After spending almost a year playing nothing but Call of Duty: Warzone, going back to traditional Black Ops Cold War multiplayer has a bit of an 'oh yeah, I remember that' feel to it. That said, it does feel like Warzone has left its mark with some larger, more open maps that emphasise space, and see flashpoints that change focus and location as the action develops. Based on a little over three hours hands on time with the closed alpha, I tried five maps focused on two of the new modes. It feels very COD, but at the same time the focus on space and objectives in each match creates a great flow to it all.
Two maps, Armada and Satellite, emphasize this in particular, with large, open play areas that are going to take some mastering. Armada takes place at sea, across three huge boats any one of which could be a level in its own right. There are ziplines linking them, enabling you to cross expanses quickly, as well as smaller crafts and wreckage in the water that act as bridging points if you fancy a swim. In the few hours I had to play, I only really got to grips with a tiny percentage of the tactical opportunities available. Big sightlines and mounted LMGs provide plenty of ranged suppression and sniper kills from ship to ship, while cramped corridors packed with brutally tight 90-degree corners create close quarter slaughter if you're brave enough to go below deck.
The water adds an interesting element as well, in terms of moving to new positions. As well as the ziplines, there are boats you can use to cover ground quickly, or you can swim if you want something slower but more stealthy. Being able to reposition at speed, or without being seen, can make the push and pull of battle pivot in an instant. While there are obvious rhythms and map hotspots that often play out, it only takes one player to reach somewhere unexpected to shake everything up.
Satellite has a similar feel of open space and tight quarters via a rocky outcrop in a dune-filled desert. On its outskirts you can take advantage of map-spanning sightlines to pick off enemies at range, but that comes at the expense of little to no cover bar the undulation of the dunes. Head into the rocks and you'll have to manage and monitor numerous corners for threats at zero range. Smack in the middle you'll find the wreckage of the crashed satellite that gives this level its name obscuring enemies and making the middle of the map a dangerous place to cross.
Other maps I played included Crossroads, a large snowy expanse scattered with buildings and snow mobiles that can cross the map in moments, as well as tanks that can dominate a huge area until they're taken out. Then there were the more urban, street focused Miami and Moscow – both far too short on decent sightlines to ever let you relax.
Maps aside there are also some more under hood changes. There's unlimited sprint, for example, that starts with a small higher speed boost to help you get out of trouble quicker. There's also unlimited health regeneration that doesn't need to be manually triggered (ditching Black Ops 4 and Blackout's syringes), meaning as long as you can survive an encounter you just need time to recover. Given that developer Treyarch says Black Ops Cold War has "more lethality" than Black Ops 4, it sounds like every little helps with the whole 'trying not to die' aspect of the game.
As well as the map design and gameplay tweaks, Black Ops Cold War is also introducing new game modes and a 40-player game type called Fireteam. In terms of modes there's a new VIP Escort game, and Combined Arms, which is basically a bigger version of Domination with five zones to control, each large enough to contain a chunky battle. The VIP Escort is a classic take on the idea, with one player as the VIP armed only with a pistol and knife protected by their team as they attempt to reach one of several extraction points.
It's a tense setup that almost works as two entirely different modes depending on the map size. In the larger areas there's more pressure for the hunting team to locate the target, with some significant distances between extraction points. While smaller maps put the pressure on the escorting team to form a protective ring around their VIP, with attack possible from any angle. There's also a revive mechanic that can see players permanently eliminated for the round if they're not brought back – being the last player left on the hunting team, trying to take on a full escort team alone, is absolutely the worst kind of pressure.
Then there's Fireteam. It's a very Battlefield sounding 40-player objective-based mode where 10 teams of four slug it out on big maps with vehicles as they attempt to complete various goals. Treyarch describes it as "a sandbox for you and your squad to complete each mission as you best see fit." It sounds like this will have its own set of modes as well, with a Dirty Bomb being described as the "signature Fireteam game type." At this point, I've seen Black Ops Cold War on two separate occasions and no one will actually say what this game type is. But, given the amount of leaks Black Ops Cold War has suffered, I'm not surprised the developers are trying to keep at least one secret.
That all just leaves a massive shooty elephant in the room: Warzone. While Treyarch kicked off Call of Duty's battle royale ambitions with Blackout, Warzone is here to stay. Something made obvious by the fact that when I tried to open the Warzone part of my Black Ops alpha menu it tried to close the game and open actual Warzone on my PS4. According to David Vonderhaar, the latest Black Ops will "bring Cold War into Warzone, and vice versa", and see Warzone "tied back to the campaign in unique ways". Vondahar also gave a shout out to Treyarch's original battle royale mode, stating that "Blackout might have got us started here, but it's Warzone that's really going to take us to the next level."
One thing I'm really interested to see more on is the mention from Treyarch that "both games will share post-launch content from a narrative standpoint, interweaving the themes, locations, weapons, and vehicles of Black Ops Cold War into the Warzone action." There's also talk of Black Ops Cold War multiplayer having "a unified progression journey shared with Warzone, adding inventory items that can be used in both titles". Which likely means some cool retro 80s guns, almost certainly the RC-XD, after the remote control car bomb appeared in some Warzone easter eggs, and maybe – just maybe – a tank? The promise that Black Ops Cold War’s multiplayer will have next-gen, cross-gen, cross-play could also indicate that Warzone will have a lot of players to keep busy when Cold War arrives.
While it sounds like Warzone will grow and evolve from whatever Black Ops brings to Verdansk, it also sounds like there will be plenty of free post launch content across the game's online offerings. There's a Battle Pass, new maps and modes promised and a bunch of community events. It's always a big ask to drop a whole new Call of Duty multiplayer each year – especially now there's competition from more permanent and free things like Fornite, Apex Legends and, obviously, Warzone itself – but this plays well so far and seems like another promising incremental step bridging the gap between yearly releases and ongoing games.
Looking forward to getting your hands on this year's Call of Duty? Here's how you can pre-order Black Ops Cold War.