Arguably the standard bearer for the now venerable Call of Duty franchise, the Black Ops series is rooted in providing some of the most compelling narrative experiences in FPS gaming over the last decade, so it was a bit of a shock when they announced that there would be no campaign mode this year. Instead, the popular multiplayer and zombies modes would be joined by a Battle Royale mode with a distinct Treyarch flair. There is a lot about Black Ops 4 that steps out of the well worn path of the series, and while it doesn’t blaze any new trails, it provides a solid gaming experience well worth the price of admission.
Multiplayer is the bread and butter of the Call of Duty franchise, and arguably the core feature of each yearly installment. While a lot of the focus in Black Ops 4 has been on Blackout, I’d argue that Treyarch has delivered one of the tightest multiplayer experiences the series has had in years. While I wasn’t originally a fan of the specialist concept, thinking I would miss the extensive character customization features of years past, hitting that character selection screen for the first time evoked memories of fighting games and arcades, replacing my concerns with hints of nostalgia. There’s still room for some customization with classes, though, and once you unlock them you can build loadouts in the familiar style according to how you play.
Black Ops 4 pulls a lot of elements from Black Ops 3, but tones things down a bit, leaving out the wall running and more vertical elements of that game. This combined with the manual health management feature has the welcome effect of making matches less twitchy in nature, slowing things down enough for a more tactical playstyle to emerge. Team-based modes especially benefit from this, owing to how the specialist abilities complement each other. Barreling through maps at high-speed not only doesn’t feel necessary like it has before, it can be much more deadly, with tripwires and turrets potentially lurking around any corner.
While many of the familiar game modes such as Kill Confirmed and Team Deathmatch are, of course, back, there is one mode in particular that stood out to me- Heist. Each round your team has to beat the other team to a big bag of cash and get out via the extraction point with the cash alive. On the first round everybody starts with only a pistol and each successive round you can purchase weapons, mods and upgrades that persist from round to round (unless its a consumable, like a grenade). Even if your team doesn’t nab the bag of cash in one round, you still get enough from each kill you rack up to up your game in the next. Honestly, it’s the closest thing to Counter Strike I’ve played in years, and I hope it catches on with the COD community.
While I definitely miss the campaign mode this year, there is some narrative action in Black Ops 4 by way of the Specialist HQ. Essentially a training mode not only for each specialist in turn but also each multiplayer game mode, you’ll find the only cinematic sequences on the disk outside of Zombies in this section. There’s a backstory sequence for each specialist, as well as an overarching thread that outlines how they became a team, with callbacks to previous installments of the Black Ops series. While I love the individual stories, the team narrative is chopped up into 10-15 second bits that, when alternated with the others, just aren’t long enough or memorable enough to make much sense as I unlock the cinematics. Once I got to the end of the narrative, I was honestly just left confused. Whatever story Treyarch was trying to tell, it was just too overwrought and convoluted for the manner in which they told it (Really makes me wonder if what I saw was what remained of a scrapped campaign narrative…) The training sequences are incredibly thorough, however, leaving me more and more impressed with each character and how they balance and complement each other, my only wish is that there was something similar for Zombies and Blackout, those two modes could use a little more explicit direction and method of training.
If you’re a Zombies fan, there’s a lot to love about this year’s Call of Duty. While the last couple of games had huge convoluted maps with extensive hoops to jump through to progress through the narrative, Black Ops 4 has three different experiences, each with a much more manageable scale. IX and Voyage of Despair are both completely new, but Blood of the Dead is a reimagining of the fan-favorite Mob of the Dead from Black Ops II, with a return to Alcatraz. While each map is smaller, overall it feels like a lot more content, and for the first time in years it feels like I might be able to get through the storyline without having multiple expert zombie slayers on my team (there’s only so many times you get revived before they realize you’re more trouble than you’re worth). There are some customization and ability collectibles that you acquire through something that looks suspiciously loot box-y (not seeing any microtransactions, though, at least not yet), that can be equipped and consumed, some of which are persistent from round to round. Each experience uses roughly the same mechanics, with some differences based on context, though it can be confusing when a power up is a potion in IX but a soda in Blood of the Dead?
Also, for the first time, I believe, there are additional game modes for Zombies, though the only one I tried was Rush. Rush basically ignores the narrative and jumping through hoops structure of classic zombies and forces you to rush to an ever-changing designated area of the map, fighting off waves of undead. Between waves you accrue points by running around collecting shiny gold coins. While this is a great way to explore the ins and outs of each of the maps without having to accumulate and spend money to open up each area, I didn’t really care for the mode too much, as I felt the narrative thread was the only thing really giving me incentive to keep grinding through each wave.
Finally, there is Blackout. Full disclosure, the only other experience with a Battle Royale-style game that I have had was two very short rounds of Fortnite a couple of months ago. For some reason I thought it was a shooty-shoot game, but apparently all anyone really wanted to do was build crude wooden structures (apparently, they WILL shoot you if you stare at them dumbly trying to figure out what they are doing for long enough, though). Needless to say, I was skeptical going into this, and after a few rounds under my belt… I’m still skeptical, but I do get the appeal and think it’s a lot of fun. Why am I skeptical? Well, for one thing it still feels very rough around the edges, and there’s a level of refinement that I am accustomed to with COD games that isn’t quite there yet in Blackout. Yes, there are many COD things present here – the weapons, the controls and movement, the SFX – but it doesn’t feel very cohesive. Maybe it’s the mishmash nature of the map, and the fact that they are pulling in content from previous games, including zombies, I’m not entirely sure. There are gameplay elements that feel rough as well; the progression system seems at odds with the style of gameplay that Blackout encourages – I went through multiple rounds without racking up any kills, consistently placed in the top 5, yet got to level 2 long after my more bloodthirsty teammates who died before me did. Notably, the point bonus I scored for achieving 4th place was for placing within the top 15. Shouldn’t survival net the biggest gains in a game about survival?
Item management feels a bit rough and fiddly as well. While common items like weapons and health are handled in a way that feels intuitive, Weapon mods and power-ups often require calling up an inventory screen that covers the majority of the view and usage requires holding down buttons for an extended time. Given the choice between activating a power-up and blocking my view for several seconds, or just not bothering with the power-ups, I just won’t bother and stay alive. The whole backpack mechanic feels pretty arbitrary, as well. Backpacks allow you to carry more stuff, but it’s stuff like weapon parts, or power-ups. Health packs and consumable weapons fit into the nigh-unlimited capacity shoulder button slots, so you don’t really need a backpack that much, but you might as well grab one because they are everywhere. Interestingly enough, the one place you can’t retrieve a backpack from is a body, though you can loot everything they had in it if you want. I also feel the game leans too much on player’s prior experience with Call of Duty games when it comes to weapons. It’s not enough to give us the name of the weapon, there really should be at minimum a designation, such as what is listed on the weapons screens in multiplayer, and some kind of at-a-glance statistics when faced with a swap-out would be appreciated.
Certain specific areas on the map (graveyard, asylum, lighthouse, etc) come stocked with zombies, which at first blush sounds like fun, and yes they drop powerful weapons and items that aren’t found elsewhere on the map. But the fact that they only show up in specific areas begs the question, “why ever go there?”. Dropping into an area thick with zombies kind of puts a crimp into the whole survival idea, and the weapons, while good, just aren’t worth wasting your ammo and giving away your location to your opponents. They would be far more effective and interesting if they popped up in random spots on the map.
My biggest frustration going into the weekend was not knowing how to unlock additional character skins, and only one thing changed in that regard since I first posted the review in progress: One skin got a bright green icon that seemed to indicate the ability to download or switch to it, but in fact I was met with a message that I could access the skin after purchasing the Black Ops Game Pass. This would be fine, except for the fact that every other skin in the menu was locked and only gave the vaguest instruction on how to access them (“Unlocked by completing character mission” or “Character mission unavailable”, etc) followed by a Black Ops hashmark symbol, leaving me to wonder if I needed something from previous games to unlock the skin or if it was just pointing out that the character skin was derived from the referenced game. The only other time I saw the phrase “Character mission” was in a tip while waiting for Blackout to start, and that didn’t provide much more info. I understand the desire to make some content discoverable, and it certainly helps the longevity of the game and provides a goal for player to work towards. It just seems odd to dangle multiple tabs of skins in front of the player without giving them much of an idea on how to get their hands on one.
Ultimately, Blackout is a LOT of fun as it is right now, make no bones about it. However, it still feels a little undercooked, and I see a lot of iteration happening over the course of the next several months. Frankly, that makes sense, this is the kind of gameplay that can generally only be refined after it’s in the wild. Right now I’d sum it up as “good”, but here and there I see hints of “great”.
One of the features that I was looking forward to this time around was local play, and as of right now I’m afraid I have some good news and I have some bad news. The good news is, Zombies local play works great – framerates are solid and gameplay is intact. I can’t say the same for multiplayer local play, however, as the framerate is so choppy that it is pretty much unplayable. Additionally, on the character selection screen, once one of the two local players selects a character, all of the character slots disappear for the other player, a situation that we were able to remedy by that player pressing the back button for some reason. To put it bluntly, this feature is broken, and while I understand the focus is almost wholly on online multiplayer, I’m praying it eventually gets fixed. While nothing gamebreaking, Blackout has the occasional glitch, though largely these are relegated to the menu and transition screens. I did find it odd to hear choppy audio from another player’s microphone during the loading screen on a solo run
Call of Duty Black Ops 4
My experience with Call of Duty Black Ops 4 has been extremely positive, and I’m having a blast with the game. Don’t let the fact that there’s no campaign fool you into thinking that this year’s offering is light, there is a ton of content that will take even harcore players time to tap into. While lacking some of the expected Call of Duty polish, Blackout is by far the centerpiece of the game, and will likely stand as an exemplar in the Battle Royale genre.