As someone who was a socially- and politically-aware teenager in the 1980s, I can tell you that living during The Cold War wasn’t always fun. Just ask me about night I thought New York had been nuked. But shooting people in the first-person shooter Call Of Duty: Black Ops Cold War (Xbox One, Xbox Series X / S, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, PC) — that’s a lot of fun. And in no small part because of the game’s ’80s timeframe.
Let’s start where I always start, and where the ’80s has the biggest effect: the story-driven campaign. Set in 1981, between the events of Black Ops and Black Ops II, Call Of Duty: Black Ops Cold War initially has you taking out terrorists involved in the Iran Hostage Crisis. But in doing so, you learn that that event may have been orchestrated by a Perseus, a Russian spy who some in the intelligence community believe is a Keyser Soze-like myth. Playing as someone code-named “Bell,” you go on a series of missions to find out what Perseus is up to…and stop him.
As always with this series, the campaign in Call Of Duty: Black Ops Cold War has you engaging in frantic firefights in a wide variety of locations, all driven by a cinematic story.
Call Of Duty: Black Ops Cold War also, like installments of this series, breaks up all the first-person shooting by occasionally giving you other things to do. Not only are opportunities to test your skills with a sniper rifle, and fly an attack chopper during a Vietnam flashback, but there’s one of those “you man the turret while I drive us out of this place” end of level escapes.
But while Call Of Duty: Black Ops Cold War doesn’t stray too far from this franchise’s established formula, it does add some interesting new mechanics. During combat, for instance, you can use enemies as human shields like you do in the Gears Of War games. This is especially handy since, unlike those games, Cold War doesn’t have a cover system, and there are times when having movable cover can save your life.
And yes, Gear-heads, you can give them a grenade and send them on their way like a little kid on their first day of school. That’s so nice of you.
Call Of Duty: Black Ops Cold War also takes cues from such role-playing games as Fallout 4 and Mass Effect. Not only can you choose the gender, skin color, and work history for “Bell,” but you also do a psychological profile of them that has you picking two skill augmentations. If you choose to be “Reliable,” for instance, your “Ammo Capacity [is] Increased by 1 Clip,” while finally admitting that you are “Paranoid” means your “Aiming Speed [is] Increased by 100%.”
You also, like in an RPG, sometimes have a choice in what you say to someone, and what you do to them — including some life and death decisions. There are even a couple optional side missions, as well as side objectives within missions. Though it also helps the story mode isn’t nearly as scripted as the ones in Call Of Duty: Modern Warfare or WWII. Which isn’t to say you have the freedom you enjoyed in Wolfenstein: Youngblood, more that this doesn’t hold your hand the whole the time.
But what really makes Call Of Duty: Black Ops Cold War‘s campaign feel fresh is the ’80s. For starters, while previous installments took their cues from such military action flicks as Black Hawk Down or such military sci-fi stories as Aliens, Cold War is more like such espionage movies as Three Days Of The Condor. Which isn’t to say it doesn’t have plot twists or big set pieces — the second mission has you assaulting a plane like they did in Fast & Furious 6 — more that some missions are covert infiltrations (or at least start out that way), as opposed to having you go in all guns-a-blazin’.
Also, while I still love sci-fi and shooting Nazis in the face, this benefits from not being yet another first-person shooter (Call Of Duty or otherwise) that’s not set in World War II or the not-so-distant-future.
Together, these aspects — coupled with all the good stuff you always get from a Call Of Duty game — gives Call Of Duty: Black Ops Cold War the most compelling campaign since Black Ops II. Sure, it’s short, the campaigns in Call Of Duty always are. But this is one is so good, and offers enough choices that can make a difference, that you’ll want to play it more than once.
The ’80s don’t just make the campaign feel fresh, though. It has a similar effect on the multiplayer modes, and not because you’re using a different set of weapons and equipment. The maps have a more of an industrial, real-world feel, one that recalls those in Call Of Duty: Black Ops Cold War and, more importantly, 2008’s Call Of Duty: World At War, which had some of this series’ best multiplayer.
Call Of Duty: Black Ops Cold War also adds a new multiplayer mode called “Fireteam.” In it, 8 to 10 teams of 4 players each have to work together to explore really, really large areas in hopes of locating some uranium, which they then use to make dirty bombs. You even get to parachute in, which gives you the opportunity to coordinate your approach. The problem being that within a day of the game coming out, people realized they could instead just sit back and shoot people as they dropped in, which effectively ruined this mode.
Good thing Call Of Duty Cold War Black Ops has brought back “Mosh Pit,” a mode for 16 to 24 players that randomly combines different team modes and maps, while also, of course, continuing to offer such mainstays as “Team Deathmatch,” “Domination,” “Kill Confirmed,” “Free For All,” and so on. Which is also kind of ’80s, though only because it feels like we’ve been playing some of those modes for forty years.
The ’80s also has an impact on Call Of Duty: Black Ops Cold War‘s co-op survival mode “Zombies.” Though, admittedly, far less of one. In the first installment, “Die Maschine,” which is included in this game, you and three other people have to infiltrate a former Nazi lab in Poland around the same time as the game’s campaign. And, of course, you do so by using the same ’80s weapons as you did in the campaign and multiplayer.
Aside from the guns, though, “Die Maschine” still feels like previous “Zombies” installments. There are still power-up, windows that have to be boarded up, magical floating nukes, and doors that only open if you have enough points, and opening them leads t areas that have better guns and, of course, doors to new sections.
Unfortunately for people who love shooting Nazis, but don’t play well with others, “Die Maschine” — like most of the “Zombies” modes in previous Call Of Duty games — is decidedly made for co-op. Like The Division 2, the difficulty clearly doesn’t reconfigure itself if you play this solo. Which is fine if you want a serious challenge, but not if (like me and Lisa Simpson) you want a challenge you can do.
No, for that you need to play “Dead Ops Arcade,” the “Zombies” spin-off mode that turns that mode it into a top-down, twin stick shooter (save for all the door unlocking). Like the versions in previous Black Ops games, this once again has you stranded on a deserted island that’s as weird as the one in Lost. Not only are there tons of Nazi zombies trying to eat you, but new guns and gold bars appear out of thin air, and you never, ever run out of ammo. Well, when using a regular gun, that is. Special guns are, well, special.
More importantly, while “Dead Ops Arcade” can be played with friends, it can also be played alone, and not just if you’re a masochist.
“Dead Ops Arcade” even fits Call Of Duty: Black Ops Cold War‘s ’80s theme, though only because every top-down, twin-stick shooter feels like a kissing cousin of 1982’s Robotron: 2084, no matter when it was made.
Unfortunately, there’s something else that’s rather ’80s about Call Of Duty: Black Ops Cold War: some of it is kind of annoying.
For starters, it has some rather common mistakes I wish developers would stop making. Navigating the evidence board to select your next mission has you awkwardly using the left thumbstick like a mouse, which works about as badly here as it does in Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales and Destiny 2. Also, like Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales, turning off the background music also kills the audio in some of the cutscenes.
Call Of Duty: Black Ops Cold War also has an issue so commonplace that I just cut and paste this similarly-worded paragraph in every relevant review: the text is too small. If you sit at a reasonable distance from your TV — y’know, like your mama told you to — you’ll have trouble reading the dialog options and the menus.
But the biggest irritation in Call Of Duty: Black Ops Cold War is how, in the campaign and “zombies” modes (but not multiplayer or “Dead Ops”), “Bell” can’t remember that guns need to be reloaded when they run out of bullets. Instead of automatically reloading when you pull the trigger and nothing happens because the ammo clip is empty, you instead have to pull the trigger a second time. And while they did something similar in the Gears Of War games, there it had a reason. Here, it just smacks of incompetence, since it conflicts with your status as an experienced soldier.
The lack of ammo awareness aside, though, Call Of Duty: Black Ops Cold War is still one of the better Call Of Duty games in recent memory. It’s certainly the most unique, especially given how they’ve managed to add new elements to the campaign while still keeping the classic C.O.D. feel. Which is why I’ll remember this version of the ’80s a lot more fondly than the real one.