Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War
Call of Duty 17: Black Ops 5 Cold War is the latest installment in the long-running first-person shooter franchise. Pop quiz hotshot: Since its inception in 2003, Activision has published a mainline Call of Duty game every year for the past 18 years, with the exception of one year. Name that COD-less year. While you Google search the answer, I want to make it clear that this review is for Cold War’s single-player campaign. We’ll provide our thoughts on multiplayer once we’ve had more time with each component (Spoiler Alert: multiplayer maps are unusually lean at launch), but for now we are focusing on the single-player experience. And with that, let’s take a trip back to the early 1980s for Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War.
After choosing to forgo a single-player campaign in Black Ops 4 – the first Call of Duty game to do so – Cold War returns us to the conspiracy riddled narrative of the Black Ops sub-series. A direct sequel to the original Black Ops, you play as “Bell,” newly recruited by CIA special officer Russell Adler (a dead ringer for Robert Redford) to join a team of agents – consisting of series stalwarts Alex Mason, Frank Woods and Jason Hudson – who are tasked by U.S. President Ronald Reagan to hunt down Perseus, an alleged Soviet Spy threatening to attack the free world. Cold War offers a number of series firsts, including the ability to customize your agent. You’ll get to name your character, as well as choose your race, gender and backstory; with minor differences in verbal exchanges based on your selections. You’ll also get to pick from a variety of psychological profiles that grant in-game perks, such as ‘Violent Tendencies,’ which increases bullet damage; ‘Aggressive Behavior,’ which increases reloading speed; or ‘Calm Under Pressure,’ which reduces pain flinch; just to name a few. More importantly, players will be presented with in-game choices, both dialogue- and action-based, that will determine how missions play out and ultimately which of the multiple endings you’ll experience. Without spoiling too much, in Cold War player choice is as meaningful as it’s ever been in a COD game.
The roughly 6-hour campaign kicks off with your team tracking down a pair of Iranian terrorists with ties to the Hostage Crisis. You’ll chase one of these men across some rooftops in Amsterdam before catching up to your second target at an airport in Turkey; in what can only be described as one of the franchise’s signature, high-octane action sequences. Upon gathering intel and consulting with the Commander-in-Chief, your team retreats to a CIA safehouse to plan the next course of action. You’ll spend a good deal of time in this safehouse throughout the campaign, as your team often returns to this location between missions. A hub of sorts, you’ll get an opportunity to chat-up your fellow agents and consult an evidence board where you can select your next mission, replay previous missions, or examine evidence you’ve collected. That’s right: Cold War encourages you to be methodical in your exploits, as evidence collected in the field will be used to decode a pair of optional side missions. In the first side mission, you’re tasked with decrypting a floppy disk, while in the second mission you’ll need to examine a series of clues to determine the identity of three sleeper agents. Ultimately, both of these missions drop you into a multiplayer-sized map where you’ll seek out and eliminate a high-value target before reaching an extraction point, but it was a nice change of pace to play the role of cryptographer.
Gameplay is just as fast, fluid and explosive as you’d expect a COD game to be, and Treyarch really nailed the 80s aesthetic, but it’s the quieter moments of Cold War’s campaign that really stand out. In one particular mission, you’ll play a mole in the KGB. Your task: Disable the KGB headquarters’ security system and acquire a key card from a Russian General so you can open a bunker door to let Adler into the building. There are a handful of ways in which to acquire said key; each solution unique and many requiring little to no combat. Without getting into spoiler territory, I’ll just say the entire sequence is the closest thing we’ve had to a James Bond game in years; the mission design is brilliant.
Visually, the next-gen version of Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War is an incremental improvement over the previous-gen version. That’s not a slight to COD; I would describe just about every “next-gen” game I’ve played so far the same way. The talk surrounding the launch of the Xbox Series X and PlayStation 5 hasn’t been so much about a leap in visual fidelity as it’s been about framerate and speed – specifically loading times and quick resume – though I would argue the haptic feedback and adaptive triggers of the PS5 controller are equally as impressive. Having said that, raytracing has certainly been a buzzword for the new consoles, which segues perfectly into Cold War’s hot button issue: performance.
Simply put, Cold War does not perform well on next-gen consoles. The single-player campaign was moving along swimmingly until a mission titled “Operation Redlight, Greenlight,” after which it all went south. Within the opening moments of this mission, the framerate began to stutter significantly and then it happened: the game froze and crashed my Xbox Series X. I rebooted my console, loaded the game back up and restarted the mission, only to watch it freeze and crash my console again…and then again…and again. It was after my sixth attempt that I took to the Internet to make sure I didn’t own a faulty console. Luckily it wasn’t just me. To be clear, this is not an Xbox Series X problem – it turns out several PS5 users are experiencing the same issue – this is a Cold War problem. So what’s the solution? Disable raytracing. Yes, disable raytracing. As soon as I did that, I was able to play through the mission without further issue. Funny enough, it wasn’t until a mission or two later that I realized I hadn’t re-enabled raytracing. So I did, and the game began crashing anew. Ultimately I disabled raytracing for good in order to play through the remainder of the campaign. I’m sure Activision will eventually patch this up, but for now the game’s performance is a little disappointing.
Overall, despite those performance issues, I rather enjoyed the mercenaries, spies and private eyes campaign that is Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War. I’d like to see the development team get a chance to really flesh out a longer campaign in this style, but you know…the call of duty. At least IO Interactive is on the case. Oh, and the answer to the pop quiz is 2004, right between the original Call of Duty and Call of Duty 2. If any of you skipped directly to the last paragraph of this review, you’re probably really confused right now.
Reviewed By: Stephen Riach
This review is based on a digital copy of Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War for the Xbox Series X provided by Activision.