I spent the whole time editing this podcast on a yoga ball. So Gabe, I get you.
With next-generation consoles and a big chunk of AAA game releases happening this November it was only a matter of time before I was driven to pick up some new titles for my 2020 library and among them was the latest entry in the Call of Duty franchise, Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War (decide where the colon goes yourself). With Treyarch taking the wheel this year, I was admittedly pretty concerned about how this game would end up, considering the mixed thematic reception and execution of Modern Warfare’s campaign, along with some…questionable marketing materials released far before launch. Sure, I’ve always liked Treyarch COD titles, but before I knew anything about the game, I found myself asking, “Could this really be the game that drives me away from Call of Duty as a whole?” Thankfully, that isn’t the case.
Back in August, when we knew little about Black Ops Cold War, Activision released a teaser trailer for the game titled “Know Your History” which you might know as “the active measures trailer” and honestly, throughout all stages of this game’s release I have had no idea what they were thinking releasing that trailer. For those unaware, the trailer was a short teaser of clips featuring an interview with ex-KGB informant Yuri Bezmenov spliced together with shots of tumultuous events of the mid-late 20th century. While this wouldn’t be the most immediately alarming thing to see in promotional materials since, y’know, the game is about the Cold War, Bezmenov’s interview continues into what amounts to a weird, personally motivated McCarthyism-laden rant on why big (vaguely liberal) government is bad. By the time the trailer ends, the message of the trailer makes it seem less like Black Ops: Cold War is going to be about intrigue and tension between the US and Russia, and more about a hodge-podge of weird conspiracy theories with a “don’t let this happen again!” reminder shoehorned in for good measure.
Throughout the promotional cycle of Black Ops Cold War up until now, after I have finished the campaign, I have only thought to myself: “Why on Earth was THIS the first teaser trailer for this game?” Rightfully so, I think it probably hit too close to home for a significant amount of viewers, and with historic protests happening across the nation since June, I’m baffled at how no one involved in the release of the trailer thought it might be seen as a bit too sinister during a particularly rough year in many senses. In relation to the actual game it’s supposed to be promoting, there isn’t any resemblance or reference to anything even remotely discussed in the game, and the trailer probably did the worst job it could’ve to get people interested in what is probably the best Call of Duty campaign in the series to date (yeah it’s actually really good).
Moving on from the total crap promotional materials, let’s talk about what’s actually in the game. No matter what platform you’re playing on, Black Ops: Cold War includes three core experiences, a traditional Campaign, a new Zombies experience, and Multiplayer, with the battle royale component, Warzone, fully integrating into Black Ops: Cold War in their Season One Update which will happen in early December. There is no longer a season pass of map DLCs, which will instead be free, and the game’s post release monetization structure will consist of seasonal Battle Passes just like Warzone in Modern Warfare.
This is all great news, since the inclusion of Zombies this year means that players will always have access to the same maps without splitting the player base, whereas in past Treyarch titles any Zombies fans were essentially forced into buying the season pass lest they deal with only playing on one or two maps for the entirety of the game’s life cycle. Black Ops Cold War also has full crossplay and full cross progression, meaning that your levels and unlocks are the same across Zombies, Multiplayer, and eventually Warzone, and any attachments you unlock will be unlocked on any console you play on and across all game modes. Now the game truly allows you to play however you want, instead of having separate Zombies and Multiplayer progression systems, both are equally viable in terms of building progression, and even though most of my non-Campaign time was spent playing Zombies, I was still able to reach the overall level cap in a comfortable amount of time. There’s also a new seasonal Prestige system, which is pretty cool and looks like it will reward grinding beyond the overall level cap with small bonuses like level icons or weapon skins per season, which is certainly better motivation to keep playing than simply watching a number go up with no real reward.
While I had some concerns when I was approaching this game, once I began to play through the Campaign and experience it for myself, I found the entire experience to be way more compelling than I would expect from a Call of Duty campaign. In order to fully give the sense of agency over the Campaign to the player and emphasize the flatly dubious motives of your missions, you are frequently put in scenarios where what you do determines the events for the rest of the mission (and sometimes the Campaign). While this sounds like a cop-out from developers, the branching decision system in this game actually feels meaningful at all times and highlights the fact that how you behave carries consequences beyond just killing a person or letting them live. This extends seamlessly into the missions, where most can or should be done without killing anyone, creating a very natural presentation of the game, where it’s not clear what is a specific branching story decision and what is just part of the mission. Right from the start I found myself frequently thinking “ok, do I really need to be shooting now? Can I go about this another way? What are we actually doing here?”
With this framework for decision making in the game, it allows the Campaign to tell an effective story set in the late 70s and early 80s of The Cold War. The game begins with some introductory scenes leading you to find that an alleged Russian spy named Perseus is acting again and intends to destroy the United States. Perseus is a real-life hypothetical identity who may or may not have infiltrated Los Alamos during development of The Manhattan Project and is still speculated about today. In the game they are given (or supposedly given) a much more tangible identity, with a photo of a man assumed to be Perseus pinned to the center of your evidence board throughout the entire game. Tasked with finding and stopping Perseus, you assume the role of Bell, a member of an international task force led by the questionably motivated Russell Adler of the CIA. Along the way you learn that Perseus has reactivated because he has found out about a US operation to store hundreds of active nuclear weapons in NATO allied Europe, and he has gotten his hands on potentially all of them, giving him the power to effectively destroy all of Europe. While you play the perspective of a US agent, the game sows intrigue by highlighting the fact that most of what you are actually doing is a cover-up operation for a huge fuck-up on the part of The US.
Somehow, once again, this is based on a real move The United States took in the 1960s to store hundreds of atomic bombs across Europe should they need to, I don’t know, destroy a continent; again, with the Campaign’s focus on sinister actions taken by the US government abroad, it’s aiming to show the desperation and tension with Russia the US was driven to by itself during The Cold War, which it does albeit in a rather action movie sort of way. While I wasn’t sure how the game would really hammer what it wanted to home in the end, it managed to do a rather effective job, and gave a meaningful reflection in both endings where you do or don’t end up destroying the US and Europe. While the game centers so much around what it presents as a sure assumption that Perseus is the real Western threat, and not Russia, it continues to comment that perhaps Perseus wasn’t ever a real person and was merely a Western construct made out of fear, considering the fact that all the actions in the game could’ve just been actions provoked by The United States’ own fear and not any real enemy. For a Call of Duty title, I was kind of surprised that it managed to even sort of drive a halfway decent point home instead of “US good, Communism bad”.
Beyond the strong showing from the Campaign, the Zombies experience in Black Ops Cold War is exciting and certainly shows a meaningful next step in the evolution of what Call of Duty Zombies can be. If you’re not caught up on your Zombies lore, I’m afraid it’s far too late for me to explain it concisely, but the old WWII crew and their alternate dimension counterparts are gone in this iteration of Zombies. In fact, everything that previously existed in any COD Zombies game has been sucked up and banished to the shadow realm (sort of, but I don’t have time to explain the Apothicons). It is the job of a new team called Requiem to find out why there are suddenly ruptures in the current spacetime causing eerily familiar enemies to return to reality again. Since technically the new timeline of the universe is based on one that already existed, all the classic Zombies staples remain, but everything has received a facelift.
Gameplay-wise, you’re now granted much more flexibility with how you spend your points, and since weapon rarities and killstreaks have been introduced to Zombies there’s now much more reason to keep spinning The Mystery Box. Perks are also more flexible, with a dynamic pricing method that determines how much each perk costs based on the order in which you buy them and not based on what that perk does. In addition, you’re no longer limited to four perks, but the price per perk increases the more you buy, suggesting that you should be picking up just the perks you need and maximizing them around the endgame. You are now also able to customize classes to begin the game with, allowing you to pick any single gun to start with as well as a field upgrade which will remain throughout the game. Even though this seems like it could start you out overpowered before you even leave the first room, the rarity tier system causes your gun’s starting damage to be so low that you’ll need to either upgrade it or get a new one after the early rounds.
The map that ships with the game, Die Maschine, is an interesting reconstruction of the original Zombies map Nacht Der Untoten with about 80% of the new map being entirely new content. There are tons of open areas making popular Zombies strategies for arranging your enemies a breeze while providing enough challenge and repeatable elements to keep you playing. This map has a unique built-in challenge terminal, which you can pay points to activate to get a short challenge to complete on the map in exchange for rewards. While the common and rare rewards are just okay, doing multiple challenges in a row could get you a weapon of the highest rarity tier, the new map’s Wonder Weapon the D.I.E. Shockwave, or Intel which appears to be a new way Treyarch has decided to enhance Zombies storytelling.
While the main map easter egg presents something new to do and offers some challenge while also telling some new parts of the Zombies story, a significant amount of the story of Black Ops Cold War Zombies is hidden in various Intel pieces which can be found through exploring the map or by completing trials. Intel can be viewed outside of the game, allowing Treyarch to tell a bit more of a focused story with more clear involvement from specific characters or factions without having you fight off 40 zombies while trying to transcribe a radio recording after 2 hours of jumping through hoops. While I personally like the old complex and epic map easter eggs, it was probably a safe bet on Treyarch’s part to start the Zombies series of maps with a simpler easter egg and more Intel viewable outside of game. Don’t be fooled that Intel isn’t interesting to look at though, or that the story is simply solved once you read it all, in classic Zombies fashion there are several ciphers and cryptic messages within the Intel pieces that are still waiting to be solved by the community, which I’m sure will bring a new light on what the new map presents.
The one point of contention I have about the new Zombies experience is the characters. I like the new direction they’ve chosen with Samantha Maxis being a former German agent working with Black Ops’ Grigori Weaver to stop the zombies, but I wish some of the other characters in-game had a bit more personality to express. The operators you can choose from within the Campaign certainly feel like they have fleshed out personalities in Zombies, but I’m not too sure about the Operators who only appear in Multiplayer/Zombies and I hope that with new maps we’ll either see a set cast of characters or have some more interesting voice lines for the current Operators.
Alongside all the interesting new content and innovation added in the new Campaign and Zombies experiences, Black Ops Cold War’s multiplayer is likely the weakest of the three modes. With a return to 150 player HP and Treyarch at the helm, Multiplayer in Black Ops: Cold War certainly feels more like classic Black Ops than something like the unforgiving and sometimes frustrating Modern Warfare. While this gives the mode a strong starting point in terms of core gameplay, content in Multiplayer is currently rather lacking. I would say the quality of the maps present is mostly good, but with only nine core Multiplayer maps and two Fireteam maps, there is certainly something to be desired in terms of content. While this isn’t a great way to launch the game’s most popular mode, it’s clear Treyarch has plans to add more maps, likely at a fairly rapid pace post-launch. Even in the short time after launch, Black Ops: Cold War’s iteration of Nuketown has already been added to the game, and more maps are likely to come in the soon approaching season one update. With the interesting late 70s to early 80s era of Black Ops: Cold War, the strongest element of Multiplayer is certainly the weapon selection. Plenty of prototype and strange weapons that are likely not to be found in any other first-person shooters have made their way into the game, with great weapon customization and interesting progression.
One thing I haven’t addressed yet is the game’s compatibility and performance on PC. For those uninitiated in the experience of playing a CoD title on PC instead of console, the stability and compatibility of the game is…well, really rough. CoD titles on PC have tended to receive a lot less attention in the past in terms of polish compared to console platform releases, and while now it’s clear Treyarch is trying to rectify that with Black Ops: Cold War, the game certainly isn’t the most optimized PC game out there. Menu bugs and odd performance limitations are prevalent, and getting the game to run well on your computer could take quite a bit of time to set up even if you have the newest drivers for the game installed on your system. While the game’s stability seems to have settled down a bit for now after a series of small post release patches, I’ve experienced and seen friends get game breaking errors or abrupt game crashes while we were all playing together. While CoD titles have certainly been worse in this department in the past, I could only strongly recommend you to pick up the game on PC if you’re confident in your system’s hardware, and you’re okay with possibly doing a bit of troubleshooting on your own.
In addition to straight up bugs and crashes, the recent CoD titles have also been plagued with poor optimization and performance on PC, typically being very demanding games on hardware even though the game’s visual fidelity might not match up to the demands. While this isn’t quite as bad as Modern Warfare’s merciless chewing up and spitting out of all but the most recent graphics cards and CPUs, you may still find yourself getting slower performance than typical with little to ascribe it to other than “CoD magic”. All that said, Black Ops Cold War is still the best running CoD title on PC in recent years, and my experience with the game has been much better than last year’s Modern Warfare.
With a stellar Campaign, great new Zombies experience, and serviceable Multiplayer, Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War offers quite a bit of good content if you can run it, and is likely another COD title to leave a legacy beyond the simple annual FPS release the series has come to be known for. With more content coming for Multiplayer, Zombies, and Warzone, we’re likely to see more innovation come to the title as Treyarch works to expand the newest installment in the Black Ops story.