Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War isn't your mother Russia's Black Ops game. Sure, the world teeters on the edge of nuclear panic and the tug-of-war between two global superpowers continues. But there's a major difference at play.
Every other Call of Duty title has been on rails, with the player unable to influence how the campaign plays out (remember when you thought beating Black Ops 1 fixed Mason's brainwashing problem, only to have it heavily implied he killed JFK anyway?). Black Ops Cold War gives you ownership over the outcome. It gives you choice.
And choice is a lovely temptress: you can choose to pick up side missions, or question allies' motivations, or rewrite world history by selecting a single line of dialogue. It's a commendable and intriguing concept for a Call of Duty title, and one that kept me going through the campaign when the gameplay got - quite frankly - tedious.
Read Ford's thoughts on the online component of the game in our Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War multiplayer review.
Release date: November 13, 2020
Platform(s): PS5, PS4, Xbox Series X, Xbox One, PC
Developer: Treyarch, Raven Software, High Moon Studios, Beenox, Sledgehammer Games
Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War takes the tried and true Black Ops formula and injects some psychoactive drugs into it. As a result, it's like the formerly classified CIA MKUltra experiment it references: trippy, slippy, and more than occasionally confusing. To be fair, this game has a lot to live up to, especially since its most recent predecessor is the uniformly excellent Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. Unfortunately for Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War, that comparison doesn't help its cause.
A military mixtape
Black Ops Cold War starts with a needle drop. It's Norman Greenbaum's "Spirit in the Sky" and it plays well, but it's the first of many needle drops that, after a spell, get grating. We get it, Activision, you can afford royalties.
Let me be clear: I love me some popular music in a video game - it adds depth and realism to the gameworld. But the music in Black Ops Cold War occupies a strange space. Sometimes, it's painfully on the nose, as if the game is taking itself too seriously. Other times it's refreshingly camp, as if it's aware of its own absurdity - like when you uncover a bizarre Main Street, USA-style town inside a Soviet military base and have to fight off waves of enemies while Pat Benatar's "Hit Me With Your Best Shot" blares from multiple speakers.
The musical stylings of Black Ops Cold War mirror its campaign's contents. There are moments when the "do anything to save America because Ronald Reagan says so" energy starts to give you a red-white-and-blue icepop brain freeze. These moments feel like the franchise can never get out from its own shadow - especially the Black Ops titles, which so often deal in historical representations of America the Savior. But then Frank Woods wonders aloud if the taps in a fake bar work as he’s getting pelted with bullets from AK-47s, and you realize that maybe, just maybe, this game is having fun.
Black Ops Cold War does play around with the franchise formula, adding a shot of some mysterious liquid and shaking instead of stirring. There are tons of great moments where your gun remains holstered, or you don’t have a gun at all. There are collectibles that actually mean something. There are multiple endings. The fact that one of your ending choices is technically impossible according to previously established lore doesn't seem to matter all that much - it's just fun and games.
Comrades just wanna have fun
The fun moments break up long periods of monotony that shouldn't exist in a campaign that's this short (it took me a little over five hours to beat it). Weirdly enough, the monotony sets in on the more fast-paced missions you’d expect from a Call of Duty title - it’s the slower ones that hit differently.
One takes place entirely in the headquarters of the KGB, and it's all quiet hustle, no machine gun muscle. The mission manages to make you feel deeply uneasy throughout, like a monster is waiting around the corner despite the brightly lit building, ultra-shiny linoleum floors, and funny snippets of NPC dialogue. There are stealth missions that give you a chance to approach things more, erm, diplomatically. And the opening mission is the most stylish of the lot, starting in a neon-lit Amsterdam bar shortly after New Years Day, and taking you to the damp city rooftops as you chase a target.
But then there's the rest, which often feel like mediocre remakes of the more middling Call of Duty missions of yesteryear. A Vietnam mission plays like a half-baked nod to the OG Black Ops that's not even a fraction as fun, with a bizarrely short helicopter bit that falls out of the sky like one that's just taken an RPG to the rotor.
Alongside those mediocre missions are gameplay elements that stutter and sometimes outright stop the game's flow. There's a slide mechanic that happens on certain bits of terrain that do little more than disorient you. The weapons don't feel nearly as weighty and lethal as last year's Modern Warfare. The input can feel sticky and laggy - at one point I missed a QTE despite mashing the square button, resulting in the death of two fairly important people.
But the most egregious feature element in Black Ops Cold War is the too-frequent action slow-downs ala Zack Snyder movies that absolutely cripple the pace. In the aforementioned KGB mission, there are two slow-mo moments in the span of a minute, and one is a bizarrely short shot of your squadmate vaulting over the trunk of a car while you fire out the back window. It's like the Dukes of Hazzard on ketamine in the middle of Moscow.
Where's the boom?
Black Ops Cold War often feels at odds with itself. There are moments that shine like a freshly polished M16 and others that explode in your lap like an overcooked frag. There are visuals that dazzle you with impressive realism, and then there are entire cutscenes that have a serious audio delay. At one point I found myself marvelling at the shine on Adler's leather jacket, only to quickly realize his hair texture hadn't properly rendered.
It's frankly incredible that Black Ops Cold War lets you choose aspects of your character, including their gender (male, female, non-binary). But there are moments where it seems like the team didn't think all that much about how those options would play out. I played as a woman, yet somehow my allies were constantly reminiscing about our time together fighting VCs in Vietnam. I'm pretty sure I would have been relegated to the role of Army Nurse, no? I'm here for an ahistorical take on gender, but with every other plot point remaining fairly loyal to history, it's a bit bizarre.
Then there are the true blue espionage moments, which are the most prominent in the two optional side missions. You can flick through evidence and try to suss out the Soviet spies from your secret HQ before heading out into the fray, and it's a lovely reprieve from making stuff go "boom". But there are only two optional missions - the feature is dangled in front of you like a carrot, only to be snatched away before the final (lengthy) stretch.
Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War feels like a game that’s sorting out its identity after government experiments left it obsessing over numbers and presidential assassinations. It’s like it wanted to be different, but not too different, and I wish it went for broke.