‘Call Of Duty: Black Ops Cold War’ review: top-notch production can’t mask its problematic politics

A mixed bag that, unfortunately, does not step out of the massive shadow cast by 2019’s ‘Modern Warfare’

If you’ve picked up any Call Of Duty game in the past decade, you know what you’re in for the second you boot up Black Ops: Cold War. It’s gung-ho, it’s reflex-reliant, and it’s loud. It’s Michael Bay, the video game, with development studios Raven and Treyarch teaming up to usher this entry out the door under a hail of bullets and blasts.

Though the majority of the experience – a multiplayer mode buckling under the weight of launch, a Zombies mode experimenting with an aging formula, and a narrative that sticks to predictable story beats – may seem awkwardly familiar, Black Ops: Cold War does have one or two unexpected surprises loaded in its chamber.

For starters, the ethically ambiguous campaign plucks at the boundaries of what Call Of Duty story modes have done before. This year’s tale, which follows a clandestine cabal of US military operatives vying to preserve the liberty of “the free men and women of the world” from Communism, deftly weaves between glibly funny and grimly serious, navigating every careering shift in tone with ease. The writers here, unlike in a lot of preceding Call Of Duty games, have a sense of humour.

Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War
Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War. Credit: Raven Software / Treyarch

When you’re thrown into a mission, the game does a great job of immersing you into its Cold War context. Every gun feels unique, and bucks in your hand as you’d expect. Every burst of fire hits home with a satisfying audio/visual kick. Gunplay may not be at the best-in-class level of 2019’s Modern Warfare, but it’s up there.

Your actual gameplay skirmishes are interspersed with big budget cutscenes, laced with 80s flavour and complemented by a groovy – and endlessly impressive – soundtrack, which is totally authentic to the era. These interstitial cutscenes are reminiscent of a prestige TV show, complete with moody lighting and tense dialogue. The stakes are high, emotions run wild, and you can’t help but feel actually drawn into this spy thriller by the time you’re even an hour in.

But once the adrenaline of ripping through a Soviet forward warning base wears off, or after you de-clutch your pad when your infiltration mission in East Berlin wraps up… some bigger problems start to emerge. The bell-ringing, flag-waving jingoism of US revisionism is too big and ugly to ignore in Black Ops: Cold War.

Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War
Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War. Credit: Raven Software / Treyarch

The Cold War was one of the messiest military fumbles in modern history, and there is blame to be placed at the door of every single government that was involved in the sickly wetwork of the era, but Raven and Activision don’t seem to want to admit that in this game. The narrative side of the game almost wants to paint Ronald Reagan as a war hero, and stops just shy of fetishising his brutal and unrelenting campaign against Soviet Russia.

Therein lies the moral ambiguity of Black Ops: Cold War. In some breaths, the game is light-hearted, fun, almost campy in its take on 80’s spy drama. In others, it’s genuinely unsettling – revelling in wanton destruction and contraventions of the Geneva Convention. Planting headshots on enemy combatants at range feels almost justified in the context of the enigmatic secret agent you control, and plays into the fantasy that Call Of Duty games have promised for 16 iterations previous… but spraying a whole valley of Vietnam with hot lead and missiles? Shoving an unarmed Iranian conspirator from the roof of a building? These beats in the story are tacky, and seem to exist purely to pay homage to the uneasy military fetishism that the FPS genre as a whole has got such an appetite for. The game, in 2020, fails to read the room.

Moving over to the multiplayer offering of the game (where most of the loyal pack of Call Of Duty hangers-on will spend the vast majority of their time) and things are equally as hit-and-miss. Veterans will bemoan the number of maps on offer at launch – even though there’s only one less than last year’s Modern Warfare, and most of them are better – and commentators with a bone to pick with Activision will lament the conservative number of guns available on Day One, too.

The reality is this limited number of arms, maps and modes actually makes for a more focused and centralised experience, with a definite feeling of the multiplayer community being ‘pooled’ into one place. Matchmaking is robust, and games often end up feeling quite balanced… unless you encounter a lobby infested with cheaters – and, be warned, there are many. This year’s multiplayer offering feels sloppier and more slipshod than last year’s Modern Warfare, but you can rarely tell how these things pan out in the first week. Raven and Treyarch have laid a solid foundation for the future, at least.

Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War
Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War. Credit: Raven Software / Treyarch

The whole multiplayer/single player package is glued together with some of the most bleeding-edge production you’re going to get in a game this year. If you’re fortunate enough to play on Xbox Series X or PS5, you’ll find yourself agog at the in-game reflections and lighting rendered so effortlessly via the hardware’s fancy new ray-tracing capabilities. If you’re playing on ‘last-gen’ machines, you’re still in for a treat – even on the old Xbox One, this game is a looker. And a ‘sounder’, if that’s a thing, specifically when it comes to the title’s impeccable foley.

If you can forgive some blatant revisionism and a weird Ronald Reagan fetish, the six-hour campaign and its spy-thriller puzzles and loud, dumb action is a memorable offering in Call Of Duty’s bloated canon. The multiplayer, as ever, will continue to bloat its belly and shed its skin, shrugging off the complaints of launch and evolving into a different monster altogether.

Still, if you’ve ever wondered what it would feel like to have a shootout in a neon-drenched arcade whilst ‘Hit Me With Your Best Shot’ blasts out around you, this game will deliver. Come for the gunplay, stay for the 80’s nostalgia.

‘Call Of Duty: Black Ops Cold War’ is out now for Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5 and PC.

Our Verdict

All in all, Call Of Duty: Black Ops Cold War is a mixed bag that’s probably not suited for the solo player. Gaming with a crew in the multiplayer or Zombies is – more than ever – where the value lies in this year’s offering, which is living in the shadow of its bigger, stronger and more critically adored brother, Modern Warfare.

Pros

  • Graphics take full advantage of modern tech – especially on next-gen hardware
  • Solid, immersive gunplay
  • Robust foundation for multiplayer to evolve from

Cons

  • Muddy, ethically dubious campaign
  • Arguably paltry launch offering (especially in multiplayer)
  • Various server issues and performance issues

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