Call of Duty: Black Ops 4
Fun but familiar, CALL OF DUTY: BLACK OPS 4 nails established trends, but carves out none for itself.
Call of Duty: Black Ops 4’ s take on battle royale, Blackout, feels like an unintentional commentary on the series as a whole. It’s a sales-driven version of one of the most popular trends in gaming right now, expertly tuned to the whims of a capricious community. Blackout is a variation on ideas forged by bolder games. But with its usual array of compulsive multiplayer modes and the most instantly thrilling battle royale mode to date, Black Ops 4 has reignited my interest in the series.
Note the lack of singleplayer in that description. If you haven’t heard, Treyarch has jettisoned the usual glossy eight-hour corridor campaign from this year’s game. Though I have fond memories of the Call of Duty campaigns of yesteryear, especially Modern Warfare 2’ s, recent entries have left me unimpressed. Singleplayer is relatively meagre this time around, limited to solo zombie-stomping with bots or lone missions staring the game’s cast of multiplayer ‘Specialists’. Black Ops 4 is a game about shooting your friends or shooting with your friends, and if the battle royale mode weren’t so fun, it’d feel thin for its $60 price tag.
The whip-sharp precision and reactivity of Blackout’s shooting easily outclasses the clunky gunplay of PUBG, while the smaller map and the generous distribution of quality loot ensure a much faster, more thrilling game that’s more akin to Fortnite. Blackout doesn’t feature the long lulls that sit between nail-biting bursts of action in each 45-minute PUBG match. Its rounds are quick and dirty, leaving little room for tactical maneuvering. Deftly sliding around small interiors with an SMG or quickscoping with a sniper rifle will get you further than camping on a bathroom floor.
Though high-spec loot zones are filled with the expected superweapons and god-tier armor, Treyarch is generous with gear, which deflates much of the frustration that can accompany a bad run of matches. I rarely found myself without a pistol or rifle, even in the tense opening seconds of a match. I loved feeling like I had a fighting chance, but the zombies who patrol parts of the map wore on me, especially since it made my preferred stealth playstyle less viable. It’s something PUBG and Fortnite don’t have, but it’s more of a nuisance than a legitimate tactical consideration. In one match, I managed to find a bolt-action sniper rifle and a scope; my preferred loadout for battle royale games. I never got a chance to use it, though, because a handful of zombies ran up on my crew and we had to give away our positions by blowing them away. As we were killing the last of them, a rival squad tore into the warehouse and shot us in our backs. Battle royale games are at their best when you’re improvising your way through an emergent situation, but the zombies are an unnecessary wrench in the gears that don’t add a lot to the game other than frustration.
Compared its contemporaries, Blackout might be a refinement rather than a revolution, but it’s still one of the best battle royales that I’ve played. I plan to go back to it for weeks to come.
Blackout’s shooting easily outclasses the clunky gunplay of PUBG
Boots on ground
For its traditional multiplayer modes, Treyarch has ditched the divisive wall-running and double-jumping of Black Ops III. The simplified movement better suits Call of Duty’s pure, no-gristle take on the genre. Nevertheless, this new entry has doubled-down on Black Ops III’s ‘Specialist’ system, which layers character-specific abilities over the series’ enduring class system. Though comparisons to Overwatch seem inevitable, these Specialists lean closer to the classes of Destiny’s Crucible, where your choice of specific loadout is just as important.
I found success as Prophet, a deep-voiced grunt who deploys a rolling drone that seeks out targets and immobilizes them with a piercing shock. One highlight saw me clear a point of the entire enemy team with his specialist ability, which uses a far-reaching shock rifle to paralyze targets with a single shot. Though it felt great in the moment to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat with just a handful of mouse clicks, something about it seemed off.
The problem is that Call of Duty has, to me, always represented a ‘pure’ shooting experience, untainted by abilities and cooldowns. Perks and
killstreaks are one thing, but area-of-effect flashbangs, Widowmaker-style wallhacks, and deployable accessories that redirect where your teammates respawn are a strange and clumsy direction for the series. Rather than the race of reflexes that brought the series to the dance, Black Ops 4 has lumbered into an uncomfortable middle ground between a pure twitch shooter and a game of tactical teamwork, shedding some of the series’ irresistible simplicity in the process.
Perhaps that’s why I so enjoyed the game’s new mode, Heist, which shunts abilities aside in favor of a Counter-Strike- style purchase menu. After gearing up, two teams compete to locate a mound of cash and bring it to an exfil site. And there are no respawns to blunt mistakes. Rather than the popular Team Deathmatch, where you can endlessly spawn with the same gear without a thought for strategy, Heist makes you consider the advantages and disadvantages of Black Ops 4’ s considerable armory from round to round.
When the enemy team were rushing us down with well-timed flashbangs and close-range SMG bursts, I saved my money to purchase a semiautomatic rifle and some helpful perks to engage them at range, turning the tide in the following rounds. They responded a few rounds later by counter-sniping me, so I switched to a midrange rifle to try to cover both bases. It’s not exactly the Art of War, but it brings a welcome measure of tit-for-tat tactical thinking to a game that feels mindless at times. While Heist owes debts of gratitude to its inspirations, Treyarch succeeds at melding the series’ stellar shooting with a more careful and exacting playstyle. The result is my favorite mode since Modern Black Warfare’s Domination.
There’s an absolute ton of undead to slaughter in Ops 4
The last part of the Black Ops 4’ s trifecta is its Zombies mode. While I admire the complex, obscure subsystems and subgoals that you have to master to achieve a 50-round run on the new IX map, they’re layered over a foundation that boils down to a very pretty but very static shooting gallery—one that’s broken up by bullet-sponge super-zombies with little in the way of personality. The lack of clear linear progression makes the mode opaque to newcomers. While that was fun enough in short bursts, I eventually got sick of dying on wave 11.
The only other option is to strive for mastery through trial and error, figuring out the complexities of the bonus-bestowing Pack-a-Punch machine or the ideal build to synergize with your teammates. Even when it comes to the rote zombie-blasting, the ballooning health of the basic undead makes it hard to judge priority targets or the efficacy of your arsenal. I eventually made it into the 30s after sacrificing some heads to an altar to upgrade my machinegun enough to cut through the hordes of undead. When I eventually died, I didn’t feel like going through those motions again. The big gun made me feel powerful, but it didn’t solve the mode’s underlying issues. There’s an absolute ton of undead to slaughter in Black Ops 4, including two brand-new maps and a remake of Black Ops 2’ s Mob of the Dead. But after over 15 hours, I felt a deep urge to play through Left 4 Dead 2 again. I had much more fun with Black Ops 4’ s Rush mode, which pits players against one another in a murder race to see who can gather the most points by offing zombies. For me, this conjured the arcadey pleasures that World at War’s original Zombie mode hearkened back to.
It’s worth noting that I’ve experienced some serious stability problems while playing the game on my PC. Though it runs for hours without incident, I’ve had crashes in virtually every mode, some in the middle of games. Also, Black Ops 4’ s invite and party systems need work. My friends have issues joining my party, and they get booted from it between games with no explanation. Other than that, the game runs well, giving me a solid 60-plus framerate on my GTX 1080.
It can be hard to remember that this is the series that redefined the online shooter just a decade ago. Black Ops 4 no longer feels innovative, but the weapons are fun to use, and its lighter, faster take on battle royale is best in class. So even though nothing about it is surprising, this year’s CoD still gives me what I want after 15 years of blasting through the series: All-adrenaline, with guns that are a joy to use.