After spending the weekend with Black Ops Cold War’s multiplayer Alpha on PlayStation 4, there’s plenty to be excited about in the next Call of Duty – but I’ve seen equally as many things that have given me reason to be wary. The gunplay is solid and familiar, offering heavy bursts of nostalgia with each pull of the trigger, but I wonder if there is too much looking back going on in Cold War and not enough emphasis being placed on revolution. With longer time-to-kill, a visual downgrade, and a return to simpler map designs, it remains to be seen if this year’s Call of Duty is a backwards or forwards step for the series.
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Having put well over 100 hours into Warzone and Modern Warfare’s multiplayer over the last year, jumping into Cold War felt instantly different. Provided this Alpha is giving us a small taste of all of Cold War’s systems, it appears Treyarch is attempting to strip back this year’s multiplayer of all the concepts that were layered on in the past three games in the sub-series in an attempt to rediscover the core of what made the original Black Ops so popular a decade ago. For one, the time-to-kill is noticeably longer than recent entries – unless you’re using the currently overpowered sniper rifles, that is. Thankfully, Treyarch has already confirmed that the damage output of both the Pellington and Tundra snipers will both be reduced by the time of the beta, which is welcome since it seemed like 80% of players were equipping them during my time online. (The beta will first open for players who preorder on PlayStation on October 8 – see the full CoD Black Ops Cold War beta schedule.)
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When I wasn’t sniping myself, I mainly opted for the MP5, a staple of mine throughout my years of playing CoD. I enjoy the mobility it offers, but found myself having to adjust the way I played in comparison to how I use it in Modern Warfare because multikills are harder to achieve in Cold War (largely due to that longer time-to-kill) which makes the larger magazine attachment all but a necessity.
By the end of the Alpha weekend I had assembled a build I was happy with that took full advantage of the returning Wildcard system, which fully kitted out my gun with eight attachments rather than the standard five. I enjoyed tweaking my loadouts and accompanying perks; Ninja, which makes your footsteps near-silent, became an early favourite. I look forward to experimenting more when all of the options are made available. The sheer number of different builds available has me optimistic that many different metas will develop during Cold War’s lifespan, and that it won’t remain as stagnant as Modern Warfare has at times.
Elsewhere, there are elements that don’t have me quite excited but mostly feel minor enough that Treyarch still has time to adjust them before launch. Among them is the frankly ludicrous length of time it takes to hurl a frag grenade, which effectively incapacitates you for a couple of seconds and, in my experience, ends up with you being shot more often than it does a successful throw. The previously mentioned sniping, although highly satisfying, needs to be adjusted as well; not just on a power level, but also with a slight increase in the amount of glint produced when you aim down sights to make camping snipers more visible. You also can’t mount your weapons this year and tactical sprint has been removed, further stripping back the gameplay even more. Mounting isn’t a huge miss for me as I never tend to use it outside of Warzone, but the latter’s removal is a little frustrating when you’re so used to gaining that little speed boost normally.
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On larger maps vehicles can be used, and while it’s fine to sit in an attack boat with your hands holding a chattering machine gun, the same can’t be said when fighting against them. They currently take several shots from a rocket launcher to take down and don’t feel balanced at all. It never feels great to see just a fifth or so of a vehicle’s health bar go down when you were expecting a huge explosion.
These boats and tanks were found in the two larger maps where the new Combined Arms: Domination mode takes place. It’s essentially the age-old Domination mode, where two 12-player teams must attack and defend five capture points to earn points, but on a slightly bigger scale. It’s by no means revolutionary (point capture on a large scale with vehicles in play is basically the Battlefield series in a nutshell), but does allow for Treyarch to stretch its legs and build bigger and more interesting arenas.
The standout map is Armada, a level consisting of three large ships between which you can swim, sail, and zipline. It’s expansive, and allows for some great flanking maneuvers, catering well for all types of players due to its tight points of contestation and multiple sniping positions. My only criticism of it is that it’s almost too expansive; getting around it can become a slight chore, and a lonely one, especially when there are only 12 players on each side. This inflicts a feeling of emptiness every now and then.
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The maps in general lack a little atmosphere and could do with some extra layers of sound design, which hopefully is due to early development rather than designer intent. A timer very quietly ticks away before a “Victory” or “Defeat” graphic appears with little accompanying fanfare, which makes for a strangely unsatisfactory finish to a match. While the lack of ambient noise does aid on a gameplay level, allowing you to hear footsteps and enemy gunfire, it doesn’t help in making each location feel unique and distinct from one another.
Crossroads is the other 24-player map available in the Alpha, but it didn’t leave much of an impression on me. This snow-covered Soviet wilderness turned into a snipe-off more often than not, which emphasised the current issue with telescopic rifles. This situation often resulted in not many capture points being taken, and thus the objectives of the mode being ignored in favour of kills. I’ve historically found Call of Duty to be at its best when it’s fast and frantic, and not trying to borrow from other more deliberately paced shooters like Battlefield. Ground War never appealed to me in Modern Warfare for these reasons, and I can’t see Combined Arms: Domination being a mode I consistently play in Cold War either.
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I feel much more at home in a Team Deathmatch setting, or playing a personal favourite of mine: Gun Game, which was first seen in the original Black Ops. Sadly the latter wasn’t available in the Alpha despite its Treyarch pedigree, but I did manage to play a healthy amount of Deathmatch on the three smaller maps available. My early impressions of each of these are that they are solid, if not spectacular. The urban Miami and Moscow maps harken back to old-school Call of Duty map design with clear corridors and lanes to fight in, with no doors to open and limited verticality.
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The Miami map offers an appealing visual identity complete with a neon-lit beachfront and glowing pool, while Moscow is swamped with stern architecture and bountiful busts of Lenin. I enjoyed my time in them, but felt they suffered from similar issues to their larger counterparts as they just felt empty at times because they’re almost too large for the 6v6 game modes they house. The third map, Satellite, is my pick of the bunch, and where I found the majority of my fun coming from as I picked off enemies with my sniper rifle as they peeked over yet another Angolan sand dune. It stands alongside Armada as the most graphically impressive map of the Alpha bunch, and benefits from the rural setting in this regard as the sun beams on crashed wreckage and drenches the already orange rocks, but on the whole Cold War currently looks to be a significant visual downgrade when compared to Modern Warfare. This is most visibly seen on the Moscow and Miami maps when looking at the textures of the building faces and in the detail of the gun models, which just don’t stand up when placed next to polished weapons from last-years outing.
Although my time with Cold War has been limited so far, I have reasons to be hopeful that Treyarch is recapturing some of what hooked people on the original Black Ops back in 2010. I’m a little wary of some aspects being stripped back a bit too much in an effort to please those yearning for an experience almost 10 years old at this point, but I’m definitely looking forward to seeing what innovations the developers have yet to show, and indeed how Cold War will tie into Warzone. With some weapon balancing on the way, and hopefully more maps and modes available during the upcoming beta, I’ll have a better understanding of which way this year’s multiplayer is heading. There’s a very thin line between a nostalgic experience and an archaic one, and it’s a line that Cold War is carefully dancing on at the moment.
Simon Cardy can’t wait to play more Black Ops, but for now will have to settle for getting 2nd place finishes in Warzone of which he occasionally posts clips of on Twitter at @CardySimon.