The first hour of my “Cold War” experience was dominated by darkness, and I don’t mean the grim barks (“There is no truth, only who you choose to believe!”) of the hard boiled Western secret agents. It took me several tries to get the game to even load on PC: At first, I would get stuck on the initial loading screen, one big black retraction bar impeding my access to the game. A few times after, “Cold War” collapsed under the weight of the interminable opening cutscene.
Once in, my first choice (and most players’, I would assume) was to try out the multiplayer. If you played last month’s “Cold War” open beta, nothing about the multiplayer should surprise you. By default, it plays faster and twitchier than “Modern Warfare,” which some fans are sure to welcome. But the game also offers some concessions to a year that has seen the ascent of the slower, more deliberate shooter, namely breakout hits “Warzone” and “Valorant.” (An honorable mention too for “Due Process,” another slow-ish shooter out this year that resembles “Cold War,” primarily in its level of early access unwieldiness). “Cold War” multiplayer features several slower, more tactical game modes, such as VIP Escort and Search and Destroy. There’s also Fireteam: Dirty Bomb, a mode that felt so poorly thought out in beta that I’ve avoided it entirely thus far.
For the “real game” to unlock, you’ll need to grind some multiplayer matches with braindead, bot-like teammates and a low-tier, default arsenal. (For my money, the most goated base loadout is the Double Agent; the utility isn’t great, but having both a scoped rifle and an SMG feels great). A few games in, players unlock customization options and new loadouts, which is where the rest of the game really starts to show itself: The next few weeks, as metas develop and certain attachments and utilities are shown to be more advantageous than others, will make for exciting, frenetic play.
Here, too, the day-one issues showed up. In one game, while watching an end-of-match Best Play highlight reel of my own sniper gameplay, I was booted from the game, supposedly for inactivity. And some unfortunate latency issues disrupted some of my earliest rounds of Team Deathmatch.
A few missions into the campaign mode, it’s hard to render a verdict on the story beyond: “It’s ‘Call of Duty.’” It’s pulp! It’s schlock! The game opens with the player chasing some guy (it’s not important) across the rooftops of Amsterdam (sure). In the process, you mow down roughly 40 of his stooges. When you catch him, he gives you intel on the whereabouts of some other guy (it’s not really clear from this exchange what warranted him having a platoon of guards), after which you’re given the option to toss him off the roof, let him go or take him captive. The lesson of the mission: You and your gruff compatriots have the go-ahead to operate outside the boundaries of what’s legal.
This sets up one of the funniest scenes in contemporary game narratives. Your tacticool buddies are dropped into a dimly lit boardroom in the D.C.-Virginia area to haggle with some government stiff over whether you should be authorized to do crimes or not. The pencil-pushing loser nerd wimp bureaucrat objects: Surely the U.S. government shouldn’t authorize barely legal operations! The secret agents can’t withstand this withering assault on their desire to do crimes; they need backup, quick. And who comes strolling through the door but uncanny-valley Ronald Reagan, who quickly puts the peacenik suit in his place: “Who do you think approved their last mission?”
The big selling-point set pieces go by quick and, despite the graphical fidelity, often blur together into an undifferentiated mass. There’s a dramatic last stand style shootout on a hill in Vietnam, but I couldn’t actually tell you what the scene looked like. It’s a bit drab. The entire early Vietnam mission flies by in what feels like 10 minutes between a run and gun portion, a rail shooter sequence on a helicopter, and the aforementioned dramatic-but-not-really-if-you-think-about-it last stand at the helicopter crash site.
Ironically, the story picks up in “Cold War’s” quietest moments. The game’s mission hub is a warehouse in Berlin, where the player can chat with teammates about intel and all sorts of other random minutiae. In one memorable moment, my conversation with one NPC was interrupted by a phone call, which is meant for Adler, your no-nonsense boss. He picks up and takes the call in his office, and you can stand outside the window and eavesdrop. Ask him about it later, and he’ll warn you: Keep the spy stuff outside. It’s rather charming.
The player selects missions in this hub by scouring evidence (flavor text) on a large whiteboard, with threads connecting locations and pieces of evidence. It sets the mood well and is a fun implementation of a mission select screen. (If you like that sort of thing, I would recommend “A Hand With Many Fingers,” a game that is all corkboard-and-thread connections and evidence gathering, and no shooting.)
“Cold War” may be a deeper game than it lets on. Early in the story, you can ask one of the non-player characters about some intel you’ve uncovered. The text you select to do so is phrased thusly: “I decrypted all of the intel myself?” Shouldn’t your character know what they did or didn’t do? It all feels a bit meta, exposition bumping up against the fourth wall. The whole interaction feels intentionally weird and off-kilter.
This and other small touches afford the game’s narrative a queasy, uncertain quality. Maybe there is no truth. Only more time — with the narrative, and with the game’s multiplayer — will lead to clarity on “Cold War’s” true depth.