Call of Duty: Black Ops 4
Single-player mode is gun but not forgotten as the long-lived series soldiers on
The latest, multiplayer-focused, instalment in the bombastic military shooter series BOM! SNIPED!
You can’t feed today’s hunger with yesterday’s meal, and Call Of Duty: Black Ops 4 knows this all too well. For the first time in the series’ history, there is no traditional single-player campaign to the games. It’s strange to boot it up and not see a story mode waiting for you on the menu screen. Even more strangely, after all the fuss that was made about the game releasing without the usual single-player mode, its omission feels like a safe choice. Welcome to our post-single-player world. It does not feature a ludicrously lifelike digital version of Kit Harington.
In recent years the campaign moved from the main event to the undercard, something fans blasted through out of habit before committing themselves to regular sessions of multiplayer or zombies. These two modes alone wouldn’t have filled the void, but together with Black Ops 4’s brand-new mode, Blackout, they do.
Blackout is Treyarch’s take on the battle royale genre. It’s 88 players (or 100 in the four-player quads mode) skydiving into one massive map and fighting to the death. Technologically it’s a marvel, as slick and stable as one of the series’ signature campaign corridor shootouts but spread across several kilometres of woodland, desert, coast, and urban terrain. Treyarch has turned an engine built for speed into one capable of endurance. Albeit, with caveats.
It’s incredibly ugly at times, with some interiors consisting of nothing more than a rug, a lamp, and a blurry table. Punches were pulled to get the mode running. That’s not to say it isn’t a success. Think of this as PUBG with the rough edges sanded down. Inventory management is incredibly simple, all done by a few clicks of the D-pad. It means you spend less time faffing and more time fighting. Vehicles across land, sea, and air, meanwhile, are so easy to drive that trying to mangle someone with your chopper blades is almost a no-brainer.
For better and worse, Blackout is the fastest battle royale out there. It feels completely at odds with the game’s multiplayer portion that rewards hyper aggression, and players who don’t adapt will likely grow frustrated at being repeatedly sent back to the lobby. One wrong turn and you’re dead. Call Of Duty is usually about charging into the next duel, whereas this is more about avoiding them altogether. Blackout doesn’t at first seem a natural fit. Still, you’ve got plenty of time to acclimatise, because this is a mode Treyarch clearly intends to support indefinitely. Take the character missions, in which you have to find a series of items in order to unlock that character. This gives you something to do other than killing. Other touches, like the presence of zombies, offer an extra dimension. Try baiting them over to opponents for a good time. There are optional tasks too. In a boxing ring we defeat a brief wave of zombies before unlocking a chest containing a meaty lock-on rocket launcher. In a crowded
“With Blackout, Treyarch turns an engine built for speed into one capable of endurance”
genre these novel additions give Blackout an edge.
It’s quick, stable, and addictive. You drop, you fight, you die, you go again. While it’s tough to stomach getting instantly sent back to the lobby after a tense 20 minutes, given the raw pace this is played at, you can get a new game going in seconds. It’s less remarkable than its more innovative peers, true, but it really does give you everything you’d want in a battle royale game.
Onto multiplayer now, and happily this is on its best form for years. A purer COD, out go wall-running, double jumping, and any other remnant of futuristic military tech that turned you into an annoying jumpy flea soldier, and in comes lean, grounded action. Gunplay, not movement, reigns supreme here, placing the emphasis on tactics and accuracy. Central to which are Specialists. These ten classes each have a distinct ability and piece of equipment. Tank-man Ajax brings a ‘9-bang’ flash grenade that can be cooked to detonate multiple times, and a ballistic shield with built-in pistol, while Recon is more intel-based, firing a sensor dart to reveal enemies and using vision pulse to highlight them through walls. There were fears Black Ops 4 would become a hero shooter in the Overwatch vein, but this isn’t the case.
Abilities and equipment rarely dominate, instead giving you the tools to help you play the game the way you want, whether zealously, defensively, or supportively. Add to that cooldown meters limiting your party tricks to roughly one use per life, and a reduction in player count from 12 to ten in standard team deathmatch, and you’ve always got a clearer picture of what Specialist powers are in play without everything turning into a big magical mess.
Multiplayer is less a meat grinder, more one of those machines that churns out artisan pasta. That’s in part due to bigger health bars that soak up more damage, preventing death coming quite so thick and fast. You can have more gunfights now. It’s not just about who shoots first, but whether they can use their accuracy to keep shooting. New manual healing is the dark side of these larger health bars. You’d think having to press LB/L1 to top your health up would incentivise vigilance, but given the sheer speed of matches, you’ll do this dozens of times. Hitting the heal button is a chore, like clocking in for work or brushing your teeth, an unnecessary distraction that detracts from the otherwise focussed nature of the game.
In all this, Treyarch finds time to introduce two new game modes. Heist sees your five-person team steal a bag of cash then fight to reach an extraction point, using cash to buy more equipment after each round, while Control is fixed-point land-grabbing with a shared pool of lives. They’re attempts to scratch
“gunplay, not movement, reigns supreme in multiplayer, placing the emphasis on accuracy”
an itch that wasn’t actually itchy in the first place, but they’ll give you something to do between sessions of Team Deathmatch or Kill Confirmed. Heist, in particular, is interesting in the way players gradually start spawning with ever more powerful weapons.
Map-wise, there’s a healthy 14 at launch. Highlights include the Colombia-coastset Contraband, if only for its underwater shootouts and prancing blue crabs, and Militia, set in a mercenary compound with definite Far Cry 5 vibes. It’s a little disappointing that they stick to the same mid-sized symmetrical template, however. We know the game is capable of huge seamless play areas thanks to Blackout, and despite the bold primary colours and tightly designed avenues on new maps like Morocco, and freshened-up favourites like Summit, there’s not a lot of experimentation here.
The wave-based Zombies mode, on the other hand, returns revitalised courtesy of the Chaos storyline, a time-travelling escapade taking four new characters to two new stages. The Roman colosseum of IX features zombie gladiators, armoured tigers, and a central killing floor that absolutely crawls with enemies in later rounds, while Voyage Of Despair’s Titanic is overrun with multiple floors of Edwardian undead. The combination of confined passageways and wide open spaces has you see-sawing between feelings of horror and release – strafing round IX’s bloody colosseum or the Titanic’s grand central staircase with a bullet-spraying submachine gun is pure joy.
That said, Zombies is a little impenetrable for newcomers, even with tutorials. It isn’t purely about surviving waves. There are hidden quests, obscure Easter eggs, and systems stacked on top of systems, including perks, talismans, and customisable elixir power-ups. Although you’ve got the option of playing with bots, they won’t help you with any objectives. With three sprawling maps in total, Zombies will keep you busy, but it’s also the least accessible part of the Black Ops 4 package.
As a whole, this is Call Of Duty’s most forward-thinking entry in years, packing only the essentials for its long march forward. As the saying goes, you get to where you’re going by walking away from where you’ve been, and with the triple threat of multiplayer, Zombies, and Blackout, this is a game taking the bold step of losing something that no longer serves it in order to make room for something that does.