Once one of the landmark events on gaming’s annual calendar, 2020’s Call of Duty debut feels almost like it’s slipped under the radar. Black Ops Cold War finds itself contending not just with Coronavirus and console launches but also Warzone, the all-conquering COD-flavoured battle royale launched earlier this year and which has become as much a lockdown staple as Netflix and furlough payments.
The relative lack of advance hype actually suits Cold War well. Its traditional tripartite offering (Campaign. Multiplayer, Zombies) adds only a handful of innovations to lead developer Treyarch’s tried and trusted formula, instead focusing on short but solid experiences which just about total the sum of their parts.
The Campaign mode is perhaps the best of the bunch. An aspiringly cinematic B-movie spy thriller predominantly set at the height of the Cold War, it leaves no ‘80s cliche unturned. Cutscenes are never more than a moment away from breaking out a brick-sized mobile phone or a Pat Benatar song, and new protagonist Russel Adler is a dead ringer for Robert Redford. It’s undeniably atmospheric and the right side of affectionate too; playable Activision arcade cabinets abound, and you can even discover a hidden PC which plays classic Infocom text adventures via a virtual keyboard.
The agreeably short storyline - six hours should show you everything you need to see - doesn't stand up to any real scrutiny (in terms of realism. politics or, indeed, morality) but manages to pack a lot in, punctuating some truly spectacular set-piece shoot-outs with stealth-lite spying, code cracking puzzles and a handful of branching narrative choices. It all culminates in an enjoyably silly denouement which unexpectedly recalls Bioshock’s most celebrated meta moment (although not quite to similarly cerebral effect, it must be said).
Cold War’s Multiplayer component is proving controversial among the more hardcore elements of COD community but I’m rather enjoying its old school feel. The core modes' maps are generally tight to encourage Treyarch’s classic three lane run and gun feel, and the more straightforward weapon customisation options should prove less overwhelming for casual players.
The larger Combined Arms game types feature expanded maps to accommodate vehicles which is good news for armchair commandos who like causing mayhem in tanks and gunboats, while new 40-player mode Fireteams sees squads of four competing to complete objectives. It’s early days yet, of course, but if embraced by the player base then this could become a welcome middle-ground for players put off by Warzone’s intimidating size and scope but who still want a match-up where teamwork and communication are required to succeed (good luck trying to get anywhere with a pickup group...).
In keeping with the period aesthetic, Black Ops Cold War feels like a throwback in all senses of the word. It’s unlikely to be remembered as a Call of Duty classic but throw in the multiplayer mayhem of Zombies too and there’s enough here to help keep the lockdown blues at bay. Which, frankly, is the most any of us can ask for right now.