Perhaps the 5G towers, chemtrails and fluoride have finally got me, but doors in a Call of Duty game have come to represent a portent of doom. Last year’s Modern Warfare was affectionately dubbed Modern Doorfare, owing to the thousands of doors in its clusterfuck levels you could open and close at a whim. What realism, they said. What innovation, they cried. What a load of shit, I thought. I did not care for Modern Warfare’s multiplayer in the slightest, doors or no. A year later in Black Ops Cold War I encounter a game-breaking bug in a mission called Break on Through, an obvious reference to the influential tune by The Doors. But alas Mr Morrison, I am not allowed to break on through as you command me, the game will not let me. Fortunately, Black Ops Cold War has the multiplayer chops to carry it, and it is infinitely more enjoyable and recognisable as a Call of Duty experience than its direct predecessor, but its technical state (especially in the campaign) is utterly shameful.
Several things in this life aren’t easy; saving for a house deposit in Melbourne, reading Dr Seuss’s Fox in Socks, writing a haiku about bird farts (actually I reckon I could do that) all border on impossible. So too then is reviewing a portion of a game that won’t let you actually finish it, despite best efforts. Cold War’s short and relatively inconsequential campaign was made all the more so by the fact I could not complete its final mission, due to a bug that made my Xbox Series X give up the ghost and simply turn itself off. Restarting the mission, restarting the console, COMPLETELY REDOWNLOADING THE 150 GB GAME ITSELF – all of these measures proved futile. Normally I’d wait to the end of a review to address technical shortcomings, but this one was kind of big so I wanted it to be front and centre. I can’t speak for other platforms, but if it’s one thing you get from this review, do not buy it on Xbox Series X until this specific bug is fixed.
Remember, no Russian
The campaign takes place directly after the events of the much loved Call of Duty Black Ops, centring around a group of US super mega secret operatives tracking down a Russian bloke named Perseus who threatens to tip the balance of the Cold War firmly in the Soviet’s favour. There are nukes, there are pesky Russians aplenty, there are secrets – situation normal, all fucked up. While the ‘80s vibe is quite cool and strong in sections, the short campaign is neither engaging or compelling. In comparison to Modern Warfare’s gritty and morally grey campaign, Cold War is a by-the-numbers first-person shooter which simply presents a series of uninspired shooting galleries and nameless, faceless villains to murder. Aside from a brief stealth mission and some light optional puzzle decrypting, there’s very little variety to the campaign, and as a whole it lacks nuance and simply feels uninspired. The final mission did seem like it was about to turn the narrative up a notch, but I guess I’ll never know.
Aesthetically the game is a bit of a mixed bag, but more often than not looks quite nice. Playing on Xbox Series X at 4K 60 fps with ray tracing at times looks wonderful, but the XSX doesn’t exactly always handle that with grace. I had several lighting glitches whereby reflections on snow in the distance would flicker with weird shadows, and the game frequently stuttered and dropped frames no matter what I was doing. In one mission the resolution appeared to sink well below 1080p, and the framerate was so low I felt physically ill (as a lifetime console player that must be pretty damn low). I managed to fix this by restarting the game, something I became increasingly used to as I suffered dozens of soft and hard crashes. I guess the fact the title screen itself stutters when you open the game probably should have warned me. I also couldn’t get the vaunted 120 fps option to work despite changing settings as instructed and restarting the goddamn game for the millionth goddamn time.
While the ‘80s vibe is quite cool and strong in sections, the short campaign is neither engaging nor compelling
On-rail turret section? Check
As an aside, the hair in this game looks terrible. Normally I wouldn’t be petty enough to bring up something so ridiculous, but the dull screw-on hairdos were almost as distracting as the cold lifeless eyes of all the characters. I’m not sure why Modern Warfare on my vanilla launch PS4 managed to look and run better than Cold War on a much more powerful machine, but as Cold War is one of the first games I have played this generation, the whole experience left me fairly deflated – wait for a patch, or completely avoid the campaign.
Multiplayer is what drew me to Call of Duty in the first place, and it’s what will keep me coming back until the day they manage to pry this controller from my RSI-ridden, peasant hands. Cold War to me represents a return to the classic Call of Duty formula, but the pared back experience will no doubt have its detractors. I’m well aware that many were quite fond of how different Modern Warfare looked, played and felt, and Cold War throws a lot of what that game did in the bin, but for me it’s just what the combat doctor ordered.
Hey kids, want to buy some dank memes?
Like Black Ops 4, Cold War brings back a longer time to kill (TTK), health bars and eliminations over kills. The longer TTK encourages developing better gun skills, as you’ve got to land multiple shots on target to take them down. It also allows you to react and reposition when under fire, rather than simply melting in the enemy crosshairs in femtoseconds. Health bars help gauge how close you are to downing the adversary (purists and HUD minimalists can switch this option off though), and eliminations (which are essentially kills that are awarded for anyone who does damage to an enemy that gets killed) help provide a sense of teamwork. Long has the assist counter on the scoreboard been an object of rage in Call of Duty, so when all players are awarded an elimination for working together, it’s a win-win situation.
Also receiving a bit of an overhaul is the scorestreak system. Rather than resetting on death, scorestreaks are persistent, making it easier to work towards the higher ones. Balance is achieved by awarding more and more points for higher elimination streaks, so if you go 2-19 in Team Deathmatch it’s not like the game will reward you with an Attack Helicopter. Objectives of course also feed into the scorestreaks, and I feel that with the risk of losing a scorestreak on death no longer present, people are more willing to help you rush B.
Level design in the core modes will instantly feel familiar, eschewing the sprawling clutter of Modern Warfare’s maps and going with the tried-and-true three-lane design. The maps are still intricate enough that knowing their layout will give you a tactical advantage, but they have a logical flow that makes spawns and the general course of the battle (mostly) easy to predict. Moving around the varied maps I felt a greater sense of freedom than I have for a long time in Call of Duty, and the SMG rush on some maps is well and truly back on the menu.
Moving around the varied maps I felt a greater sense of freedom than I have for a long time in Call of Duty, and the SMG rush on some maps is well and truly back on the menu
Still got it
Aim for the bushes
Aside from series staple modes like Team Deathmatch, Kill Confirmed, Domination and Hardpoint, a couple of other modes round out the experience. VIP Escort is a limited-life mode that tasks your team with escorting a VIP (who weirdly looks like a Frankston gangster) across the map without them or you dying, and larger scale 12 v 12 conflicts can be found in Combined Arms. Taking place on much larger maps, Combined Arms borrows liberally from the Battlefield franchise, but the comparatively smaller scale and fairly focused objective play give it an unmistakeable Call of Duty flavour. As a replacement for the overly chaotic Ground War mode it works well, but it’s a bit of a sniper’s paradise and after one or two matches I always found myself yearning for the familiar embrace of the core modes.
Modern Warfare’s excellent Gunsmith weapon customisation is back, giving you deep control over how a gun looks and operates. There are now percentage values in the pros and cons that a particular attachment confers, making it easier to gauge whether you think it’s worth it and allowing some interesting builds that completely change how a gun plays. It would be nice if this same level of customisation extended to the operators themselves, as currently only a handful of bland characters are available. It’s altogether possible to rock up to a map with your team in a jeep or tank and have everyone with the same character models, like some war-hungry band of sextuplets. Like any sane gamer I like to dress up my shooty men and women, and adding some variation would go a long way to giving individuals a greater sense of personality.
Storm the servo
Technically the online multiplayer fares fairly well, but it suffers from the same hard and soft crashes as the campaign (though mercifully less frequent). Crossplay also works quite well, although on a few occasions I found it difficult to connect with friends on PS4. Luckily there was an easy fix… restarting the game (I swear I spent more time restarting this game than playing it). There were also occasional bouts of stutter in certain matches, but whether this was a problem on my end or the server’s we’ll never know. In keeping with Call of Duty’s tradition of lack of network transparency, there is now zero indication of connection quality. I’d take those stupid connections bars over the nothing that Cold War offers, and it continues to baffle me as to why we can’t see things like server location, ping and packet loss. The numbers, Activision. Give us the numbers!
Last year I felt like Call of Duty may have left me behind. Despite the stellar campaign I simply couldn’t immerse myself in the multiplayer. In a sigh of relief, Cold War’s multiplayer is exactly what I wanted from a Call of Duty game, and I see myself returning to the battlefield with friends often. In saying that, although this is the Call of Duty multiplayer I wanted, I get the feeling it’s not the Call of Duty everyone else wanted, but such is the troubled fate of the blockbuster franchise. In saying all this, the uninspired and buggy campaign is an utter blight on the series and it should never have seen the light of day in this shameful state. Native 4K and 60 fps with ray tracing is lovely and all, but if I can’t even finish the game then it really doesn’t matter how nice it looks. Also, ask Squeenix how they do their hair animation. Please.
Reviewed on Xbox Series X // Review code supplied by publisher
- Treyarch, Raven Software, High Moon Studios, Beenox, Sledgehammer Games
- PS5 / PS4 / Xbox Series X&S / Xbox One / PC
- November 13, 2020