As we live through a new golden age of conspiracy theories, it is fun to reflect on the paranoid style of the Cold War era, when even your best friend could be a brainwashed Russian asset. It was also an era where Microfiches containing lists of double agents or important blueprints were traded like Pokémon cards, and at any moment you could be incinerated by a thermonuclear device in a briefcase left behind in the quaint café across the street. Political thrillers like The Parallax View, Three Days of the Condor, and Telefon made an indelible impression on our childhoods and on pop culture that can still be felt strongly in contemporary media. One such piece of media is Black Ops, arguably the most interesting sub-series of the sprawling Call of Duty franchise.
A Second Review: Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War
the first Call of Duty: Black Ops boldly announced its intent by having series protagonists Alex Mason and Frank Woods participate in 1961’s infamous Bay of Pigs operation. While this latest entry follows that tradition by putting them — Forrest Gump-like — right into the aftermath of the Iran hostage crisis. Tracking down two of the operatives responsible across Iran and Turkey yields information about the true mastermind: Perseus. History buffs will recognize that codename as the Soviet spy who allegedly infiltrated the Los Alamos National Laboratory during the Manhattan Project to steal our nuclear secrets.
Whether Perseus ever existed remains a mystery and there are competing theories regarding his identity, but in the game, 35 years after Los Alamos, he again seeks to exploit America’s nuclear arsenal. We learn this in a plot twist so wonderfully insane, I would never dare spoil it for you. Suffice to say it involves the Dwight D. Eisenhower administration and wouldn’t feel out of place in Dr. Strangelove or Paranoia Magazine. To deal with this reemerged threat, CIA agent Russell Adler (clearly modeled after Robert Redford who, in his heyday, was the go-to star for these kinds of stories) puts together a crack team consisting of series regulars Mason and Woods, as well as various new agents that include the player-created character code-named Bell.
Creating Bell entails picking one of three gender options, a skin color, which intelligence agency they hail from, and up to two buffs that tie into their backstory. So if you want to play, for instance, as a non-binary black sniper with violent tendencies and paranoia, you can do that. For a game that takes place entirely in first-person and never depicts your character in cutscenes, this is almost the perfect level of customization. My only complaint is that, while you can enter a first and last name, you cannot choose from a selection of callsigns and are thus stuck with everyone calling you “Bell.” On the one hand, this continues Call of Duty’s proud custom of uncool callsigns like “Soap,” “Section,” or “Roach,” on the other, it just makes me picture myself as Beauty and the Beast’s Belle every time another character addresses me.
Setting and Narrative
Much has been made of Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War‘s depiction of popular actor turned President Ronald Reagan. Who early on is seen personally approving operations and giving our intrepid heroes a pep talk. For me, seeing Secretary of State Alexander Haig acting as the voice of reason and moderation in the room was even more amusing. The level of historical revisionism at work here is akin to your typical modern Hollywood blockbuster. Not unlike Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Cold War takes on the veneer of classic political thrillers without taking on their cynicism and grey morality and is a lot more action-oriented.
Once briefed and sufficiently inspired by Reagan, the team regroups at a CIA safe house. Current and historical intel on Perseus is arranged on a corkboard which serves as your jumping-off point into missions. One mission recollects Mason and Woods’ finding Perseus-related intel during the Vietnam War. While another takes Bell to occupied East Berlin to spy on Perseus’ network. And although returning to Vietnam is of course a pleasure, it is the East Berlin level where Cold War truly shines. Its rain-soaked streets and lavish hotels are so lovingly rendered, I’m thankful I’m not being rushed through them. Low-key stealth missions such as this convey the oppressive mood of the films and novels that inspired them more successfully than when the game is in full-on shooter mode.
All that said, stumbling across anachronistic details detracts from Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War’s realism in ways that could easily have been avoided. While Doritos had been on the market in America for seventeen years prior to its 1981 setting, I have my doubts any such products would have been available to East Berlin citizens outside of U.S. air supply drops. Similarly hilarious is stumbling across arcade cabinets that bear the current version of the Activision logo in a Russian training center recreating an American arcade and Burger Town restaurant (in a clear reference to Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2). I will give some points back to Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War for making the arcade machines playable collectibles, featuring Atari staples like Pitfall and Fishing Derby.
Going Hitman Style
The other notable highlight of Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War’s campaign for me (besides East Berlin) is a mission that takes Bell and Adler, with the aid of a baseball-loving KGB double agent and new playable character Dimitri Belikov, into the heart of the enemy: KGB headquarters. This is the closest the series has ever come to a Hitman-style mission. Where you are offered multiple paths to a goal. A variety of optional sub-objectives, and eventually free reign throughout the building.
If you’re trying to collect all of the game’s evidence, this can also be the most frustrating mission, as it is the only one in which a piece of evidence can be found in different potential locations. The Internet doesn’t seem to agree whether the evidence is moved based on what order of objectives you complete, or whether the placement is random. Regardless, I ended up spending hours in the level trying every permutation and repeatedly checking every named room. Frustrations aside, it is a genuinely excellent stealth mission that made me feel like I was living an espionage thriller. Be on the lookout for both historical cameos and series cameos in this one.
Getting to the Finale
After returning from Moscow, Adler informs the gang that this is the point of no return, so make sure loose ends (i.e. optional missions) are wrapped up. Major revelations abound, as Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War barrels into its third and final act. While it ties up loose ends along the way by returning to a well-loved setting. Then it journeys deep into Soviet territory for an explosive finale. Depending on your choices, you will see either the expected canon ending or a more satisfying non-canon one. Either way, Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War gives you essentially what it’s been foreshadowing all along. It isn’t a bad ending, but I feel it could have gone further either in pulling the rug out from under us or tying the story back into the rest of the series.
Anyone who’s played a Call of Duty game before knows how snappy and satisfying the shooting feels. Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War is no exception. The feel is further enhanced through the smart implementation of the DualSense controller’s haptic features, which provide subtle situational rumble and a unique trigger feel between weapons. Most importantly though, you can now tell when your magazine is empty because the triggers create a fully depressed, mushy state. This to me is a game-changer for shooters in general that may give the PlayStation 5 a slight edge over the Xbox Series X during this new generation. While these new features are wonderful for immersion, I was admittedly happy that I could turn haptics off in competitive multiplayer, where I feel slightly more effective without it.
Graphics and Performance
Call of Duty has always been a series about spectacle and despite its more covert concept, Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War is no exception. At first glance, the graphical leap from the previous console generation is notable but seemingly small. However, as one reaches the campaign’s larger set pieces, one cannot help but be impressed by how cleanly, smoothly, and stably they are presented. Glitches or other graphical anomalies are rare, and even during its most technically taxing moments, things largely hold together at a stable 60 frames in 4K. It is not the first game I’d pop in to demonstrate the new system to a friend (that distinction goes to Demons’ Souls), but the high-resolution textures, particle effects, and raytracing give next-gen Call of Duty a fresh sheen.
Although that is not to say the PS5 version of Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War hasn’t been plagued by launch issues. As of the time of writing, the game is prone to crashes and to sometimes not saving one’s mission progress. I’ve had to replay two missions because, upon returning to the CIA safehouse hub, the game had forgotten I already completed them. I’ve also had to restore my PS5’s hard drive after a scary hard crash.
I don’t have much of a competitive streak in me. In fact, I would go to say I am downright anti-competitive in all but a handful of games, and Call of Duty is not one of those. Still, for the sake of this review, I dipped my toes into the competitive multiplayer modes. Team Deathmatch and Dominion remain on the whole as I remember them from previous Treyarch or Raven games in the series. The exciting new addition is the Team Fortress-like Fireteams mode. This pits ten squads of four against each other to collect Uranium deposits and drop them off in designated locations. You can detonate dirty bombs to make certain areas of the map unlivable for the opposing team or just straight-up eliminate them. I didn’t have great luck being matched with a well-coordinated team, but from my limited experience, I see a ton of potential here if you have three competent friends to play and talk with.
Most of my time in multiplayer was spent killing zombies in the new and enhanced Zombies mode. Trying out the Elemental Pop perk (the one starting perk I saw which I don’t think was in the previous games) which applies random elemental effects to your weapons felt like something out of Borderlands. Bringing one’s custom loadout from the competitive modes into Zombies is a good quality of life enhancement, and I enjoyed the field upgrades — temporary boosts like regenerating health or defensive frost blasts —whenever I happened to luck upon one.
You can also play traditional horde mode in Zombies as well. But there is also a variant where you’ll find yourself chasing the perimeter around a glowing orb across the map, lest you gradually start bleeding out. I could see this mode being useful for keeping a group of four players together, but unfortunately, it is capped at two. There’s also a SmashTV-like top-down version of Zombies, and that turned out to be the most fun one for me. Specifically, it features a power-up that will put you into first-person while retaining the arcadey speed and feel of the mode, which is simply delightful.
Unless someone ropes me into it, I expect that this review will mark the end of my time with Cold War’s multiplayer. While it isn’t for me, even a cursory examination shows it to be full-featured enough to be worth the price of admission even for those weirdos who don’t care about the campaign in Call of Duty games.
This game was reviewed using a digital code provided by the publisher (Activision).
At its best, Call of Duty: Black Ops: Cold War immerses you in a fascinating historical setting that, while covered thoroughly in other mediums, is rarely depicted this well in video games. At its worst, it lets revisionism and anachronisms undermine the immersion. It has a well-paced and entertaining campaign containing at least two levels that rank up with the best in the series. The technical soundness of the gameplay and presentation is undeniable throughout and the available multiplayer options just keep growing. If you like Call of Duty games, this is a great one.