Back when I previewed Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 in September, I had several concerns about the final product. Would a lack of a single-player campaign make the package feel cheap? And would the team-heavy approach gel properly with the series’ audience? Admittedly, it was a difficult place for Treyarch to be stuck in. The series has been getting long in the tooth for quite some time now, and a blast of innovation was needed. So, while the new additions to the formula were welcoming, it was a question of whether the entire package would come successfully come together.
With no campaign attached, Black Ops 4 is one massive multiplayer package. You have the traditional competitive modes that the series shot to popularity with, along with Treyarch’s fan-favorite Zombies mode. The big addition to the suite of modes this year, though, is Blackout. A variation on the popular battle royale genre, the large-scale warfare is nothing like the franchise has seen before. There’s a little something for everybody in the sequel. Whether you’re a long time fan who got disillusioned with where the series went, or someone looking for a fresh multiplayer experience, you’ll likely find something to enjoy here.
Another Treyarch creation that resurfaces in Black Ops 4 are the Specialists. A group of unique soldiers with their own special tactics, Specialists are a major part of the multiplayer experience. Of the 10 classes featured in the sequel, six of them return from Black Ops 3, while the remaining four are completely new. While you are free to choose from anyone you desire, a good team would theoretically have a mix of different characters. It’s important to find out which one best fits your style of play, as well. I’ve gravitated to the Nomad, whose sling-shot trip mines and K9 unit greatly reflect my devious nature. It’s fun just to be able to experiment with all of the classes, however.
While there may not be a traditional single-player campaign, there are training sections for each Specialist that offer up some story. You get some background detail on what drives them to such a dangerous lifestyle, as well as over-arching future nonsense on top of that. Black Ops favorite Frank Woods offers guidance throughout Specialist HQ, however, his brand of humor is more often miss than hit. Honestly, I don’t really care about the plot, but I do think these tutorials are all worth running through. You’ll get a better grip on each character’s unique abilities, and how they can be unleashed on the field of battle.
Once you’re all caught up, you can finally jump into the many included multiplayer modes. The traditional multiplayer menu is where I imagine most fans will gravitate to, so we might as well start there. You have the regular highlights such as Team Deathmatch, Kill Confirmed, Domination and Search and Destroy. If you’re familiar with the Call of Duty franchise, you’ve probably racked up countless hours messing around in these modes. Still the same brutally-paced battles, just in new, shinier locations.
As mentioned, the sequel has a strong focus on getting you to work well with others. And although most of the multiplayer modes work better when you work together, the new Control mode is really built for it. This new addition has two teams vying for control of specific locations, but the roster of each team only has a limited supply of lives. Once you run out of lives, it’s game over. You’ll need to be smart, in what Specialist you use and in how you work together, in order to pull out a victory. Another new mode, Heist, also demands that you work well with others if you want to survive. I still have my concerns about these modes — namely whether or not the series’ audience can properly support them — but I can’t deny that they are fun.
Moving on, Black Ops 4 features the largest dose of Zombies of any entry to date. Told across two stories, players will be able to slaughter the undead masses across three different maps — four if you pick up the game’s season’s pass, though it’s worth noting that this exclusive map is a reimagining of an older one from the original Black Ops. The Roman coliseum-set IX, water-soaked Voyage of Despair, and Blood of the Dead’s Alcatraz are each noticeably different from the other and should satisfy all fans of the mode. On top of the ridiculous number of firearms at your disposal, each character also has their own unique weapon as well. They add even more personality to a mode that was already overflowing with it. Additionally, there’s a new Rush variation that amps up the action but does away with the meticulous curation of resources of Survival.
I’ll be honest with you, I’ve never been a fan of Zombies, and even the improvements here do little to change my mind. I don’t care about the plot that has somehow stretched over multiple entries in the series, nor do I care to really understand it — you’d need a stellar memory and hours upon hours of pouring over YouTube videos just to get a grasp on the overarching plot. The gameplay is perfectly fine, but I just don’t get any enjoyment out of surviving zombie horde after zombie horde. It’s a style of gameplay that doesn’t click for me, regardless of what game it is featured in. I don’t begrudge anyone that does, and the amount of content Treyarch has crammed into this section of the game is commendable, but it’s just not for me.
Finally, we get to the star of the show, Blackout. Treyarch’s take on the popular battle royale genre, Blackout drops you into the middle of a massive battlefield with a single goal: survive. As is standard for the genre, upon landing, you are equipped with nothing. Only through exploring the area will you be able to pick-up weapons, armor, power-ups and any other useful item you may need. You can’t just sit around, though, as the map grows smaller and smaller as the match progresses. Vehicles on the map can get you around faster, but they’ll draw the attention of surrounding foes. And while I may dislike the mode they come from, placing Zombies on the map was a surprisingly excellent idea, giving players the chance to investigate zombie-infected areas for high-powered weapons, at the risk of drawing attention to themselves. A lot of thought, and a little luck, are what you’ll need in order to make it to the end.
As someone who has logged countless hours in Fortnite, I’ll admit that Blackout felt a little weird at first. It took some time to get used to the traditional Call of Duty gameplay on a larger stage. Eventually, I got my bearings, and even if I’m not still not great at it, I am having fun. The fast-paced gunplay of the series adapts pretty well to the genre, and I do like the fact that I don’t have to worry about crafting and building getting in the way of combat. I will say, though, that I don’t love the map in its current state. I appreciate the references to the series’ past, but it lacks personality at the moment. It’s kind of bland to look at, and the engine the series is starting to show age, at least from a visual standpoint.
While these modes are all excellently designed, they wouldn’t work nearly as well as they do without the changes Treyarch made to the core gameplay. The longer “time to kill”, and the new reusable health charge help make firefights more exciting. The pace of movement feels great as well. Even as a fan of jet boots and wall-running, I think the movement speed is arguably the best it has been in years. Black Ops 4 feels great to play, and while I don’t know where the series will go next year, but I hope the other series developers maintain these improvements.
With the franchise dropping in popularity over the years, Treyarch made some pretty big gambles with Call of Duty: Black Ops 4. There’s no star-studded campaign, and tweaks to the gameplay could have rocked the boat a little too much. However, the studio clearly knew what they were doing, as this year’s effort stands as the series’ strongest in years. Blackout works better than it has any right to, and the assortment of multiplayer modes included are remarkably strong. While I still have concerns about the player base going forward, and Zombies still doesn’t do jack for me, I don’t see myself dropping this one for quite some time.
This review is based on the PlayStation 4 version of the game. A copy was provided by Activision.
Treyarch's big gamble pays off with Call of Duty: Black Ops 4. Zombies may still do nothing for me, but the reworked gameplay, impressive suite of multiplayer modes -- especially Blackout -- make this the best entry in quite some time.