|System: PS4, PS5, Xbox One, XSX, PC|
|Dev: Treyarch and Raven Software|
|Release: November 13, 2020|
|Players: Single-player campaign, up to 40 players in multiplayer|
|Screen Resolution: 1080p-4K||Blood and Gore, Intense Violence, Strong Language|
Black Ops Returns to the Heart of Darkness
by Jonathan Gronli
The newest outing for Call of Duty is a return to one of best lines in the franchise. And with the return comes something that I hoped for, the return of a campaign. Admittedly, the focus will be toward the campaign. Part of the reason for this is the fact that, due to timing, I wasn’t able to test out CoD:BO:CW’s multiplayer. Zombies, while I could’ve done that single-player, is always better with others and it would only load until about the 95% area before stalling out. So, multiplayer and Zombies will require a follow up. So speak up if you’re interested in some coverage of specifically the multiplayer components. Even without focusing on the multiplayer components, there is still a lot to point out, praise, and question. So let’s dive in.
First, let’s dive into the story. Generally speaking, while CoD:BO:CW’s story is a bit on the short side, especially in comparison to the previous Black Ops games, the content is great. The story is intricated and well-woven, even in spite of one of the major factual errors. Then again, due to the nature of the story’s big twist, the factual issues could also be tied into the story. The story starts off with a covert operation against the masterminds of the Iran Hostage Crisis. This is where the factual issue comes into play, as it either has President Ronald Reagan being inaugurated earlier than he was in reality (or having broken US law by inciting US armed actions against foreign nationals before he was POTUS). Still, when you go through the first mission as Mason (working with Adler and Woods), you find out that a rogue Soviet operative codenamed Perseus, who was thought to be dead, is still alive and planning something big. Through most of the rest of the campaign story, playing as “Bell,” you are unraveling Perseus’s plot to use Operation Greenlight, which covertly planted nuclear bombs in every major European country as a potential scorched Earth response to a Soviet invasion, against the US. Perseus’s plan, remotely set off the Operation Greenlight nukes, which kill a sizable chunk of the European population in a way that the US can be blamed for it.
There are some new things. There is a bit of a branching storyline element depending on how you play. Some key characters, like one of Perseus’s operatives or the one Iran Hostage Crisis mastermind that you don’t kill right away, could either be killed or captured. There are also some side missions that amount to exposing two sets of Perseus’s networks. Those two side operations are completely optional. However, depending on your actions throughout the game, there are going to be variations on the ending. For example, if you don’t expose the network behind Operation Chaos, it’s brought up that it will lead to hypervigilante domestic spying when the surveillance technology has improved.
For the side missions, as you play through the main campaign, you’ll be finding evidence that will help with the side ops. Exposing each cell becomes something of a puzzle game reviewing the evidence against the available suspects. After you’ve marked the suspects or decoded the evidence, you then have the option to launch the mission to kill the head of the team specific to that operation. It’s pretty well integrated with the main story and, as stated earlier, will affect the ending cinematic when you’re done.
Since the title of the review mentions Heart of Darkness, yeah. There’s elements of that and the other media that is directly or indirectly inspired by Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Much like Apocalyse Now and Spec Ops: The Line, perspective and breaks from reality play a big part in the story. Mental and behavioral conditioning operations like MK-Ultra play a direct part in the story. It makes for an interesting twist with an inventive approach that eventually bleeds into P.T. territory for a small segment. It’s hard to pull off reveals of a twist and this does it beautifully. Also, that could mean that the factual mistake could’ve been an intentional narrative move that’s pretty smart.
Now to move beyond the story elements, there are some other great elements. One of the things that works wonders is the realization of the tension of the time when the Cold War was starting to ramp up again. The times when you’re behind the Iron Curtain, going into East Berlin, remote Ukraine, or breaking into the KGB are suspenseful. Being a Call of Duty game, it would also be good to bring up the combat. Hit detection can be a bit wonky, with obvious killshots not necessarily dropping an enemy. Even with the occasionally wonky hit detection, combat handles well. Methodical portions of plans can devolve into chaos quickly. The environment can play a big role in not only traversal, but also combat. The different weapons, which are period appropriate, seem to show accurate weight and damage, even when the hit detection acts up. Beyond the odd hit detection, gameplay is pretty much the same and brings about a sense of momentum when you’re playing well.
One thing that the team should definitely be commended for is the art design. There is a defined sense of place and time. The rendering is also gorgeous, even on current generation systems. The lighting is used to great effect, even on current systems. Even though it is really well done on the current generation, I’m looking forward to seeing how the next-gen edition improves things through the use of features like ray tracing when I find a Series X since we were given access to both current and next generation editions. Sound design, as with many of the other Call of Duty games, is top notch. The voice acting works wonders as well. There are two standout performances to pay attention to. One is Jeff Bergman, who does a great job sounding like President Ronald Reagan. Bruce Thomas’s Alder, who is already modeled to look like a scarred Robert Redford, is played to almost sound like a young Robert Redford. All of the actors do a great job, but these are the standouts.
Now, there are some weird things about the game that need to be addressed. One is the fact that, while it does have a great sense of the 1980s, the big opening factual error with when the Reagan presidency official began is an issue. Now, as stated before, if that’s a mistake that happens to be tied into the MK-Ultra plot twist, that’s fine and is a narrative design choice. We can work with that. But if it was a legitimate mistake, it is something that could’ve been remedied during production with about a minute of research with a Google search. Some of the music in the game is also stuff that was released a bit later in the 1980s than when the game takes place. Again, if that’s just a part of the MK-Ultra twist, that’s fine. But if it’s a mistake, people knowledgeable about the music of the decade will be calling it out. The other weird thing that has to be acknowledged is the weird way that cross-gen is being handled. It is easier with the digital purchases or with the PS4 and PS5 than it is with the Xbox One and Xbox Series S/X, but it is still something that you need to keep an eye out for which edition you’re getting. If you’re getting CoD:BO:CW digitally and you want the next-gen upgrades for when you’re finally able to upgrade your physical tech, you’ll want to get either the Cross-Gen bundle or the Ultimate Edition. If you’re getting the physical version, you’ll either want to get the next-gen edition, the cross-gen bundle, or the Ultimate Edition. If you get the Xbox One/PS4 version alone, you won’t be getting the next-gen version unless you purchase it separately later. You’ll just be getting the current-gen version that will play on next-gen consoles via backward compatibility.
All in all, Call of Duty: Black Ops: Cold War is a great entry into to Black Ops storyline. It gives an interesting view of the time, has a compelling storyline, and leaves you wanting more. That last comment, while it can be used negatively, is actually a positive here since it shows just how well things were thought out. Yes, there are flaws in the campaign, but if it factors into the plot twist, those flaws are not only forgivable, but genius. I can see areas where the game can grow through new mission DLC, but what we got at launch is a surprising gift that bridges the gaps between Black Ops and Black Ops 2. Even just the campaign makes this a buy. If you’re interested in hearing about multiplayer or Zombies, let us know and a follow up is sure to come. Just remember, if you’re a console gamer and want the next-gen upgrades, you’ll need to pay attention to which edition you’re getting. The current-gen version will only be the current-gen version.