(COD BLACK OPS COLD WAR is out now for the PC, Xbox, and PlayStation. Distributor provided review copy.)
CALL OF DUTY BLACK OPS: COLD WAR is the latest in the long-running game series of first-person shooters, each taking place at a historical point in time. As its title indicates, COLD WAR takes place in recent history, where you commit war crimes to make Ronald Reagan proud.
Like the previous entry in the series, COLD WAR tasks players with perpetrating some of the most heinous acts of war on foreign soil while still beating your chest about American exceptionalism at every turn. Last year, the developers of MODERN WARFARE claimed their game is not political, something neither Activision nor the other development teams have challenged.
But political it is, and to play COLD WAR is to, at some level, not just accept the murky depictions but embrace them in a way. After all, this is a game where after invading a foreign country, killing hundreds, and torturing people for information, Ronald Reagan tells you, apolitically, that you’ve done the country proud.
FIGHTING AROUND THE WORLD
While the COLD WAR campaign offers very little explicitly new things, the few new additions included make a world of difference. A few, and by no means a lot of, levels allow players to openly explore the area, finding the best route for progression. These include a particular highlight in the Kremlin, where an undercover agent has to perform some Mission Impossible-style tactics to keep their cover while helping others infiltrate the fortress. It’s one of the very few moments that COLD WAR forgets itself, allowing the game actually to have fun.
Elsewhere, the bombast and self-indulgence are the same as ever: technically impressive and faultless, but aggressively repetitive as well. The plot, a mishmash of 80s cold war propaganda films, tries to have it both ways in being a violent love letter to American foreign policy while pretending to skewer it at the same time. So you get both Reagan telling what a good boy you’ve been for invading foreign countries to enforce American ideals. Simultaneously, a throwaway line attempts to mitigate guilt by insisting that everyone’s hands are just as unclean.
It’s muddy politics leaning so heavily to the right that the overall quality suffers. Either you blindly go along with the whole thing, at which point you have to accept that propaganda works just fine as long as the presentation is pretty. Or you’re stuck questioning every single written line. Neither makes for a comfortable experience.
There’s also an unnerving sense of pop-culture appropriation in the casting. Adler, one of the handlers which you work for, looks and sounds disturbingly a lot like Robert Redford in SPY GAME, Tony Scott’s brilliantly subversive spy thriller from the early oughts. In that film, Redford plays a CIA operative who recruits Brad Pitt’s naive agent into a world of covert espionage. Leaning heavily on Redford’s fatherly charm, it’s clear that Infinity Ward is going for the same effect here – which raises many uncomfortable questions.
The campaign lasts for a solid five hours, but replayability is encouraged by two different endings (accessed by repeating the last mission over again). Each level contains a myriad of clues and pickups, which reveals new turns for a more extensive spy hunt. This aspect of the campaign is arguably the most fun and closest to a palatable romp through complex political territory.
There are undeniably great moments in COLD WAR, all of them involving setpieces that require no shooting at all. These sojourns are brief but all the more intriguing and refreshing, signifying that the series still has potential buried inside it. But the problem with CALL OF DUTY is that it can’t change. It’s an institution by now, one heavily tied into the pro-military crowd that funds it. This, for now, is as daring as the series will ever be.
ME AGAINST THE WORLD
Recycling the endless grind from yesteryear, COLD WAR drops every bit of what made MODERN WARFARE and its free-to-play sister game, WARZONE, so special. Gone is any semblance of patience, aiming, or skill, replaced by the already dated arcade-shooter antics from the past. Weapon control feels weightless, the add-ons feel broken, and there’s a consistent sense that you’re not allowed to play the way you want because the game emphasizes one loadout only.
Combine that with a minimal pool of maps (only eight at launch), two of which are exclusive to one game mode, and a poorly thought out semi-warzone clone, and the multiplayer mode feels hopelessly shallow. Now, granted, COLD WAR had a far shorter development period than any other COD game in years. The original design team left production midway through, allowing developer Infinity Ward to step in and salvage operations. The result works, but only just, and it’s rarely fun compared to the revelation of last year.
It also makes very little sense to have a new multiplayer COD, to begin with. WARZONE is a juggernaut of a title, currently catering to some 50 million players worldwide. It has one of the better free-to-play models around and a terrific battle pass system to keep folks interested. The latest announcement that the next update to WARZONE will implement weaponry from COLD WAR is troubling, as they’re balanced entirely differently from what fans of the battle royale know and love.
FLASHES OF GREATNESS
The multiplayer isn’t completely joyless, however, and some levels impress in a variety of ways. One larger map, in particular, featuring two collided vessels far out in open waters, is particularly stunning. Featuring various ways to approach the action, it’s reminiscent of the larger-scale ground war battles from MODERN WARFARE. It is one of the few endlessly replayable maps in the game. There’s a thrill in leaping over railings to avoid enemy fire, only to disappear underneath the waves and, for a split second, catch a glimpse of a shark as everything goes quiet, only for everything to rush back when you resurface, as a bombing run pummels the still standing ship.
Elsewhere the multiplayer suffers still from the inherent problems the series has never grown out of. Hit detection is still a mess, skill-based-matchmaking continues to be a trend, and weapon handling is so easily gamed that even snipers turn into quick-scoping assault rifles with a little bit of modding. Last year’s model allowed for some relief from this, namely in the WARZONE mode. In its place, COLD WAR embraces the past run-and-gun antics of yesteryear.
The result feels dated and janky, even when, at best, it caters to a certain nostalgia one might have.
THE UNDEAD HORDES
Returning once again is the zombie’s mode, which never interested me in the past. The story always seems to be a fun one, though, allowing the franchise to embrace its ridiculous roots better more freely. As such, the campaign here is undoubtedly fun and works well with a team, but unless you’re already a fan of the game mode, you’re not going to find anything new that would entice you back.
But out of the three modes, ZOMBIES remains the most polished and easily recommendable. It’s a thrilling horde-based blast of action best enjoyed with a group of friends. The weapons are still fun, the power-ups suitably ridiculous, and the difficulty ramps up just high enough for the missions to never feel like dull repeats.
It’s surprising that, like WARZONE, ZOMBIES hasn’t spun off yet as it’s own free-to-play thing. If anything, this mode feels like an ideal candidate for monetization, considering the emphasis on custom characters and weapons and the potential for competitive runs through missions.
IN THE END
Overall, you won’t need my help in deciding whether or not COLD WAR is worth buying. Chances are you’ve either pre-ordered a copy already or are sticking to the free-to-play WARZONE for another year.
That’s because COD sells no matter what. It’s a critic-proof franchise. But for the first time in years, it feels like a sequel this soon – or even ever – is unnecessary. Activision hit a goldmine with WARZONE earlier this year, finally finding the right balance that enticed both old school gamers and the next generation under the same banner. The campaign has never been the primary draw for audiences, not even when loaded with Hollywood talent.
Maybe, in the future, annual releases aren’t the way to go, and instead, continuing games-as-a-service will replace COD as we know it. If that happens, I’m more than intrigued. It means that the franchise could finally break away from its problematic politics and focus on what it does best, which is allowing a bunch of pre-teens to hurl abuse at me while bunnyhopping in neon-colored suits down the thoroughfare.