Call Of Duty may no longer have a chokehold on the shooter genre, but this years entry shows its not about to surrender its crown just yet.
Since the fledgling Sledgehammer Games got its hands on Call Of Duty, theres been a much more dramatic shift from sequel to sequel, and while not all of them have been met with open arms (were looking at you, Infinite Warfare) theres no denying that the three teams now working on the franchise are experimenting in their own distinct fashion.
Treyarchs vision for the series is perhaps more focused than its sister studios, having worked on Black Ops for a decade now. However, if you told us back then that this is what Black Ops 4 would be, wed call you a damn liar. Although it exists within the same timeline this latest entry feels like a different beast altogether, albeit one that inherits Call Of Dutys consistently superb gunplay.
Black Ops is no longer about protagonists Mason and Woods. No more cryptic floating numbers or Cold War dramas. No more mind-bending funny business or whatever nonsense Black Ops 3 tried to pull with its convoluted plotline. In fact, theres no story at all – at least not in the form of a traditional six to eight hour campaign. When Treyarch announced this pivot towards a purely multiplayer sequel many were shocked, but breaking tradition may have been exactly what this game needed.
Admittedly, the absence of a campaign leaves a hole. Its become somewhat of a ritual among fans to boot up a new Call Of Duty game only to blitz through whatever high octane set pieces it has in store, then jump straight into the multiplayer. Thats not an option in Black Ops 4, however. Its minimalist main menu signposts the following three modes: competitive online play, the new and improved Zombies, and the series highly-anticipated take on Battle Royale: Blackout.
When originally revealed, it had many label Treyarch as a trend chaser, turning its back on hardcore followers to get a slice of that insanely lucrative Battle Royale action. Blackout has had no shortage of naysayers but now that its in players hands its already proving a hit, becoming the Battle Royale of choice for those unimpressed by Fortnite and PlayerUnknowns Battlegrounds.
It borrows that same premise from these games. Whether playing solo, with a partner, or in a squad of four, you and up to 87 other players descend upon the series biggest multiplayer map to date, left to fend for yourselves with only one team coming out as the winner.
Youre still playing Call Of Duty but the rules have changed. Forget agonising over the perfect loadout or trying to bag yourself a scorestreak. Everything, from weapons and equipment to health and ammunition, is all acquired on-site, each player starting with nothing but their own bare hands. Or fists, if you fancy your chances in early game punch-up.
Inventory management has always been a hurdle in Battle Royale games but Treyarch seems to have come up with a great solution, allowing you to quickly pop a bar showing your available items, then cycling between them instead of dipping into a fullscreen menu. An even bigger hurdle veterans will need to overcome is the sheer size of Blackouts playing area, which is said to be 1,500 times that of Nuketown. Unlike the traditional close quarters mayhem of online multiplayer, here youre very likely to exchange fire over much wider spaces, long range weapons being more important than theyve ever been in a Call of Duty game.
Speaking of Nuketown, it makes an appearance in Blackout, but only just – scorched remnants that make up one of around a dozen landmark locations. Many of these are also based on previous Treyarch maps such as Estates, Array, and Asylum, borrowing their rough layout and assets from past games. Together they form a bizarre patchwork, strung together by a series of roads and fields, these adjoining spaces populated by clusters of buildings and terrain.
As Battle Royale fans will know, those first several minutes can go one of two ways. You can either get stuck straight in, scrapping with other players for gear or you can end up landing somewhere completely isolated, leisurely filling your boots with as many first aid kits and shotgun shells as you can lay your hands on. To try and keep the action focused, the map boundary will start to shift towards a single area, forcing you to reposition instead of pitching a tent or letting the game idle.
Its fair to assume that Treyarch had something different in mind for Black Ops 4 originally. Call Of Duty games now have a three year development cycle and it was only in the past 18 months that Battle Royale went from being a niche mode to fixating gamers around the globe. While it never feels cobbled together, there are some rough edges here and there, a lack of polish and a surprising shortage of player cosmetics. That doesnt take away from the fact that Blackout is wonderfully executed though and wed be shocked if Treyarch didnt capitalise on its momentum, taking a similar approach to Epic and wheeling out frequent updates and content drops.
But as new and shiny as Blackout is, its not the crowning jewel of this three-part package. Competitive multiplayer has long been the focus of Activisions power-selling franchise and thats something Treyarch hasnt forgotten. While there are a lot of similarities between Black Ops 4 and its predecessor, there has been a great deal of refinement too.
Wall-running and jump packs have been removed, which reduces the overall tempo, yet movement is still fast and fluid. There are also new competitive modes for those brave enough to step away from the capture and deathmatch playlists. Control has teams warring over two checkpoints with a limited number of respawns across multiple rounds. Meanwhile, Heist is a tad more complex and sees both teams attempt to secure and extract a money drop. You can then spend that cash between rounds to buy perks and gear, starting with only a pistol and a few bullets.
Treyarch has also doubled down on Specialists. These characters replace your generic avatar and each have their own unique powers and gadgets which, when combined with your loadout, define your in-game playstyle. Torque, for example, is a great pick for capture modes, throwing down his razor wire and barricade to block off areas and create chokepoints. Meanwhile Crash fills a support role, giving out ammo and even using his Tak 5 to heal and buff teammates.
Specialists enforce Treyarchs shift towards making Call Of Duty more team focused, the abilities of these characters allowing savvy players to squad up and employ tactics that simply werent viable in past entries. Even the way Black Ops 4 tracks points and statistics is skewed towards objective play, drawing the focus away from annoying kill/death ratios. Its a decision no doubt informed by the success of games such as Overwatch and Rainbow Six: Siege though Call Of Dutys gameplay is still distinct enough to make it stand out.
The closest you get to a campaign in Black Ops 4 is a series of cut scenes depicting each of the Specialists, giving you a glimpse of their origin stories. These feel like fragments of what the campaign could have been but ultimately fail in making the games lore any more appealing. Theyre poorly acted and pretty much a waste of time. If this was the base from which Treyarch had planned to build a single-player campaign, were glad they killed it off.
It still comes as somewhat of a surprise to see just how zealous the Zombies fan cult really is. Considering it was once a bonus stage for those who beat World At War, this mode has been greatly expanded over the years, amassing quite a following. An overreliance on Zombies, and a lack of imagination, even saw Sledgehammer and Infinity Ward create their own take on the mode but, as long-time fans will tell you, this is still very much Treyarchs baby.
The veteran Call Of Duty studio gives us our biggest launch line-up of Zombies content ever, with three chapters to play right off the bat. Two of these feature a new cast of characters who find themselves travelling back in time to fight the undead and stranger, more supernatural forces. These are two of the most bizarre survival stages to feature in Black Ops, one set in an ancient colosseum with the other aboard an overrun Titanic.
Rounding out this trio is a reimagining of Black Ops IIs Mob Of The Dead, seeing the return of fan favourite characters Richtofen, Tank, Nikolai, and Takeo. It may seem like a strange inclusion though Treyarch maintains there are hardcore Zombies players out there, many of whom are particularly invested in the storyline of previous games.
This time around Zombies offers a better onboarding experience for newcomers, explaining the base mechanics and how to make use of your various loadout options. Theres definitely a lot more going on here than there was in the original Nazi Zombies mode that debuted 10 years ago. While that will be a delight to fans, others will find this survival co-op mode just as lifeless and brain dead as its namesake.
Gunning down hordes of the undead is fun in small doses but it quickly gets old, as does slowly unlocking new areas within each labyrinthine map. Its just too time consuming, with no real sense of reward, standing at odds with the high octane thrills of competitive multiplayer and the slow, tactical tension of Blackout. Still, those who actually enjoy Zombies will find themselves catered to with a wealth of challenges to beat, weapons to customise, and other progression unlocks.
Although its three parts can feel disjointed, as a whole, Black Ops 4 is the strongest Call Of Duty experience weve seen this console generation. Stripping out the campaign is bound to niggle away at purists but has given Treyarch the freedom to invest its time elsewhere, tightening that online multiplayer core and giving Zombies fans a huge, bloody slab of content to bite on.
Then theres Blackout of course, a fantastic Battle Royale alternative that were sure to hear a lot more from in the coming weeks and months. Call Of Duty hasnt been consistent these past several years but now its back on a winning streak. No pressure, then, Infinity Ward…
Call Of Duty: Black Ops 4
In Short: The best Call Of Duty of the generation and while some will bemoan the lack of a story campaign, its hard to argue with the quality and quantity of content on offer.
Pros: Blackout is a surprisingly brilliant alternative to Fortnite and PUBG. Treyarchs competitive multiplayer is also a triumph, encouraging tactical team play without compromising Call Of Dutys core DNA.
Cons: Attempts to create a backstory are shockingly bad. Without a campaign, those who dislike the series Zombies mode may also feel short-changed.
Formats: PlayStation 4 (reviewed), Xbox One, and PC
Release Date: 12th October 2018
Age Rating: 18
By Jim Hargreaves