Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War is coming, gearing up to probably smash sales records as is typical for any Call of Duty game.
Like 2019’s Modern Warfare, this new Black Ops will be a ‘soft reboot’ for the series, with the Cold War setting and many of the characters from the first game returning for another go around. It will also be the fifth game to carry the Black Ops moniker in ten years. But how did we get to this point?
To answer that, we need to rewind ten years to 2010 and the release of the original Call of Duty: Black Ops – a game that is rightly revered amongst Call of Duty fans as being one of the best ever. It wasn’t always like that though. At the time of its release, reception was mixed. Forums were filled with people raging that this was the worst Call of Duty ever, and the reviews weren’t much better.
Some of the criticism was justified. Black Ops did have poor hit detection, issues with lag and server difficulties. But at least part of the criticism, to my mind, was born out of the fact that it had such a tough act to follow. Modern Warfare 2 had been wildly popular and touted by many as the best Call of Duty ever made. How could Black Ops even hope to follow that, especially when it was so different in so many ways?
I contend that Treyarch managed it masterfully. It may not have seemed like it at the time, but Black Ops’ differences are the game’s real strength and the reason why the game has slowly cemented its place as one of the best over this last decade.
Take the campaign for example. In a franchise known for its Michael Bay-esque, blockbuster, high-on-action-low-on-plot storytelling, Black Ops is so radically different in its approach. It’s a tale of subversion and conspiracy with a dark and gritty atmosphere – perfect for a story set during the Cold War. It’s also remarkably well-written for a Call of Duty game, with plenty of twists and turns along the way and plenty of things left open to interpretation (like that ending scene).
We play as Alex Mason, who wakes up strapped to a chair in a CIA Black Site. Our faceless interrogators demand to know the meaning of a set of numbers. What follows is a journey through Mason’s fractured, broken mind in order to decipher those numbers and stop the world from falling into nuclear war. It’s a tale that takes us from the shores of Cuba, to a Russian labour camp, all the way to the frontlines of the Vietnam War.
It’s clear that Treyarch went all-in with this campaign. It’s backed up by some serious star power. Ice Cube, Ed Harris and Sam Worthington all put in solid performances as Bowman, Hudson and Mason respectively. Meanwhile, Gary Oldman returns from World at War to once again play Viktor Reznov. The best of the bunch though is James C. Burns, whose performance as Frank Woods is one of the best in any Call of Duty. It’s no wonder that we’ll be seeing a lot of these characters return in the upcoming reboot.
Similarly, Black Ops’ multiplayer plays much differently to Modern Warfare 2. Treyarch were mindful to trim away a lot of the game-breaking stuff that plagued that game. That means there’s no Commando, Danger Close or One Man Army. There’s no shotgun secondaries. There’s no game-ending nuke, and killstreaks don’t stack. Grenades do much less damage, and quickscoping is much more difficult to pull off.
Not only does this make the game much more balanced, but also much less hectic. And that’s a good thing, because it means that Black Ops is a game where skill takes precedence over just being able to cheese overpowered mechanics. It also means the game has aged quite well. The gameplay still holds up ten years later, and you can still find plenty of lobbies. Of course, it’s not perfect: the aforementioned lag and hit detection issues still cause frustration today, and things like the Famas and Ghost Pro are unreasonably powerful. But hey, it’s better than being noobtubed to eternity, right?
Not only that, but Treyarch took the Call of Duty formula and added some important innovations. There was the emblem creator, where you could let your creativity run wild. There was the combat record, where you could see just how good (or bad) you were at every aspect of the game in amazing detail. There was combat training, where you could practice against bots of varying difficulties. And there was the Theater Mode where you could edit and save your best clips to show off to your friends.
Most importantly though, Black Ops implemented the COD points system of currency. Players would be rewarded a set amount of points based on how well they did in games. These could then be spent on new guns, attachments, perks and killstreaks. There was also a staggering amount of customisation items that players could buy with their points, including camos, face paint, reticles and custom playercard backgrounds. It’s fair to say that the sheer amount of customisation you find in Call of Duty nowadays has its roots here.
Another net positive of the system was that it allowed players to gamble their COD points with other players in unique wager match types, such as Gun Game, One in the Chamber or Sticks and Stones. Each one brought forth its own intensity and entertainment. Indeed, some of the most fun in this game came from trying to desperately hang onto a lead in the dying seconds of a wager match, for fear of losing all your COD points.
In last year’s retrospective on Modern Warfare 2, I wrote that it wasn’t unreasonable to claim that that game had the best maps in the entire series. I also think that Black Ops has a genuine claim to that title. This game is a demonstration of excellent map design. Pretty much every one is well-balanced and well-suited for a variety of game modes. Jungle, Havana, Firing Range, Launch, Summit and, of course, Nuketown – a map so well-loved that it’s been remade for every Black Ops game, including the upcoming one – are all considered classics and rightly so.
With Black Ops Zombies, Treyarch built upon a solid foundation laid down in World at War and set the mode well on its way to the juggernaut status it enjoys today. But it’s also fair to say that Black Ops almost feels like a transition game for Zombies. Playing through the base game and DLC maps again, it’s clear to see that the developers were exploring new ways to expand the game mode beyond just ‘survive’. As a result, over Black Ops’ lifecycle we can see the pure survivability element of World at War becoming less important as an overarching narrative begins to take shape.
Still, Black Ops manages to strike a nice balance. The Zombies map design is so excellent that it’s entirely possible to just go for high rounds and kill thousands and thousands of zombies with your friends, without having to worry about completing long, complicated Easter Eggs. And the game gives you a whole set of iconic weapons so you can do just that – including the Ray Gun, Thundergun and Monkey Bombs. There’s also Pack-a-Punch and Perk-a-Colas available to give yourself an even better chance of holding off the zombie horde. Similarly, if you’re interested in the storyline, each of the DLC maps has a prominent Easter Egg that pushes the plot forward.
So what do we have with the original Call of Duty: Black Ops? Quite simply, one of the best Call of Duty titles of all time. This was the game that enabled Treyarch to finally emerge from Infinity Ward’s shadow and shake off its reputation as the ‘lesser’ studio. This was a game that laid the groundwork for a multi-billion dollar franchise – one that will continue when Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War releases. I’d encourage anyone to go back and replay this masterpiece, especially since it’s backwards compatible from the Xbox Store on Xbox One.