Call Of Duty: Black Ops Cold War launched on November 13 across multiple platforms, marking the first Call of Duty title to support cross-gen crossplay. Even during a pandemic and a shortened development cycle, we get all the Black Ops goodness we could expect from a Treyarch Call of Duty. There’s a paranoid-filled campaign with iconic Black Ops characters, fast-paced multiplayer, and the return of the undead.
Black Ops Cold War’s campaign is a direct sequel to 2010’s Black Ops 1 story. Led by Raven Software, Cold War’s single-player narrative moves things from the ‘60s to the neon lights and striking garb of the 1980s, twisting together real-life figures and nuclear conflict with wild conspiracy theories of the Cold War era. Unlike the more grounded stories told in the Modern Warfare series, Black Ops games tend to lean on the side of fantasy, and often go off the rails with trippy, paranoid action.
The campaign starts in 1981, with a CIA briefing on a figure named Perseus, who’s on a mission to destabilize the global balance of power. Perseus is also the codename for a real Soviet spy who was never captured. There are other real figures here like Ronald Regan and Mikhail Gorbachev. But as you might expect after last year’s Modern Warfare campaign, you’re not going to get a useful history lesson about the Cold War in Black Ops.
In Black Ops’ version of the Cold War, you’re reunited with familiar faces from the series in order to track down this shadowy Perseus. We’re introduced to a new character here, CIA agent Russell Adler, who had encountered Perseus in the past. Adler deems him a global threat, so naturally, Reagan gives orders to stop Perseus at all costs. It’s a Call of Duty game, so nukes are involved, and you want to stop Perseus before everything goes boom.
Alex Mason, Frank Woods, and Jason Hudson are all back from the first game, but you don’t spend a lot of time in their boots for this story. Instead, for the first time in Call Of Duty, players create their own unique soldier to assist those fan-favorite characters.
There’s nothing super fancy with the character creation. You can’t customize your look or anything. There’s the option to choose a male or female body, skin tone, and gender. Raven does offer some inclusion here, as you can also choose to be listed as “classified” or nonbinary. The character creation form also includes a psychological description that will offer small bonuses in-game. You can choose two different traits; I chose “violent tendencies” for the 25% increased bullet damage and “survivor” for a health increase of 25%. There are also buffs for things like movement speed and ammo capacity.
While your character’s psychological profile won’t affect the storyline, the choices you make throughout the campaign will. Instead of telling a completely linear story, Cold War lets you decide how to handle key moments, and some missions give multiple paths to get the job done. Of course, this means your choices have consequences. After I killed one guy I got a prompt saying the person was dead in the story, likely meaning he was useful or someone I could still interact with, if only I’d spared him. Sorry, dude. You can easily go back and replay missions to see how other outcomes would fare.
This narrative choice also leads Black Ops Cold War to have multiple endings. Raven didn’t disclose how many endings were possible, but so far three main conclusions have been uncovered. Your cutscenes and dialogue can vary in those moments, depending on who was left alive, which offers a lot of replayability for those looking for more than a one-and-done campaign.
Missions contain collectible evidence items that give intel needed for optional “Operations” side missions. I haven’t completed them all, but I’m working through a second playthrough now. You can probably burn through the main story in about five hours, but these side missions flesh things out, and I’ve enjoyed taking my time.
Black Ops Cold War really tries to capture the mind-bending story elements introduced in the very first Black Ops, and in some ways, it does do service to the paranoid mystery magic of the original. I think it just takes a little too long to get to the pay off. It feels like you’re playing a standard Call of Duty campaign, and then boom, somewhere near of the journey, the plot twists in a very Black Ops fashion. The ending I got felt really rewarding.
But, I don’t think this surpasses the masterpiece of the Black Ops 1 story, but Raven did a solid job capturing the essence of a Black Ops campaign. All of the normal Call of Duty set pieces are there as expected, with the over-the-top chase scenes, stealth missions, and heavy on the explosions, but it also hones in on the mind-fuckery and conspiracy theory themes usually associated with the Black Ops series. This feels like a true sequel.
Multiplayer has most of the same bells and whistles you’d expect each year, and it all plays at a faster pace than last year’s Modern Warfare.
You get a familiar arsenal of guns such as the popular AK-74 assault rifle, and the MP5 submachine gun. Cold War keeps Modern Warfare’s Gunsmith feature, which allows for greater weapon modification. Constantly swapping out the different stat-based attachments can make a gun feel completely different with each change.
Fan-favorite perks also return, including Cold Blooded to make you less visible by enemy thermal vision or lethal streaks like gunships, and Ninja makes your footsteps quieter. Wildcards, as previously seen in the Black Ops series, return to let you choose extra bonuses, such as allowing for more gun attachments, more tactical equipment, or extra perks to be equipped with your custom loadout.
There’s enough variety in the game modes to cover most playstyles, with plenty of action in the standard 6v6 Call of Duty game modes like Team Deathmatch, Kill Confirmed, and Hardpoint. But you can find slower, more tactical moments in Search and Destroy and Cold War’s new VIP Escort mode. With some similarities to Search and Destroy, VIP Escort is a 6v6 round-based game of attacking and defending. The attacking team must protect a randomly chosen VIP teammate, and escort them safely to one of two exfil sites on the map. The defenders must prevent the VIP from extracting.
There’s also large-scale warfare in the new 12v12 “Combined Arms” playlist for those looking for a middle ground between Call of Duty and Battlefield. The maps are the same from the game’s beta: Cartel, Armada, and Crossroads. These maps feature large-scale modes like Domination, but these maps will have plenty of vehicles to use. Armada is a war fleet, so you can use boats with mounted turrets to help you win the fight. Crossroads is a large snowy map with snowmobiles and tanks.
Also enjoyable is Fireteam: Dirty Bomb, Cold War’s 40-player mode. It’s a point-based objective game played on much larger maps, pitting 10 teams of four against each other in a race to detonate radioactive explosives. Players must fight to stay alive, all while looting enough uranium drops to deposit into the explosive canisters and activate the detonation. Points are obtained for each squad by earning kills, depositing uranium, and by detonating a bomb. The first squad to reach 500 points wins the match. There is an armor system and unlimited redeploys, so everything here feels like a mini-Warzone match. We didn’t get any additional maps here either, though. It’s just Ruka and Alpine, which are two different forest maps that appeared in the beta, so some players may already be familiar with these..
The lack of maps is something I’m already seeing as a topic for complaints. The only “new” maps at launch that weren’t given to players during the early alpha and beta are “Garrison” and “Checkmate.” There are eight standard maps and the two Fireteam maps for a total of ten different locales, whereas many past Call of Duty games have launched with 10-16 standard maps, but I’m not feeling too worried. I think last year’s Modern Warfare post-launch content plan was the best we’ve ever seen in Call of Duty, and the plan for Cold War is pretty much the same. Free maps for everyone, constantly adding to the map pool and keeping things fresh. Season 1 of Cold War content launches in December, and new maps should arrive with each season. Personally, I prefer this slow but constant feed over getting a ton of maps at launch and getting quickly bored. It lets the game grow, instead of getting stale as the year progresses.
The biggest change in this year’s Duty lies within the co-op Zombies mode. This is the most significant overhaul we’ve seen for the mode, as Cold War’s Zombies clearly aims to cater to both hardcore fans and casual players. It mostly succeeds.
The launch map “Die Maschine” features parts of Call of Duty’s very first Zombies map, “Nacht der Untoten,” from 2008’s Call of Duty: World at War. But Zombies has evolved quite a bit since that first simplistic survival map, with confusing storylines and complicated Easter egg quests that can consume hours of your life. I’ve played all the maps since that very first Nacht der Untoten, but even I have a hard time keeping up with the details. Cold War’s version works to bridge that gap between complex survival mode and casual Call of Duty arcade experience.
Zombies has always felt like something separate from the rest of Call of Duty experience, a spooky and sometimes whimsical survival mode, where you just so happen to use some of the same guns from the campaign and multiplayer. But the vibe is different here in Die Maschine. You no longer spawn onto the map as one of Treyarch’s beloved Zombies characters of the past, who always started clueless and alone in their quest for survival. Instead, you land via chopper as a CIA operative. You’re on a mission to find out what’s happened at this bunker, and you’re still in communication with the outside world.
Nacht der Untoten is now a beautiful mess of blood and colorful graffiti. There’s lots to explore in the underground areas, but I really love the openness of the map. There’s a lot of room outdoors to safely manage the horde, making Die Maschine a fun and easy map to navigate.
The HUD in Zombies is a little different this year, unifying the undead survival mode to the rest of Cold War’s experience by utilizing the multiplayer mini map, ping system, and showing new objectives.
Taking further cues from multiplayer, Zombies now has killstreaks. The undead drop resources as you kill them, and you can use those parts to craft things like explosives and killstreaks such as a chopper gunner, sentry gun, or a “war machine” grenade launcher. I’m honestly still not sure how I feel about having things like chopper gunners to assist me—it feels almost like a cheat to have such powerful tools now. I don’t even spend my resources on things like the sentry gun. It’s completely optional if you want to use them.
Players also have the option to exfil. Zombies mode no longer has to be the struggle to stave off inevitable death. After reaching round 10, there will be an option for “exfiltration” then, and every fifth round after that. This means you can end your match for rewards, but leaving Die Maschine won’t be a cake walk. You have a limited time to reach the exfil zone, and you need to clear out a ton of zombies in a very short time. I brought three of my non-Zombies playing friends into a match with me, and we did not manage to escape on our first few tries. And the game won’t continue if you miss your ride. It’s game over. Exfil takes a bit of planning, as this seems to be a high risk for a high reward option. Newer Zombies players might look to exfil in earlier rounds like 10 or 15, as Zombies matches increase in difficulty as the rounds progress, and a high round exfil could prove to be a brutal challenge.
At its core, Zombies is still about slaying the undead and surviving rounds with the help of iconic perk-a-cola drinks like Juggernog, and the limited-time powerups like double points and insta-kills. But it just feels more in tune with Call of Duty’s arcade style. And it’s not bad, just something a little different.
The complex Easter egg quests will still be available to uncover for the hardcore fans, and there’s nothing stopping you from playing this like traditional Zombies, but there’s enough changes that it might allow multiplayer fans to gravitate towards the undead survival mode.
Black Ops 4’s Zombies dumped a ton of content at launch, within an overwhelming clusterfuck of menu options, and it felt very quantity over quality. Black Ops Cold War feels more casual user friendly, and the overall product has a more quality feel than the last.
Overall, I’m pleased with the launch of Black Ops Cold War. Not having a campaign in Black Ops 4 was a bummer, and the Zombies mode was often a broken mess that didn’t get enough attention or rewards. There were promised features that never surfaced, and Zombies lacked a decent reward system. So, this is already shaping up to be a better Black Ops than the last.
I wasn’t a huge fan of the map design and pace of last year’s Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, but I loved how it made lots of improvements to the game with added features like the Gunsmith, removal of those awful loot crates, a more rewarding battle pass, and an overhaul of the post-launch content will all the DLC guns and maps being free for everyone.
Cold War takes all those positives from Modern Warfare, and now we’re one step further with pretty much cross-everything. The multiplayer and Zombies matches are crossplay and cross-generation, meaning no one gets left behind if they couldn’t score a new PS5 or Xbox. There’s also cross-progression, so you can switch platforms without losing your progress.
I’m happy to report the cross-gen feature has worked well for me. Cold War runs great on my PS5, while I play with friends who are on PS4. I just keep the PS5’s fancy adaptive trigger feature off, so I don’t kill my hands trying to play a night of multiplayer.