For nearly 15 years, “Call of Duty” has been a constant release every fall. Thanks to the three-year developer cycle shared between Infinity Ward, Treyarch and Sledgehammer Games, publisher Activision has ensured a year does not go by without its flagship franchise. The past few years have seen the series come under fire by many in the gaming industry, which I don’t attribute to the games actually being bad, but more in line with the fatigue that comes with releasing a game year after year. Innovation is probably the only thing that helps to combat this, which is something that I think only Treyarch has accomplished through both 2015’s “Black Ops 3” and this year’s title. At its initial reveal event, “Black Ops 4” came under heavy criticism with the announcement of its lack of single-player campaign, something that has been a staple since the series’ inception. In its place, Blackout comes in as the franchise’s first crack at the battle royale genre, one that has seeped into the mainstream’s consciousness thanks to “Fortnite.” Besides this swap, the rest of the package contains the traditional multiplayer and Zombie modes. The question is, does the lack of campaign truly work to the games detriment? In short, not really.
If you have somehow avoided the battle royale phenomenon, the mode works through dropping usually 80-100 players onto one giant map, which slowly shrinks in size, making the last player/team standing the winner. This immediately adds a whole layer of tension to the mode right from the start, something “Call of Duty” has not really come close to playing with besides maybe the Search and Destroy multiplayer mode. Blackout works much more similarly to “PUBG,” the sort of originator of the mode, rather than “Fortnite’s” building-focused gameplay. This mode sticks strictly to gunplay, something that “Call of Duty” has already perfected with its mechanics, though never at quite the distance some of these long-range engagements can get. What mainly sets Blackout apart from the rest is its map design, characters, gunplay and special abilities. Blackout is what Treyarch describes as the crossover of all of its games, both the “Black Ops” series and “World at War.” This isn’t just limited to the campaign, but it also encompasses the lore-rich Zombies mode as well.
Part of what makes Blackout so great is the map’s design, which features a number of locations pulled from its multiplayer and Zombies modes. This includes iconic maps like Nuketown, which can now be explored more fully thanks to the open nature of the mode, and Asylum (a map taken from “World at War’s” multiplayer and later zombified as Verruckt in the same game). Having familiar locations serves the dual purpose of tapping into your nostalgia and simply letting you quickly understand a certain location’s layout straight away. Given the map’s size, vehicles are also reintroduced for the first time since “World at War,” though instead of tanks you have trucks, helicopters, boats and ATVs. For a franchise that hasn’t really played with vehicles much, “Black Ops 4” handles them in a way that feels intuitive and easy to understand, something that can be said for the rest of Blackout’s new mechanics.
Overall, I think Blackout was a worthy inclusion here and is really the first look at what a Triple-A studio can do within the battle royale genre. Everything in the mode works better than it had any right to, coming from a series that has long been a close-quarters arcade shooter. Treyarch making use of their catalogue of “Black Ops” history really is what sets this mode apart from something like “PUBG,” whether it’s coming across a zombie-infested location, prime with special loot or seeing Viktor Reznov riding on the back of an ATV with the Shadowman.
The traditional multiplayer mode is what I think will feel the most familiar for returning players, albeit with a pretty gameplay defining change. In prior “Call of Duty” entries, health was automatically regenerated over a certain amount of time, though here this has been changed to a self-heal ability fixed on a very quick cooldown timer. This forces players to rewire something that has been a constant in the series for over a decade, but I think it really helps to bring a fresh take on the mode. Pairing this with the returning tweaked specialist characters, it really helps make the game more tactical and slower than it has ever been before. One of the big selling points of the mode was the lack of exo-suit traversal this time around, something I honestly missed in my time playing. Boots-on-the-ground gameplay just feels too one-dimensional to go back to, where as I felt the jumping and boosting in “Black Ops 3” was a natural progression for the series’ traversal system. Something I do like that was introduced are the new game modes, one of which is a one-life per round mode that takes influence from “CS:GO’s” money system, in which you get a certain amount of cash per round to spend on your loadout. This forces one to learn another new interesting playstyle, making them come to terms with what should be needed in the round and what can be sacrificed.
Tacked alongside multiplayer is the specialists HQ in which you are given quick tutorials and rundowns for how each one’s abilities playout as well as their gear. During these you will be instructed by Frank Woods from the original “Black Ops,” and completion will net you a cutscene going into the backstory of the specialist completed. This is a nice attempt at trying the amend the lack of campaign, but certainly won’t be the substitute for it if that’s what you’re looking for. From a general view, multiplayer has taken a shift for the better in some ways, like through health and new modes, but also a step back in its traversal system.
The third and final corner of the “Black Ops 4” triangle, Zombies, takes the mode to a whole new level in terms of sheer depth. There are some polarizing choices, such as the perk and health system getting some serious reworking, but I believe they are for the better in the long run. Treyarch’s Zombies mode itself is one of my favorite games on its own, and quite frankly I would still pay full price for the game even without the multiplayer and Blackout modes. For the past three years since “Black Ops 3,” Activision seemingly forced both Sledgehammer and Infinity Ward to add their own version of the mode to their games because of its popularity. This resulted in some admirable yet lackluster creations that failed to match up in comparison to what Treyarch has done with their original mode.
To start off, customization has been taken to another level in this year’s game. Now you have the option of create-a-class, which lets you pick out your starter weapon, elixirs (replacement for gobblegums), a new specialist weapon and your four perks. There are also two storylines this year, both of which your classes are split between due to the differences in specialist weapons and perk formats. Specialist weapons are new, cool-down based items that are intended to be used in a pinch and progressively grow stronger in the game as you use them. The way perks have changed up this year is primarily by the removal of the iconic juggernog, double tap and speed cola, which have their own replacements to find in the game. This opens up the slots for which four perks you will run each game and will shift based on the mode and number of players you are with, which fixes the problem of always following the predictable path of picking the same perks every time in prior games. As much as I loved the iconic perk machine jingles, their sacrifice made for an overall better experience in my mind.
Despite Shadows of Evil from “Black Ops 3” being one of my favorite in the series, it admittedly was overly difficult and complex for new players to jump into and play as the first map released. This year, things are changed through not only having three maps at launch (four if you get the season pass), but also a large amount of custom mutation options for newcomers. There is now a tutorial mode to teach you the basics as well as four difficulty options to choose from for classic play. You can also now add up to three bots into your game if you have no one to play with, which alleviates some of the pressure in surviving and learning the maps for a new player.
A competitive mode entitled Rush makes its way to Zombies, which is something I have been wanting in the mode for a long time. Instead of the classic building up points to buy better guns and unlock new areas of the map to survive, this mode pits you against three others in a race to see who can build up the highest score in their given amount of lives. All weapons, perks and pack-a-punch upgrades are free for this mode, as it takes you from room to room in extremely fast-paced action unlike your traditional Zombies mode. This is something that I really appreciate as it lets me hone my own skills as well as put them to the test against other players in a more interesting way than simply comparing your highest round on a map with someone.
The maps themselves this year take you across three very different locations, each with their own specific atmosphere and layout thanks to both the visual design and music. For the two maps in the new storyline, you have a roman-esque colosseum called IX, which is matched with a sort of heavy-metal/orchestral sound mixed with a choir. The other takes the new crew to the Titanic on Voyage of Despair, a jazz-filled map with a number of twists and turns. For the continuing storyline, the original crew is taken to Alcatraz in a sort of remake of a previous map called Blood of the Dead, this time much more expansive and with new twists thrown in. Both the new crew and the old are a variety of charming and diverse characters and are part of what makes the mode so great. The maps each offer a unique layout that keeps things from getting repetitive. For example, Voyage is filled with incredibly cramped corridors and a sense of verticality while IX has number of open areas and tighter catacombs, and Blood is a sort of mixture of both (but probably stands as the largest). If you are looking for another map, the season-pass-locked map is a remake of Five from the first “Black Ops,” which takes place in the Pentagon. This map also fits into the timeline from then and has a couple of new areas and additions that I think make it a worthy addition if you’re planning on getting the DLC down the road anyways.
Something I don’t want to go unnoticed are the numerous quality-of-life changes Treyarch has made to the mode this year. Stuff like a max ammo power-up filling both your reserve and now your magazine as well is very appreciated. They also dampen your game audio now when listening to one of the lore radios hidden all around the maps, something that I never would have thought of adding but is a genius move. There are more of these things that don’t necessarily improve gameplay but enhance the overall experience for returning players which I love.
What I love most about what Zombies has grown into is its offerings for a variety of different players. Whether you’re simply going for high rounds or trying to solve the next incredibly cryptic step of the main quest line on a map, there is something that can appeal to all types of players. My only gripe with the current mode are minor bugs and glitches, primarily in the occasional crash that can happen in late rounds, which Treyarch has talked about getting fixed soon (at the time of this review). Other than that, Zombies is the best the mode has ever been, making it easy for both new and old players to jump in. The drastic shifts in certain areas just make high-round attempts all the more meaningful, and I think make it even more rewarding for players to work towards.
What Treyarch accomplishes with “Black Ops 4” is an offering that can appeal to a variety of different players. For someone who predominantly plays Zombies, like myself, it is nice to have multiplayer and Blackout to switch on to for when I’m craving something else. While a lack of campaign may upset some, what stands in its place is something that I think more than fills the gap of a mode that typically only provided a six-to-eight hour experience. If you have been off the “COD” train and have been looking to hop back on, or never even got onto it to begin with, this is the year to do so. It may not compete with the various titles for best of the year come the end of 2018, but “Call of Duty: Black Ops 4” is one of the most complete and content-filled packages to release this year and I think is well-worth picking up.