Call Of Duty: Black Ops IIII
PC, PS4, Xbox One
There’s a subversive thrill to beating 99 Call Of Duty players without having to shoot them all. How rebellious it feels to pad around, being careful about the noises you make. Pausing for a moment with an enemy lined up in your iron sights, then thinking better of it. Adopting these standard battle-royale tactics in Call Of Duty – Call Of Duty, for goodness’ sake, where the twitchiest players have ruled for aeons – feels like driving a motorbike through the grounds of your old school and jumping it into the swimming pool. Suddenly you’re free of the old tyranny, and it’s now the slayers of old who fail to adjust, and expire in the opening seconds.
In that way, Black Ops IIII’s reinvention as a normcore-wearing, fidget-spinner-twiddling competitor to youth favourites PUBG and Fortnite works well. Mechanical polish has been patently lacking in battle royale for as long as the genre existed, so naturally Treyarch’s signature flourishes in player animation and inherently right weapon behaviour was going to make an impact. Its new Blackout mode, which attempts to replace the traditional singleplayer campaign with a 100-player last-one-standing mode, works immediately by doing all the things battle-royale games seem to forsake: proper player animation, reliable hitboxes, consistent surfaces and smooth control. Then again, if mechanical finesse was all that important to battle-royale players in the first place, would PUBG have found the audience it did?
The answer, you suspect as you smash feet-first through a waist-high window and seamlessly begin a gunfight, is that polish isn’t the point in battle royale. Being first is. Blackout can’t offer the same agoraphobic thrill you felt the first time you explored Erangel by Dacia. Its world map, though far bigger than any previous COD multiplayer arena, doesn’t offer any particular geographical curiosity, because you’re used to this scale by now. There’s a lot to be said for the refined gunplay, and the powerup-laden loot system, but their effect is that of an appreciative nod, not an all-nighter.
After several hours looking for the heart of Black Ops IIII in Blackout and returning empty-handed, it’s a turn-up for the books to discover that it’s the old stalwarts, the multiplayer and Zombies modes, where Treyarch’s latest best defines itself. Here, in the domains of half-second twitch-duels, gathering dogtags in chokepoint-laden warzones, and initiating arcane rituals with a tap of X amid waves of undead, the game reassures you that although the solo campaign is gone, the series’ identity has not.
Much to the hardcore community’s chagrin, Specialists make a return in multiplayer. That’s not to say it’s suddenly become a hero shooter as well as a battle-royale game – yes, there are character abilities, but they’re subtle by COD’s standards. Ruin, perhaps portentously named, has a grapple-gun at his disposal, and you will be killed by someone who has an apparently superhuman command of its traversal possibilities within 15 minutes. However, that’s the exception to the rule. This isn’t a wall-running, backflipping shooter. Abilities don’t turn the fight into a cartoon. You just might end up getting mauled by Nomad’s attack dog every once in a while, that’s all.
And if both kills and deaths felt a bit cheap in those floaty, hyperactive series entrants prior to WWII’s grounded fights where wall-runs were ubiquitous, staying alive has renewed meaning in Heist mode. Clearly taking its cues from Payday 2 and CS: GO, it’s a rush to a central cash-stuffed suitcase, then a rush to an extraction point in permadeath fashion. As a vessel for dramatic tension and a palate cleanser after five rounds of mindless Kill Confirmed, it’s equally adept. There’s esports potential in Heist to which Treyarch’s is clearly not oblivious, evidenced by several significant betas and ‘hardcore’ variants of each mode.
Elsewhere, the song remains the same: twitchshooting 6v6 brawls across 14 multiplayer maps that pay a more than passing nod to previous games and their asset libraries, and usual suspects Hardpoint, Free-For-All, Domination and Control waiting for you to get bored of more cerebral modes such as the aforementioned Heist and Search And Destroy. If there’s a central idea bringing together all these disparate activities it’s well hidden, but the simple gratification is as moreish as it ever was.
Perhaps most surprisingly of all, it’s Zombies mode that feels the most essential. What began life as a throwaway diversion has somehow become a bona fide stand-in for traditional six-hour campaigns, and now a highly suspect historical document too thanks to Black Ops IIII’s own visions of the RMS Titanic, Ancient Rome and Alcatraz (again). These three co-op survival maps are really the only areas of the game and its disparate modes which have the kind of personality you’d expect from such a towering monolith of an IP. The inherent silliness of sprinting around a hundredyear-old ocean liner with a futuristic assault rifle in one hand and the Scepter Of Ra in the other goes a long way to make up for Blackout’s charisma vacuum, and the same must be said for shooting exploding tigers in a gladiatorial arena somewhere in ancient Rome.
Who knows how we got here, but Zombies is the most compelling reason to buy a COD game in 2018. What’s apparent from the series’ first release not to feature a singleplayer narrative component is that those experiences provided more than six hours of drone-cam cutscenes and throwing grenades back at mercs. They were the contextual anchor of each game, and you can’t help but feel that context’s absence here.
Who knows how we got here, but Zombies is the most compelling reason to buy a Call Of Duty game in 2018
MAIN There’s a whiff of the ‘reimagined’ if you’re feeling charitable, or ‘rehashed’ if you’re not, to many maps. The RMS Titanic’s exterior looks a lot like that of the USS Texas in COD:WWII.
BOTTOM The jamboree of secondguessing and double-bluffing in close-quarters Heist maps adds a thrilling new wrinkle to multiplayer, but constant communication between teammates is essential
LEFT All vehicles in Blackout, from quad bikes to trucks to choppers, are impressively refined in their behaviour. Halo’s twin-stick vehicular controls are alive and well thanks to Black Ops IIII.
ABOVE This daring experiment yielded vital field information: yes, this drop can be survived. And yes, the driver will almost certainly panic upon receiving the passenger and drive headlong into the nearest wall