Just as last year’s Modern Warfare served as a soft reboot for Captain John Price’s exploits through current day counter-terrorism, Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War fulfils a similar purpose. Along with being a mouthful of a title, the game’s campaign sees the return of familiar faces as they’re injected into a new context. Although we’re not entirely through sampling the game’s multiplayer suite—Toby’s thoughts on the multiplayer will follow in the coming days—we have paid a visit to big hair 80s, where greed and conflict drove the decade into some particularly dark places.
Although Cold War sees the return of popular characters like Mason, Woods, and Hudson, it ultimately feels like an alternate-universe version of them. They’re similarly nuanced and share the same ticks except, just as Barry Sloane took over the mantle of Captain Price, none of the big players returned to voice their roles. Of course, the 80s context sees the introduction of new faces, from the scar-faced, Robert Redford-like Adler, who serves as the Hannibal of your covert A-Team, to real-world historical figures who don’t always enjoy a flattering spotlight in this political powder keg of a plot.
The plot starts explosively, kicking an intercontinental manhunt into effect as your team hunts down the game’s big bad, a Soviet spy named Perseus. Armed with one of America’s once-secret, eleventh-hour nukes, his threats to frame the United States for a Cold War catastrophe acts as a brilliant catalyst for a standard, punchy six to eight hour Call of Duty single-player campaign. Being a Black Ops title, the final act sees the screw turn with a somewhat derivative, mindfuck plot twist that only the sci-fi subsect of Call of Duty can get away with. I wholeheartedly expected it so it didn’t hit quite as hard as the original Black Ops.
All in all, it’s a serviceable and more grounded return to the Black Ops formula that hits a lot of great heights, all the while forming a compelling connective tissue between it and the Modern Warfare games with a crossover that’ll catch many off-guard.
Although you’ll certainly serve time as Mason during the game’s campaign, the majority of it will be spent playing as a character codenamed ‘Bell’. All of the finer details are up to you—name, place of birth, gender—and you’re also able to build out the character’s psychological profile in the form of two attributes that offer two passive buffs such as greater health, greater damage output or even damage reduction for explosives. There’s a little bit of option to mold Cold War into an experience that better suits you. The only unfortunate thing is that you, as Bell, choose between dialogue options throughout the story, though with no voice-over work done they remain silent throughout which seems like a small thing, but it does dent the game’s selling of the character in this setting.
I really enjoyed the way the Cold War campaign unfolded. An elaborate, connected web of leads you’ll circle on a pinboard before finishing in the middle, where Perseus is waiting. With his cold gaze watching you scramble for leads, I felt his presence even in his absence as the tension and urgency of the narrative felt earned. While the pinboard always points you toward the next story mission, there are also a couple of side missions you’re able to explore once you’ve compiled the necessary evidence—which can be unearthed in many of the story’s replayable levels. They’re not essential to reaching the endgame, but whether to succeed or not will play a role in what ending you see before the credits roll. Cold War has multiple endings, so despite the brevity of the experience it at least warrants a return visit or two.
Although it doesn’t seem to ever reach the lofty heights of the original Black Ops, Cold War’s campaign is full of some terrific moments. For a change, it isn’t thanks to the explosive, sledgehammer moments that the series has become known for, it’s instead the nuanced, subtle moments—full of tension—that stand out here. The mission that takes place within the walls of the KGB is a certain highlight, it’s a multi-path espionage effort to frame and betray countrymen all for the greater good and it’s a phenomenal slice of layered design not common to Call of Duty. Of course, there are still plenty of big blockbuster set pieces that’ll get your blood pumping.
As it always has been, the gunplay in Cold War is tremendously tight. It’s the reason Call of Duty has existed as the primetime shooter for over a decade and, fortunately, not a whole lot of refinement has been required here. With a campaign that drifts between decades, there is a lot of variety in what’s on offer. Plenty of guns withstanding, Cold War has spectacular moments where you’ll utilise explosive-strapped remote control cars, fly choppers through the irregular Vietnamese mountainscape, and bear down on your enemies with the fearsome AC-130—it wouldn’t be a Call of Duty game without it.
Cold War is a beautiful game that, like most Call of Duty games, takes you to plenty of places with great seasonal variety so that the environmental artists can flex their muscle a little bit. Cold War features a cracking era-appropriate soundtrack that inserts itself from the first second as the opening crawl is backed by Norman Greenbaum’s “Spirit in the Sky” which came as a nice surprise to someone expecting the lowest hanging fruit in Creedence Clearwater Revival.
It’s short and doesn’t exactly reach the soaring heights that Black Ops did a decade ago, but Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War throws out the template for how to knock together a Call of Duty game and presses on in an unexpected direction that combines the traditional spectacle the series is known for with thought out, methodical spy heroics that transform moments from Cold War’s campaign into a pressure cooker.
THIS GAME WAS TESTED ON AN XBOX SERIES X FOR THE PURPOSE OF THIS REVIEW. A DIGITAL REVIEW CODE WAS PROVIDED BY THE PUBLISHER.
Although the campaign is only a small slice of the larger package in Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War, it’s great that it counters its ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ length with a bit of replay value and some memorable missions you’re bound to want to play again. Raven Software’s more subtle approach to Cold War espionage feels like viewing Call of Duty through a new, exciting lens.
A really neat Cold War setting
Gunplay is as solid as ever
Best looking game in the series so far
The subtle, slow burn moments are a real highlight