So far, Call of Duty: Black Ops - Cold War’s multiplayer is a step back

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In today’s world of service games that get meaningful updates years after release, Call of Duty’s annual releases are becoming a relic. Activision always treats the newest game as the best, most-current CoD of record that players should default to. There was a time when that yearly $60 transaction made sense, but after a dozen matches of Call of Duty: Black Ops - Cold War’s multiplayer in a session hosted by Activision, I’d rather play more of 2019’s Modern Warfare.

A big reason for that is how little Cold War appears to be mixing things up. Treyarch’s latest stab at CoD multiplayer sticks to the blueprint established by Infinity Ward last year, meaning character-specific abilities are out and Field Upgrades (low-impact gadgets) are in. For how much Treyarch and Infinity Ward’s Calls of Duty have diverged, the similarities here are surprising. At times it really felt like playing Cold War-skinned Modern Warfare with beachfront Miami hotels instead of bombed-out villages.

Mode swap

My four-hour multiplayer session cycled through eight modes spread across five maps. The marquee map that kicked off the day was Armada, a 12v12 Domination map where the only solid ground is two warring battleships and a central barge connected by ziplines. It’s a marvelous visual set piece with crashing waves and verticality, but it’s a total pain to navigate. Since the outer ships are mainly just spawn points, every new life was another sprint to the nearest zipline so I could reach the middle of the map.

I was more interested in the 24-player mode itself, which splits the difference nicely between a standard 6v6 CoD match and Modern Warfare’s chaotic 64-player Ground War. Once we got away from Armada’s watery gimmicks and played the mode on the snowy Uzbekistan map, it felt like the mini Battlefield match I could get behind.

Less impressive was VIP Escort, a new round-based elimination mode that tasks one team with safely transporting their randomly-assigned VIP to an extraction chopper while the other team hunts them down camps both helicopters with sniper rifles. The inclusion of revives reminded me a bit of Modern Warfare’s surprisingly competitive Cyber Attack mode, but the fragility of the VIP (and their limited pistol loadout) places a lot of extra strain on the attackers. The VIP almost never survived in my two matches, though I was able to sneak by one time and extract before the enemies noticed. Fingers crossed that something closer to Cyber Attack’s back-and-forth bomb football makes it into the final game.

Weapon woes

I love how Treyarch uses Cold War’s globe-trotting '80s spy story to make its maps visually diverse. Between the arid desert of Angola and neon-soaked Miami, it’s a pretty colorful game. Unfortunately, I don’t think the time period serves its weapons as well as its maps. Diving into Gunsmith to trick out my XM4 assault rifle, I was bummed by boring non-laser sights and otherwise standard grips. Attachment options across the board seem less adventurous than the wacky builds you can throw together in Modern Warfare.

Instead of taking a chance on an underbarrel shotgun, I was outfitting everything with modest bullet velocity upgrades. We were working with an incomplete attachment pool in our test build, so hopefully the full 54-attachment lineup Treyarch is promising will capture the real fun of Gunsmith. Somehow, I doubt I’ll be able to build anything as cool as Modern Warfare’s FiNN, an LMG that can strap on a chainsaw grip and transform into a mini-minigun.

Treyarch is allowing some self-expression with the return of Wildcards, powerful modifiers that let you bend the rules of a typical loadout. There’s one that lets you bring two primary weapons and another that doubles up on grenades, but I had the most fun messing with Perk Greed (equip six perks instead of three). I usually pick stealth perks to avoid annoying UAV planes in CoD, so getting those bonuses alongside Scavenger and Tracker is a win.

One of the many pretty angles that you'll find on the Angola map.

One of the many pretty angles that you'll find on the Angola map. (Image credit: Activision)

Speaking of annoying, Cold War returns to the Black Ops-style Scorestreaks system, which tracks all points scored instead of consecutive kills. For the first time, progress toward Scorestreaks isn’t reset upon death, making it way easier for an average player like me to eventually earn a chopper gunner. In an attempt to balance this out, Treyarch has attached a cooldown to each Scorestreak before it can be triggered again.

This would be a great change, except that scorestreaks continue to be overpowered nonsense, one of my gripes with the series. Even with cooldowns, I still spent the day getting burned alive by napalm strikes, gunned down by helicopters, and blown up by stupid RC cars. I just want a fair firefight.

Going ballistic

I can put up with Call of Duty’s aggravating holdovers if the shooting is superb. A year later, I’m still impressed with Modern Warfare’s projectile-based ballistics model that sends bullets through the air so fast that it feels like histcan up close. Cold War uses similar ballistics, but after my first few matches, something definitely felt off. Well-aimed shots would occasionally appear to miss and enemies would still take damage after I had already stopped firing. It’s subtle, but it was almost like the game was running a half-step behind the action.

To make sure I wasn’t imagining things, I watched my footage frame-by-frame later on and saw that even close-range shots would take between 7-10 frames (recording at 60 fps) after firing to register as a hit. I compared that against my recent Modern Warfare matches and saw that shots consistently registered within 2-3 frames after firing, depending on distance. Even with some margin of error at slightly different frame rates, it’s a clear discrepancy. It’s hard to tell if Cold War’s slower response time is a result of bullet travel time or hit registration on the server side, but either way, it feels mushy and imprecise.

Gunsmith now previews stat changes with clear percentages, though base stat numbers are still hidden.

Gunsmith now previews stat changes with clear percentages, though base stat numbers are still hidden. (Image credit: Activision)
Win more with these Warzone loadouts

(Image credit: Infinity Ward)

Warzone loadouts: The gear to choose
Best M4A1 loadout Warzone: Top all-purpose AR builds
Best MP7 loadout Warzone: Effective SMG setups
Best Grau loadout Warzone: Strong AR builds
Best M13 loadout Warzone: The attachments to choose
Best Bruen Mk9 loadout Warzone: Enhance the LMG
Best Kilo 101 loadout Warzone: Boost the punchy AR
Best FAL loadout Warzone: Semi-auto AR boosts
Best FiNN LMG loadout Warzone: Useful recoil control

I was also let down by Cold War’s weapon sounds. Treyarch has traded the bassy roars of MW’s arsenal for tinny twangs that sound like a hammer denting sheet metal. The difference is especially noticeable on weapons that exist in both games, like the MP5 (a personal favorite), which sounds like it’s rattling off metal BBs in Cold War.

It’s just audio, I know, but Modern Warfare’s symphony of oppressive weaponry is a huge part of what makes its shooting so damn good. The same goes for whizzing bullet cracks, which seem a bit more muted this time around. Even bullet impacts have lost their gusto. The eternally gratifying “coin flip” ding that marks a kill is now a generic thud. Unforgivable!

Then, there are the mechanical changes that make little sense, like Cold War’s modified sprinting. “Super sprinting” by double-tapping the button is gone, now replaced by an almost unnoticeable initial speed boost that automatically slows over time. This sucks. Super sprinting was a useful tool that could be used tactically to bound across a dangerous crossfire or burst into a room. It had an equal cost, too, slowing down ADS time during a run. Weapon mounting is also gone. I didn’t use the feature much, but it came in handy on larger maps when it made sense to sacrifice mobility for recoil control. Sniper scopes no longer glint in the light either, which I anticipate will make snipers a bigger chore to deal with.

Cold War’s multiplayer didn’t make a great first impression. It’s a perfectly competent take on the CoD formula, but that alone isn’t enough to justify its existence. Modern Warfare isn’t slowing down to make room for Cold War. Now more than ever, Call of Duty is competing with itself. So far, Treyarch hasn’t shown me why I need another CoD in my life.

Morgan Park
Staff Writer

Morgan has been writing for PC Gamer since 2018, first as a freelancer and currently as a staff writer. He has also appeared on Polygon, Kotaku, Fanbyte, and PCGamesN. Before freelancing, he spent most of high school and all of college writing at small gaming sites that didn't pay him. He's very happy to have a real job now. Morgan is a beat writer following the latest and greatest shooters and the communities that play them. He also writes general news, reviews, features, the occasional guide, and bad jokes in Slack. Twist his arm, and he'll even write about a boring strategy game. Please don't, though.