It wouldn’t be the holiday season without a new “Call of Duty” game. They’ve become as annually consistent as pumpkin and peppermint flavored things after the leaves change colors. The juggernaut of a franchise has become so powerful that it has developed sub-franchises in games in the “Warfare” series and the “Black Ops” series. 2020’s installment is one of the latter, the 17th game in the series overall and the sixth in the “Black Ops” line. Serving as a sequel to 2010’s “Call of Duty: Black Ops” and a prequel to 2012’s “Call of Duty: Black Ops II,” “Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War” is set in the early days of the Reagan administration—the Gipper even plays a role in the story—with flashbacks to the Vietnam War. It’s a campaign that plays out with all the explosive insanity that one has come to expect from a “CoD” game with an ‘80s energy that reminiscent of macho patriotic action films of the era like those starring Sylvester Stallone or Chuck Norris. Don’t come to a “Call of Duty” game looking for multicultural sensitivity. Come for massive explosions and waves of faceless enemies to mow down. And come for the rich, consistently refreshed multiplayer experience, one that’s just getting started in the days after the launch of this excellent game.
The campaign opens in January 1981 as CIA operatives named Adler, Mason, and Woods are in Turkey, hunting down terrorists named Qasim Javadi and Arash Kadivar for the roles in the real Iran hostage crisis. The writers of “Black Ops Cold War” set the tone in terms of violence in the opening mission, giving you the option to decide how brutal you want to be as you’re interrogating a suspect on a rooftop. You have the option to bring him in or throw him off the roof, and the choice makes almost no difference to what unfolds after that. These games very rarely display anything that could be called morality in the broader sense, which makes the choices presented in the campaign this time a bit surprising. They are uber-patriotic explosions of action—stories of illegal military operations not only sanctioned by the United States but orchestrated by them.
So, yes, it’s under orders from Reagan himself that your agent, nicknamed “Bell,” investigates the identity of a man named Perseus, a terrorist leader who was behind the hostage crisis and may have his hands on a nuclear weapon. The story then flashes back to Vietnam in 1968 before moving to East Berlin, a Russian training facility, and even KGB headquarters. The gameplay consists mostly traditional shooting from cover, but there are elements that break that tedium, including optional objectives to find evidence in missions that then open two side missions. Honestly, I liked the investigative and optional aspects introduced into a traditionally straightforward campaign and wished there was more of it. However, these game really come to life in their most extreme events like a runway chase and crash that would make the producers of “Fast and the Furious” jealous and a rooftop showdown in Cuba that includes raining down gunfire from helicopters. Again, subtlety is not the motto here. In a year without blockbusters, it feels like a game that can finally give people that larger-than-life feeling we’re missing in 2020.
They’re designed to shock and awe, something that’s even more powerful with the strength of the PS5 on a 4K TV. Not only is this the best-looking “Call of Duty” game to date on the next-gen console, but the new haptic triggers on the PS5 controllers add another element to the gameplay. Aiming down the sights with the L2 trigger and shooting with the R2 trigger can feel differently depending on the weapon and situation. It takes some getting used to, especially in the non-stop gunfire situations of multiplayer, but it adds a fun layer to a franchise that can feel repetitive.
The funny thing about the “Call of Duty” franchise is how many people who play it never even touch the campaign. They’re here for the multiplayer, which is rich and varied yet again, although it arguably feels a little more arcade-style than 2019’s “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare” in terms of gameplay. For the most part, the multiplayer section of “Black Ops Cold War” is more of the same with the classic modes like Domination, Kill Confirmed, and Team Deathmatch spread out over a relatively small selection of maps to start. However, Activision has adopted a season-long approach to these games, releasing new maps on a regular basis—there’s already been a new one released for this game and a Battle Pass that starts in December promises more. And the beloved Warzone mode launches that month too. So it’s hard to review the multiplayer portion of a game that’s barely started in that regard. I will say that the launch maps are a mix of brilliant design (Moscow, Armada) with a few frustrating ones (Garrison offers nothing new; Cartel is too big for 6-on-6). However, in a matter of months, there will be twice as many maps, new modes, new weapons, etc. (Note: this game also includes a richer zombies mode than the last couple installments.)
So what’s the verdict on the latest “Call of Duty” game? It’s another accomplished entry in a franchise that most gamers made their minds up about years ago. It seems unlikely to persuade anyone who doesn’t like the politics or jingoism of these games, but it’s just as unlikely to turn off the fans. Do I wish these games broke their own molds more often? Sure, but in a year of unpredictability, there’s something comforting about the consistency of “Call of Duty.”
Activision provided a PS5 review copy of this game.