It was a challenge to even get Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War loaded onto my shiny new PS5 at launch. A challenge that took an entire week and complete system reset to overcome; but also a challenge that would seem like foreshadowing for some of the issues that would eventually follow. The core game is classic Call of Duty—big action and quick gunfights. It's just all the hassle around getting to that action that ends up detracting from the experience.
My PS5 arrived on launch day and my review code for Cold War not long after that. But I was so giddy with the new system that I had already locked up most of the 700 or so GB of actual hard drive space in the SSD with other downloads. When it came time to download Cold War, the first thing the game did was try desperately to direct me to the PS4 version, downloading that in its entirety and leaving no room for the PS5 version. Then I got caught with a variation of the "Queued for Download error" that has been the bane of many new PS5 owners. Despite clearing the space, the PS5 version would not unlock from its error state and actually start the file transfer. Nothing seemed to kick the system out of this static until a complete system reset brought me back to square one and I was finally able to install both versions on a fresh, empty drive.
And while on the one hand this seems more of a Sony problem than an Activision one, it is an Activision problem that around every corner the game desperately wants you to play it on PS4 not PS5. Every time you select the game it defaults to the PS4 version, even if it's not on the system anymore. You get presented with a download option for a last-gen version you don't have installed rather than the play button for the next-gen version you do. Starting up the game is a constant little mini-game of remembering to manually swap over to the PS5 version before you absent mindedly dive into the PS4 copy first—the most boring mini-game on the planet. And while all this is ancillary and under some circumstances probably not even worth mentioning in a review, the broken state that the multiplayer and co-op of the playable game is in at launch really make this lack of attention to detail all the more pertinent. But we will come back to that...
Once in the game, I ended up playing the entire campaign on PS4, because by the time I had sorted out the PS5 version I was both nearly done with the relatively short content of the single-player missions and because single-player progress does not transfer over between console generations, nor does any single-player trophy progress. This was contrary to much of the pre-release press, but I think we all just got a fine distinction wrong: multiplayer progress transfers seamlessly, but single player does not. You can pick up seamlessly from a zombies match on one generation and dive into multiplayer on the other as that is an Activision stored cloud save, but single-player progress is locked to the gen-specific local save file. I have confirmed with Activision this is by design. And that's all fine. I don't have a problem with that because the campaign is only those few hours long anyway, and frankly, it's excellent and worth replaying.
At first there were certain plot points in the campaign that really had me head scratching. I was even starting to get a little frustrated by certain key moments that made absolutely no sense. Like, why am I flying to Colorado for a side mission in between a main campaign throughout Europe? Or why on earth are we only now decoding intel from 13 years ago?! But as things progressed I was reminded that this was a Black Ops game, and there couldn't be a campaign without a little madness to it. Spoilers aside, it all comes together in the end, and the payoff is more than worth the ride. There are also a number of new tweaks to the tried-and-true formula that really work well. For example, you get to pick your character in this one. You have some minimal customization options like background, sex, and skin tone; but more importantly can select up to two perks for in-game boosts like extra health, faster reloading, longer sprint duration, extra starting ammo, etc. Basically bringing multiplayer perks into the single-player environment to better match your play style. Why not? In addition, these character choices will drop subtly into the campaign in various dialogue interactions with other characters, a nice touch.
Speaking of dialogue, this is also the first Call of Duty game that I've played to really, meaningfully allow your decisions to determine the outcome. Now for the most part it doesn't change the trajectory of the ride until the very end, but it does change how that ending plays out. Did you break the spy ring or decode the disk drive in the optional side missions? Did you let various characters live or die at certain key story points? There are multiple endings and these actions will help decide how those credits roll.
Secondly, speaking of side missions, they're here too. These missions come with a twist, they have an optional objective that must be decoded before you run them. In one, for example, you need to crack those members of a spy ring. You can take out the ring leader without the additional objective, but you just disperse rather than crush the ring if you don't get it right. And getting it right means using intel collected and unlocked from various main-campaign missions to get more clues to decipher a puzzle—either decode an encrypted drive or uncover the identities from a list of names. So there are these neat little puzzles, either unique to each run or at least randomized from a pool of possible outcomes, wrapped around completing other missions. It all ended up being way more fun than I initially thought it would turn out when I saw them first appear on the mission board.
We've also got '80s style and the Cold War era plastered all over the place. From '80s video arcade machines (where you can actually jump in and play classic Activision titles) and some awesome backing soundtracks in certain mission intros, to cameos by Reagan and Gorbachev, it's all there in full new wave glory. The cameos, I thought, were unnecessary. A bit of a case of thinking too much of can we do it rather than should we do it. But all in all the game plays well on the theme.
What's also done well, is that in a series known for bullets and action, some of the better missions are done with your gun holstered. Some stealth jobs behind enemy lines where you spend more time sneaking around and pushing the narrative rather than just running and gunning. But when the time comes to run and gun, all the epic sequences that define a Call of Duty game are there too. The missions do end up rather short and linear, with most moving from one shooting gallery to the next, as is the custom of this type of game. Maybe that's why the non-shooting missions felt so fresh.
Overall the single-player campaign, while short, is a triumph. And it gets even better on PS5. While I played through the whole thing on PS4, I didn't really notice a big difference moving over to PS5 graphically. Yeah, the ray tracing definitely makes the lighting pop, and supposedly the framerate is better and more consistent, but the PS4 version is no visual slouch. I struggled to be wowed by the step up even when comparing the same missions back to back. I did have one rather terrible lighting glitch towards the end of the PS4 run, and there were a few times another nasty bug caught me when approaching doors and windows where the character would get teleported back and turned around. It wasn't totally a bug-free run but, for the most part, the PS4 version played great in single player and looks so good the gains to PS5 were mostly understated. What was noticeable, however, was that first time you squeeze the trigger and the haptic feedback resonates through the DualSense controller. Whoa. So with the background of thinking both game versions were operating well on the system hardware, its when the controller hardware came into play that I really started to appreciate the PS5.
If the singly player ends with an impressive "whoa," the multiplayer and co-op begin with a resounding "oh no." Because for as good as the short-lived single player is, the bits where you need to connect through game servers is a bit of a mess right now. First of all, content is a little light. There is only a single Zombies map and eight or so multiplayer maps at launch. Surely, this will expand over time with seasons and DLC, but there really isn't much more variety than what was on offer with the Beta at this point. In-game it all plays how you would expect a Call of Duty game to play. It's a fast-paced, rather linear twitch shooter with at least one juvenile in every match with his mic constantly on blasting the conversations and background music to every other member of their household ad nauseam.
In combat, whoever strikes first will almost always win the one-on-one, unless they're engaging at a range with a weapon grossly unsuited to each other. Weapons though, are badly unbalanced, although to be fair just a few days before this review went live there was a weapon balancing patch pushed that really took aim at the MP5 and sniper rifles. Speaking of snipers, if you've always loved the gun but never had the skill to really live your passion, then this is the game for you. This is the most forgiving sniping I think I've ever played in multiplayer combat. It's sniping on easy mode for PvP. You have relatively short aim down sight delays with extremely generous kill boxes and no bullet drop. It can be fun to one shot one kill like a multiplayer god, but equally frustrating when you're the one bleeding out and see the replay cam show how little skill was involved in your own demise. And there are certain modes and maps that really lend themselves to long sightlines, a sniper's paradise.
But what really kills the modes is just how buggy and laggy the gameplay is. There are many times you think you got the drop on a. gun duel only to fall first and can see in the kill cam their initial shots weren't even registering due to the lag. I can live with it because I just assume there were other duels I did win and my opponent probably felt the same so I trust it evens out. What I can't live with, what I can't even keep track of, is how many times I've just been kicked from matches or lobbies, sometimes with no reward for the effort. This can be frustrating in PvP but absolutely demoralizing in Zombies where a deep run will all be for naught but a server error. Obviously, I've had nothing as egregious as the streamer NoahJ456, who had his world record attempt to be the first to solo all 256 rounds cut short by a server error six hours in while cruising at round 208 with a great load. Ouch.
To be honest I didn't notice much of a difference between PS4 and PS5 stability in multiplayer or zombies. They were both poor. The output feels like the classic rushed delivery cycle of pushing an unfinished product to meet a hardware and marketing deadline, not a software definition of done. Eventually, it will all get ironed out with patches and updates. Eventually everyone will be flying about on stable hardware and software. But the early player base essentially feels like the QA team. There are other complaints in the community about Skill-Based Match Making that will probably be a bigger factor for the better players. Basically what SBMM tries to do is always group you with players of similar skill level. I say "tries" because it's actually a really hard algorithm to get right, but it tends to be blessing for most casual players as it means they won't run into juggernaut teams of elite players pub stomping them into just choosing another game entirely. But for the better players it means there is no casual gaming options. They are always in for the fight of their lives, a sweat fest. For old dudes like me, my skill is above the floor enough that I'm not worried about getting stomped but also just isn't high enough to make anything sweaty, let alone every match. But for the more experienced players, this could be a detraction.
Zombies also continues its evolution away from its foundations of simply trying to survive the horde of the undead by offering a large map with objectives and hell hounds and giant glowing monsters, and all sorts of extras that make for a more fast-paced mode, but still have me nostalgically long for that classic terror when zombies first hit the scene. I feel like the mode has lost the scares of surviving an endless the horde just to present a different type of action to an already action-packed lineup off modes. Don't get me wrong, it's still an excellent game mode... That is when you can navigate the servers and bugs to play it. In addition to getting kicked, I had multiple matches that would freeze into a slow motion and motion-sickness-inducing slog of janky frame rates, screen flashes, and slow downs. It's a tough sell because every run is such a time investment, yet at any moment your game much crash and it will be just time wasted. Maybe the terror is still there, but now it's shifted from survival horror to an existential dread of getting kicked from the game.
In the end the total package has to be some equation to sum all these parts. The classic Call of Duty formula delivers the campaign as an the appetizer (if there even is a single-player mode, *cough cough* Black Ops 4) and then serves the main course as a long-running multiplayer and co-op experience in the PvP and zombies modes. An excellent and mostly bug-free single-player campaign that ultimately does lack breadth has to be balanced with the rather linear but longer-lasting multiplayer modes that is a balance and stability mess at the moment but will surely get better. Plus you've got the Zombies mode that is differentiating itself from the rest of the menu less and less, trading horror for more action but risking being rather demoralizing when the stability issues effect a mode that relies on long runs and time commitments. You also have Warzone which at time of release wasn't actually part of the package, merely pushing players out of the Cold War game an into the standalone Call of Duty Warzone offering as an alternative. What is the sum of these parts? Ultimately an average game that will get better with patches and fixes but one that offers a great burst in the campaign and then a buggy slog in the other facets until those fixes catch the experience up to par.
* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company.
First picked up a game controller when my mother bought an Atari 2600 for my brother and I one fateful Christmas.
Now I'm a Software Developer in my day job who is happy to be a part of the Gaming Nexus team so I can have at least a flimsy excuse for my wife as to why I need to get those 15 more minutes of game time in...