As the tides turn, and the sun rises and sets, so Call of Duty gets a new installment. Continuing the rather sporadic setting jumping, Treyarch’s Black Ops 4 once again takes us into the future, after last year’s WWII based shenanigans. We also have a new Blackout mode, which is COD’s version of a Battle Royale mode. Zombies makes a return, for all the faithful fans out there who love this mode, and interestingly enough the game has shipped without the traditional single-player campaign. Being both honest, and up front, I love the COD campaigns, I always have. I like sitting back for a few brain dead hours of shooting stuff. I like the Michael Bay style cut scenes, and the absolutely bonkers plots. That said, I will not be taking any points from the game for not having it. A general rule of thumb for me is to review games for what they are, not for what they are not.
This installment of the Call of Duty multiplayer experience is dropping any advanced movement systems. There is no wall running, or thruster packs, or other poorly implemented gameplay mechanics that Titanfall did well, and other games jumped on for a while. It’s back to boots on the ground, a little bit slower paced, and a part of me wants to give the game credit for being a little more of an adult pace, and a little less Mountain Dew. That said, this is a Call of Duty multiplayer experience, so you know what you are getting.
The map design feels perfectly reasonable for the series and isn’t going to provide any great shock to anybody. You have your fairly typical maps, with routes down the left and right flank, and another one down the middle. Like all COD games, they are designed to try and feed you a potentially endless stream of 1v1 gun fights, separated by roughly the speed of a reload animation. Where things get a little interesting with this in-game pacing is the new healing mechanic. You no longer automatically start to heal back health. Instead, you need to activate a syringe which will heal you. The syringe itself comes with two considerations; it’s own recharge time, and also a short animation when you use it. This presents you with a choice after each gunfight, either commit to the next aggressive movement or opt to play defensively to get a chance to heal.
As always, you are looking to build scorestreaks to unleash some of the game’s fun toys onto the map. From rather aggressive dogs, to exploding remote control cars, all the usual suspects are here. As usual, they enable people who are playing well to absolutely dominate a map, pounding the enemy into tiny little pixelated pieces. The game does a pretty good job of balancing itself with the type of gameplay that people want from COD, while also tipping its toes ever so slightly into the “Hero Shooter” concept. You can build your own Specialist, which involves certain skills and in-game abilities. While there is plenty of synergy between them to work with, each can also mop up a lobby in the hands of skilled player. There are no real support concepts here, with the majority of the game focusing on what people want: aggressive options.
For all the tweaks, new modes, and little twists on what COD has always done, it still boils down to being what COD has always done. If you never liked the multiplayer, there is nothing here that will win your over. If you always loved it, there is nothing here that will drive you away. It’s also a sad fact that Black Ops 4 still provides the classic problems of lag issues and a seemingly built-in lack of responsiveness at times.
For me, Zombies is what shines about this game. Not just in the “I’m a guy who likes Zombies all the time” way, but in a “This is super neat, enjoyable, with design decisions that work and are well implemented” way. What began as a throwaway mode way back in COD’s history, has turned into an enjoyable, deep, and exciting mode in Black Ops 4. The mode comes with full tutorials, which are great for introducing not just new players to Zombies in general, but also veterans to what Zombies is now. There are two separate story lines to run through, spread across three different maps.
The maps are large, filled with secrets, and very nicely designed for what is, at heart, an elaborate horde mode. Stories play out as complex mixes of gameplay and secret finding, which might drive some people crazy, but I adored. Both story lines have their own sets of characters, with a suitably mad-cap link between the two. The three maps, a mass gladiatorial arena, a ship on the verge of sinking beneath the sea, and Alcatraz prison, all provide their own unique challenges and are filled to the brim with secrets. You can upgrade your favorite weapons at special chests, the enemy AI can be surprisingly sneaky, and a mix of special abilities and power-ups for the available characters make each run interesting and fun.
There is also a new mode, Rush. This allows players to get through sessions faster, but also comes with its own challenges. While weapons and ammo are both free, killing enemies increases a score multiplier while taking damage reduces it. The aim is to get through the level as fast as you can, with as high a score as possible. It’s a solid spin on the mode and gives people something to move back and forth between if they want to keep things feeling fresh.
This is, in my opinion, by far the best and most engaging iteration of Zombies we have gotten to date, and is my highlight of the game. Zombies will be the mode that keeps me coming back, over and over. From the fun combat, the range of abilities and special powers, satisfying PvE action, and detailed environments, Zombies gives us a fantastic and addictive horde mode that is a joy to play.
Blackout is, in many ways, a slightly simpler version of the Battle Royale genre. Much like Call of Duty multiplayer, it feels like the game is trying to funnel you into various small skirmishes, until eventually the round ends and you have won, or lost. It has a lot going for it, from a surprisingly brisk pace to the obvious fun that people can have while playing Call of Duty on a map of this size. The game continually wants to keep you both mobile, and able to fight. People who are used to the multiplayer may need a few rounds to get acclimated to what exactly the game wants you to do in Blackout.
You can pretty much always run and gun, the game giving you every reason to try and go for aggressive movements and tactics. You can heal and move at the same time, but you are never going to be able to outrun damage without smart use of cover. While a lot about this mode is smooth, in a surprising way, there is also plenty of oddities to be found in the design. Inventory management is a bit of a drag, from looting to using many of the things you see on the ground. The most significant difference in how Blackout feels compared to other games in the genre seems to boil down to this mode feeling arcade-like by design, while others have gone for a more stringent, almost simulator feel.
I do have plenty of issues with the mode from a technical standpoint though. There were times, and areas on the map, where my frames barely managed to chug along. At times, some significant concessions seem to have been made just to get things running. By this, I mean the game can be almost hideous in places. Lag was a constant problem for me, and on too many occasions what should have been fun head to head fights with other players were just a juddering mess.
Being honest, Blackout didn’t impress me. While I can see the appeal for people who like this kind of game, it just didn’t hook me in any major way. I needed more polish on the minute by minute experience, and what I got instead was mostly just bad experiences, driven by lag. Treyarch has acknowledged issues with the four person team mode, which is the mode I played the most. It is good to see them try and get out ahead of this, as I am sure my experience would have been a bit better without it.
Even without a singleplayer campaign, Black Ops 4 still goes out of it’s way to provide something for everyone. The multiplayer will appeal to the people who always like Call of Duty multiplayer, while Zombies genuinely came off as the high point of the game for me. Blackout was my true disappointment, but even then I can understand how it will appeal to other people. That said, there were still lag issues, still server problems, and still the usual balance issues that all COD games just seem to ship with. It also, in the way that COD always does, feel so familiar at this point. Part of me longs that the good folk at Activision would have some sort of meeting and just say “You know what, this time we are going somewhere completely different”. It won’t happen, because the franchise at this point is a money machine. It would be nice to see some drastic change happening though, because for me at least, familiarity really is starting to breed contempt.