My first ever FPS was Call of Duty: Black Ops, and my favourite FPS is Call of Duty: Black Ops 2. So as soon as I learned that Black Ops: Cold War was a direct sequel to Black Ops that returned to the tone and focus of the start of the series, I really hoped to enjoy it.
The majority of Cold War is business as usual for the “boots on the ground” type of COD games, and gameplay is mostly the familiar COD blend of corridor-shooter sections, setpiece spectacles, and vehicle segments. However, Cold War had more stealth elements than I remember previous games having, such as a mission where you must sneak into someone’s house to plant an item and so need to listen to the environment and family chatter to successfully avoid the target and his family. The stealth peaks with a mission that involves inflitrating KGB headquarters, which requires consistent caution – both in where you go and in how you talk to NPCs – for 90% of the mission, but then pays off with an explosive final 10%.
Where Cold War tries something new is in its campaign, which steps away from the linear A>B path of most COD games. The first and final missions are locked in place, but the rest can be done in any order, and can be replayed to complete side objectives that unlock once you’ve collected and decrypted evidence from other missions. (You can attempt the side missions without collecting enough evidence, or without solving the decryption puzzles, but this is very unlikely to succeed). Cold War is structured around using an evidence board to decide your team’s next moves and identify where the villain, near-mythical Soviet spy Perseus, is, and I found that this approach worked surprisingly well.
You can also customise your character, “Bell”, which feels odd at first but is justified in-story later. As well as choosing “Bell”‘s gender and elements of their backstory, you can also take up to two personality traits that provide bonuses to health, aiming speed, ammo capacity and other mechanics. For example, the “Calm Under Pressure” trait reduces how much you flinch when injured, while the “Impatient” trait makes hip firing more accurate when you’re moving. This trait system is an interesting inclusion, as it means you can slightly tailor your character to best fit your playstyle. You can also leave both traits blank, and not take any of these benefits, if you want to keep things old-school.
In another surprise, Cold War has two separate endings, which each have their own final mission.You decide which ending happens, at a pivotal point in a late-game mission. There are also decision points in most missions that slightly affect the chosen ending, such as deciding whether to capture or kill various figures, and whether to rescue or ignore captured allies. While the endings are essentially “the good guys win” vs “the bad guys win”, the epilogue does change to reflect which people you killed, captured or saved, and how that affects the overall state of the intelligence agencies involved.
My favourite part about Cold War was one specific mission, “Break on Through”, which is one of the most interesting and memorable FPS missions I’ve ever played. The closest gaming experience I can compare it to is The Stanley Parable, which is not a comparison I ever expected to need!
Overall, Black Ops Cold War goes into my Brilliant tier. In my experience, everything worked as expected; both the familiar speed-focused and reaction-dependent gunplay and the slower stealth-focused segments felt natural and enjoyable. While there are fewer individual missions than in other COD games, this is justified given how the missions are designed to be meaningfully revisited during a single campaign playthough. Cold War‘s campaign also brought back story elements and characters from Black Ops 1 and Black Ops 2 in a way that worked well. As a result, Cold War feels like it belongs with Black Ops 1 and 2 in a way that the other sequels didn’t.
To sum it up: it feels like the creators actually tried this time. I know that’s a really low bar, especially for one of the biggest and most-resourced franchises in gaming. However, given that both earlier and later games have still managed to limbo under that bar, its worth saying that Black Ops Cold War is an all-round good COD game. For me, its one of the best COD games released in the last few years.