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There are times during Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War’s campaign when the bombastic action is overwhelming. It’s par for the course with the series, but with the bump in graphical fidelity on next-gen systems, for some users, it can often feel like a firework going off in your face.
Yet, despite the crashing, banging and walloping, there’s a certain nuance to the Black Ops Cold War’s story that has only been hinted upon in previous entries. Outside of its explosive set pieces, the drama is often contained in rooms brimming with cigarette smoke, and haircuts that only Robert Redford would sport. It’s these moments where the campaign shines and takes a giant leap for the series.
Everyone knows the format by now. Bad guys, bomb, global domination; it’s all there, but what's new is how it’s packaged.
Immediately off the bat it’s clear something is new, as early in-game choices allow you to somewhat personalise your character.
Pick some perks, change your name, and even have the ability to set your gender to non-binary - it’s a lovely touch and one that feels more based in the present than its Cold War era. It’s appreciated though.
There are still plenty of bombastic set-pieces to be found.
Adding customisation is only the beginning of changes Black Ops Cold War makes to its campaign structure, and its RPG-lite elements are genuinely welcomed.
Past entries have always had this weird disconnect with the player, often feeling as though you’re just along for the ride. Black Ops Cold War takes some definitive choices to ensure the player is always directing the action by affording more agency.
One way this is accomplished is through dialogue options. Certain situations will require players to make some meaningful decisions, or simply take a breather and ask: “What the hell is going on!?”
The game again presents an alternative timeline
These Elder Scrolls/Fallout style dialogue trees aren’t particularly deep, but they manage to cast more depth to, more often than not, shallow narratives. Some choices will even impact the campaign and change the course of the events leading to one of the game's multiple endings, even if none of them ends particularly organically or satisfyingly.
However, the journey to each of the endings is a consistently enjoyable and varied showcase of thrills. One mission riffs off Hitman and presents multiple, layered paths to reach an objective, before building to a pulse-racing crescendo. Another takes an absolutely off-the-wall approach and even instils elements of the iconic horror classic, P.T. The constant surprise, excitement and edge of your seat action causes the 5-6 hour runtime to breeze by.
Frank Woods returns, although he takes a back seat for much of the narrative.
Outside of these moments, you’ll also have your own small hub to wander around. Here you can converse with your squadmates, discover secrets, and plot out your next mission.
One thing Call of Duty has never understood is the need for downtime. Each campaign has always felt like a kid on Halloween, pumped full of sugar and let loose, eager to throw its setpieces and military jargon in players' faces in equal measure.
Having intermissions to catch a breather, flesh out your bonds and for once learn more about your teammates outside of their macho personalities is a welcome reprieve and adds genuine depth to some of the supporting cast.
One mission offers a Hitman inspired stealth section
These moments can also be used to plot out your next mission, including a couple of optional side missions. While main missions follow a fairly linear narrative, these superlative missions endeavour to bring something new to the campaign.
Optional quests will require evidence to be gathered before embarking (although it is possible to attempt it beforehand) and this can be found throughout main missions, by photographing maps or finding extra items.
Side missions require a bit of work, puzzle-solving and even basic maths to decipher, as multiple clues are needed for the correct solution. Black Ops Cold War makes no attempt to hold your hand either but instead offers experimentation without alerting you whether you’ve made a preordained "good" or "bad" choice. Only two of these missions exist as of now and it would have been nice to see more of these sprinkled throughout, but what's here feels genuinely fresh.
The main problem that the campaign faces is that it’s full of fantastic ideas, but none are given enough time or depth to flesh out. The dialogue options are basic, the side objectives are minimal, and experimental level design never allows anything enough time to breathe. It’s been rumoured that the game was intended to have another year of development and it often feels evident with its lack of content, despite the undeniable fun to be had with what's already here.
The Verdict - 4/5
What remains is short, snappy and exhilarating. The varied mission design constantly changes things up, the RPG elements bring something new to the table, and the downtime finally offers an opportunity to get to know the game’s characters. Backed by an intriguing, yet silly narrative that goes absolutely bonkers in its final act, it feels like a continuation for fans of the Call of Duty: Black Ops series, whilst also paving the way for something new that I am immensely excited to see.