Last year’s Call of Duty WWII tapped into the nostalgia of the early years of the series with its boots-on-the-ground gameplay and removal of the controversial boosting mechanics. It seemed like the developer was finally listening to fans’ desires for a return to form, and a year later, Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 (referred to as Black Ops 4 going forward) aims to go even further by bridging the gap between the futuristic era and return to classic design. The game also looks to chisel out a unique identity for itself, but its jumbled collection of modes have varying degrees of success and ultimately create a muddled package.
As a Call of Duty veteran, I was severely disappointed with the three year stretch of hyper-futuristic gameplay. The new direction created more erratic mayhem than skill-based combat. Gone was a focus on who was the faster and better shot, strategic location lock downs, and grounded gameplay. Instead, maps were comprised of dozens of entrances and exits creating “everyone gets a kill” gameplay that felt too chance-based for an old purist like me.
Sadly, that’s still my biggest gripe with Black Ops 4. The gameplay is simply so fast-paced and chaotic that I never get the feeling that I’m entirely in control of the outcome of situations the way I did in pre-Advanced Warfare titles. I die from behind more often than I ever die from a direct firefight thanks to the modern map design still leaning towards having so many ways in and out of any one area. Combine this with the over-abundance of special moves and scorestreaks going off everywhere and there’s simply just too many variables to ever feel as though my success or failure is truly achievable by skill alone anymore.
I do, however, appreciate that the game’s maps have opted for a less vertical design this time. Additionally, this year’s self-heal mechanic replaces the franchise’s tried and true auto-heal to help players have more control over how quickly they rejoin the fight after taking damage. I find it to be a nuisance during intense battles where I would prefer to focus on timing my reloads and perfect positioning, but it definitely succeeds in keeping players on the move more. All of this is rounded out by a collection of mostly viable guns and Call of Duty’s typical create-a-class that offers plenty of loadout customization.
The normal modes we’ve come to expect are all still here in Black Ops 4, though it does offer a few new additions with Control and Heist. The former pits players against each other to defend or attack objectives with only 25 total lives among each team. It’s a neat mode that allows for various type of strategies, such as choosing to run the clock down as defenders rather than actively seek to eliminate the opposition. Heist, on the other hand, is more akin to Search and Destroy and has players attempt to steal a bag of money and reach a designated extraction point before the other team. With no respawns and time ticking down, players are forced out of hiding to take a chance at snagging the cash and making it out alive. Neither mode is revolutionary, but I’ve found them more fun than simple deathmatch-style modes as they force less aggressive players out of their comfort zones and into the action.
"Treyarch has clearly designed Zombies in such a way that it feels like the game’s campaign mode now. It’s for good reason, of course, considering the popularity of the mode."
Black Ops 4 does away with a traditional campaign in exchange for Specialist Headquarters. In this section of the game players are given the opportunity to play with each specialist in quick, isolated combat tutorials. Each starts with a verbose and redundant walkthrough of the specialist’s skill set and is followed by a quick backstory movie. It’s obvious Treyarch designed this mode as one extended tutorial, because after each of these introductions, the only remaining gameplay is a match against AI in one of Call of Duty’s core gameplay modes. This plays out identical to a traditional multiplayer match, but feels like a chore to get through for anyone who is already familiar with the series. For new players, this introductory mode might prove useful, but it still feels like little more than a cheap, boring way to offer some semblance of single player content.
There’s an overarching story unlocked throughout Specialist Headquarters as you push through each specialist’s segments and unlock stars, but it’s so disjointed and insipid that there’s virtually no sense of intrigue to be found. Even worse, Frank Woods returns to guide your character through the tutorials with such a Duke Nukem-esque delivery that I often couldn’t believe this was a Call of Duty game. The series has always had unique and humorous characters, but the voice work here is so gratuitous and corny that it feels completely at odds with the rest of the Black Ops canon.
Treyarch has clearly designed Zombies in such a way that it feels like the game’s campaign mode now. It’s for good reason, of course, considering the popularity of the mode. I’ve never personally found slaughtering thousands of zombies enjoyable in the past, and I won’t pretend that’s changed very much. But this year’s offerings are overflowing with options and modes, making it feel like a full-fledged game of its own rather than the side-content it once was. Between its three story-driven modes and the addition of an score-focused mode, Rush, there’s enough here to satisfy any Zombies fan for a long time.
"I always believed that if Call of Duty introduced a battle royale they’d do it the right way, and I was right."
My first hour or so consisted of following others around as they showed me the secrets of each level. There’s a bevy of well-designed challenges and cool little bonuses spread along each story mode, and it’s this attention to detail that made my time with the game so much more enjoyable than previous iterations. I especially enjoyed the Roman story, that had me fighting alongside my companions as we took down foes like undead gladiators and zombie tigers. The Titanic-based Voyage of Despair is also fantastic in its own right, however, taking place right after crashing into the well-known iceberg and leaving players trapped on the ship alongside the undead. I spent less time with it due to it feeling like the more traditional of the main modes, but I was nevertheless impressed with its blood-splattered, maze-like hallways.
Of course, no one was surprised to hear of the final major pillar of this year’s offering, Blackout. And if you’ve played a battle royale game mode, you can expect exactly that except more accessible and polished. Unlike most games in the genre, Blackout isn’t a beta or a work-in-progress. While we can obviously expect plenty of improvements, balancing, and additions to the mode, it feels notably fleshed-out and complete from the get-go. I always believed that if Call of Duty introduced a battle royale they’d do it the right way, and I was right.
I’ve actually enjoyed my time with Blackout and have experienced the normal gamut of hard-fought victories and unlucky deaths within moments of landing. What I love about it is simply how accessible it feels compared to other battle royale games. Items are liberally scattered across the map, and I’ve never landed further than a few feet from guns and bandages. It was a smart decision to allow everyone an opportunity to defend themselves from the get-go, as the genre’s tendency to rely heavily on lucky spawns is one of its most frustrating aspects. The fact that I’m always able to be engaged in a firefight within moments makes Blackout feel more like an actual battle royale and less like an exhausting exercise in resource collection like so many games before it.
That’s not to say resource collection doesn’t play a role in the mode, as players are tasked with tracking down plenty of limited-use perks, ammo, and various levels of armor vests to help give them a leg up. To offset the game’s decision to arm you so quickly, gun attachments are spread around individually, leaving you with the decision of which weapons you want to outfit with which attachment. They’re limited enough to never feel as though you’re overpowered, but obtainable enough to never make you feel disadvantaged so long as you’re staying on the move and keeping an eye out. Thanks to Call of Duty’s inherently tight, fast gunplay, even base loadouts can lead to victories for good players.
"The downright awful single player content offers nothing worth even a glance, dragging down the experience and leaving it feeling like a disconnected compilation of ideas instead of a cohesive package."
Sadly, however, that’s where the game fails to fix the fundamental quirks in the battle royale formula. For starters, the massive map in a multiplayer setting means visuals take a hit. Muddy textures are an issue at medium and long range, but it’s never so severe that it’s drastically detrimental. My biggest issue is that the genre naturally encourages skillful play, and this often translates to significant amounts of camping. Blackout hasn’t found a way to alleviate this. Since collecting resources is merely helpful rather than mandatory, many teams feel no sense of urgency to move from a heavily-fortified area unless the storm happens to be closing in on them or a drop is extremely close. This type of gameplay is normal for battle royale games though, so Blackout hasn’t done anything wrong really. But I nevertheless wish there was more incentive to keep players moving without sacrificing the mode’s accessibility.
Even with these nitpicks, however, Blackout definitely offers the best battle royale experience I’ve played. I’m interested to see where the developers take the mode over the course of its lifespan, and I wonder if having such a polished offering will make hold players’ interest long-term and lead to another version in next year’s game. In the meantime, Blackout has successfully accomplished its goal of being the new king of the genre while simultaneously holding true to Call of Duty’s roots.
Unfortunately, the same praise can’t be given for everything about the game. While the Zombies mode is a fun distraction, it shouldn’t feel like a replacement for a meaningful campaign. And the downright awful single player content offers nothing worth even a glance, dragging down the experience and leaving it feeling like a disconnected compilation of ideas instead of a cohesive package. One can only hope that this design choice is reconsidered moving forward and that the developers are reminded that each of the game’s three core pillars are equally important to their respective fans.
This game was reviewed on the Xbox One.
Accessible and enjoyable battle royale mode, plenty of variety in zombies mode, some new and creative multiplayer modes.
Severely underwhelming single player content, core multiplayer gameplay remains too chaotic, muddy visuals in Blackout.