Call of Duty: Modern Warfare felt in many ways like a soft reboot of the COD franchise – it took some of the more iconic characters, time-shifted them, and told a more modern story that ultimately had all of the old bombast with a slightly more cynical air.
That pattern seems to have repeated itself in the form of Black Ops Cold War, doing the same for the Black Ops timeline with less revision of the continuity – but also far fewer changes to actual gameplay. This is a flashback Call of Duty, in effect, for better and worse.
Campaigns of old
Cold War picks up where the original Black Ops left off, broadly, before the move into futuristic battles of previous sequels. It’s set during the clandestine period of its title and sees some of the original game’s soldiers – the likes of Mason, Woods, and Hudson – joined by a new ringleader, Adler. It’s about as typical COD fare as you can get, with rogue agents and missing nuclear weapons once more at the heart of things.
Where Cold War makes an interesting change is in the addition of interludes in your team’s Berlin safe-house – where you can chat with your colleagues and get to know them for a refreshing change of pace.
Similarly, a couple of missions that dial back the fighting to let you stealthily and autonomously choose and complete objectives are also enjoyable. That these moments of calm don’t throw up meaningful choices that actually impact the narrative isn’t a great surprise, but still slightly disappointing.
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Other nice additions are a couple of optional side missions, locked behind codes that you can only decipher by finding (easily located) evidence in main missions. It’s a nice way to incentivise chasing collectibles, and it’s also smart that the codes rotate their answers across playthroughs to stop you from just looking up the solutions.
The rest of the time, this is the same old stuff: stop-and-shoot gameplay that can be hugely fun when you’re in the swing of things, and annoying when doltish enemy AI or poor checkpointing throws you off your stride.
The set-pieces are as explosive as ever, and things look pretty great throughout, with nice lighting choices in particular showing off what next-gen consoles can do if you’ve got one. The PS5 version’s use of DualSense’s adaptive triggers is also a promising sign for how nicely this immersive tech can work.
Still, there’s an undercurrent of political idiocy that rears its head repeatedly to remind you that America is the goodie, even if everything happening is its fault, which is eerily similar to the 2019 Modern Warfare’s message. This series’ fetish for the benefits of interventionist military action is looking more dated and amoral than ever.
Get your kicks online
Of course, the beating heart of COD is its online multiplayer. Treyarch, the game’s developer, has put a conscious rewind on Black Ops. The entire game is built on an older engine than Infinity Ward used for Modern Warfare, which means that some of that game’s introductions are gone.
That means there’s no mounting mechanic for recoil management, no tactical sprinting, and slightly less fluid movement overall. Whether these are missed is a matter of taste, but given that Modern Warfare felt like a big step forward for the franchise, their absence is perplexing. The differing engine also means you’d better get used to a new audio mix for footsteps and far fewer doors that you can open than your eyes might assume.
There’s a slightly meager range of maps at launch, with eight arenas for 6v6 modes – which is the core of the game – and these are slightly hit-or-miss in quality. Some work well in Team Deathmatch but are terrible in Domination or Hardpoint, while the lookout for Search and Destroy isn’t great at present.
At least the maps are fairly varied visually speaking – although there are still clearly loads of locations from the campaign that could be added down the line, and some more classic three-lane locations wouldn’t go amiss.
Another odd change this time is that lobbies are disbanded after every game. Ostensibly this helps the matchmaking engine keep you in pools of players close to your skill level, but it makes for a slightly stilted experience and robs you of a sense of community with your fellow players. It also means that performing well in a match will often throw you into a more punishing server next, a frustrating loop that can feel unrewarding. That’s made a bit more annoying by weapon unlocks that are supremely gradual, too.
Cold War’s multiplayer feels like a game of swings and roundabouts at launch. On the one hand, the gun balance doesn’t feel right, with the MP5 SMG absolutely dominating at silly ranges across all game modes. Then again, things are softened by the return of scorestreak rewards which don’t reset when you die, making it far easier for newer players to earn rewards like care packages and more.
For every hard edge there’s a soft cushion somewhere. Whether Black Ops can maintain players’ interest compared to the long-lived Modern Warfare will remain to be seen, especially once their progression systems both tie in with Warzone imminently.
Zombies are back
The last piece of the puzzle in a Treyarch COD is, of course, Zombies, and the mode returns to its roots in Cold War. For now, there’s one main map, Die Maschine, which is a reimagining of the original location from years ago.
It’s a frantic and fun mode, as always, played in squads of up to four or solo, and exploring the large facility takes plenty of time and skill, plus a little luck. Getting back into the rhythm of trailing zombies around until you’re ready to go to town on them doesn’t take too long, and there’s loads of gory fun to be had.
Zombies is actually the perfect tonic after or during a frustrating session in multiplayer, and we’d recommend exploring on your own initiative or under the guidance of a friend rather than looking up the best ways to find your way into the facility – keep some surprises back for yourself!
You’ll slowly uncover the full range of random weapon boxes, pack-a-punch upgrades, armor and ammo mods, and more to fight off the horde. We can only hope that Treyarch’s got another map in the pipeline at some point, to keep things fresh.
On PlayStation, there’s an additional time exclusive mode for a year, Onslaught, but it’s a simpler horde-style mode on multiplayer maps, so hardly a seismic loss to the Xbox and PC crowd.