Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War plays fine, and it’s the new one. That’s enough.
By MIKHAIL KLIMENTOV | The Washington Post | Published: December 2, 2020
Is there anyone reading this trying to make an informed purchasing decision about the Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War? It’s Call of Duty. What feature, or lack thereof, would compel a Call of Duty fan to buy or skip a new entry at this point? It plays fine, and it’s the most recent one. That’s usually enough.
To be clear, there’s plenty to dislike about the new entry at the game’s outset. The matchmaking infrastructure is broken in tons of tiny, just-frustrating-enough-to-be-noticeable ways. The multiplayer maps feel one dimensional, and there aren’t many to begin with. (Not that it matters; play moves at a breakneck pace that makes any instinct beyond "see enemy, aim, shoot" totally superfluous). The bigger, marquee game modes -- namely Zombies and Dirty Bomb -- are impenetrable gross mutations of superior modes from older games.
Am I going to keep playing? Sure.
Part of what draws me to Cold War is sheer novelty, but the game’s faster pace is also undeniably fun, if a bit shallow. What I appreciated about Warzone (and many of the other comparatively ruminative shooters that have come out this year) is how slowly things moved, and how protracted engagements sprouted their own little narrative arcs. Fights had palpable tension and stakes. By contrast, Cold War tickles a more primitive, lizard part of the brain. It’s popcorn. Junk food. Death is no obstacle. It is merely an invitation to try again, and again, and again, to correct past mistakes, to exact revenge. I accept that invitation.
It may take a moment to actually get in-game, though. Even simple things, like creating a party and getting into a game, are a challenge. Over and over, my friends and I would try to create a party, only to learn that someone or even multiple people couldn’t connect. Someone else would host, and then a different person wouldn’t be able to join. Every Cold War session begins like this, a game of ring around the rosie until the right configuration of party leader and guest is found. There are countless tiny pebble-in-your-shoe-like issues plaguing Cold War, which can sometimes feel like it’s running the same netcode as Among Us, a notoriously unstable game made with a fraction of Call of Duty’s budget.
When you finally get into the game, all the standard modes - Team Deathmatch, Free For All - are here, and they’re fine. If that’s what you like, you’ll get your money’s worth. But if you want to play a mode with objectives, temper your expectations. I’ve played far too many Kill Confirmed matches with teammates who have seemingly gone out of their way to avoid confirming kills (as the name implies, doing so is a prerequisite to winning).
In Cold War’s multiplayer, the overarching feeling is that the simpler things are, the better. The standard, quick-respawn modes are fun, even if the available maps leave something to be desired. But the game’s bigger, marquee ideas collapse under the weight of their own bloat.
I am not a fan of Call of Duty’s Zombies mode. I just hadn’t ever devoted much time to it. As it turns out, that’s a huge liability. If you’re a longtime Zombies player, maybe you have the sequence memorized already: Blow up this wall, then the next one, get the mystery gun, go into the lab, activate a trial, save up for armor and pack-a-punch, and so on. There’s inherited wisdom: Keep a zombie alive at the end of the round so that players have time to resupply, for example. But as a new player, I found myself totally overwhelmed, dragged forward by more experienced players who already knew what to do.
Even now, knowing the basic steps, I still don’t want to play Zombies. It’s unpleasant to look at, and just generally kind of dull. It’s not for lack of trying: Zombies wants you to know it’s zany and "out there." Now and again, your party is pulled through a wormhole into an alternate Day-Glo dimension, where things are basically the same -- except, get this, the colors are wacky. Yawn.
Then there’s the gameplay itself: In my latest and likely last ever Zombies session, I spent a good chunk of time running in circles around the spawn area with a grenade launcher, blowing up zombies and chipping away health from the midgame boss, Megaton. There is a narcotic effect to watching the numbers tick up as the grenades incinerate their targets; a great deal of design work must have gone into perfecting the satisfying audiovisual cues that whisper into the deepest folds of your brain, "You’re doing great, sweetie." But that feels like a failure for a game mode about fighting the undead - Nazi undead, no less. (This session ended on round 17 of 20, with a connection error).
Zombies as it exists in Cold War is not really a game mode any sane person would create if hired to make something called a Zombie mode. Instead, it is a Frankenstein monster of features, an ugly snowball that’s been rolling for more than a decade, more mud, stick, stone and old Band-Aids than snow, and it’s still rolling because nobody at Treyarch was brave enough to stop it.
Once you’re done with multiplayer, you might dip a toe into the campaign. Over the next few weeks, as smarter writers and researchers pick at the game’s story, I’m sure it will get called all sorts of things: Jingoistic; imperialistic; a marketing exercise for endless war; apologia for extrajudicial killing; a game that stares point-blank at the moral equivalences it draws and does not see them; stupid; evil; a slurry of genre beats that only vaguely add up to something resembling the actual, historic Cold War; etc. All of this is, of course, true. But I’ve wondered, lately, whether this is a useful lens for evaluating a Call of Duty game.
There’s plenty of thoughtful, deeply researched criticism that highlights where games fall short and replicate historic ills. (Here’s some I love, that we ran on Launcher). But sometimes, at the crossroad of existential doubt and pettiness, I wonder whether this is a helpful exercise for readers. In a less-than-generous reading, it can feel like the critic is parachuting in to explain to the lowly dunce reader that the media they just enjoyed actually had some unnoticed flaw that the bridge-troll reader would never pick up on their own. Surely nobody is getting their history from Call of Duty. Isn’t there some merit to "It’s just a game?"
A thoughtful colleague in games writing pointed out to me that the effect of falsehoods and half-truths and blurring of facts is additive. Cold War probably isn’t going to convince anyone that rogue Russian agents were behind the Iranian hostage crisis, nor will players suddenly feel the pull to enlist after foiling the villain’s plot in service of CGI Ronald Reagan. In a sense, the weird militarism of Cold War is a mere drop in the bucket. But the bucket’s been collecting water for years.
Spoiler Warning: The remainder of the review focuses on the campaign and discusses its ending in detail. Do not proceed if you want to preserve the story’s surprises.
Right from the story’s start, the game hints that something is off. You’re placed into a mission in Vietnam that your character had no business participating in, purely in terms of timeline and narrative. Conversations happen in which you forget about things you’ve evidently done. TVs will turn on and off in your presence. It all culminates in a fascinating end-of-game twist, where it’s revealed that your entire team has been lying to you, sometimes clumsily, through their teeth. You are a former lieutenant of the main villain, brainwashed by the CIA to help bring that villain to justice. And right at the end, you are asked to make a pivotal decision: Betray your new American allies -- the only people you’ve actually spent time with for the duration of the game -- and help your former rogue Russian agent boss decimate Europe with American nukes, or side with your captors to avert nuclear calamity.
I chose to betray my team, and while that isn’t the canonical ending, it should be. The game doesn’t do a convincing job of selling me on the spooks who had drugged me and rewired my brain. I am not sure it wanted to convince me. I won’t fault anyone for looking at the lovingly rendered 40th President and believing that "Cold War" is on his side. But his portrayal can also be read as one of an image-obsessed, corrupt man who ordered a series of extrajudicial missions only to get way over his skis. Reagan’s closest lieutenant, a man named Hudson, is bald, wears a leather jacket, and doesn’t trust anyone. Surely a "cool guy" archetype, right? Well, he’s also the genius behind the plan to leave American nukes under every major European city. (Cold War kicks off with Perseus, the game’s villain, obtaining one of these nukes, an instant classic in the "this is the one thing we didn’t want to happen" genre).
Cold War is positively gleeful about you slaughtering your former teammates, highlighting each kill with an almost perverse intensity. I chose the sniper rifle, and the game followed each bullet in slow motion along its path. My first victim was Helen Park; I had saved her life in an earlier mission, and we shared a tender exchange about scars and betrayal. Her face exploded like a giant wet sponge on impact. Next, I shot Frank Woods (bland jock, not important) and Alex Mason (roid rage Charlie Day). If they mattered in some past "Black Ops" game, they barely register in this one. I do not remember killing Lawrence Sims. Maybe someone else got him.
Finally, I was tasked with killing Adler, the architect of my suffering and an inveterate liar. The game prompted me to plunge a dagger into his chest. I did. I later learned that the anticlimactic "good" ending (you help America destroy some cell towers) ends with Adler demanding one final sacrifice as he pulls a gun on you. The game closes with the gunshot.
The story lives in a perpetual haze of ambiguity, an interpretive gray zone, less choose-your-own-adventure, and more draw-your-own-conclusions. Does Cold War really expect us to think Adler is a good guy? It’s not clear. His ghoulish visage quite literally haunts the inner recesses of the protagonist’s mind. But then there’s the fact that choosing to help him -- and be killed by him -- is the canonical "good" ending. The game is as confused as it’s brainwashed protagonist.
I hope that the folks at Raven Software and Treyarch think about the better ways in which they could have spent the million billion dollars given to them by Activision. Perhaps it’s naive to expect Call of Duty to ever change. But as a glass half full person, I enjoyed Cold War. It is, at times, a genuinely fascinating little artifact. And if you’re a glass half empty person? Don’t kid yourself. You’ll still play Cold War.