Cliches be damned: Call of Duty has never been in a stranger place than it is right now.
In years past, the heaving package that is Activision’s blockbuster yearly title has always felt like it had something for everyone, and while the time to kill (how many bullets you’re able to soak up before saying bye bye) for the multiplayer was seemingly getting smaller, making all but the elite struggle, Black Ops 4 has seen big changes, meaning that despite the controversial lack of single player, it’s somehow still got something for everyone.
For the uninitiated, there’s three enormous studios that work on the series, each taking their turn on a three-year cycle. This time it’s Treyarch, best known for 2008’s World at War and the start of the phenomenally popular Black Ops series.
It’s worth noting that although there’s no single player per-say, there’s a healthy solo onboarding tutorial section that introduces you to each of the specialists that are so vital to this year’s competitive multiplayer.
It’s not quite Overwatch, but there’s definitely an element of the “hero shooter” genre creeping into certain game modes, especially one of the new additions: Control.
With only one of each specialist able to be picked for your team, it feels as though you’re supposed to coordinate and work together to control the points of the map. Use the skills specific to your specialist to great effect, and dominate.
Perhaps you’ll pick Ruin when attacking a point, because his grapple gun lets you ping a wall so you can pop up and wreck fools. Defending, Firebreak’s reactor core will cause damage to anyone who comes near it, Torque has a razor wire that’s useful, or maybe you just want to use Ajax’s special skill, the ballistic shield, which turns him into a bullet sponge with a lethal automatic weapon.
That these specialists are unlocked from the start is an excellent choice, giving a far more level playing field than usual.
These changes initially draw comparisons with tactical shooters such as Rainbow Six Siege, too, although the fast, frenetic nature of Call of Duty means that, really, they don’t have that much in common. Still, it’s interesting to see Black Ops 4 push in a slightly different direction, even if it’s just with certain modes.
Elsewhere, the overall multiplayer feels less brutal than before. Infinite Warfare’s multiplayer was punishing to all but the players who dedicates themselves to it, and even though WWII took the series back in time and gave us some more Battlefield-like modes, it still had that awful feeling of “spawn, die, repeat” which puts up barriers for so many people.
Black Ops 4 is, of course, not entirely welcoming, but it’s less aggressive towards new players because it’s not always a case of “first person to spot the enemy wins”. With healing on a dedicated button, it means you can get out of dodge, heal up, and carry on. I found myself getting a kill and healing, before getting another kill, which in other Call of Duty games simply wouldn’t have happened.
MONEY IN THE BANK?
That said, the population base is still Call of Duty players, which makes solo play in team modes difficult. TDM or Free for All, Domination, Hardpoint, Kill Confirmed: all the classics return and feel as great (or as bad, depending on skill levels) as ever, but the new modes in Control and Heist really work better when played with like minded team members.
Watching your entire team run to Point B that’s safe while Point A is under attack, well, it’ll always be frustrating. In short, as with almost any multiplayer game: play with friends to have the best time.
Heist mode lets you spend money earned during each round to upgrade your equipment, otherwise you just start with a pistol and no gadgets. Do you buy armour, grenades that you only get for a round, or upgrade to an automatic weapon.
And that same “play with friends” mantra is true of the newest addition to the Call of Duty family: Blackout is better played with others. Solo is tough, but Quads and Duos truly feels how this particular version of the genre was meant to be played.
THE LUNATICS ARE RUNNING THE ASYLUM
It was always just a matter of time before the big boys got involved with Battle Royale, but Treyarch’s nailed it with Blackout. There’s no way around it: Blackout is just a damn good time, but it’s also massively derivative of PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds (PUBG), even down to how the map looks.
Before fans jump up and down, it borrows from PUBG in a good way, offering a Call of Duty twist, but I think it’s very interesting to see the market leader cribbing from another for a change.
As usual, you drop onto a huge map with up to 100 players, but this map is basically a greatest hits of Black Ops. There’s Nuketown, which you’ll want to avoid unless you want a tricky route to the safe circle, and there’s even the Asylum which offers Zombies to fight if you fancy a break from the tension of PvP (be careful, though, as other players might also be hunting Zeds).
Blackout is terrific but the local split screen is a bust. Less the 60fps buttery smooth CoD experience, this is sub 30 with low resolution textures and a smaller aspect ratio. It’s a bizarre inclusion and while it's a nice idea, it's a swing and complete miss.
The map is sprawling and interesting, with what feels like guns and loot everywhere. Vehicles seem standard fare until you find a helicopter, but at the same time the chopper is a dead giveaway to any campers.
There are also special pickups that enhance winning opportunities: heal faster, move quicker when crouching, iron lung when aiming down sights: these twists make for a highly tactical affair, but one that is still very Call of Duty. You can last for ages and get into the top ten, but you can also be gunned down seconds after landing. That’s just Battle Royale for you.
Blackout is the great leveler for Call of Duty. It’s purely about luck of the drop, skill with the weapons, and tactically out-thinking your opponents. You won’t be able to pre-emptively start with better guns than your foes, here.
THE WALKING DEAD
And that, I suppose, neatly brings us on to Zombies. Let’s be blunt about this: you either love or hate this mode, and nothing about Black Ops 4 will change that. A deeper story (or at least “more story” and multiple maps to start with makes it very clear that Zombies is a big deal for Treyarch, and the amount of achievements/trophies on offer for the mode hammer that home.
Elixirs add more depth if you somehow needed it, with in-game currency put into elixirs in a random, almost loot box-like mechanic offering one time or repeat use special skills. These are potions that can spawn a nuke power up, or the more passive buff “headshots have a chance to instakill” which, if I’m honest, I thought was the whole point of a headshot; especially when facing everyone’s favourite undead monster.
There’s just so much in this year’s Zombies mode. Elixirs and perks (quick revive, berserking when in last stand, etc), classes, equipment choices, unlockables - it definitely feels like a good team can go farther, but it’s not even just these choices that make it such a big deal.
Newly added Rush Mode offers an arcade experience which removes the need to unlock your path with points earned from kills, and instead focuses more on scoring against your pals. I’m not wholly convinced that pitting people against one another in a fundamentally co-op based game type is ideal, but at least its separate from the traditional modes.
PACKS A WALLOP
As you’d expect, Black Ops 4 is a glorious looking game, and one that lets you feel every penny of the budget. The guns feel immense, from pistols to shotguns; grenade launchers to automatic rifles: they pack a punch that is best described with the word “wallop”.
It’s fast paced, but not too fast, and the multiplayer maps feel tighter but not too small as to feel claustrophobic. In fact, when it comes down to it, the only major negative is found in tutorial as the narrator barks aggressively manly banter at you while smoking an infinitely burning cigarette.
It’s off-puttingly bad, and it feels like an attempt to connect the games via narrative, which in truth it fails to do without a proper single player campaign. The Black Ops story was lost years ago, so to try and keep that throughline is a brave choice, albeit an unsuccessful one.
The only other main negative is the Destiny-like menus - you know... the ones that feel like they were designed for a mouse, not a controller. Side note: please stop doing this. I’m looking at you Assassins Creed Odyssey.
CALL OF DUTY: BLACK OPS 4 VERDICT
Black Ops 4 is the best Call of Duty in years. This is a shooter that can (and likely will) bring back people who dabble but never stick with it. Sure, it borrows from some of the best on the market, but crucially, it nails the gun-feel like it hasn’t in some time. It’s still a beast in terms of content, but honestly, it’s hard to pick major fault with it.
Sure, some will miss the usually brilliantly bombastic single player, and while zombies is bigger than ever it’s also more confusing, with so much to learn and so many modes. Ultimately, newcomers will probably be put off before they discover its brilliance. But none of this stops Black Ops 4 from being the best entry the series has seen for years.
The only real question left hanging in the air has nothing to do with the “numbers” Black Ops is so fond of. No, it’s a far simpler question that is going to be very difficult to answer: where on earth does Call of Duty go next?
On that note, we’re going to have to wait and see, but Treyarch’s 2018 game has knocked it out of the park.