Treyarch’s Casting a Wide Net
Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 is going to be a lesson in compromise for many groups of friends. Over the weekend, my friends never asked me if I wanted to play Black Ops 4. Instead, they’d ask if I wanted to play Blackout or Zombies. This marks a departure from the way we used to plan out gaming sessions and it comes about quite naturally, because each of the three main modes in Black Ops 4 is unique enough to feel like a game of its own.
Undoubtedly, some players will come to the scene and focus on Blackout, while the other two modes collect dust. This is a perfectly viable way to play, because Blackout is the most polished battle royale game so far. Lying somewhere between the clunky realism of PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds and the silly, building-based hijinks of Epic’s ubiquitous Fortnite, Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 provides exactly what you would expect. This is a mode with all the staples of the battle royale genre combined with the precision and feel of a Call of Duty game.
Blackout comes in three basic flavors: solo, duos, and squad. These additional options allow players to ally themselves with two or three other players to compete for the top spot on an island littered with 88 to 100 contestants. If you don’t have friends, you can choose to have the game automatically fill out your squad. At the beginning of the match, players drop from a helicopter and glide to wherever they want, via wingsuit. They then roam the map searching for better equipment, all while the playfield intermittently shrinks. Vehicles, like helicopters, trucks, boats, and ATVs, are scattered around the map for players looking to trade stealth for mobility. These vehicles aren’t always useful, but their presence does add to the adrenaline of the mode. If you can come across the rare opportunity to launch an ATV off a hill towards a helicopter, I recommend you seize it.
It would have been nice to see Treyarch take a more innovative approach to battle royale. Instead, the developer relies on the genre’s current appeal and Call of Duty’s pedigree. The map itself feels uninspired, especially compared to Fortnite’s, which has so much character built into it. Considering the work Treyarch has put into the aesthetic of their Zombie’s maps, I know they can create something better than the current Blackout offering, and I hope to see more growth on that front in the future. Looting would also benefit from some retooling, as most of the weapons are very similar to one another and they rarely feel special. Additionally, inventory management can be a bit clunky, and looting the body of a dead player exposes you to danger while you sort through a lengthy list of what they had on them. For newcomers, this list is even less useful, because it is hard to tell what items can be considered an upgrade. One thing you will want to grab, though, is the level 3 body armor. This armor is incredibly strong, to the point of being frustrating. With this armor equipped, you can basically smash a Molotov cocktail off your own skull just to show other players how badass you are.
On the opposite side of the spectrum from the fiercely competitive, enemy-laden expanse of Blackout is Call of Duty: Black Ops 4’s returning Zombie mode. Whereas Blackout feels like a worthy cash-in on an explosively popular trend, Zombies feels like the fever dream of a dozen manic creatives. I love it for that. It makes sense too, because Zombies might as well be Treyarch’s calling card at this point.
Zombies will be the only decent offering for players who aren’t looking to play Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 online. It is also a good chunk of the narrative experience, because this Call of Duty doesn’t contain a single player campaign for the first time ever. Fortunately, the Zombies story, which jumps around through time and space, will give fans plenty to think about. Already, there are fans who are dutifully assembling lore videos that get into every possible detail and connection. Personality bleeds out of every crevice in Zombies, be it from the announcer in IX, the coliseum map, or the banter of the characters who are played by voice acting veterans like Nolan North, Steve Blum, and Chris Cox, rather than Hollywood celebrities. Characters evoke the powers of gods like Odin, Zeus, and Ra through altars. They wield magical weapons and carry around gear sets that don’t seem grounded in any historical or fictional setting. Tigers stalk, giant gladiators, traipse around, and decaying monstrosities loom. You even explore the Titanic. Zombies mode is what happens when you throw mythology, steampunk, sci-fi, horror, and camp into the Call of Duty blender.
The central premise of Zombies is that, ultimately, the players will die. The goal is to survive for as long as possible. The mode rewards strategy, teamwork, and know-how, as players utilize the specific features of their classes to help navigate the nap. As they do, they accrue points. These points are a crucial element to the design, because they incentivize certain types of killing, like melee attacks or headshots, as well as encourage practical resource management. Points can be used to unlock different portions of the map. They can also be used to purchase items from the mystery box, which will give a player a random weapon. The Pack-a-Punch altar is a place on the map where players can exchange points for weapon upgrades. There are also materials and workbenches where players can craft new items. In the tutorial, the player is tasked with crafting a shield. (The shield itself is a great example of Zombies’ attention to detail, as it it is a large, metal affair with gauges and a mechanical slot for the player to insert a pistol, so they can shoot while shielding.) Outside of the matches, players can unlock perks and potions to further customize their class, so they can return to the zombie maps with a reinvigorated approach.
Classes, customization options, and a narrative are also found within Call of Duty: Black Ops 4’s standard multiplayer offerings. For multiple reasons, it is advantageous to begin your foray into these multiplayer modes by popping into what is, at its core, a series of tutorials. These tutorials take players through the various classes in the game, allowing them to get a sense of what it is to play a recon specialist or a healer. A narrative, which contains some very graphic content, weaves these training modules together, and it’s far more in-depth than I would have expected. Even if you find a class you love early on, it is still worth exploring the other missions, so that you develop an understanding of what your allies and enemies can do within certain roles.
The classes, called specializations, dramatically change the way Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 is played. The game will still provide benefits for players with superior reflexes, but the option to play a healer or a recon specialist allows players of different styles and skill levels to carve out a useful niche for themselves on the team. Because only one player can play a certain role at a time, team composition becomes part of the strategy. Comparisons to games like Overwatch, where part of the strategy is derived from role changes, aren’t farfetched. The inclusion of a “play of the game” style highlight at the end of a match further exemplifies this idea that Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 isn’t afraid to find inspiration in others’ successes.
One major change we’re seeing with this year’s entry is in the way health is managed. Player’s health will not recover automatically outside of battle. They must use items to heal themselves, which means there is often a choice to be made between reloading or patching yourself up. This style of recovery, which harkens back to days of old, makes it so each encounter feels significant and every bullet fired has weight. It also means players will be on the lookout for health packs scattered around the maps. Combined with the classes, even classic modes like Team Death Match or Search and Destroy take on a new feel. The decision to scale back the mobility options present in earlier titles is another alteration, taking the emphasis off twitchy double jumping and wall-running so players can focus more on strategy.
One new mode, called Heist, is probably the best way to showcase each player’s individuality. The mode pits two teams against one another and charges them with retrieving a cache of money. At the end of each round, players use the money they’ve accrued to purchase weapons, perks, and upgrades that will benefit them for the remainder of the match. Choosing the right roles, buying the right gear, and reacting to your opponent’s decisions will lead to success. In this way, Treyarch has created a mode where even the simple act of buying items from a menu is exciting. Old Counterstrike players will feel right at home here.
In fact, ideas and players from all sorts of shooters are embraced in this year’s design, which is remarkable. Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 could have easily been more of the same. At this point, it’s already a surprise that Activision, the company that practically defined franchise fatigue with its treatment of the Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater and Guitar Hero franchises, has kept the Call of Duty games thriving for 15 years of nearly annual releases. The series’ survivability has been a result of growth and flexibility, but never have we seen a leap forward quite as significant as this one. Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 is a game that looks at the entire first-person shooter genre, past and present, takes all the best ideas, and assembles them into what feels like the easiest to recommend shooter I have ever played. The only caveat to that recommendation is that some gamers will find themselves absolutely ignoring two thirds of what the game has to offer, and that makes me wonder if a different model of monetization would have been better suited for what feels like a collection of three different games.
RATING OUT OF 5 RATING DESCRIPTION 4.5 Graphics
The cutscenes look gorgeous, the art direction in Zombies is gripping, and the environments are more than serviceable. Blackout could benefit from a little extra love, though 5.0 Control
Exactly what you’d expect from a Call of Duty title. The controls are intuitive, responsive, and just feel right 5.0 Music / Sound FX / Voice Acting
The voice acting is well-executed, the ambient noise is appreciated, and the sounds of footfalls and gunshots function as reliable audio queues for competitive gaming 5.0 Play Value
It’s a positively refined experience with an almost overwhelming amount of options for player, thanks to its three fully realized modes, ample customization options, and multiple progression systems. All of them have you playing for hours without a sense of grinding 5.0 Overall Rating – The Best
Not an average. See Rating legend below for a final score breakdown.
|Review Rating Legend
|0.1 – 1.9 = Avoid
|2.5 – 2.9 = Average
|3.5 – 3.9 = Good
|4.5 – 4.9 = Must Buy
|2.0 – 2.4 = Poor
|3.0 – 3.4 = Fair
|4.0 – 4.4 = Great
|5.0 = The Best