Call of Duty Black Ops: Cold War Campaign Review

Generally speaking, if you were to ask me, I quite like Call of Duty campaigns in general. They’re often clumsy with their messaging, and bungle certain ideas with a weird misplaced idea of what’s appropriate (Highway of Death in Modern Warfare comes to mind), but they’re also action movies in most of the best ways. Today’s review won’t include the multiplayer, that’ll come in a separate “review in progress” tomorrow night while I play as much of it as I can before the PS5 launch on Thursday. Today’s review is the Call of Duty Black Ops: Cold War campaign! 

Released on 13/11/20 worldwide for every major platform, getting access to the Cold War campaign will cost you anywhere between £50-80 depending on the version you want. I was playing on my Xbox Series X, with ray tracing turned on! Let’s get into the review.

Gameplay? 8/10 – With many missions trying something new, Cold War’s main mistake is moving on too quickly.

While Call of Duty may be one of the more unimaginative franchises around, releasing every year without fail, one thing is guaranteed:

The gameplay will feel good.

For everyone’s complaints, including my own over the years, Call of Duty is still a great twitch shooter with near perfect response and reactivity to your inputs. Where the campaign is concerned this core base of excellent mechanics is broadened with stealth, excellent set-pieces, and proper conversations. Even optional side missions.

Across 16 main missions in Call of Duty Black Ops: Cold War, you’ll control a variety of characters in an attempt to locate “Perseus”, a USSR spy. We’ll come back around to that in the Story section of course. 

While most Call of Duty campaign missions across history can be boiled down to “shoot this, blow that up, insert set piece here”, Cold War manages to spread this mantra across a number of other ideas and moments that do stand out as some of the best in the franchise. Including some major stealth mechanics that turn out to be a proper boon for Call of Duty overall, with a couple of missions feeling like you’re playing as a spy, instead of as an action hero. 

One mission in particular has you attempting to navigate a KGB base without alerting anyone, and the parameters of the mission feels like something that’s been ripped out of a Hitman or Dishonored, instead of Call of Duty. Of course, the mission still ends bombastically, but the novelty of having something different to do was nice. I had different routes to accomplish my goals, with some avoiding conflict and others encouraging it, and as far as I could see all were unique. The end result would still be the same of course, this isn’t some wide branching narrative, but the effort is really appreciated.

As for stealth, in some missions not getting discovered early is paramount, and Raven Software do a good job of making the mechanics feel justified. Everything from enemy alert signifiers, to stealth takedowns, even hiding bodies in closets is there for you to mess around with. The execution of these mechanics is.. clumsy occasionally, with the enemy AI being a little suspect and stealth takedowns being less than satisfying, but I still really enjoyed the variety offered to me.

Of course, across the 5-6 hour campaign there’s still plenty of shooting, and Cold War does that well. Very well even. Raven Software provides many different ideas and arenas to trade bullets in. One example, a firefight in a KGB live fire training arena, stood out. Complete with fake American diners, mannequins, and more. Moments like these are around every corner in Black Ops: Cold War, and generally speaking it made for a satisfying 6 hour stretch of gameplay.

Where Cold War fails, in my mind, is the lack of commitment to any one mechanic or set of mechanics. The option of stealth is great, but it’s only necessary in 3 of the 16 total missions. Everyone loves a sniping mission, but that only happens once, for a stretch of a couple of minutes at most. Piloting a chopper in Vietnam was excellent, but otherwise vehicular combat is kept to a minimum.

Call of Duty Black Ops: Cold War seems dedicated to changing the formula up for almost every mission. It’s commendable, but I honestly think that letting the player live in these ideas for longer would’ve been a smarter play. 

Likewise, adding in conversation choices is an interesting addition to Call of Duty, but it feels like a half-measure, a copout in the grand scheme of things. Aside from one moment (no spoilers don’t worry), your choices in conversation don’t ever seem to matter, and don’t affect your relations with your squad mates. 

I couldn’t wait to get stuck into a conversation with Mason or Woods, only to realise that the conversation options were stagnant, and a bit boring. 

Overall, the Call of Duty Black Ops: Cold War campaign does quite a lot to freshen up the franchise overall, but never actually commits to any one idea or direction in a way that does occasionally feel half baked. 

Visuals? 9/10 – Carrying on the bar that Modern Warfare set, Cold War is a regularly stunning FPS. Hardware accelerated ray tracing is a standout.

I’ll be trying to avoid comparisons with 2019’s Modern Warfare as much as possible in this review, but one area that Cold War has definitely retained its quality is in the visuals. 

To put it lightly, Cold War is frequently stunning, and rarely misses a beat. From the rainy night time of East Berlin, to the musky heat of Vietnam, all the way to the lush interior of a KGB base, Cold War practically nails everything it attempts. Whether that be in presentation, atmosphere, or anything else you care to mention.

On the Series X the game is unwaveringly pretty to look at, with enhanced reflections, shadows, and other lighting effects thanks to the hardware accelerated ray tracing turned on as default. I did wonder how much a game like Call of Duty would make use of such a feature, but my doubt didn’t last long. Everything from marble walls, to puddles, to the glistening ice of a mountaintop showcased just how important ray tracing is to visual immersion moving forward. 

Ray tracing is still, to many people, something of a gimmick and not without its caveats. On Watch Dogs: Legions (on console anyway), ray traced reflection distance isn’t infinite. This sees reflections out of range being replaced by cube maps that look nothing like that original image. In Call of Duty these issues don’t crop up really at all, as it’s a far smaller experience than Watch Dogs: Legions, but that didn’t make it perfect.

Hopefully highlighted in the clip below, I noticed that the reflections of a flight of stairs would phase in and out of view depending on the viewing angle I was standing at. Once I noticed it, it kept me busy for 5-10 minutes trying to figure out why, but I gave up. 

Don’t mistake this nitpick for anything major though, as for the most part the ray tracing powered by my Series X did look stunning. One moment in a helicopter I noticed the reflections of a shoreline set of trees in a river, and I just said to myself:

“Man, that looks fantastic”

At the end of the day that’s what matters right?

Moving on from ray tracing, every other area of Call of Duty Black Ops: Cold War impressed as well. Generally great lip syncing to the VO is featured, which already stands it out above most games I get to play for review, and animations look excellent pretty much across the board. 

Sound aside, we’ll get to that in a second, guns all look and work as accurately as I imagine they would in real life. I’ve never handled a gun thankfully, but as far as my limited knowledge goes everything looks meticulous. A good thing, as Modern Warfare set a new bar for visual (and audio) fidelity within an FPS.

Overall the visuals are the thing that might stand out the most within the campaign, with mostly stellar results everywhere I looked. Of course the campaign also held at a rock solid, buttery smooth 60fps which is nothing but a plus. Especially with the native 4K and ray tracing enabled, I can’t express how sharp everything looked. 

Cold War does support 120hz on compatible TVs, of which I don’t have sadly, but doing so will not allow ray tracing at the same time, so pick your poison. For the Campaign I’d suggest going with ray tracing over the increased frame rate, but for multiplayer I’d suggest the inverse. Ray tracing still looks great in multiplayer, but it’s not particularly necessary.

Audio? 6/10 – With finnicky spatial audio, and a lack of depth to many of the weapons, this is a disappointing area for Cold War.

This is where comparisons to Infinity Ward’s entry last year start to hurt Cold War. The Audio in this game is just… okay? I’ll be covering it more in the multiplayer review, but spatial audio seems suspect at best a lot of the time, even with the relatively high quality Arctis 9x I was using. Of course it gets worse over TV speakers, but who plays Call of Duty through the TV right?

I never seemed to know where exactly I was getting shot from, no matter if I was looking in the exact direction of the shot. This is a far cry to Modern Warfare, which won an award for Audio Design, where I was able to place the source of an attack immediately. 

In line with this, guns don’t sound great. It’s hard to explain what about them is so off the money, but they’re not immersive, they don’t feel real. Like you’re holding a movie prop. That’s a terrible explanation, but without firing every one of those guns in real life I don’t exactly know how to pinpoint what’s so wrong with the audio signature of the weapons. 

Everything IS mixed pretty well though, so there’s that plus. I never had trouble highlighting different sounds in a frantic firefight, and prioritising to match. The VO happily cut through the gunfire and explosions, without lowering their priority in the overall mix. 

It’s just a bit… meh overall? I know that’s a very unprofessional explanation, but in stark comparison to Modern Warfare, where I felt right in the centre of the action at all times, Cold War made me feel slightly detached from the experience. 

Story? 7/10 – While not much will surprise you about the campaign, it still manages to be an engaging experience for the most part. 

Ah the story. It’s been many years since I played Black Ops so I didn’t remember everything about every single character but, in all honesty, that didn’t matter in the end. Barring a couple of small references, the activities of that game (and Black Ops 2, incidentally) feels almost inconsequential to the overall arc here. And while I found that a relief, as I didn’t feel the need to catch up, others might find that a bit disappointing.

In fact, inconsequential is probably a good word to describe much of Cold War’s story. Despite Raven Software’s best efforts, I still find it nearly impossible to become attached to a silent protagonist, which resulted in most of the major story beats ringing hollow. Given how few lines of dialogue are shared directly with your character, it actually feels somewhat lazy to have not cast a series of actors to voice Bell (you). 

Of course, your version of Bell can be slightly different to other people who play, with options of Male, Female, non-binary, and “Classified” for your gender options. For all those people who feel unrepresented when committing various war crimes, this might be the game for you. 

Along with this, when filling out your dossier at the start you can choose personality traits that slightly affect how the game plays. So picking Lone Wolf as one of the available two choices will give you a longer sprint duration, for example. It’s a cool touch, but again has no impact on the story or your character overall.

The main story arc is that you and your squad are hunting Perseus, a Soviet spy. Based on a theorised real person, there are some other threads that carry over from the “real” version, such as their interest in nuclear warfare. 

As usual, Call of Duty paints its heavily americanised series of fictional events with a heavy handed brush. The reliance of the USSR as a villain is getting tiresome at this stage in shooters, and does come across as a bit cliche in terms of Call of Duty overall as well. There’s no shortage of nations, fictional or not, that Raven could’ve used as their primary antagonist, but nope. Good ol’ Soviet Union will do, as usual.

Beyond that slight issue that I have, the story actually isn’t bad. There’s a couple of twists and turns and, as I mentioned above, the breadth of missions you’re sent on in your journey does help to alleviate the deja vu you might experience fighting against the Russians again. 

You’re “Bell”, a somewhat wildcard agent employed by Russel Adler to join in the hunt for Perseus. You’re accompanied by familiar faces Alex Mason and Frank Woods, the community adored characters from the previous titles, and also a handful of new characters for Cold War in Lazar, Sims, and Park. 

I don’t want to spoil anything, so I can’t go too heavily into where the story goes, but if you’ve played Black Ops you’ll probably guess fairly quickly. In fact, in much the same way that Black Ops heavily rips off a famous movie in Fight Club, Cold War similarly rips off a very popular videogame. To the point where the ending sequence of events is practically re-tooled straight from that game (the game I won’t mention for fear of spoiling things). 

The fact that it’s so clearly inspired by another property does dampen the ending slightly, but it’s still effective. To Raven’s credit, the ending choice you’re given dramatically changes the way the game plays out, and makes it absolutely worth going back and replaying the mission that provides the choice. They delivered there. There is a ‘good’ and ‘bad’ ending, but neither feels black or white, instead feeling rather morally ambiguous given the situation. 

Overall the story is fine, but it probably won’t surprise you. It is however an enjoyable slice of FPS gameplay, which is probably more important to most Call of Duty fans.

Acting? 9/10 – A very solid suite of performances here for Cold War, with memorable characters propped up by good performances.

Fortunately, where the story suffers the acting does not. With the exception of Russel Adler (I’ll come back to that), the entire cast of characters is pretty wonderful. Mason and Woods make for an excellent partnership for multiple missions, with banter flying back and forth, and the newer characters make an excellent showing as well.

The major downfall, at least for me, is in Russel Adler. Clearly channeling the ‘cocky, arrogant leader’ archetype from every action movie you’ve ever seen, he comes across as a bit of a cartoon character when compared to the other characters in Cold War. He just doesn’t talk like a person, instead talking like a caricature of a person. It’s bizarre. 

Thankfully that’s where the buck stops in terms of questionable acting, and as mentioned the rest of the characters work really well. Mason and Woods are predictably great, but the newer slate of agents are the real surprise. Park and Lazar discuss their private history in the quiet moments between missions, and Sims often jumps in with snarky comments or otherwise humorous lines to keep the tension low. 

Like I said, Russel Adler is a weird exception to the generally excellent rule here, but for the most part I can’t criticise the acting at all.

Writing? 7/10 – It’s extremely cliché, and it doesn’t move the needle much for Call of Duty, but the writing in Cold War is still perfectly acceptable.

The writing however is a bit more questionable. I’ve already complained about the ‘ever reliable’ use of the Soviet Union as primary villains, and it really is a shame. Everything the game can pin on the Russians, it does without fail. That alone feels cliche.

It tends to carry over everywhere else as well, with the conversations between missions feeling remarkably similar to those found within Star Wars: Squadrons. Usually quick, emotionless exchanges, these conversations are there to give you context and exposition. Nothing more, nothing less. Character development is sparse, with the only two characters (aside from Mason and Wood) I was invested in being the two characters the game clearly wants you to be invested in – Park and Lazar. 

In mission, things do get better but they’re still predictable. Take any conversation from any american action movie or spy movie, and you could probably insert it into Cold War with no major drawback. 

This all sounds negative, but for what Call of Duty Black Ops: Cold War wants to be, the writing works pretty well. It’s a playable action movie, nothing more, nothing less. This is kind of what I wanted going in, so I wasn’t exactly expecting Shakespeare on the writing front. It’s not deep, even though it occasionally tries to be, and it’s not particularly meaningful despite its best efforts.

It is however, much like the game as a whole, fun. Which is what I kept coming back to throughout my time with the game. 

Performance? 8/10 – Despite acknowledging the wide spread issues, my own flawless experience has to be noted.

I’ve seen a BUNCH of Xbox specific issues for Cold War, and I’ve seen a fair few PlayStation related issues as well. Thankfully I experienced none of them in the campaign, but I have downrated this section as a result of what I’ve seen and read across social media.

Call of Duty Black Ops: Cold War has a lot of issues, some of which make playing the game somewhat challenging. Unfortunately since I experienced literally none of these problems, I can only speak to my genuinely flawless experience on the Series X.

I had no audio dropouts, no freezes, no frame drops that I noticed, and no crashes of any kind. The whole experience was smooth, for the entire 6 hours. Make of that what you will.

Fun Factor? 9/10 – Cold War is exactly what you would expect. Not much new ground is broken, but that’s not why you’re here.

I’ve probably come across as quite critical today, but the Call of Duty Black Ops: Cold War campaign is genuinely a lot of fun. It’s a blast most of the time, only occasionally held back by the narrative material or swift move on from certain gameplay mechanics. 

It comes across like an Expendables movie (insert alternate action movie if you want). It’s dumb, it’s often cheesy, but you love it. The variety of the gameplay, the excellent setpieces across the board, and the often entertaining arenas you’ll be fighting through does stand the Cold War campaign as one of the best in the series. It just doesn’t break down any walls is all. 

Basically it’s exactly what you expect barring a few exceptions here and there. Don’t go in expecting a masterclass in storytelling or delivery, and you’ll probably have a grand old time.

Value? 7/10 – At £50-70 depending on version, Cold War is a hard game to recommend solely on the campaign.

In a world where money is now more precious than ever, it’s really hard for me to recommend the campaign as a singular product. There are millions of gamers who buy Call of Duty solely for the single-player experience though, and that alone makes Cold War probably worth it. It’s a higher quality campaign than most Call of Duty games have provided, and it comes in longer than a lot of them if you let it breathe a little. 

There’s also more replayability than practically every Call of Duty campaign before it, what with a couple of genuine story related choices to make, different endings, and the swathe of difficulty selections you’re used to by now. It’s also an excellent showcase for next-generation consoles right now, and the Series X specifically. We’re in a world where you’re gonna have to wait months, if not years, for quality Xbox exclusives. In that world there’s a lot to be said for a graphical showcase like Call of Duty Black Ops: Cold War.

How Much Did The Reviewer Enjoy It? 9/10 – Imitating the finest action movies is no easy ask, but Cold War pulls it off with aplomb.

I had a great time! It’s the perfect Friday evening experience, with some snacks and unhealthy drinks. It’s the excellent FPS mechanics you’re used to, wrapped up in a variety of different gameplay styles and a visually stunning package. 

I was able to forgive the stilted writing and the predictable story beats, in favor of the thrilling setpieces and excellent mission designs. In short, I just had a really fun time with it and that’s kinda what videogames are about right?

Stay tuned for my multiplayer review in progress which should be coming tomorrow night. Until then, have a fantastic week!

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