It’s reasonable to be cynical of Call of Duty: Black Ops 4. The game doesn’t feature a single-player campaign, a staple of the 15-year-old franchise, and its all-or-nothing approach to DLC with the Black Ops Pass can feel like a lot to swallow. Although Black Ops 4 doesn’t make up for those specific concerns, it does manage to make a compelling case for itself. Spending significant time with all three of its robust modes reveals a willingness to try new and meaningful things with the well-worn formula.
The biggest addition is Blackout, the series’ attempt at battle royale. At the most basic level, it functions almost identically to its contemporary counterparts. Taking place over a wide map, players drop to a spot of their choosing, scrambling for loot, avoiding other players, and running away from an ever-collapsing circle. Blackout takes the familiar template and tweaks it with a series of additions that feel sufficiently distinct.
One of these elements is the flexible wingsuit. If utilized properly, it’s possible to reach most locations after the initial drop. Combined with the large but not too large size of the map, conflict can feel relatively constant, especially at the beginning of a match. It’s not that there isn’t any downtime, there’s just a more accelerated pace compared to similar games. Contributing to the faster pace is the general tightness of Call of Duty’s moving and shooting, which translates exceedingly well to battle royale.
It’s easy to vault over a wide variety of obstacles or to crash through windows. With just a bit of practice, it’s simple to raid small outposts for guns, ammo, and healing supplies within seconds, creating an engaging flow as you dart from one location to the next. The speed and mobility of healing do wonders to affect the momentum of a match as well. Being able to efficiently heal while shooting it out with another player is often a deciding factor in whether or not you live through an encounter.
Similarly, healing makes it possible to spend a lot of time outside the collapsing circle. It may be worth expending first-aid for a bit of last-minute looting or to get the jump on someone. Blackout is an active mode that feels connected to the in-your-face chaos Call of Duty is known for while also being invigorating for the series overall. There is overt Call of Duty-isms incorporated into Blackout, and what makes them work is the restraint of their implementation. Perks come in the form of consumables that offer enticing advantages like healing and reviving faster or moving around more quietly.
Yet perks only last a short time, so figuring out when to use them is part of the strategy. They can also quickly fill up inventory space, leaving less room for equipment, meds, and attachments. Meanwhile, zombies guard mystery boxes at specific points on the map, and both the zombies and boxes offer powerful loot. Depending on how you’re doing during a given match, the rewards may be worth opening fire on the zombies and drawing attention to yourself. Since zombies are only at particular spots, they’re not something you’ll deal with often.
The limited implementations for both perks and zombies make for nice wrinkles to the formula that don’t interfere with the genre’s natural appeal. Beyond being the last soldier standing, there is a decent amount to chase after. Kills, completing challenges, and placing highly within a match all earn merits that slowly raise your rank. It’s a method of progression that can be pretty frustrating. Having a string of bad games and making little to no progress feels debilitating. At the same time, having an excellent game is that much more rewarding, and the delayed satisfaction ultimately wins out.
Since placing highly nets a good amount of merits, it may encourage players to constantly hide in the most obscure places and avoid engaging with others, but that playstyle only remains interesting for so long, and a lot of equipment is effective at sniffing out campers. After spending several hours with Blackout, it’s easy to see that it has a solid foundation, but it’s also not so different that it can hold attention for months on end without regular updates. Small technical issues such as sounds being louder than the distance would suggest also need to be ironed out. Plus, it’s annoying to move individual attachments from one gun to another.
Hopefully, Treyarch will continue to evolve Blackoutin the near future. Much of the standard competitive multiplayer instantly familiar. The Pick 10 system for class customization returns, as do plenty of classic scorestreaks. Black Ops 4 mixes things up fairly dramatically though, with movement, healing, and specialists. Unlike Black Ops 3 and Infinite Warfare, there’s no wall running or thrust jumping. Movement isn’t quite as restricted as it was in World War II either since you can slide quickly and travel a good distance. The Black Ops 4 approach is a great in-between that retains the white-knuckle speed of Call of Duty without being overwhelmingly frantic.
Instead of regenerating health, an assumed staple of the series, players now have to manually heal, and the ability to do so is on a timer. It’s a welcome addition, one that offers a greater sense of control and makes skirmishes more intense. Scrambling to heal in the midst of a firefight and managing to come out alive is a harrowing but ultimately memorable experience. Specialists are easily the most defining aspect of multiplayer, and although they were introduced in Black Ops 3, they have a much more commanding presence here. Each of the 10 specialists has their own ability and equipment that’s entirely unique to them.
Choosing specialist equipment means locking yourself out of more traditional things such as frag grenades, concussion grenades, etc. Players don’t even unlock other equipment until higher levels, so the game pushes you to learn what specialists have to offer. It’s a decision that may not sit well with everyone but it goes a long way to change the flow from match to match. Laying down mesh mine traps as the specialist Nomad is a lot different than using Ruin’s grappling hook to thrust yourself into or out of a fight. The same is true of specialist abilities, which are big flashy tools that can rapidly swing the tide of a match.
Firebreak’s flamethrower can just wreak havoc, particularly if used when the enemy is clumped together. Although four of the competitive maps are from previous Black Ops games, the 10 new ones hold their own. Contraband, which takes place on a remote island, contains a maze of tight corridors as well as underwater paths to get the jump on the enemy. Gridlock, a destroyed Japanese metropolis, features a wide-open center that’s a flashpoint of activity as well as contentious vantage points overlooking that area. None of the maps are so inventive that they’ll blow you away, but there’s enough variety to keep things interesting.
Heist, the lone new mode in multiplayer, functions similarly to Counter-Strike. Money is earned during rounds and then that money is used to buy weapons, equipment, perks, scorestreaks, and attachments. Considering specialists don’t really come into play in Heist, it’s a slower mode that definitely serves as an excellent change of pace. Every single specialist has a strong role and although that role may be more or less useful depending on the map and game mode, absolutely none of them feel worthless; they emphasize teamwork and strategy.
Although random online players may not always adhere to those things, the extra layer gives multiplayer just a bit more depth. It’s a shame then that getting to know the specialists through their individual missions is such a slog. They’re effective tutorials, but the stories are so brief and fragmented that it’s pretty difficult to summon any motivation to care. On some level, it’s appreciated that Treyarch included the story in such a multiplayer-focused game, but the method they’ve chosen is ineffective and certainly doesn’t come close to being a substitute for a proper campaign.
Zombies, the beloved and increasingly complex wave-based survival mode returns in Black Ops 4 and has so many new additions. It contains two different storylines, the brand new Chaos storyline, and the previously established Aether storyline. As with zombies in the past, there are plenty of hidden things to uncover and story beats to piece together, but even if that seems overwhelming or you have no interest, the model is still immensely enjoyable on a basic level. A lot of that enjoyment comes from how accessible and flexible zombies feel overall.
New players are eased in with a beginners matchmaking option as well as a substantial tutorial, and Rush, a new way to play zombies, is also an effective alternative. Rush is about accumulating as many points as possible with all weapons being free and doors automatically opening over time. It’s an intentionally arcadey vibe that’s more straightforward than classic zombies but not necessarily less intense, with players having to defend small zones against giant throngs of undead. The available maps are fantastic and each offers a substantially different experience. “Nine” is regarded as the starter map. It features a wide central area connected to four towers, which is a fairly simple layout to digest.