For a series as consistent and often evolutionary as Call of Duty, Black Ops 4 is easily the most disruptive game since Advanced Warfare. The lack of a single player campaign came out of the blue and is a disappointment in many ways, but in its place Treyarch have bolstered some other sections of the game and added Battle Royale in what feels like the start of a new generation for the long-running series.
For many the multiplayer will remain their bread and butter, and it’s here that we can best see the series’ continuation. There’s the character classes of Black Ops 3, each coming with a special ability and now a secondary ability that charges over time, bringing their design one step closer to the multiplayer philosophy of a hero shooter. Grenade spam is as good as gone here, as few of the characters have grenades, and they’re on a cooldown even if they do, instead of being restocked every life. It leans once more on Treyarch’s tried and tested Pick 10 loadout system for your weaponry, giving you plenty of customisation, albeit within a relatively constrained feeling selection of weapons.
The movement is wonderfully fluid, building off the flexibility that was seen in Black Ops 3 in how forgiving it is with mantling over objects and being able to clamber about. It almost feels like the previous era of augmented motion is running in the background, just with the removal of double jumping and wall running. For “boots on the ground” players, that’s exactly what they want.
I’ll admit that I struggled with the multiplayer for quite some time though, as the pace of the game and millisecond reactions often caught me out and I seemed to always end up on the losing side of a 1 on 1 or being flanked and shot in the back. There’s been a symbolic increase in health to 150 tied to a slight lengthening of the time to kill, and you apply med kits manually instead of automatically recharging your health, but this is still a fast paced game and reflexes and awareness are king regardless of the mode.
Team Deathmatch and Kill Confirmed are still the staples, but a ton of returning and new modes exist alongside, with the menus promoting certain games or playlists. Heist is in there this week, which will be familiar to Counter Strike fans as you buy upgrades between rounds, while Control has a limited pool of respawns as one team defends and the other attacks a pair of capture points. It’s like Battlefield’s Rush shrunk down into a competitive mode and works really well once it clicks, keeping the pace higher than elimination-style modes, but with the looming threat of either side running out of lives.
The core multiplayer is good, and looks set to be a fan favourite in its own right, but it’s Blackout which could easily form the basis of a new era for the series. Yes, it’s following in the footsteps of other Battle Royale games, but there’s just something about blending it with Call of Duty’s particular style of combat that works so well. The relatively realistic military style will appeal to a certain cachet that can’t deal with Fortnite’s visuals or building, while the slick and fast paced gameplay feels snappy on the controller in a way that few others manage to achieve. But let’s not beat too much around the bush, because a lot of Blackout’s appeal is just that it’s a pretty good looking military Battle Royale with good performance.
It’s not particularly groundbreaking, but it does throw in a few quirky Treyarch moments into the mix, such as with zombies popping up in certain locations, challenging you to defeat them in order to earn some of the best gear in the match. It’s also far from the biggest of Battle Royale maps, but that helps keep the game’s pace high without as much of the downtime that’s often seen during the mid-game. There’s plenty of fan service stuffed in there though, with some of the most iconic multiplayer maps from the Black Ops series serving as building blocks or inspiration around which the larger map is built. It’s a great idea, with these areas then having some of the flow, the lines of sight and angles that have worked so well in the past.
The weakest aspect across the entire game is player progression. The levelling up in multiplayer is about as straightforward as it gets these days, with player levelling unlocking weapons, equipment and perks, and weapon levelling netting you attachments. It doesn’t take long to do so, but having to play a new gun with iron sights feels archaic, as does the fact that upgrades have no tradeoffs, putting you at a slight power disadvantage for a few matches. For Blackout, you just have challenges and levelling up with the vague promise of some skins from other modes down the line. When you only earn points for kills and placing in the top 15, you can all too easily come away with nothing from a match but adding to distance-based challenges. It’s poor compared to the week-in, week-out variety and challenges that Fortnite offers, and something that needs to be improved to keep the mode feeling fresh.
The third pillar of Black Ops 4 is, of course, Zombies, which has a bigger presence than ever. It’s more than just having three maps instead of the usual one, as Blood of the Dead features the Aether storyline and characters that have been in the Treyarch games throughout, alongside a new Chaos storyline that has runs across the other two maps.
If you know Zombies, you’ll feel right at home here, but a tutorial is there to peel away some of the more abstract elements for newcomers. IX and its Roman theme coliseum of zombies feels the most straightforward, with a good layout and a relatively clear structure, but Ship of the Damned feels messier with a take on the sinking Titanic that’s full of tight corridors and even some underwater sections, not to mention hunting down obscure iconography and turning dials to match clock hands.
It also has what is easily the clearest character customisation of a Zombies mode so far, letting you customise a loadout of perks to pick up and potions to drink, as well as choosing between special weapons that charge up over time and can be very useful in a pinch.
And so we come back to the single player story, which has been instead used to wrap up a series of player tutorials for the multiplayer characters. There’s nods back to Mason and Woods from the first two games, the former’s granddaughter assembling a team of the world’s deadliest soldiers, but it’s tonally off and consigned to cutscenes. It’s a weird inclusion that adds little to the game.
Black Ops 4’s Blackout is clearly the star of the show, with Treyarch making this Battle Royale business look easy, but it’s standing on the shoulders of a great all round multiplayer experience and a Zombies mode that’s bigger and more streamlined than ever. You might still miss having a single player campaign, and there’s work to be done to ensure Blackout’s longevity, but this could easily be the start of a new era of Call of Duty.
Version tested: PlayStation 4 – Also available on Xbox One & PC