After finishing Black Ops Cold War, I found myself quite content. But, I also wanted more. Here’s our Campaign Review for Mason and Woods’ latest outing.
There’s a lot going on in Black Ops Cold War, the latest Call of Duty title from Treyarch. So much so, in-fact, that I’ve decided to split my Black Ops Cold War review into three parts: A Campaign Review, a Multiplayer Review, and a Zombies Review.
In this Black Ops Cold War Campaign Review, I’m going to touch on a few key aspects that both make, and break, the game’s story mode. Graphically, Black Ops Cold War is a joy to play. It’s missions are fun and compiled together with an interesting narrative structure. However, the whole story feels lacklustre once you’ve finished it. The characters are all compelling and each mission is unqiue-enough to make you even want to play through them again. However, something is missing.
Throughout what follows, I’ll be making quite a few references back to Black Ops. I know, I know… They’re two different games. But, Black Ops Cold War is a direct sequel of Black Ops and there are numerous shared themes that make comparisons non-avoidable.
Anyway… Now I’ve gone over all that nonsense… Let’s start talking about the Black Ops Cold War campaign. It starts with some nonsense from Reagan.
I won’t recount it word for word, but it’s a summary of the “State of the World” and a small insight into the Cold War. It isn’t too informative and doesn’t really grip you, but it’s a pretty good Reagan impression so you let it happen.
There is one thing that I have to say about it… It looks awful. I mean, I know it’s trying to emulate an older TV display but it is actually uncomfortable to look at. It’s horrendously bright, and ever-so-slightly blurred. It makes you want to look away. Let’s be honest, that isn’t a great first impression… Thankfully though, after that, things all return to a nice dimly-lit HD format.
Black Ops Cold War Brings An Interesting Narrative Structure To It’s Campaign
Black Ops Cold War takes a leaf out of Infinite Warfare‘s book and provides fans with a semi-linear narrative structure. The marketing tagline was “A Mind-Bending Story” and Black Ops Cold War certainly tries to live up to that.
For the majority of the game’s story, you’ll operate out of a CIA Safehouse in Berlin. Here, between missions, you can check in with your team and look over the evidence and information about every assignment you have on the go.
With Black Ops having a few flashbacks, and marketing showing Vietnam despite the 80s setting, it was pretty obvious that Black Ops Cold War would have some too. Sadly, despite it being a nifty narrative tool… When you think back to Black Ops, it seems stale in the latest instalment.
Adler asking Bell to “recount their assignment in Vietnam together” seemed almost too-obvious a call-back to Hudson’s interrogation of Mason in Black Ops. It provides for a fun mission, but at the cost of any sort of originality when it comes to narrative structuring. Perhaps I was being too critical when I almost instantaneously rolled my eyes at the thought of another MK Ultra-esque brainwashing storyline… But, Black Ops did it so well. So… Why try and replicate that? There’s more going on in the Cold War. Right?
Alright. There’s going to be a few spoilers coming up… Like, actual spoilers. So, sorry in advance!
The main reason for the narrative failings of Black Ops Cold War isn’t with the characters on your side… It’s those you’re after.
Perseus Is A Horrendously Underwhelming Villain
Throughout the build-up to Black Ops Cold War, through trailers and other marketing, fans are offered one response when they ask about who’s the “bad guy” in Black Ops Cold War: Perseus.
Perseus is a mysterious Soviet Agent that always seems one step ahead of the CIA. He doesn’t act often, but when he does it’s to great effect and often sways the ever-changing tide of the Cold War. Adler, who is often stone-faced, almost speaks of Perseus with a fearful tone. He, along with Hudson, manage to convince President Reagan himself that Perseus is the be-all and end-all of the Cold War. He’s Russia’s big one. The James Bond of the KGB. Bringing him down is top priorty.
So… Why is he so underwhelming? Russian James Bond sounds like a bad-ass, right?
It’s all due to the fact that Perseus is real. That he’s actually just an old Russian guy who’s really good at killing people. We’ve had larger-than-life villains throughout the Call of Duty franchise, particularly in the Black Ops series. However, Black Ops Cold War represented a chance for Treyarch to really do something different.
Remember how you felt when you found out that Mason was the one who killed Stiener? When you realised that Reznov had never left Russia? When Hudson put on his shades like that one guy in CSI Miami? Okay, maybe not that last one… But, these huge “bombshell” moments in Black Ops made Black Ops the game it was. It’s narrative was truly something special, whether you prefer it to Modern Warfare or not.
Black Ops Cold War just doesn’t have that Wow Factor. Sure, finding out “Bell” was actually a Soviet Agent with implanted memories was great. But, at that point in the story it was pretty laid-out. You can tell something is off from the very start and it’s clear that you aren’t the all-American CIA operative you think you are.
Then, when you find out that Perseus is just some guy? Everything just… Yeah. You just sit there and go: Yup. Okay. Of course this super-KGB-special-invincible-mega-agent is just one old Russian man. It’s not some group of elite agents that all use the same moniker in an effort to confuse CIA intelligence. It isn’t a CIA conspiracy used to justify U.S.-led operations into Soviet States and under-cut any détente. It isn’t even a Reznov situation, where it’s all in your head! It’s just an elderly-looking Russian with a cool moustache.
“Perseus”, and the concept around it, could have been so much more than it was. But, to quickly go back to the “good guys” in Black Ops Cold War… Adler has compiled one hell of a team.
Black Ops Cold War Includes Some New Fan-Favourites
Thankfully, this is the one thing that Treyarch does perfectly. Woods, Mason, and Hudson all remain fantastic characters in Black Ops Cold War. In particular, seeing Mason from an external point of view (at least for most of the campaign) is a highlight. His back-and-forth with Woods is something I only wanted more of.
However, this isn’t all. Treyarch bring several exemplary characters to the playing field that you desperately want to see more of. Sadly, there isn’t a whole lot of exploration into them as the Black Ops Cold War campaign is “famously Call of Duty length”. Still, they’re worth talking about given they are one of the better parts of the Campaign.
For a lot of Black Ops Cold War, you play as Bell; they’re the newbie in Adler’s CIA Dream Team. The other members of your team are Lawrence Sims, Helen Park, and Eleazar “Lazar” Azoulay.
Lawrence Sims is Adler’s Vietnam buddy. You brush shoulders with him in an earlier mission and he remains a fairly significant part of the Campaign throughout. He’s pretty no-nonsense and doesn’t seem to care much for the more… Amusing conversation branches Treyarch have included in the down-time between missions.
Helen Park is an international contact Adler has brought in to help with the unfolding mystery around Perseus. She’s MI6, which instantly puts her high on my list of favourite characters. I know, I’m biased. Anyway… She seems more understanding than most throughout the Campaign and is often found organising mission comms. However, she’s capable in the field when needed.
Eleazar “Lazar” Azoulay is a lad. As a former member of the Israeli Defence Forces, he joined the CIA a few years ago as a Middle East specialist and provides Adler’s Safehouse with a much needed humour. That, and he’s actually a useful part of the team. The conversations you have with him are often shorter than the others, but they’re still a fantastic addition to the game’s storyline.
Why am I mentioning these side characters in such detail? Well, Spoilers Ahead again.
Towards the end of the Campaign, Bell is faced with the decision to save either Park or Lazar. It’s a timed choice which can either time out, leaving both dead, or have you saving one of them. This is the emotional high-point of the storyline. Sadly, I found it greatly overshadowed Black Ops Cold War‘s explosive finale.
This was the difficult choice. This was the moment that stuck with me after I finished. It only really happens at the precipice of the “mind bending” though and ultimately feels overshadowed by Treyarch. I understand that causalities are a result of war, but… With a little tweaking this emotive moment could have been more impactful. In a way, it surmises the whole Black Ops Cold War campaign: Always just missing that one something.
Graphically, Black Ops Cold War is Stunning
This goes without saying, given the expectations we all have of triple-A games nowadays. However, much like Modern Warfare and even Call of Duty WWII, Black Ops Cold War really is at the top of the game graphically. This is most evident in cutscenes.
I know, I know. A cutscene is never quite an exact reflection of the gameplay. When it is? It’s either painfully noticable or not quite as cinematic. Black Ops Cold War‘s cutscenes are like mini-movies; they contain all the non-combat story elements that help tie everything together. There’s only a few of these, as a lot of the cutscene-like moments occur in-game. But, the ones you do get to see are damn good.
Also, it’s both heart-warming and peculiar seeing Mason so well-defined. Sure, we’ve seen Woods in Blackout and through his Warzone Operator Pack, but… Seeing Mason that way… Seems almost uncanny.
Outside of cutscenes, Black Ops Cold War lives up to its predecessor in a fantastic way. Sure, it isn’t as gritty as Modern Warfare… But it isn’t trying to be. It’s a Treyarch Call of Duty that is either going big or going home. Black Ops Cold War goes big. It’s cleaner, heavier-saturated look perfectly matches it’s the arcade-style gameplay it brings to the table.
Everything from the environments to the explosions look and feel fantastic throughout Black Ops Cold War‘s campaign. It’s hard to add anything negative to the review regarding it’s graphics, despite the select few who claim otherwise.
New Features Work Well To Keep This Instalment Fresh
One thing that Treyarch have actually done very well is fleshing out their series of action set-pieces with interesting, albeit minor, new features.
For example, the player can now take a human shield mid-combat. It almost seems scripted when the option is introduced in the first mission. However, you soon learn that this can be done throughout the Camapign and it provides for some more-daring plays which ultimetly enhance the experience.
Another feature which benefits the campaign greatly is the conversational options. These feature more prominently in the mid-mission Safehouse, however they also appear scattered throughout the missions at decisive moments.
These conversations help to simulate a feeling of control, even if the outcome is roughly the same every time. They help to deepen each mission and make it less “shoot guys, save the day”. You know there is an objective there that contributes to the wider narrative and this feature helps to demonstrate that in-play.
On top of all this, Black Ops Cold War has a campaign full of non-traditional gameplay sequences. These include driving an RC-XD at a plane, or flying an Attack Helicopter through a Vietnamese Jungle. These segments of gameplay do wonders for the mode as a whole. It keeps it fresh and helps to mask the fact that almost every Call of Duty campaign is just a narrated-over shooting gallery of usually underperforming enemies.
That and it helps make up for the fact that you almost always have to kill every enemy yourself. Like, I know Woods is a badass but… Kill someone once in a while, y’know?
The Create-An-Agent Feature Feels Unnecessary
The one thing that felt wholly unnecessary is the Black Ops Cold War Campaign’s create-an-agent moment. It’s fun, as you get to give the game’s protagonist a more personal touch, but pretty worthless given their integral and specific role in the storyline.
It makes every decision you make seem near meaningless, at the end of the day. There are some minor dialogue changes depending on what agency you list under your “Military Background” section, but asides from that it is almost worthless. I mean, obviously I jumped at the chance to make Bell an MI6 Agent, but… Anyway.
The “Psychological Profile” section allows you to pick a couple buffs for your protagonist, almost like Perks, however they don’t really feel like they do a whole lot in-game. If you’re going to die, you die. Still, they again add to the false personalisation which makes Black Ops Cold War‘s campaign strangely satisfying.
There is also the inclusion of Evidence, which replaces in-mission Intel. These, rather than being 20-30 random Laptops scattered through the levels, are specific bits of intelligence that are found contextually in each mission to provide important information regarding the optional Side Missions. They don’t affect anything in-mission, but finding the evidence is “crucial in taking down Perseus’ network of Soviet Agents”. Y’know, or something along those lines.
These bits of evidence aren’t just collectables though, they provide the player with an actual puzzle to solve. It’s fun, and undoubtedly fleshes out the whole campaign, but not entirely important. They’re not game-changing, which is a shame. It feels like a lot of missed potential and doesn’t help to reinforce the Cold War setting the game is based in.
It’s almost as if Treyarch is saying “we know why the Cold War was important and unique, but we’re not going to let that influence our shoot-em-up too much. People paid for that damned AK-47 so we’re going to let them use it!”
It’s a “fair enough” kind of situation, but mildly disappointing. Still, it does hold hope for the future of Call of Duty campaigns. These smaller features, when used more decisively and with more creative freedom, could result in some truly expansive and interactive campaigns in the future.
To Conclude… The Black Ops Cold War Campaign Is Missing Something
I know, I know. It seems pretty generic and like a fail-safe for me to say it’s missing something without specifying what it’s missing, but it is. I also don’t quite know what it’s missing. I think, it’s missing more of a purpose.
With Modern Warfare‘s campaign touching on the more nuanced complexities of modern warfare, it could have become a starting point for Call of Duty titles to begin to really delve into the realities of war and the moral ambiguities it invites. However, through the Black Ops Cold War campaign, Treyarch have defaulted back into a mildly predictable “Murica hates Commie Bastards” thematic narrative. It’s fine, but it isn’t anythign new.
On top of this, there are so many new and interesting features that are left under-utilized and therefore ultimately feel like a pointless addition. It isn’t ground-breaking and, sadly, at this stage… Ground-breaking is what the fans expect. And, in a way, what they deserve…
What did you think of the Black Ops Cold War campaign? Let us know in the comments!