The end of last year was just a deluge of games I wanted to play and so many got left by the wayside. I’m catching up on a lot of them now, doing away with the rule I’ve tried to hold for many years of only playing games that are released in that year. Of course this has always meant January was usually filled with a handful of crap or forgettable titles, with only the precious few nuggets that the indie community furnish up saving my sanity. So this year I’ve been playing through last year’s backlog with reckless abandon which has what has led me back to good old Call of Duty. Had it been any other one in the series I may have just left it but the Black Ops ones have a special place in my heart, being the first one ever to make me care about the multiplayer. Whilst the last instalment in the franchise might’ve turned me off this particular one has me stuck between things I love about it and things I really detest. Probably the worst thing about it is I can see the way things are going being horrendously successful for Treyarch which means they’re not likely to go back to the old ways any time soon.
Oh if only I had known how good I had it.
This is the first time in COD’s history where the story of all game modes is somehow linked together. Now I can’t really tell you how as I only played the campaign and multiplayer but I keep getting articles recommended to me saying as much so I guess it bears repeating. Black Ops Cold War starts you out in 1981, where CIA SAD/SOG operatives Russell Adler, Alex Mason, and Frank Woods are sent to target Qasim Javadi and Arash Kadivar for their roles in the Iran hostage crisis. With intelligence gained from interrogating Qasim, the team tracks Arash to Turkey. Arash boasts that Perseus (a yet to be tracked down Russian national) was the one responsible for organizing the hostage crisis before being executed. US President Ronald Reagan authorizes a black operation team to neutralize Perseus after being briefed of his threat by Jason Hudson and Adler. This leads you, the ever eager to help agent codenamed Bell, along for a merry old ride as you assist Adler and his team with tracking Perseus down.
I don’t know if it’s the same environments being used time and time again or just the way that Treyarch and the other COD developers build these games but they always feel about the same to me in terms of graphical performance. Looking into it there have been numerous revisions made to the original Infinity Ward engine, with Cold War putting it on its 8th revision. Heck apparently it’s even got ray tracing included, if you’re so inclined to attempt and 360 no scope someone after you catch a glimpse of them in a reflection of your teammates dead eyes. Still it runs exceptionally well, never missing a beat even when there’s multiple scorestreaks peppering the battlefield. Really that’s the way it’s always been for COD games: performance over graphical fidelity. You want something to look amazing while you’re pinned down by 4 different snipers? Go give Battlefield a go, they’ll be happy to have you.
Whilst there’s now a lot crammed into every COD game I’ll only be talking from the perspective of the campaign and the traditional multiplayer. Try as I might I’m just not much of a fan of Warzone, Zombies or the reimagined Modern Warfare which is inexplicably still there right alongside the current iteration of multiplayer. Even more interesting is that progression in each of those modes counts towards the others as well, so you won’t have to grind out your weapons multiple times over in order to use them effectively. This doesn’t come for free though as it seems that in making progress universal they have then ratcheted up the grind requirements for each weapon, making fully unlocking a certain weapon a rather long journey indeed. Still though this is COD so you’re likely familiar with all the trimmings that a game of its reputation has.
The gunplay and combat is what I’ve come to expect from the COD franchise, which is to say it is a vast improvement on what the previous instalment gave me. Whilst the inclusion of bullet velocity is something I don’t think I’ll ever enjoy everything else is as it should be. The old faithful maps that many of us loved and played to death from previous Black Ops games are back which makes for some great nostalgia right before the frustration of dying to people spawning behind you makes you pop vein in your eye. Some of my other favourite maps also got a 24/7 rotation for a while although, honestly, it seems like most people just want to play Nuketown until the actual nuclear apocalypse comes. This certainly did tickle my little rusher’s heart however that glee was swept away when I came face to face with the reality of my situation.
I was technically a Christmas Noob.
You see with Cold War being out for a hot minute everyone who really, really likes COD has been playing the absolute shit out of it for months now. That means those guys have spent their time levelling up all their weapons, getting diamond camos and generally getting the leg up on people like me who are just coming into this thing right now. Of course you can close that gap with skill and indeed I had a few matches early on that really tickled me pink with how I was performing, but it became quickly apparent that whilst I’m still OK those small percentage improvements, stacked on top of each other, are more than enough to increase the skill gap far beyond anything I’m able to mitigate. Couple that with the fact that the people who are still playing now are the real sweaties who’ll still be playing in another 6 months and you’ve got a recipe for a multiplayer experience which is not really as fun.
Probably the worst part about all of this is the fact that, should you wish to, you can pay your way out of it. Now it’s not really pay to win, it’s pay to cut out the time required to get to a certain point. Basically you can buy weapons that have certain attachments pre-loaded on them, alleviating the need to level them up in order to unlock them. Even better still using said weapons will level up the original weapon too, meaning that you can pay to get ahead so you can then level the thing easier than you otherwise would have had to. I saw inklings of this system in some of the previous CODs and I was hopeful it’d disappear, and to an extent the worst of it (read: loot boxes) did, but the stain from the giant turd they left on the floor is still there with a COD point cost hovering over it.
You know what I want to see a return of? The cash system that one of the early Black Ops games had. It was great, you could play however you want and when you wanted to try out a new build you had to splash some of your (non-purchasable) in game currency to buy the weapon and its attachments in order to use it. This made trying out new builds fun rather than an exercise in frustration. I will admit that it’s kinda nice that the prestige system doesn’t rip all your weapons and perks away from you but that was the whole point of the system, proving yourself once again from the bottom up. Heck I didn’t really understand that until I tried it for myself and found fun in trying to get gud again with the basic bitch equipment I was saddled with. Now though? I’ve ground maybe 3 or 4 guns to level 30 and even that’s not max level for any of them and the later levels are seemingly taking exponentially longer to unlock.
Which is probably what irks me the most about this whole thing. There are bits and pieces of things I love about COD here, and all of them are working spectacularly, but then there’s all these other things lumped in there that just make the experience less enjoyable for an old faithful like me. Bullet velocity, microtransactions and grindy weapon progression just aren’t…fun, that’s simply it. Will Activision change though? Probably not as bullet velocity keeps all the games on basically the same dev toolchain, the store makes them money and grindy progression keeps the sweaties playing longer. As it seems with many things I’ve played a lot of the taste of the wider community is deviating from mine and I have to admit to myself that the good times are over.
The last thing to suffer was the campaign story which, whilst in true COD fashion is largely forgettable, lacked the usual flair that Treyarch had for making a cerebral thriller out of a corridor shooter. Sure Mason is there, and there’s even a joke about THE NUMBERS MASON, but there’s none of that weird, crazy out of this world shit that they used to pull. They try to do that in the campaign’s final moments but there’s no real build up to it, making the reveal just seem like lazy writing more than an impressive twist that was teased throughout. If we had to pick a canary in the coal mine for the death of what Black Ops was the story has to be it.
But I can’t say that I didn’t enjoy some of my time with Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War, Mason-light edition. I look at it and see something akin to your first car, the one that gave you the freedom to go anywhere and do whatever you want, sitting there running and ready for you to drive it again. You get in and it feels the same, but then the dash is from a different car, those fuzzy dice you had replaced with a pine tree air freshener and it’s now automatic when it used to be manual. Sure you can still have fun with it but it’s not the same, and the things that have changed are what is ruining everything for you. I’ll hold out hope one day that we can return to some semblance as to what made, in my opinion, Black Ops the best version of COD I ever played but until then I’ll just sit here, staring blankly at an air freshener I paid far too many COD points to have.
Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War is available on PC, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One and Xbox Series X right now for $89.95. Total game time was approximately 20 hours, 4 spent in the campaign and 16 in multi.