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Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War (PS5) Review: Head Games

/ Dec 19th, 2020 No Comments

Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War Review

Eight years ago I reviewed Call of Duty: Black Ops 2, the first of the series I had played since the revolutionary Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. It was an intimidating task considering how fresh I was in the games writing scene. What could I say about such a massive franchise that I hadn’t touched in so long? The years-long chatter of how the games barely changed year after year rang in my ears. After all, wasn’t that why I hadn’t felt obligated to drop another $60 on Call of Duty since the beginning of the generation?

By Call of Duty standards, Black Ops 2 seemed like a weird game. With no knowledge of Treyarch‘s previous work (outside of a Spiderman game on Gamecube) I extracted a lot of fun out of the game’s twisting, choice-based narrative and hectic gunplay. Since that review, I’ve played a lot of Call of Duty. With the exception of Ghosts I’ve watched the franchise transform and grow, spending hours in multiplayer or nearly abandoning a specific game shortly after launch because my friends hard quit and I had no one to play with.

Last year, Call of Duty Modern Warfare blew up. The return to “boots on the ground” combat re-energized the franchise in an incredible way, providing some of the best gameplay seen since Black Ops 3. After such a high note, Treyarch has its work cut out, considering Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War is arriving on the scene as a cross-generational title and, especially considering, the studio is working with less time as most expected Sledgehammer’s next Call of Duty game this year instead.

Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War is not a revolution. Instead, it plucks from Treyarch’s better concepts, borrows the forward-thinking content plans of last year, and does what Call of Duty has done for years: be fun. Yes, it may be another year, another CoD… but when has that really been a bad thing?

Party in the USSR

Cold War follows the typical bombast of a Call of Duty campaign, frequently dispersing action-packed moments that defy production values. The game begins with a quiet infiltration that leads to a rooftop battle and climaxes in an explosive chase down an airplane runway. It’s a completely ridiculous sequence that rushes adrenaline through the body and makes the player yearn for the next dose.

There was a point in time where every Call of Duty developer was trying to outdo the previous entry. From blowing up major cities to jetting off into the depths of space, it’s fascinating to watch how the limits of fictional and non-fictional warfare can be stretched.

Cold War adds choice to the campaign, incentivizing multiple playthroughs.

Set in 1981, Cold War abandons the futures of Black Ops 3 and Black Ops 4. Players still interact with Alex Mason and Frank Woods but are instead seeing things from the perspective of an agent named “Bell.” Bell’s gender, origin, and psychological profile can all be selected by the player, adding a twist of customization to a series that often relies on named, well-defined protagonists.

Being able to have a slight amount of control over who players will control is empowering. What makes the feature better is that players can pick two personality traits that not only add narrative flair but grant two passive perks that stick through the entire campaign. From aiming down sights faster, taking less damage from explosions, having bullets do more damage, and several other options, Call of Duty veterans can latch onto some creature comforts through these adjustments.

Players also factor in what kind of war machine they wish to be through a number of choices and actions that will change the outcome of missions and, ultimately, the game’s end. Hearkening back to Black Ops 2, Treyarch pits a group of soldiers against a terrorist set to turn the world order on its head. Insanely realistic digitized Ronald Reagan aside, Perseus is the terrorist villain who may be working for the Russians and may have a nuclear arsenal in his clutches.

Familiar faces return for yet another wild campaign from Treyarch.

Bell and their team engage in a series of flashbacks, infiltration, and guns-blazing approaches to cut Perseus off at the pass and “save the world” and preserve America’s dominance on the world stage. It’s a short campaign, topping out around six or seven hours but this has been commonplace in the series for over a decade. Dial down the difficulty to blaze through various globe-trotting setpieces or make the game harder to force yourself into a more protracted approach.

Black Ops campaigns have been wildly bizarre and often outlandish in their conspiracies and dwelling on numbers or who is right and wrong. The game may not feel as gritty as Modern Warfare’s campaign because it is from an era that feels so long ago. Regardless, Cold War has a classic Call of Duty feel because it never lets off the gas. More importantly, the different paths and choices players can execute give more incentive to replay missions than ever before.

Combative Chills

The traditional suite of Call of Duty multiplayer modes are presented in Cold War, as should be no surprise. Team Deathmatch, Domination, Hardpoint, Kill Confirmed, and more offer the 6v6 action that fuels players’ fights for the next year.

Gunplay in Call of Duty is always top-notch and rarely ever disappoints. Cold War offers a pace slightly slower than that of Modern Warfare, feeling a notch more arcadey than its predecessor. Because I’m the kind of player that tends to run-and-gun, Cold War appeals to me just a bit more. After several hundred hours in Modern Warfare, I got used to larger maps that emphasized the newly introduced mount mechanic that allowed players to latch onto a surface to poke around corners and shoot with more stability. It took a bit of time before I was able to stamp out those habits when jumping into Cold War but I do regret that the feature wasn’t included.

Otherwise, it’s the same frantic experience on new maps with new guns and attachments. Treyarch has mastered their balance of perks and attachments with the Pick system that houses similar perks in three groups. There are guns that will obviously dominate the multiplayer landscape but I still find that experimentation yields the best results. Besides, camo hunters are going to be grinding out every weapon to an extensive degree.

Multiplayer is as intense and exciting as ever.

Progression to prestige can feel a bit slow and I think most players will yearn for Double XP weekends. The sting is lessened because progression is carried across modes, allowing levels to be unlocked regardless of what you’re playing. Additionally, getting post-prestige levels and rewards is a considerable investment. By borrowing elements from Modern Warfare, players can begin to gain prestige ranks every 50 levels and gain cosmetic rewards and blueprints. Since weapons and other unlocks don’t reset, it feels slightly less punishing. However, you have to be a dedicated player to complete all the season challenges that will help fully max out everything that is possible in Cold War.

Three new modes offer a bit more to the multiplayer plate this year with VIP Escort, Combined Arms, and Fireteam Dirty Bomb. VIP Escort is the most tame out of the three, implementing a traditional offense-defense slant. The offensive team must escort a VIP player to one of two extraction points while the defensive team tries to eliminate the opposition. Without respawns, matches can be tense but it’s a mode that is really only fun if you are working with a team that communicates. A lack of cohesion often results in quick matches where players easily wipe each other out.

Combined arms pit two teams of 12 players against each other attempting to capture and hold zones and then further push into the enemy’s territory. The doubled player count works well for Cold War’s faster pace and I usually found that Combined Arms help to boost my XP gains faster because I was killing more people.

Dirty Bomb is like a smaller scale version of Warzone that implements objectives to give teams a bit more direction. Ten teams of four airdrop onto a massive map and must deliver uranium to a dirty bomb in order to detonate it. Carrying uranium slows movement speed and depletes health and it also doesn’t help that enemy teams can stake out a bomb site in hopes of ambushing. When a bomb detonates, it coats an area in poison gas, harming all players nearby, while detonating bombs scores points for your team. The organized chaos of Dirty Bomb ties the scale of Warzone to a more focused, controlled degree and since team sizes are so small, it’s a lot easier to find a group of friends to coordinate with. Though I love that Gunfight carried over, Dirty Bomb is a good translation of bigger Call of Duty engagements that have slowly been dominating the shooter space in recent years.

Zombies Among Us

Zombies has become a Call of Duty staple, with Treyarch’s use of the mode setting them apart from the pack. Compared to the last several iterations, the “Die Maschine” map is a return to form, stripping away a good amount of excess.

Taking place in familiar German bunker housing a secret laboratory, “Die Maschine” asks a team of up to four players to destroy an unrelenting zombie horde while trying to discover the secrets of what went wrong and how to unlock strange weapons. Barricades will need to be built, melee attacks will be needed for the first few rounds, and kiting a lone zombie for several minutes at a time is required.

It’s an intimate map that houses a surprising number of secrets. Players need to invest money to break down barriers that lead them deeper underground or grant access to new guns and perks. Rather than using a named character, players can pick an operator and a loadout that may have come from their multiplayer character. There’s a level of comfort in using a familiar gun with familiar attachments at shambling zombies.

Zombies is more contained than before but still satisfies.

As players progress in Zombies, they unlock aetherium crystals that can upgrade weapon classes to unlock passive bonuses or improve the efficiency of perks like a freeze blast and a proximity bomb. I enjoyed these RPG-lite mechanics to Zombies because it felt like players were progressing across every match rather than just round to round. Scrap is introduced to upgrade the rarity of weapons and improve player armor, along with an optional exfiltration that lets you leave safely.

PlayStation players are granted access to the Onslaught mode for Zombies which is a simple wave-based assault that takes place on the smaller multiplayer maps. A dark aether orb creates a safe zone that players must stay in while shooting away at zombies. After enough have died, the orb moves to a new area and the process repeats until a boss zombie appears. While not as mechanically interesting as “Die Maschine,” it provides a few good thrills for one to two players.


Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War is, by all accounts, a very full package. As the game continues on, players will be treated to no season passes as all new major content will drop for free. This has been one of the smartest implementations by Activision in years, meaning that the Call of Duty community won’t be fractured multiple times throughout the year.

The integration of Warzone will see an influx of players given access to new guns, operators, and maps to an already massive experience. While there are some growing pains with elements from two games being brought together, it’s a positive sign for a franchise and publisher that have often been flagged for some unwise moves.

Regardless, Cold War isn’t a return to form. Instead, it’s a continuation. The game looks and sounds amazing, with an especially diverse soundtrack. On PlayStation 5, players will be treated to insanely short loading times and some clever use of the haptic triggers that are cool in the campaign but might be a nuisance in multiplayer. I think that the shortened development time may have hindered new gameplay or narrative revelations for Treyarch but in short, this is the best work they’ve done since Black Ops 3.

As we head into a new generation it’s curious to think about where Call of Duty will be this time next year. What developer will helm the title? What will new technology bring to the plate? Will the franchise continue this forward momentum? Only time will tell but Cold War deserves no cold reception, only hot lead into the heads of the opposition.

A review copy of Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War for the PlayStation 5 was provided for the purposes of this review.

Ben Sheene

Ben Sheene

Senior Editor at Gaming Illustrated
Ben is from Kentucky where he originally began playing games (an activity he still continues to this day). With a love for writing he graduated from Centre College with a BA in English. He recently moved to California to pursue whatever future endeavors were there. A passion for music, gaming, blogging, and existing keeps him up at night and crafts him into the person he is today.
Ben Sheene

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Gaming Illustrated RATING



Three full-fledged modes offer equal amount of enjoyement packed with typically tight gunplay.


A stunner on PS5 but not as large of a leap as Modern Warfare.


The soundtrack features a number of tracks that stand out as equally as the game's explosive effects.


Injecting choice and RPG elements into the campaign coaxes players into hopping in more than once.