When Treyarch announced it would be doing away with a campaign in this year’s Call of Duty, I was apprehensive. There was potential for Black Ops 4 to turn into a multiplayer carbon copy of the last few franchise instalments, without the mode that gave it some substance. Don’t get me wrong - the previous Black Ops campaigns have never been anything to write home about, but they’re fun, over-the-top, narrative-driven action romps. With a battle royale mode replacing it - of all things - there were so many ways Black Ops 4 could’ve been ruined in order to latch on to the latest video game trend.
But it hasn’t. Far from it, in fact. Blackout does have a lot of problems - some of which I’ll get into - but the whole package is solid. It’s going toe-to-toe with two of the biggest video games in the world right now; Fortnite (opens in new tab) and PUBG (opens in new tab). While it’s tough to compare it directly to Fortnite, since their styles are worlds apart, Blackout has noticed PUBG’s shortcomings and delivered an experience we haven’t had yet in the battle royale genre.
The most refined battle royale yet
Blackout is a battle royale game with AAA polish. Why? Because it’s built on the same engine used to drive that consistent Call of Duty multiplayer we’re all familiar with year in, year out. The shooting mechanics are as you’d expect; clean and refined, albeit with slightly more recoil. Movement is smooth, gameplay feels deep, there are no unfair deaths you’re left baffled by like in PUBG. Blackout truly is Call of Duty: Battle Royale. Treyarch has done just enough to the formula to make it its own, yet still retain that battle royale exhilaration.
Blackout manages to maintain the more realistic feel seen in PUBG, but at the same time, it’s got an almost arcade-like aura around it. Perks make an appearance but as consumable pick up, rather than effects you apply before a game. Various equipment and attachments are scattered across the floor such as grenades, extended magazines and scopes. You loot everything and hope the RNG gods are on your side, but as long as you can survive past the initial chaos, you’re almost guaranteed to find your favourite gear every game.
I don’t feel like I’ll be playing Blackout for much longer though. Part of that is down to the aforementioned madness at the beginning of each game. The map is actually quite small - Treyarch has never been clear on the exact size, but it feels smaller than the Fortnite map (opens in new tab), which isn’t big to begin with. Since there are between 88 (solo) and 100 (squads) players in each game and only 14 major locations, Blackout suffers from the same thing a number of battle royale titles do: player flow. No matter where I land, there will be numerous other players with me. Whether that’s as far away from the flight path as possible or right underneath, the lack of decent loot away from the named locations you see on the map severely hinders the flow in each Blackout game.
Some of the locations are truly massive. You can loot one side while an enemy loots the other and not cross paths, but we’re talking at least five or more players at every single location. If you don’t land on a gun and armour, you may as well kiss the match goodbye and prepare to queue again. It happens more often than you’d think, too. With a map so small, opting for so little major landmarks was a poor choice. Cut them down in size and increase the number of interesting places to 20-25 and map flow will be better, since fewer people will die instantly.
Fortnite makes its initial chaos work because of two reasons: there’s a number of unnamed locations to land at where you can still find good gear and you can build your own cover. If you’ve got a rubbish weapon at the start but you’re an apt builder, you can turn the situation around and gain the advantage over your adversary. In Blackout, if you don’t find a decent gun right away, you’re done for. Blackout is a wonderful experience when you survive the first minute or two, but when you don’t - which is a significant portion of the time - it’s miserable.
Somehow, it’s the most refreshing Call of Duty multiplayer in years
What about the multiplayer? Ever since Call of Duty 4, a common complaint has been that the multiplayer isn’t original. It always copies too much from last year's game, there’s no innovation with the modes, and every time it’s roughly the same experience with slightly different maps. Those complaints can kiss themselves goodbye, because Black Ops 4 has changed up a considerable amount.
Let’s start with the player count. Previous Call of Duty games have almost always been 6v6, except for the Ground War playlist which was 9v9, or Ranked modes. Now, in an effort to bridge the casual Call of Duty players with the competitive ones, Treyarch has reduced public games to 5v5 and increased esports from 4v4 to 5v5. This means that anybody getting involved with Call of Duty for the first time can essentially have the same experience in a public match that pro players find in eSports environments.
The great thing is that it works. The maps are all slightly smaller, movement speed has been increased and despite Black Ops 3 having jetpacks, everything is much faster paced. You don’t notice the lack of an extra person on the enemy team because the game has compensated, creating an intense battleground in every single match you play.
Another huge beneficial change is that the time-to-kill is now higher. Compared to previous Call of Duty games, it takes an extra bullet or two to kill someone. Gunfights feel fairer and you get shot in the back with no chance to react a lot less. Combine that with the new manual healing mechanics and your survival feels like it's in your hands considerably more, rather than regularly dying to something out of your control.
Specialists make a return from Black Ops 3 and while that game was ruined by the jetpack mechanics, this time around they feel much more at home. Every single specialist is viable in almost every map and mode, from Torque to block your opponents’ potential routes or Ruin to clear enemies from objectives. Your specialist choice doesn’t dominate your playstyle like in Overwatch, but it allows you to fill a role on your team and be more versatile in your abilities.
One of the most refreshing new additions to the game is a mode called Heist. Throw everything you already know about Call of Duty out of the window because we’re Counter Strike now, boys. You don’t pick a class in this mode - instead, you start with a pistol. Each round, depending on your performance, you earn money you can use to buy weapons for the next round, gradually improving your loadout and perks. While Counter Strike focuses on bomb defusal, Heist is all about reaching a duffel bag full of money before the other team and escorting it to the evacuation point.
Previous iterations of Call of Duty multiplayer have had a few guns that have been outright incredible. Think about the M16 from Call of Duty 4, the UMP in Modern Warfare 2 or the FAMAS in the original Black Ops. Not this time - almost every single gun has its place. I’ve found my favourite Black Ops 4 weapons (opens in new tab) to be the Vapr Assault Rifle and the Spitfire SMG but that’s because they suit my playstyle, not because they’re overpowered. Aside from rocking an LMG with a ridiculous scope, you can work with pretty much every gun. There are very few balancing issues - the only thing that comes to mind is how tight the spread is on an SMG with Laser Sight. We said every specialist is viable, well so is every weapon.
Despite a couple of very minor gripes like quickscoping still being rampant and the necessity to run Ghost on every class (hiding you on the mini-map radar), Black Ops 4’s multiplayer has been knocked out of the park. After years of falling out of love with Call of Duty’s multiplayer, Treyarch has channeled into my thoughts and done everything I conjured up when dreaming of my ideal Call of Duty multiplayer.
The Zombies story doesn’t cut it as a campaign replacement
There’s one more mode we haven’t touched on yet and it’s where the bulk of the narrative comes in for Black Ops 4. Zombies has three maps right from the start this time - four if you’ve bought the season pass - and each one is vastly different. In IX, you’re thrust back in time to Ancient Rome with the underground of a coliseum to explore, Voyage of Despair has you running up and down the Titanic, while Blood of the Dead is a remake of Mob of the Dead, the Black Ops 2 map set on the infamous prison, Alcatraz.
Zombies has never been my draw for Call of Duty. I loved Nacht der Untoten in World at War, followed by the utter classics in Kino der Toten and Shangri-La, but from then onwards, Zombies got stale. My enthralment with the mode was revived last year for WWII’s Army of the Dead, but died less than a month in. Coming in to Black Ops 4, I was excited for three unique maps right from the start, mainly to see what narrative they brought to the table in lieu of a campaign but also because the trailers they showed off looked awesome.
I’m not going to say I’m disappointed by the Zombies maps in Black Ops 4, but it’s underwhelming. As someone who prefers to straight up slay zombies and will go for Pack-a-Punch if I know how, I was hoping they would do away with the convoluted process of unlocking easter eggs. With recent iterations, if you don’t have a walkthrough open while you play Zombies, you’re not going to make any progress whatsoever. You won’t know which skull to eject from the wall, put in a grinder to turn into bone meal, then combine with poop to make fertilizer, which then teleports you to an alternate reality. We're not kidding, that is actually one of the tasks you have to do to unlock the main IX easter egg.
If you’re like me and you don’t like the direction Zombies has gone with arduous tasks and nonsensical problem solving, Black Ops 4 doesn’t change that. The maps are rad, don’t get me wrong, but since this was supposed to be Black Ops 4’s main narrative, it’s a huge disappointment. On the contrary, if you’re a fan of following guides or even attempting to solve these insanely tricky puzzles yourself, Zombies this year will be right up your street.
I’ve been playing Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 on PC and despite having a more than capable rig (GTX 1070Ti, 16GB DDR4, i5-4440k), there’s been numerous performance issues. I’ve had a couple of crashes in the week since release but more frustrating are the consistent frame rate skips. Blackout is where they happen the most, but it’s also common in both multiplayer and Zombies. A complete system reboot helps for a while, but then the problem reappears without fail. Call of Duty has been infamously bad on PC but with the introduction of Blackout, more PC players are jumping in than ever so it’s disappointing it’s this bad.
I wasn’t expecting to enjoy Black Ops 4 as much as I do. I’m a veteran of the series - I used to even compete at events in the UK for older titles 5+ years ago - but everything they showed before the release - bar the Zombies trailers - looked lacklustre. I definitely didn’t expect to consider the multiplayer as the best mode but here we are. Treyarch has knocked it out of the park and it makes me very excited for the upcoming eSports season. Call of Duty’s first attempt at battle royale isn’t bad either, but I know I’ll be going back to Fortnite for my regular battle royale fix before long.