Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War still sags under the weight of reputation
Inverse Score: 7/10
I immediately knew something was different about Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War.
In the newest game in the Call of Duty series — and fifth in the Black Ops sub-series — Black Ops Cold War indulges in its title period like a John Frankenheimer movie as it introduces a new feature: a custom protagonist for the single-player story. No longer must you play square-jawed Marines with names like "Alex" or "Ghost." You can be you, to a degree.
Available on all the major platforms excluding Nintendo Switch, the latest installment of Activision's military-shooter powerhouse affords players a full name (you are referred to as "Bell," a foreshadow of the big plot twist), skin color, and pronouns. At launch, "Classified" was implicitly non-binary, but after online criticism, the developers made both "Non-Binary" and "Classified" available.
Most importantly, you're asked to fill out a psychological profile. Players choose two from a list of 14 attributes — "Paranoid," "Fearless," "Methodical," etc. In reality, it's a mere mathematical bonus to things like bullet damage, health percentage, sprint duration, and more. But the way it's contextualized in Black Ops Cold War made it tough to resist thinking about how I've navigated the last 15 years on the digital battlefield.
Since I first came into the series with Call of Duty 2 in 2005, I've played like a tank with a sniper's aim. I'm willing to expose myself and soak as much damage as possible, all so I can get one perfect aim for a clean headshot. After an honest assessment, I chose my profile: I am "Calm Under Pressure" (pain flinch reduced by 90 percent) with "Aggressive Behavior" (50 percent boost to reload speed). It's a contradictory picture, but for the first time in Call of Duty, I felt truly like myself as I was dropped into its version of an adult spy thriller. The stakes felt higher than ever.
But for all its attempts at something new, including flirting with psychological horror, Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War succumbs to the franchise's history of limited expectations. While Cold War is an unusual entry in many regards, it delivers the same bombastic, action-movie fun series diehards know well — and it's not better for it.
3 days of Call of Duty
In Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War, it's 1981 and tensions between the United States and Russia are at a boiling point. President Ronald Reagan, the Republican icon eerily brought to life, orders an elite team of black operatives to pursue "Perseus," a Russian spy alleged to have infiltrated an American program that planted nukes across Europe. (Yikes.) The team is led by Russell Adler, a morally gray Vietnam War veteran with a facial scar and an uncanny resemblance to actor Robert Redford.
I'll admit, Adler rocks. He's a reprehensible anti-hero who epitomizes the worst of the CIA, shown in broad strokes to be "pretty bad" in the game. But shamefully, because I grew up on Robert Redford movies, I found it a thrill to be engaged in a firefight in Russian bunkers next to a facsimile of my mother's favorite actor.
The illusions of Black Ops Cold War work their cinematic magic, even if you're fully aware of the manipulation as it's happening. You'll eagerly rock out to Norman Greenbaum and Pat Benatar, and just as often you'll notice how consistently this franchise is perfectly content to coast on its strong foundations.
Black Ops Cold War clears a low bar to become the "most customizable Call of Duty ever." It sports a branching narrative with optional "side quests" and decisions that influence the ending, and there are various ways to move the plot along. In one instance, there's a lengthy chapter where you play as a CIA mole in the gorgeous headquarters of the KGB. It's up to players to sabotage from within, whether by bribing a prisoner or hacking computer databases.
It's nice to have choices. They make for memorable experiences. But freedom is an illusion. No matter what path you take, all players face the same decisions in the climax. What you earn in the end are mildly tailored cutscenes and expository dialogue delivered by disembodied voices. It's an underwhelming reward. A replay of Black Ops Cold War means an opportunity for a different story, but it's hardly the organic experience the game's buzz implied.
Black Ops Cold War makes an excellent case for a full-fledged Call of Duty horror game.
This is beyond the return of the popular "Zombies" mode, where players are dropped into a non-canon story in which the dead rise in a Nazi stronghold. In a homage to movies like The Manchurian Candidate, the campaign of Black Ops Cold War indulges in the paranoia of period spy thrillers and filters them through the lens of psychological horror.
Cold War spends a significant chapter as an abstract "mind maze" that lovers of P.T. will dig. The atmosphere and suspense were enough to make me shake in my combat boots, and I was so disappointed when the game snapped back to reality. Like a rollercoaster ride, I wanted to go again.
Black Ops Cold War begs the question: Why hasn't Call of Duty ever committed to proper horror? Of course there are zombies, but that's long been tacked onto the games as a schlock, grindhouse experience. I'm talking real horror. Horror where you don't have Rambo's arsenal or allies to provide cover fire. Call of Duty has an effective first-person foundation and Black Ops Cold War shows how delicious it would be to ditch the assault rifles and actually make us feel powerless, even just once.
Keep it modern
Multiplayer is a crucial element to any Call of Duty game, as it's what keeps players coming back for more. Unfortunately, the multiplayer here lacks the oomph of Modern Warfare. The experience is virtually the same: There are custom classes, unlockable weapons, perks, Operator skins, and an RPG-esque leveling system. It's Call of Duty, and it's just addicting enough to always consider "one more match."
But there's an ineffable completeness to Modern Warfare that's absent in Black Ops Cold War. The maps in Modern Warfare are emblematic of the series' best, while the more open spaces of Cold War feel like a clumsy attempt at realism. In practice, it's a lot of running around until you get shot in the same three areas of the map.
As multiplayer will get broader changes over time and a deeper connection to Warzone, the little I can say about multiplayer is that it's a suitable experience if you only have Black Ops Cold War. It's not enough to migrate completely from the better, more complete Modern Warfare.
Cold wind blows
Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War is a good game arriving at a weird time. As a launch title for the new Xbox and PlayStation consoles, it's an easy buy for dependable first-person shooter goodness for the holidays. It's especially appealing if Cold War thrillers like Robert Redford movies or The Americans TV series are a part of your pop-culture diet, as Black Ops Cold War suits nicely while providing minute-to-minute thrills.
But it's hard to recommend as it doesn't do enough to change Call of Duty for the better. Last year's Modern Warfare was a glimpse into the future as a tonal reboot that built upon nearly 20 years of history. Black Ops Cold War simply doesn't. It introduces novel horror concepts and boasts a personalizing that doesn't go far enough. In the end, it's Call of Duty. No matter what time and place these games explore, the guns always fire the same way. 7/10
Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War is available on Xbox One and Series X|S, PS4 and PS5, and PC.
Our review was conducted on a PC with optimal settings.
INVERSE VIDEO GAME REVIEW ETHOS: When it comes to video games, Inverse values a few qualities that other sites may not. For instance, we care about hours over money. Many new AAA games have similar costs, which is why we value the experience of playing more than price comparisons. We don’t value grinding and fetch quests as much as games that make the most out of every level. We also care about the in-game narrative more than most. If the world of a video game is rich enough to foster sociological theories about its government and character backstories, it’s a game we won’t be able to stop thinking about, no matter its price or popularity. We won’t punch down. We won’t evaluate an indie game in the same way we will evaluate a AAA game that’s produced by a team of thousands. We review games based on what’s available in our consoles at the time. And finally, we have very little tolerance for junk science. (Magic is always OK.)