Call of Duty: Black Ops returns with a brash and bombastic Cold War campaign that hammers home the series' usual heavy-handed jingoism as it funnels you through shooting galleries full of dim-witted enemies and bashes you over the head with OTT set pieces. This is Black Ops returning to its roots somewhat, steering mercifully clear of the recent Modern Warfare's hyper-realistic misery - and this spin-off series' very own wall-running future shenanigans - in favour of a paranoid spy caper spliced with big dumb 80's action flick that starts very loudly and ends very quickly.
Within just minutes of launching into the Reagan-era main campaign here you'll have been involved in a rooftop chase, blown an escaping airship to pieces with a tiny RC car and razed Vietnamese villages to the ground from the comfort of a US Marines helicopter. Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War feels like it's in one hell of a rush to give you a little sample of everything, a run-down of the franchise's greatest gameplay hits and, with a total running time of just under five hours, this is perhaps for the best. Pretty much everything you'd expect to find in a Call of Duty game has been crowbarred in here and it all feels just as slick and polished as ever, even if it rarely makes a jot of sense. There's a brilliant soundtrack, hugely stylish cutscenes intermingled with real-world historical footage and a sense of urgency about the ludicrous plot that keeps you hooked in for the game's very short - and very loud - duration.
However, for as much noise as this one likes to make, for as many guns as it gives you and as much killing as it expects you to do in a very short space of time, it's when it removes your weapons entirely and turns the pace and volume right down that it finds itself at its best. Midway through the campaign here you're charged with infiltrating the KGB Headquarters in Moscow in an excellent slow-burn mission that takes away your guns temporarily but gives you semi-free rein to go about your objectives as you see fit, knocking out surveillance cameras, bribing guards and pinning the blame for your mole activities on another high ranking official. Let's be clear, it's not exactly Dishonored, but it's a nice little injection of variety in a campaign that does actually manage to do a few things differently here and there while still remaining fixed to those all-too familiar Call of Duty rails.
Starting out in Cold War's campaign you'll get to choose a name for your secret ops character, known in-game by the codename "Bell", as well as choosing whether they're male, female or non-binary. More interestingly, you'll also be given the opportunity to choose a backstory for your character which sees you choose a couple of perks to take with them into the story. It's all fairly simple stuff but it's a first for the series that certainly boosts the replayability factor, an aspect that's added to further by a handful of moments that see you make simple dialogue choices - nothing more complex than letting someone live or die - and a trippy final mission where you can mess with the outcome, all of which combines to affect which of the game's multiple available endings you'll get to see.
There are also a handful of puzzle aspects thrown into the mix, with "evidence" that you collect during main missions used back at your base during sorties to unlock access to two side missions. It's all rather fun stuff, but it's also where this game's apparently somewhat troubled development makes itself most visible. These puzzles and side missions feel as though they're supposed to be the beginning of something more, it seems like we're only getting to grips with the mechanics of the whole thing, like the story is only just settling into a rhythm when all of a sudden it's over.
Indeed the narrative that's woven here, one that starts out with an astonishingly detailed recreation of wrinkly old Ronald Reagan espousing the values of violent American intervention and ends with another character doing exactly the same, feels like it's just getting going when the whole thing comes crashing to a rather abrupt, unsatisfying and overly familiar ending. However, as short as it all is, as by-the-book as Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War mostly insists on playing things, there's just no denying that its flashy next-gen presentation, silky smooth 60fps gameplay, handful of sneaky spy missions and insistence on jetting you all over the world as quickly as possible for fast-paced and frenetic action is still a pretty fun time. The enemies may be absolutely braindead - we'd recommend sticking the difficulty right up on this one if you want a challenge - and there's nothing you won't have experienced before here, but, while it lasts, it's certainly not the worst Call of Duty campaign we've been subjected to.
Of course, the quality of the campaign aspect of any Call of Duty game is, for most battle-hardened fans of this franchise, neither here nor there, and it's the vast multiplayer suite of gameplay modes where the long-term appeal is really at with this one. In this regard Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War certainly provides plenty to sink your teeth into whilst simultaneously disappointing with regards to a lack of really strong new modes and the fact it's got just eight main maps to get your head around at launch. Let's be clear, this is a big, beefy multiplayer offering with plenty of distractions to keep you busy and, just as with the campaign, the action is slick, fast-paced and something that you can 100% rely on to entertain, it's just that it all feels a little old-hat and rather barebones at this point.
In terms of modes, alongside the usual multiplayer suspects such as Team Deathmatch, Domination, Hardpoint and so on, the big banner new additions here come in the form of Fireteam and Combined Arms. Fireteam sees teams of four players - with a maximum of forty players at any one time - blaze around a Warzone style map gathering Uranium and depositing it in cannisters in order to rack up scores with the ultimate aim of completely filling a cannister and setting off a dirty bomb. It's a rather strange mode, certainly quite a lot fun initially, but at this early stage it sort of feels like a rather messy, novelty variant of the excellent Warzone. Combined Arms, which sees two teams of twelve players fight a tug-of-war style battle over objectives on a large map featuring all manner of vehicles, ziplines and so on is, for us, more successful than Fireteam at this point but, really, neither of these new modes can hold a candle to the traditional CoD roster of classics that take place on smaller, more intimate maps that funnel players into each other's faces at close range and high speed.
Alongside all of this, Call of Duty's rather fantastic Warzone integrates tidily into the overall package here, a big bonus in the face of those rather lacklustre new gameplay offerings, and Zombies makes a triumphant return in a horde mode that hasn't really changed much in the past twelve years but still provides plenty of chaotic online co-operative carnage for groups of friends and randoms. Even better, your ranking is now set to track persistently across each and every one of these separate elements of the game meaning should you get sick and tired of trying to level up a character or gun in one mode, you can feel free to jump ship and try something else, safe in the knowledge that progress is still being made.
Overall then, Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War combines a pretty fun and very pretty - if rather brief, brash and unchallenging - campaign with a decent multiplayer suite that gets all of the basics right while not quite managing to provide any knockout new modes or enough maps from the get-go. However, complaints aside, there's no denying that the tried and tested gameplay here is as slick and tight as ever, frenetic and addictive stuff that we can see ourselves knocking plenty of fun out of over the coming months.
Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War combines a bombastic campaign that desperately attempts to shoehorn as much classic CoD action as it can into its rather short running time, with a solid multiplayer suite that feels a little light on exciting new modes and content at launch. However, what's here is still undeniably fun, the campaign introduces a few neat ideas along the way and multiplayer has got its classic modes, the safety net of Warzone and returning Zombies chaos to fall back on, resulting in a Call of Duty offering that may not throw up any big surprises but manages to scrape a pass regardless.