Call of Duty needed a change, though few of us could have predicted that that change would entail dropping the franchise’s iconic (and not always for the right reasons) single-player campaign to replace it with a battle royale mode. Despite the fairly significant overhaul, Black Ops 4 remains very much a Call of Duty game, for better or worse.
Blackout is inevitably going to be where most of the attention is drawn to this time out and it must be said that it certainly delivers the experience many would be hoping for from the first out-and-out AAA venture into the subgenre. Coming across like a decent middle ground between Fortnite and PUBG in terms of pacing and seriousness, it’s a well polished time (surprisingly so even on PC) that pays homage to the history of the franchise with its referential map.
Players can drop into many nods from previous games in the series, including Nuketown and plenty of zombie-centric areas. It’s a great touch and one that firmly places Call of Duty’s own stamp on the battle royale; while it lacks the verticality and variety of the Fortnite map, its locations are worth exploring, whether that be for the first time or the hundredth.
The gunplay has always felt tight and precise in Call of Duty games and so it remains here. As the first game in the franchise I’ve played on PC, I was expecting some anguish as I adapted to the change. Not quite so: I picked it up quickly and was doing my customarily average best rather quickly. Blackout feels like a good entry point for those unfamiliar with Call of Duty, the playerbase a mixture of those who’ve played Call of Duty for years and intrigued newcomers.
This is helped by the pacing of Blackout feeling more lenient to those who want to avoid constant confrontation: you’re only ever likely to encounter a few enemies solo unless you drop right where the choppers begin to enter the map. There are long stretches of nothing happening at all, which means it lacks the immediacy of some of its peers and it’s unlikely that you will muster high kill counts. Its slower pace lends itself well to higher tension, however, meaning that you’re always on the lookout for an enemy to get the drop on you from behind, such is the Call of Duty way. There’s no option to magic a wall for protection, though it does offer a couple of alternatives that I personally could never gel well with.
Another gripe is the game’s implementation of armour, which works in a similar vein to PUBG’s helmets but used across your body and even your head in its level 3 variant. Again, this is purely down to luck: you can search a bevy of buildings and only ever find the base version that can withstand just a few shots. Meanwhile, if you manage to survive to the late stretches of a match, anyone who has level 2 and upwards has a huge advantage.
It could be argued that this isn’t too dissimilar to Fortnite, but whereas Epic’s monolith has places to search for shields almost every thirty seconds, Blackout’s map is far sparser. Likewise, Fortnite regularly doles out shields to buff your survivability, but Blackout is far stricter and ultimately down to the luck of the draw. Healing items are plentiful, but when most encounters come down to who can see each other and shoot first, these small margins make a huge — and often irritating — difference.
It also has to be said that as someone who has played more than enough battle royale games to last them a lifetime over the past year, Blackout didn’t do enough to stop me feeling jaded about them entirely. In my mind, they’re now so common that it’s just like playing a round of Team Deathmatch. The early buzz from outlasting others and surviving by the skin of my teeth is now gone, meaning that a large part of what made them so addictive is no longer appealing — it feels like I am constantly chasing a dragon that I will never catch up with again. Too many cooks haven’t just spoiled the broth, they’ve made me want a different meal.
Your mileage may vary, but I sincerely missed the single-player. Rather than looking at why people aren’t playing them as much as they used to (owing to the fact that they’ve become completely ridiculous and rote), Treyarch and Activision decided to do away with a campaign altogether. There is still single-player of sorts, which effectively acts as a tutorial with cutscenes interspersed between sections, but it’s just not the same. Series veteran Woods is your extremely cringeworthy guide and delivers dialogue that borders on parody, the kind of terrible edginess that people lampoon Call of Duty for. It’s also oddly buried in the Specialist HQ screen and away from where the developers want you to be focusing, so much so that my Blackout partner didn’t even know it existed despite playing for dozens of hours.
Away from Blackout, Call of Duty’s beloved and equally maligned multiplayer offers some more immediate action, though it must be said that it was hardly bustling in terms of popularity on PC. My lobbies would rarely be full, which is a shame as Black Ops 4’s multiplayer feels like the freshest its been in years, even if it does seem to cater too faithfully to long-time fans.
As someone who’s been playing Call of Duty sporadically for a decade, it must be mentioned that I am not what you would call a great player. My K/D is a slippery slope, so too is my reading of the match flow. Black Ops 4 is more approachable for casual players than recent incarnations in its implementation of Overwatch-esque abilities, which can act as equalizers for those who are struggling.
Different characters come with different ways of turning the tides of battle, so whether that be deploying a barricade to suppress opponents or by unleashing a dog once your bar has sufficiently filled, it’s a good way of keeping things feeling fresh as well as fostering more of a focus on teamwork. You will inevitably not find any random teammates online that will try anything apart from getting the best stats for themselves, but those with a squad over comms will find themselves with a definite edge.
The time-to-kill feels a little better than in previous games, meaning that you won’t get shot from behind and instantly die quite so much, as is the Call of Duty way. Likewise, the ability to apply a healing item also instantly makes matches more dynamic and better-paced, rather than everyone repeatedly dying and causing a pile-up of scorestreaks. In that regard, Black Ops 4’s multiplayer is a marked improvement, but it still falls afoul of Call of Duty’s worst traits, however.
Spawning, to be truthful, is painfully bad in Black Ops 4, often reviving you right next to an enemy or just constantly in the worst spots. I’ve had many occasions where I’ve respawned, watched my avatar barely raise his gun and then swiftly get lit up like Tony Montana at the end of Scarface. There doesn’t seem to be a good variation in spawn points in any of the maps, which feels like a terrible oversight.
Elsewhere, unless you’re naturally great at FPS games and have the mouse control of Shroud, a lot of your success in multiplayer feels like it’s tied too closely to your level and the unlocks you’ve received. Things are especially tough on those just starting out as the game doesn’t allow you to even create your own class until at least level 5 and then it’s a case of grinding to unlock better attachments and weapons. The better perks are also tied to your level, so anyone who’s been playing for a while not only has more experience and expertise but also fundamental gameplay improvements. It’s two steps forward and one step back for the multiplayer.
I’ve always had a lot of time for Zombies in Call of Duty, and Black Ops 4’s version is where I spent the majority of my time with the game owing to just how much damn silly fun it is. It’s not revolutionary by any means — it’s still intrinsically about shooting things in the head — but the new locales and tweaks are welcome and probably offer the most variety in the whole package, despite how simple it is on the surface.
There are three different maps for Zombies this time out with each of them being tied to a narrative, though I will be damned if I can make sense of it all considering that I am, as mentioned, a sporadic Call of Duty player. IX is the level which I gravitated towards most: a hallucinatory trip back to gladiatorial combat in Roman times that is probably the most beginner-friendly of them all. There’s also a voyage on the Titanic in Voyage of the Damned and also Blood of the Dead, though I can say I only quickly dabbled in the latter. In addition, there’s a fourth map called Classified that is available as day one DLC, which I didn’t sample as I find it galling to be asked to pay extra for content that is already available on the day of release.
The formula remains the same: take on waves of zombies with the difficulty increasing with each wave. Bigger and badder enemies emerge the deeper you go, meaning that you need to find the best weapons to take them on as well as perks and elixirs. The better your level, the more you have access to the latter two as they allow you a range of different exit strategies and general gameplay buffs. Perks can be found within maps and cost a premium to unlock with points that you earn based on performance while elixirs are regenerating skills that your character can consume and include things like teleportation and faster aiming.
There’s a great deal to take on here, including the meta, which actually surprisingly is a thing. Playing naturally will eventually teach you all you need to know (as well as it depending on how helpful your teammates are), but Black Ops 4’s Zombies does a great job of explaining itself as well as including plenty of different ways to ease your into proceedings with modes catering specifically for new players.
It’s also unfortunately the area of Black Ops 4 which I ran into the most technical issues with. While the game itself is overall a fairly polished affair with solid frames and visuals on a decent enough rig (i7/1060/16GB) it does tend to crap the bed and require a return to desktop relatively often. It happens for me every few hours, but especially so in Zombies, which is a major heartbreaker when you’re well into a match. I wasn’t playing on the highest settings or even really stressing my memory, so it must be something that needs a closer look.
Your enjoyment of Black Ops 4 will come down to two things: just how much you love Call of Duty and if you’re still firmly aboard the battle royale train. It’s still a Call of Duty game in its DNA and while it tries its best to open itself up to new players, it’s too faithful to long-term players to ever truly feel more than an iterative forward step over anything revolutionary or likely to entice jaded players back, despite its bandwagon jumping.
Even with a new battle royale to play, Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 still feels like a game too shackled by its conventions to offer much more than a small step forward.
*There were none when this review was published. However, Activision and Treyarch have now decided to include MTs in their full-price game.