As a heads up, I don’t intend to mention any major spoilers but a couple of the campaign’s missions will be referenced. If you want to go into Black Ops Cold War‘s campaign completely blind, then feel free to skip straight to the multiplayer section of this review.
A familiar story
Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War follows the story of Bell, an American CIA operative fighting in the Cold War. Bell’s team consists of several high-ranking CIA officials including Russell Adler, Alex Mason, and Frank Woods. They all share one common goal: taking down Perseus. Perseus is a Soviet spy responsible for the radicalization of Imran Zakhaev. He wants to bring upheaval to the West and turn the world against the United States.
Not every mission is memorable, but a few certainly stand out. Perhaps most impressive of all is Desperate Measures. Desperate Measures is a stealth mission where you play as an undercover KGB mole, Dimitri Belikov. You have to figure out a method that allows Adler and Bell to infiltrate a KGB facility without being discovered. While it comes across as very Hollywood, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Even if the gritty realism of Modern Warfare‘s campaign is gone, those epic moments that define good CoD campaigns are very much present.
I find that Black Ops Cold War‘s campaign excels when playing through these stealthier missions. There are actually several missions that take this approach, and they are all among the best Call of Duty has to offer. The problem is that the moment you have to complete a mission that isn’t stealth-based, it’s usually forgettable. I don’t get particularly excited about the idea of mindlessly mowing down thousands of nameless Soviets. We’ve seen it all before.
I was genuinely invested in the narrative from start to end. There’s a surprising amount to get through considering how short the campaign actually is. For reference, my first playthrough on regular difficulty took just three and a half hours. It’s a nice throwback to the original Black Ops with its many borrowed themes, but it’s too short for my liking. I miss the past where CoD campaigns could easily take seven or eight hours to get through.
Blast from the past
Modern Warfare caught me off guard at launch as all Activision’s marketing hinted at it being a throwback title. That was complete nonsense. While good in its own right, Modern Warfare was not a traditional Call of Duty game. It discarded everything set up by its predecessors to create a far slower-paced, tactical multiplayer shooter. This new approach excelled in slower game modes like Search & Destroy and Warzone, but was difficult to stomach otherwise.
Black Ops Cold War is nothing like that. Its multiplayer shows clear signs of past Call of Duty titles influencing it. From its less demanding gunplay to the overall faster pacing of lobbies, this screams old school CoD. This might be a turn off for those who got into Call of Duty through Modern Warfare, but it’s been a blessing for a series veteran like myself.
All but one of Cold War‘s eight multiplayer maps are on the smaller side. The exception is Miami and everyone agrees that it’s a terrible map. I know everyone agrees with me on this, because I’ve only ever seen it voted for once. Every other map uses the tried and tested three-lane design and is fast-paced. Something that I’m sure many older CoD fans will be delighted by.
The main advantage of this is that it makes respawn game modes far easier to enjoy. In Modern Warfare, if you were playing on a larger map like Azhir Cave, you’d have to run miles to find anyone. Even when you did encounter enemies, it was likely after they gunned you down from the comfort of whatever safe spot they’d set up in. I’m not going to pretend that Black Ops Cold War has no visibility issues, but it’s certainly easier to get into a good gunfight. This rings particularly true on smaller maps like Checkmate and Crossroads, both of which are excellent additions to the franchise.
What I love most about Black Ops Cold War is that I’ve been able to play it how I want. I can rush around every map with an SMG or assault rifle while jump shooting and drop-shotting to my heart’s content. The cursed safe spots that Modern Warfare prided itself in are all gone. Camping in a room with mines isn’t a top tier strategy anymore as there are so many options to counter that playstyle. This is an FPS that is best enjoyed by playing fast and letting your aim do the heavy lifting. And that’s exactly what Call of Duty should be about.
The only caveat is that right now there’s something wrong with the spawning. It’s rare that you get to engage in a one-on-one gunfight in Black Ops Cold War. Usually, enemies spawn in bulk together, so you’ll have to fight through at least two or three to get anywhere. This occasionally results in a juicy kill feed, but it’s more common that you’ll finish off one enemy and then another will return the favor. There are some gun balance issues too, but I’m confident that these will be addressed. Treyarch has already nerfed the MP5, AUG, and M16. It’s great to see Treyarch addressing the big issues early on and hopefully, we’ll see plenty more patches like these going forward.
Not everything is fast
Although the gameplay itself acts as a faithful throwback to traditional Call of Duty, the weapon progression is another story. Currently, leveling up weapons takes an eternity. In fact, as of writing this review, I’ve not maxed out a single weapon in Black Ops Cold War. I don’t think I’ve ever managed to prestige in a Call of Duty without maxing out at least one weapon before now.
Currently, the only viable mode to level up guns in is Fireteam: Dirty Bomb. Dirty Bomb is a unique blend of both multiplayer and Warzone. It uses Warzone‘s armor plate mechanic and looting interface while integrating multiplayer’s loadouts and faster pacing. It’s an excellent mode and the best way to mitigate the grind.
But if you don’t like Dirty Bomb then you’re done for. Both regular multiplayer and zombies are very slow for leveling up weapons. On average, it takes around 1,200 kills to max level a primary weapon in regular multiplayer. That’s about double what you’d need on Modern Warfare. This alone is irritating, but it’s when you think deeper that things begin to get controversial.
Earlier this month Activision announced that PlayStation players would be entitled to a permanent exclusive 25% boost to weapon XP. That’s hardly pro-consumer in the first place, but Cold War‘s long grind makes it feel even worse. Without delving into conspiracy theories, is it out of the question that Activision slowed down experience rates to makes this exclusive advantage more valuable? I wouldn’t say so. And if that’s true, isn’t that a little insulting for both PC and Xbox players? All I’m asking for is equal treatment as a consumer. I don’t think that’s unreasonable.
SBMM is here to stay
I can’t finish a Black Ops Cold War review without at least acknowledging skill-based matchmaking. Honestly, I don’t think that it’s as bad as it was in Modern Warfare. That isn’t an overly popular opinion, but I generally think it’s easier to find back-to-back enjoyable lobbies than in the past. Perhaps I’m just better at Cold War or maybe it’s something else entirely. Either way, I haven’t found it to be that problematic.
However, a quick skim of Reddit or the CoD YouTube community makes it clear that most don’t agree with me. In fact, there’s evidence that suggests that this year’s skill-based matchmaking is more strict than ever before. Call of Duty content creator Censor put out a tweet showing that none of the pros on his friend list could manage even a 2.0 kill-to-death ratio. Keep in mind that on older CoD titles these guys would regularly drop six-plus K/D ratios.
Given Activision’s stance on skill-based matchmaking, I doubt we’ll see too much change on this front. Still, there is a little bit of hope. Treyarch developer David Vonderhaar has more or less confirmed that League Play is on its way. I could see Treyarch weakening the SBMM in regular multiplayer to accommodate League Play. Even if Treyarch doesn’t adjust it, at least skilled players can duke it out in ranked to compete for something tangible.
The point is if you have a strong hatred for SBMM, this isn’t the game for you. Even if it hasn’t bothered me too much, I know a lot of Call of Duty fans just can’t handle it. They dream of the days where CoD was a casual shooter that you could jump on and play without having to think much. But with the sheer success of Modern Warfare and the overall effectiveness of skill-based matchmaking, it’s not going anywhere anytime soon.
I think that Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War is a fun and nostalgic title that’s being held back by Activision. You can tell that Treyarch wants to recreate that classic Black Ops experience that focuses on competitive gameplay above all else. The signs are there, but its Activision overlords have a different idea of how Call of Duty should be. The result is a good, but flawed product that suffers from an identity crisis.
The multiplayer has a high skill ceiling, but strict skill-based matchmaking punishes players for improving. The gunplay is super fun, but leveling up your weapons to the point where they’re usable is a pain. It’s as though Treyarch’s vision of CoD is actively at war with Activision’s. Considering that Treyarch had to pick this project up from the whole Sledgehammer debacle, I think they’ve done a good job. But it’s clearer to me now than ever before that Activision needs to step away and let its developers do what they want.