwards on what players have been enjoying over the last year.
Competitive multiplayer feels basic, in fact. The maps are incredibly dull and very few will live long in the memory. Rolling Nuketown out after release, like Treyarch always do, just underlines a lack of momentum and new ideas. There’s nothing here to push multiplayer forwards and it feels stripped back at an important time for the series at the start of a new console generation.
Fresh ideas that are tried don’t amount to much excitement. Fireteam: Dirty Bomb is a messy 40-player squad shootout that has players capturing objectives and detonating uranium explosives. It doesn’t translate well if you’re not grouped with friends, as the multiple ways to score points means it’s difficult to implement a solid gameplan with strangers. There’s just a bit too much going on without it ever feeling coherently entwined.
"The term ‘standard fare’ can also be applied to multiplayer, which feels pretty sparse compared to last year’s Modern Warfare and Warzone offerings"
VIP Escort, too, is frustrating in its current guise. One team must lead a randomly designed player to an exfil site while the other does everything they can to eliminate the target. There’s no respawns and the first team to win four rounds, by either delivering the escort or taking then out, win the match.
The round system actually makes this mode suffer more than it should. There are dangerous sightlines everywhere and engagements are often immediate, giving you little time to execute a plan or consider any route to success other than just waltzing in and killing the enemy.
A little calculation and time to take up positions would go a long way. Just having one round, perhaps with a limited amount of respawns, would also add to the tension. Right now, every round is over before it’s had time to hits its stride.
That feeling runs throughout Cold War. The campaign has some super ideas, but never quite delivers on them. Multiplayer flaunts the slick gunplay that’s made the series so loved, but it’s been done better before. Zombies is back, but you know what you’re getting.
Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War is available now on the PC, Xbox Series X, and PlayStation 5. Publisher Activision kindly provided a Xbox Series X review code to DailyBits for free for the purposes of this review.