Over many, many years I’ve been involved at the top level where Call of Duty
reviews are concerned. It’s a folly situation. In New Zealand
, based on global release schedules, the ANZ region gets the game first, regardless of which entry it is. But we trade off being able to review in that window for earlier access. This means we’re beholden to embargoes that align with the game Pacific-based masses.
More often than not though, said masses are multiplayer in tribe, and reviewing MP in such a short window is rife with disaster. Updates, patches, feedback and more are forward-focusing components of a dynamic experience. We’ve learnt over the years reviewing the Call of Duty multiplayer experience is akin to drinking water when you’re thirsty; it’s a given and if you’re thirsty enough, you won’t care what that water tastes like.
Rather, tone is a larger component to any Call of Duty experience. And this includes the obvious other
offerings in Zombies and multiplayer, alongside the still not-even-one-year-old Warzone. But it’s in the game’s Campaign mode that ‘tone’ stands tallest. And in Black Ops Cold War, it’s anything but
‘cold’, and might be the best story entry in the series on the whole. And yes, that includes the original Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare
and the original Black Ops
. Talk about ushering in a next-generation…
"We’ve had a run at Zombies, and as you’d expect with the fan favourite optional game mode, it’s as fun and silly as ever...”
We’ll follow-up with an update on Multiplayer in a week or so, after we’ve flogged it as much as possible, and given cross-play and next-gen architecture a run for its money, and worth. 10 or so hours on live servers simply isn’t enough time to openly suggest one way or another if the experience is solid, engaging and trouble-free. We’ve had a run at Zombies, and as you’d expect with the fan favourite optional game mode, it’s as fun and silly as ever. Running on the newer machines, in our review case, Xbox Series X, at a solid 60fps, we played a number of co-op outings with randoms, got into games quickly and started our steady climb in progression.
(Quick side-note: progression for your player-created self is ubiquitous across all modes; campaign, multiplayer, zombies and Warzone.)
The game tracks everything you do, so even if you play as a bit of a lone wolf type, Cold War will reward your input within the game, meaning you can spend time outside of MP and still gain enough to jump in and not get ganked by the aforementioned MP tribe lot. It’s a refreshing approach, and one we see benefiting all involved. And to round out this portion of the review, Zombies will feed its niche players, and in this iteration, which has massive maps full of secrets and excellent detail, the mode once again puts a walking dead foot forward to be a seasonal standalone in the same vein as Activision is doing with Warzone -- a dedicated Zombies game, and team, makes more sense than the flimsy plots that surround Nazi undead experiements gone awry, and as far as zombie games go, this side-thought has always delivered in strides. Lumbering, moaning, droving strides.
"Other studios helped across all modes with Sledgehammer, Shanghai Studio, Beenox and High Moon, but from a bulk perspective, and from a writing and pacing one, it was Raven who delivered the goods in Cold War...”
Outside of multiplayer, zombies and Warzone, however, Cold War has served up something truly special in the single-player campaign side of the game, and we’re all the better for it.
What’s most special here is, the campaign was team-led by Raven
handled multiplayer. Other studios helped across all modes with Sledgehammer
, Shanghai Studio
and High Moon
, but from a bulk perspective, and from a writing and pacing one, it was Raven who delivered the goods in Cold War, cementing themselves now as a studio to watch within the Activision camp, because what’s delivered here is the most polished and perfectly executed story mode in the franchise to date.
We might need to acknowledge that without Treyarch’s World at War
world, we wouldn’t have this, and Raven is the first to tell you it came in as a fan first wanting to “write a love letter to Black Ops”; while diving deep into the franchise’s lore, while equally expanding upon it. And they do this by embracing everything that came before it -- Mason, Woods and Hudson are all in tow. Their stories and clandestine ways deepen evermore and rifts and side-missions balloon through their interactions and how you handle the game’s narrative. I say “handle” because in Cold War we get delivery of a Campaign with multiple moving parts. More often than not you’re either playing as Mason (no longer voiced by Sam Worthington), or as “Bell” (in my case Stephen “Bell” Farrelly).
The latter is Raven’s way of bringing you into the fold, so to speak. As Bell you get to choose attributes about yourself in a psychological evaluation. You get to choose two assessments of yourself and these come with permanent perks. Choosing Calm Under Pressure will net you a 90% reduction in flinching when you’re hit in the field. Lone Wolf gives you three times the running distance than normal, and so on. It just adds an element to attachment where the game’s narrative is concerned, but also feeds into how that narrative and its many missions are structured. There’s a main path, but for the majority of the game, you’re operating out of a Safehouse, and within you can partake in conversation with other team members, uncover new bits of information and, most importantly, consult the Evidence Board.
"This means one side-mission’s discovery of evidence can be related to an entirely different one, and unlocking the keys to these pieces of evidence opens up even more in the game...”
The Evidence Board lets you choose your next mission, and like CoDs of the past, there’s a main storyline (natch), but here’s where Raven really spread its wings. Side missions are also on offer, and within these (and main missions), you can find new pieces of evidence that go into a pool across the whole board. This means one side-mission’s discovery of evidence can be related to an entirely different one, and unlocking the keys to these pieces of evidence opens up even more in the game. There’s a specific mission where you can go after a baddie, but tied to this mission is an encrypted floppy disk. Clues to decoding it are littered through other levels, and it’s not binary, you still have to be smart about how you try and decode it. However, you can just do the mission and ignore the disk, but you risk something not going right, and the game warns you of this. It could
go right, but there’s a bigger chance it won’t, so the risk is on you.
You’ll also revisit missions you did in previous games. This is unique and helps sell the sequel fantasy tenfold. I won’t spoil it for anyone who hasn’t already bought the game, but years on you’ll see frozen corpses you dispatched in another Black Ops life, as well as the decaying ruins of places you once ran amok in. And with the game’s shiny new engine running on the new machines, said ruin and decay has never looked better.
Choice and consequence play a huge role in all of the above. You can kill or capture targets, which will lead to different story branches and dynamic relationships. In one instance I was asked during a mission to either liberate or silence a captured spy/informant. I chose to let him go, but that lead to a more dangerous outcome for another friendly NPC, and there was nothing I could do about it, my choice was made the consequence played out. For lack of a better way to put it, Cold War is the thinking person’s Call of Duty.
"It’s David S. Goyer again, after all. And all the exploding choppers you could want exist within the game, it’s just evenly paced between undercover, clandestine operations and letting Frank Woods off his leash...”
That’s not to say this isn’t over-the-top. It’s David S. Goyer
again, after all. And all the exploding choppers you could want exist within the game, it’s just evenly paced between undercover, clandestine operations and letting Frank Woods off his leash. Consider that a large portion of the game is played in the era of the 80s. So leather jackets, mops of hair and Miami Vice-level sunnies, even at night, play a huge aesthetic role. Heck, you even come across old-school playable arcade cabinets with Activision classics like Barnstorming
and River Raid
, among many others. The embrace of the era is real, and in this sense it feels and plays like TV or movies from that era -- OTT when needed, but cool and spy-like to help equally OTT narratives uphold.
And boy, is it polished.
Like Treyarch before them, it feels like Cold War is Raven’s break-free moment, and their “love letter” reads passionately and completely with this Black Ops entry. We’ve talked up Assassin’s Creed Valhalla maybe being the only real next-gen title this year, but with Cold War, Activision is making a cold case for Cold War to be considered in the same conversation. And so far, we’ve collected all the evidence we need to agree.