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Review: Treyarch’s new entry to the Call of Duty: Black Ops series. Is “Cold War” back in black?

US Firebase in Mission #2 – Operation Fracture.
Photo via in-game screenshot.

Taking a page from their affiliates at Infinity Ward and Sledgehammer Games, Treyarch has decided to return to its roots, with their own twist.

With the storyline of Treyarch’s previous release “Black Ops 3 (2015) being a narrative departure from its predecessors, and its sequel “Black Ops 4” (2018) omitting a story mode altogether, changes seemed necessary to keep the franchise fresh. “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare (2019) was a soft reboot and went back to what its co-developer Infinity Ward established themselves on, and “Cold War” is using what they learned. Rather than rebooting the storyline as a whole, they have decided to create a direct sequel to the original “Black Ops” title released in 2010.

With the release of “Black Ops”, Treyarch explored themes yet to be explored in the Call of Duty franchise. Taking a step away from the “faceless protagonist” and “boots on the ground” focused storytelling that the previous six games heavily utilized, “Black Ops” more heavily emphasized personal and psychological themes. While it did serve as a sequel to Treyarch’s previous title “World At War” (2008), “Black Ops” stood on its own within the new setting of the Vietnam and Cold Wars, featuring (partially) historically accurate battles such as the Bay of Pigs invasion in Cuba.

Another major portion of the Treyarch games other than their main story is the Zombies mode. Introduced in “World At War”, Zombies centers around surviving unending waves of progressively stronger and stronger undead. This mode was not as simple as it seems on the surface, as it had a secret storyline all its own. These secrets, or “easter eggs,” were hidden on each map for players to discover on their own. While some were simple, others required extensive efforts to reveal, and the complexity increased with each new game in the series. “Cold War” will feature the mode as well, however judging from where the story ended in “Black Ops 4” and what was shown in the reveal trailer, it seems that this Zombies mode will be starting a brand new story.

From the game trailers, Treyarch strikes me as trying to use “Cold War” to rekindle the spark that made the storyline of “Black Ops” distinct from other shooters. Whether or not they succeed I will judge myself, as someone with experience in the Call of Duty franchise going back to “World At War”, and having played all games in the “Black Ops” series.

Prior to playing the game, my expectations were quite lofty, as I would be comparing it not only to the previous “Black Ops” titles but also to last year’s “Modern Warfare” (2019). For the main story to be a complete home run for me, it would have to carefully balance its attempt at evoking nostalgia with keeping the game innovative and not falling heavily into fan service and callbacks to its predecessors. Being able to stand on its own and not rely on old fans is something that the Call of Duty franchise has struggled with for years, and I was curious to see how this new title will handle that long-standing issue. With the Zombies portion of the game, I didn’t have specific expectations so long as it followed an entirely new story and wasn’t not a strict continuation of the previous one.

After playing the game for about nine days, I feel like I have got a pretty good grasp of everything it has to offer. 

Starting with the campaign, it is quite a mixed bag to say the least. While Treyarch certainly tried to capture the essence of their most well-received titles, they fell short in execution. 

Each level takes advantage of their distinct environment, is well designed and is enjoyable to play; however, there are flaws in both the story and the weapon sandbox of the game that are a definite step back from previous games in the series.

Staying vague to avoid spoiling the story, it truly does feel set in the “Black Ops” narrative, but all of the call-backs and nods to the past seem artificial. Despite enjoying it greatly at the time, the game was very short, taking me five hours to complete all nine main missions and two side missions. While player choices do have an impact on the story, they are quite limited other than which of the endings you get. By the time the credits rolled I only felt unsatisfied with the way it ended. Normally I don’t expect an amazing ending to a Call of Duty title, but comparing it against the first “Black Ops,” it falls flat.

The weapon sandbox, or the overall variety of weapons and how they interact with the game, is extremely lacking in both singleplayer and multiplayer. The first “Black Ops” featured a wide array of weapons throughout the campaign, letting you pick and choose which one to fight through a section with. “Cold War” seemed like it had only a small handful of weapons that it repeatedly used in each mission. This difference becomes more obvious when looking at multiplayer, which I will discuss later.

This is not to say the campaign is bad, rather I feel it was passable in general. The character creation options at the start give replayability, not to mention representation for non-binary individuals who see little mention in the gaming industry. It also had a very solid difficulty balance, where I never felt any areas were “too difficult” despite playing on Hardened. The way that stealth was handled seemed like a leap of faith for the franchise, but it was a refreshing twist that hasn’t been done before. 

On to the multiplayer, there is not nearly as much to talk about. 

After having gone through a full prestige, I can say that it very much just feels like a normal Call of Duty. A few things do stand out to me, mainly the poor weapon sandbox as mentioned before. “Cold War” has a grand total of only twenty-five weapons, not counting the knife. Compare that to the forty found in the first “Black Ops”, or the thirty-eight (on release, fifty-six currently) in “Modern Warfare” (2019), and it looks quite pitiful. Even the gunsmithing feature taken from last year’s release was watered down, missing the gun perks system, ability to change caliber for weapons and a great deal of the variety in attachments. You are also limited to only five attachments or eight with one of the “wildcard” options. Not only that, but the stat variety is minimal at best, meaning the best choices are going to be the same for nearly every player across every weapon.

The same problem exists with the maps, having a relatively small number with only nine standard maps, with a handful of others being locked to certain game modes. 

Despite sounding very bad, I do have faith that Treyarch will add more guns and maps as the game runs through its likely one-year lifespan, as evidenced by the recent release of the “Nuketown 1984” map on November 24th.

Last but not least we have the Zombies mode.

While also being a somewhat mixed bag, inheriting issues like the lack of weapons, it feels like a great improvement in other ways. Addressing the issues, the only one that I haven’t already covered is that there is only one map on release, being “Die Maschine”.

Onto its improvements, the elixirs, talismans and specialist equipment have been ditched in favor of “field upgrades” which are much more engaging than pulling out a super weapon for a short time or instantly granting a power-up. Perks no longer have the variety presented in “Black Ops 4,” but also are not limited to equipping them into a set number of slots. Also interesting is that the player can buy more than four perks at a time, being able to use at least all six currently in the game. Though the elixirs are gone, there is still a currency to spend on things. Aetherium crystals are used to upgrade weapon categories, perks, field upgrades, as well as the ammo mods that can be purchased at the Pack-A-Punch machine.

While I am sad to see the Aether storyline concluding, I am interested to see where this new story shall take us with future map releases.

Now that I have covered my opinions, I’ll be properly rating the game with a zero to ten score for each section of the game and overall.

For the Campaign I would have to give it a solid 6.5/10, if the story had been better it would have been an easy 8.

Multiplayer is where my score dips significantly currently, with a 4/10 until more weapons and maps are released.

Easily its strongest mode, Zombies takes the proverbial cake with an 8.5/10 that could go up or down depending on what the future holds.

Totaling those three scores gives Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War a 19/30 or 6.3/10.

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