Since 2007’s Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, the rigmarole has always been the same. Buy game, log in, play campaign, finish campaign, jump into multiplayer, and usually be continually killing and respawning until December. Just like the Call of Duty release cadence, my process is like clockwork, and just like the franchise’s insistence on annual releases, my time with each title is fleeting. Black Ops 4 could just be the game to pull me from my routine.
Launching a month earlier than the traditional November window isn’t the only way Black Ops 4 is shaking up both the sub franchise and the mainline of Call of Duty games. For the first time in its history, this is a new Call of Duty game without a single player campaign. The “three pillar” approach of campaign, multiplayer and zombies has become something resembling more of a collection of individual (and disparate) titles rather than a cohesive whole.
While the lack of a campaign will lead to some trepidation, the good news here is that the time and resources saved have been lovingly poured into all three of the modes – Multiplayer, Zombies, and the franchise’s newest addition, Blackout. The way these titles are split into equal thirds of the Black Ops 4 experience (each with its own leveling and progression, each with its own cosmetic unlocks etc) means that Black Ops 4 is a difficult game to review as one boxed product. With that in mind, I’ll be breaking each part of the game down into parts.
2007’s Modern Warfare defined the template for the modern first-person shooter for the next decade – killstreaks, persistent progression, and aiming down sights became so ubiquitous in the genre that very few titles strayed away from that.
It’s interesting, then, that Black Ops 4 feels like a multiplayer suite that is reacting to the changing landscape around it – no longer the de facto juggernaut it once was, despite what sales may tell you.
Jumping into a simple game of Team Deathmatch, you’ll pick a Specialist and a class separately of one another. Specialists are characters with unique abilities, such as Ruin’s grappling hook, or Prophet’s enemy-tasering seeker mines. Your class is your standard selection of weapons, perks and tactical equipment that you’ve come to expect over the last decade – all augmented with unlockable attachments and cosmetics.
Initially, this feels like CoD playing catch-up with hero shooters such as Overwatch, or more closely something like Rainbow Six: Siege, and while Specialists have been in prior entries, their abilities are more pronounced here – each has an ability in lieu of the traditional throwable grenade button (RB). Each specialist also has a special weapon such as a ground pound or a one-hit-kill revolver. Unlike those games, however, specialists don’t feel drastically different to each other and while their abilities can help out in a pinch, you won’t feel like you’ll be at a disadvantage not having tested them out in the game’s single-player tutorial missions for each.
With all of this going on, it’s perhaps a small mercy that wall-running and boost jumping isn’t returning. That said, movement in Black Ops 4 is as fluid as anything else in the genre, and while mobility options seem lessened by the lack of parkour, you’ll be vaulting, sliding and climbing through windows with speed and precision within minutes.
Where things get interesting is in the use of the LB button. No longer a flashbang or smoke grenade, LB now heals your Specialist in the middle of battle. The animation is quick and snappy, but certainly takes some getting used to – crouching behind thick cover or around corners has been a staple of the series for long enough to become second nature. You’re still able to grab kill streaks, sure, but you’ll be looking for a safe spot to heal if you take a couple of hits.
All of these are tactical considerations, and all will result in new strategies. The need for variation on a match to match basis is compounded by the variety of terrain across fourteen maps (fifteen for those that preordered). Not only is this amount more than most first-person shooters (including CoD titles) launch with, each map is consistent in level of detail and propensity for fun. There are claustrophobic maps, more open spaces, maps with falling hazards and plenty of old favorites (Firing Range is as fun as ever) to jump into. It’s the most complete multiplayer suite (at least at launch) in a long time, and as you would expect runs at a smooth 60fps and looks particularly pretty on the Xbox One X.
It isn’t all smooth sailing performance-wise though. In my first ten games, I was disconnected twice for unknown reasons and booted back to the lobby, while one match began with a frozen screen for 45 seconds before devolving into a flip-book style mess of dropped frames and warping enemies. These may be initial teething issues, but I’d be remiss not to mention them for a game that is built on online functionality.
This year’s iteration of Zombies mode offers plenty of ways to play. There are two story arcs, each with its own maps and puzzles to solve. Season pass owners also get a remake of “Five”, the Zombies map from the original Black Ops.
The maps are spectacular, each stuffed with detail. “Voyage of Despair” sees you battling the Undead on the Titanic, while “IX” whisks you away to a Roman Coliseum and focuses primarily (but not exclusively) on melee combat. “Blood of the Dead” is a remake of Black Ops II’s “Mob of the Dead”, and while it feels inferior to the other two, it still holds up one console generation on from its original release.
In prior entries, Zombies has often felt obtuse – puzzles seem to make little sense, and there rarely seems to be an obvious solution. Perhaps with this in mind, Zombies now features a new tutorial and Rush Mode.
Rush Mode is based solely around killing zombies and earning points. You’ll run through each map, grabbing multipliers and looking to set a new high score. If it sounds simple, that’s because it is. It’s Zombies stripped down to its bare necessities, and allows you to learn the intricacies of each map.
Black Ops 4 Zombies offers a dizzying variety of modifiers to keep players coming back – almost anything can be varied. Want to start with barely any health and super quick, aggressive Zombies? I’m not sure why, but you can!
While voice-acting for the most part is fine, there are some particularly clumsy lines for the Asian character Takeo Masaki in “Mob of the Dead”, playing off of disappointing cultural stereotypes.
With more maps on the way in the season pass, Black Ops 4 is the definitive Zombies experience. There are all the puzzles and quirks you’d expect, with more replayability than ever. Ten years on from the first Zombies mode, Treyarch have something truly special on their hands.
Here it is, the one you’ve likely been waiting for – Blackout is another sign of Call of Duty hopping onto an existing trend, this time that of the Battle Royale. In an attempt to take on the world-conquering Fortnite, Treyarch have created something that refines the existing formula and creates something exciting and accessible.
You know the drill – a number of players (eight-eight in single and duo mode, one hundred in squads) land on a huge map. The last man, woman, or team standing wins. Beginning with nothing but a wing suit you’ll use for landing, you’ll gear up and attempt to dwindle the number of survivors whilst remaining in the play area. So far, so Battle Royale.
Black Ops 4 twists the concept in unique ways to bring it in line with the franchise. Firstly, Blackout is played from a first-person perspective, as you would imagine (at least once you’ve landed). This brings some freneticism to each encounter, especially since you’ll be using LB to heal (using first-aid items littered around the map) whenever you can.
Secondly, as you would expect from a game built on fluid foundations, everything feels quick in Blackout. The initial descent to the map feels almost instant, and you always feel in complete control of your wing suit (complete with a free-camera to be able to identify who else is landing nearby). Collecting weapons is quick, and an option to instantly attach parts to your currently equipped gun negates a lot of the inventory management you’ll find in PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds.
Where in PUBG buildings often feel nondescript, and in Fortnite they essentially act as materials to gather, Blackout takes a more bespoke approach to map-building. Around the map you’ll find various facsimiles of Black Ops maps of yore – Nuketown Island being an early favorite for landings. In another nod to the series, you’ll also be besieged by Zombies at certain parts of the map which can quickly escalate from a one on one to trying to take out a horde and hope that no one hears the gunshots.
With the immediacy of Call of Duty’s “kill, die, respawn” loop, it can be jarring to fight for every kill in Blackout, and it feels strange to treat every battle as if it’s your last. It also feels strange to calculate bullet-drop in a series that earned a reputation for quick scoping. With that said, it offers the same thrills as its competitors as the circle shrinks, but with much more satisfying gunplay. The question remains about the mode’s longevity – PUBG’s Xbox release took a while to see new content added, while Fortnite adds new modes and changes the map in interesting ways at breakneck speed.
There are gripes – armor seems to be nearly impenetrable at times, and it can take some time to find a full match, but these are things that are likely to improve on an iterative basis week on week as the game is tuned and servers fill up.
Black Ops 4 is the complete multiplayer package. Some design choices lack originality, yes, but Blackout has all the tools to be as big a multiplayer shooter as Modern Warfare was eleven years ago, while also offering a solid complement of competitive and cooperative modes. Everything that made CoD such a cultural powerhouse – the movement, the shooting, the accessibility and the unlocks – are all present and accounted for, each given more attention than ever. The slumbering giant has awoken.
This game was tested and reviewed on Xbox One. All of the opinions and insights here are subject to that version.