Over the last several years, it’s been hard to pin down exactly what Call of Duty is at this point. Fast-paced, multiplayer shooter, of course. But the identity of the series has seemingly changed from entry to entry. From the space-age antics of Infinite Warfare to the somber and slower WWII, the three-pronged development cycle has led to a constantly changing franchise. Despite last year’s success, at least commercially, Activision returns to their most popular well in 2018 with Call of Duty: Black Ops 4. After spending two weekends with Treyarch’s latest effort, I remain just as confused as ever as to where the series is headed.
The first thing you’ll notice about Black Ops 4 is that it feels a lot more grounded in comparison to its predecessor. It’s still futuristic, mind you, but the removal of both double jumping and wall-running keeps the action to a ground-level (which is being touted as “boots on the ground”). Another big change for the series is the lack of a regenerating health bar. Instead of housing a secondary grenade, players now carry around a rechargeable health pack. As a result, this leads to firefights that last a little longer than you would normally expect. You’ll still get shredded more often than not, but there’s still a pretty noticeable difference here.
As this is a Treyarch-developed release, Specialists once again make their return to the franchise. A handful of returning classes (Seraph, Ruin) are joined by some new ones, such as Crash and Ajax, for Black Ops 4. Each class can be equipped with similar loadouts, however, each one features it’s own unique assets as well. For example, a Nomad can call upon their dog to either follow them or patrol a certain area, while a Recon can activate a pulse for their team that reveals enemy locations.
Classes can add another layer of strategy to the action, but they need to be handled correctly. A good team would theoretically have a mix of both defensive and offensive specialists. Coming out of the beta, while Treyarch seems to be on the right path, there does appear to be some balancing issues. Some of the abilities, such as the aforementioned Recon pulse, seem way more useful than some of the other abilities. This could just be an issue with the people I was playing with/skill level of myself, but some of these extra skills seemed a tad underwhelming when it came to in-game action. The developer has been listening to feedback from the beta, so I do expect some changes to occur between now and October.
While the biggest new mode, Blackout, won’t get tested until next month, the early beta for Black Ops 4 did include a few new modes. The highlight for me was Control, which is a tense variation on King of the Hill. Each team gets 30 lives to use as they work to either defend or capture two unique points on a map. Victory can either be attained with the capturing team conquering both points, or by eliminating the opposition entirely. What often happens is a close showdown between the two sides, as they use up their lives in a close-quarter firefight. It’s a relatively quick mode, but more importantly, it’s also a lot of fun.
Also new to the series is Heist, which plays out as its name suggests. Once again going the five-on-five route, two teams square off over a substantial sum of cash. The trick here is that not only do you only have a single live per round, but you also only begin with a pistol. The more money you bring back, though, at the conclusion of each round, the better the weapon you can get for the following round. Additionally, you can be revived mid-match, but attempting this could lead to your teammate being left out in the open, vulnerable to enemy gunfire. Again, it’s a neat variation on the traditional Call of Duty gameplay, but I’m not sure how often I’d return to it in the full game. It’s a mode that feels heavily inspired by the eternally popular Counter-Strike, which is a shooter I have personally never gotten into. Consequently, I’m not that into Treyarch’s take on the skill shooter. I imagine it will have its fans though, particularly those who may be feeling a little bored by Valve’s popular FPS.
If you’re not in the mood for new modes, the old standbys of the series will also be included in Black Ops 4. When I was done dragging my team down in Control and Heist, I enjoyed returning to my usual team deathmatch haunts. It’s just as fun as ever, even if I lack the reflexes to keep up with today’s youth. I will say that as of right now, I didn’t particularly love any of the maps that were featured in the beta. A combination of their aesthetic and layouts made them come off as more boring and traditional than anything else. With only six featured in the beta, hopefully the other maps will be a little more memorable.
My main concern with Black Ops 4 is not that it won’t feel good to play. The beta already feels pretty solid to me, and the increased “time to kill” is a bold, but welcome decision. Rather, I’m not sure if the audience of the series will take to the new modes as they should. Playing on the PlayStation 4, almost every game featured players approaching these team-heavy modes as if they were lone wolves. And while I certainly do blame these players, that’s also just the fan base the series has accrued at this point. And before you jump on me, I recognize that there are plenty of excellent professional teams out there that do amazing things. But, there’s a difference between the pros and the so-called “casuals”, and I worry that this difference will curb the title’s appeal.
Ultimately, I think the upcoming Blackout beta in September will determine whether or not I take the plunge on Call of Duty: Black Ops 4. The gameplay is as solid as ever, and the new modes are definitely a nice change of pace. However, between the lack of a single-player campaign (shut up, this still bugs me), and my gut feeling that the team-oriented approach may not land as intended, it’s hard for me to justify dropping $60 on it, at least at this point. There will definitely be some type of audience for Treyarch’s latest effort, of that much I’m sure. With so many competing options out there, though, I’m just not sure that will be enough.
This preview is based on the PlayStation 4 version of the beta. A code was provided to us by Activision.