The Call of Duty: Black Ops – Cold War Campaign Review – CoZ

This review contains classified information regarding Call of Duty: Black Ops – Cold War, proper authorisation is required beyond this point.

Buckle your seatbelts folks, it’s that time of the year again. The time where, for the next four months, you gradually get angrier and angrier at your screen, as unbalanced weapons are patched and other unbalanced weapons take their place. That’s right people, there’s a new Call of Duty out.

Call of Duty: Black Ops – Cold War launched last Friday, to typical titanic fanfare. Millions of people worldwide have flocked towards everyone’s favourite salt mine with the express intention of arbitrarily grinding for levels and unlocks in what will prove to be an ultimately fruitless exercise in a years time, or until season 3 or so, when everyone gets bored. I should know, I’m right there with them. But I must confess that sometimes the endless cycle of multiplayer matches do take their toll on me, so I’ll share a little secret that helps tide me through the initial, pre-first-patch turmoil that a new CoD launch inevitably has in store.

Did you know, dear reader? That if the SMG hell that is Black Ops – Cold War’s multiplayer becomes too much for you, you can press left on the D Pad/Keyboard twice on the main menu, and if you were to do that it would highlight a tab called campaign? That’s right, there’s a whole single player mode that you can play, for free with your purchase of the game. Condescending phrasing aside, Treyarch’s previous entries in the CoD franchise have, to many fans minds, almost always had a consistent campaign showing. The question this time being, is it worth sinking multiplayer grind time into, or would they have been better off going the Black Ops 4 route and omitting the whole thing altogether?

The first thing you’ll notice diving into this year’s campaign is that everything is eighties, and I mean eighhhhties. The opening cutscene shows lycra aerobics, New Wave, Soviet Marches, Ronald Reagan and to top it all off the whole ensemble is set to Norman Greenbaum’s Spirit in the Sky, and just in case you weren’t entirely clear that this isn’t happening in the modern day, there’s even a lit cigarette in the ashtray on the table, indoors! Can you imagine!? This is a not so ominous sign of things to come, as the game is consistently bathed in a typical (for the current era) eighties neon glow. Everything in Black Ops – Cold War sports a relatively unique colour pallet when compared to recent CoD titles, and it’s a welcome change.

Treyarch seems to have been aiming to wow here, and this is apparent in the relative level of depth to the setting choice and gameplay mechanics. Previous titles had a tendency to keep things safe when it came to their globe trotting campaigns, Russian military bases, faceless deserts and anonymous mountain ridges in Fakenationistan were par for the course, but Cold War takes us to more intriguing pastures, while Russian military bases certainly show up, you also see yourself whisked away to Turkey, Cuba and most intriguingly, in a first for the franchise to my mind, East Germany, where you find yourself partaking in some delightfully spy thriller-esque skullduggery, tracking down an arms dealer in cahoots with your main antagonist, Perseus, or rather a cohort thereof. Another mission takes you right into the headquarters of the KGB, as an undercover mole in the upper echelons of the soviet command structure, this plays out akin to some of the best missions in the otherwise mediocre Call of Duty: WWII, wandering around in plain site, ducking into the shadows to perform actions that may arouse suspicion. It successfully captures the spy feel that Treyarch are aiming for, and does so by allowing the player to make their choice from a variety of different potential routes to your objective. In a relatively open map, the player is tasked with acquiring a closely monitored key card, and covering their tracks along the way. The game gives you several different options as to how to go about this, do you fabricate fake communication logs to frame your chief accuser, or do you simply sneak into his office and poison him. Do you find yourself a blank key card and sneak into the admin department to imprint the correct data on it, or do you simply steal someone else’s. It’s a fun mission structure, more akin to the more recent Hitman games than a Call of Duty title, and while ultimately you’re just choosing which scripted sequence plays out when, it’s a wholly unique and enjoyable new frontier for the franchise.

While the rest of the campaign never gets quite as adventurous as this, there’s always something about each mission that makes it play out differently from the others. A vietnam flashback sees you piloting your exfil gunship as you blast your way back to base, the safehouse you visit between missions gives you an opportunity to talk to your team in rarely before seen moments of actual character development, a covert stealth mission into a soviet base finds you stumbling into a KGB live fire drill in a fully built facade of everytown USA, you create your own character, giving them gameplay modifiers based off of your special forces experience, later your colleague sedates you, asking you to recall an implanted memory, intended to make you more susceptible to divulging important intelligence given to you by the antagonist in a previous life… What?

The big wham moment from the original Black Ops makes a stunning reoccurrence here. CIA MK Ultra program shenanigans are once again afoot, and this is simultaneously one of the best and worst things about the direction the campaign story chooses to go. While I was absolutely elated at the canonical tie in to the landmark original game. In many ways it felt like wasted potential. While the recent declassification of the actual MK Ultra program made it a prime target for Treyarch to utilise in their story, it’s also one of those dodgy CIA things that just make me shrug my shoulders, yeah the CIA tried to create a mind control program, everyone knows that. Going into this campaign I was expecting them to touch more on some of the really shady stuff that went down in the eighties. Selling weapons to drug cartels and overthrowing democratically elected leaders in various nations across the globe, making american citizens disappear for asking too many questions, the real white suit, aviator sunglasses, cigarette drooping from mouth stuff.

While what we have is an excellent indicator for the direction of the Call of Duty mythos, especially following the excellent Modern Warfare campaign from last year. I wish they’d taken themselves a bit more seriously, and yet that’s part of what makes this entry so excellent. The aforementioned KGB Headquarters mission ends with you and the boys in the least covert black ops strike team ever assaulting the building, right in the centre of Moscow, in broad daylight. Using gas to knock out the personnel inside. Literally a chemical weapon attack on the USSR, perpetrated by known CIA affiliates, something that would never, ever, under any circumstances, have ever happened in real life. It’s gloriously silly and lends itself well to the 80s filter. A later mission even implies that the famed Zombies mode may be tied into the series main canon. The game is an eighties action movie with a modern veneer, and to be honest that’s fine.

The campaign really lands on almost every level. The CoD gunplay is present and correct. It looks great, with all the texture work and character faces having a very high level of polish. The aforementioned mission structure and relative gameplay depth tie everything together into a tight and satisfying experience. Despite this there are a couple of dents in the otherwise gleaming veneer. The mission count is quite low, there are six main missions outside of the intro sequence accessed through the evidence board at your CIA HQ, and while these have a tendency to have immediate follow up missions that do elevate the playtime to be on par with most CoD campaigns, it does create an illusion of brevity that persisted until my second play through. The most striking issue is one that may seem like something of a face level problem. Namely the bizarre choice to replace James C Burns, the voice actor for the beloved, fan favourite character Frank Woods. The new guy is just bad, eschewing the grizzled ‘nam vet style of the former in favour of what is, as far as I can tell, something akin to a chain smoking, wise cracking idiot lizard of some kind. It’s a really bizarre change. It’s certainly true that previous CoD titles have had a tendency to romanticise the Vietnam war, and while I’m sure it was an attempt to buy further into the action movie stylings they were leaning towards, it completely misses the mark and renders the character an unfunny side show. It’s a real disappointment, and I really feel for the original voice actor, as he’s voiced his disappointment publicly since before the game’s release. A change in voice actor worked in Modern Warfare as it was making an honest attempt to distance itself from it’s pulpy techno-thriller roots. This just feels like a misplaced effort.

Despite the above, Call of Duty: Black Ops – Cold War is a real shining light for the future of CoD campaigns, for the longest time, after the mediocre WWII campaign being followed by no campaign at all. Many fans thought all hope was lost. After last year’s Modern Warfare delivered the goods in all the right places however, it’s a real relief to see that Treyarch are continuing to put in the effort where less discerning company executives may have said it wasn’t worth putting. The Call of Duty campaign is, to myself and many other fans, a staple of gaming. A new year comes around and we all get to experience the latest episode in the dumbest thriller series going, and it’s good to see that the developers realise that their stories are not falling on deaf ears. It’s the christmas special of the modern age. Gather round the fire children, we’re going to destabilise the red menace once again.

Interesting and unique mission design
Surprisingly fresh gameplay
Strong story that ties together the cod mythology
Mission structure leaves you feeling rushed
Certain story beats are quite predictable
Woods is now a lizard

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