The last Call of Duty game I played was COD 4: Modern Warfare, way back in... Jesus, 2007. At that time I had been a part of a gaming community that focused on multiplayer shooters: COD, Battlefield and even some smaller efforts like Project Reality. However, life changes and I moved on, said goodbye to endless nights of gunplay in favour of a broader gaming menu. At the time Battlefield 3 arrived I decided this was quintessential war simulation experience that would take me forward and by soap it did.
Even as late as this year, I was planning my review schedule and had Battlefield V firmly in place with no inclination to play the new COD. Then a few unrelated experiences and events changed that, the first being the Battlefield V reveal event. The whole thing just stunk to the high heavens of EA, trying to pander to every possible demographic out there. Do I have a problem with a woman being playable characters in a war game? Absolutely not. I think the recent spate of female gaming protagonists has been a breath of fresh air for the games industry. On a historical accuracy context, woman did fight and give their lives in combat situations right through World War One and Two. However, a cricket bat-wielding soldier with an advanced prosthetic pushed things a bit too far for me. Then last month, I joined the press pack for EGX in Birmingham UK (coverage here).
On the first day, I quickly got through my interviews and decided to go far a wander. I happened upon the Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 stand and was ushered into the queue by the enthusiastic staff. Each session had ten slots as the multiplayer in COD is 5 vs 5. It amused me greatly that we were playing on mouse/keyboard and I ended up fighting 5 console gamers (who complained about this from start to finish). So here’s the thing, I was having an absolute blast and quickly adapted to the blisteringly fast corridor shooting that the series has become famous for. I walked down from the stand with a big smile on my face, it was at this point I decided to scrap my plans to cover Battlefield this year and focus on Call of Duty: Black Ops 4.
Stop playing with yourself
So the big change in this yearly saga is that Black Ops 4 does not have a single player campaign, a fact that was not well received by its loyal player base. While I cannot blame the reaction, less is less after all, I can also see why Treyarch made this move. So according to their data, only 38.2% of players finished the campaign mode and it was a widely known fact that many COD fans never even try it. In my opinion, this information shouldn’t be taken on face value as many players never finished Skyrim, but that doesn’t make the game any less viable. Regardless, there is no single player game to write about, so what do we have? You can essentially split this game into three broad slices: Standard multiplayer, Zombie mode and Blackout. I’ll cover each of these as a separate entity and give my thoughts on the final package.
Ever since Call of Duty: World at War there has been some kind of zombie mode bundled in with the main game. Whether it was a happy accident or planned from the start, zombies are now part and parcel of the COD experience and for many fans one of their favourite modes. The last good multiplayer zombie shooter I played was Left for Dead 2, back when Valve still had an interest in game development. As I’ve been away from COD for so long I have little to compare to other than the odd screenshot I’ve glimpsed, so let’s jump in. If you buy the standard edition you will get three maps at launch: Voyage of despair, XI, Blood of the Dead with an additional map for season pass owners. The first, that is also used as a tutorial map, is set on the newly stricken Titanic, just as it smashes into the infamous iceberg. In another map, you are dropped into a huge roman colosseum in which you must battle your way into the catacombs below.
All these maps have the same basic idea, survive each wave of zombies with each one getting increasingly vicious. You start out with three other players and very little in terms of firepower. As the undead start to appear you must dispatch them and in turn, this generates a pool of points. These then can be spent on the fly for numerous power-ups and weapons that are around you. You can also spend points on opening up new parts of the map, gain access to new weapons icons and boosters. Obviously, your pool of points is also your reward, so being frugal makes sense. You also start each map with a set of elixirs that once used refill over time, these are assigned prior to the match starting and can be swapped out with different effects. On top of these, you have talismans, special weapons and class powers. Confused yet?
Zombie mode was not exactly what I was expecting, certainly in terms of how many different elements you have to be aware of. My first few games felt overwhelming and I spent most of my time running around like a headless chicken, shooting zombies and generally pissing my team off due to not having a clue. However, if you do spend the time to learn these systems and the maps themselves, zombie mode can be a lot of fun. The only real downside to this mode is that there seems to be a lag issue with other players appearing to jump around. I have a fast internet connection and have tested the game on multiple settings, but this delay seems to be always there. It’s not a deal breaker but something I would hope can be fixed in the future.
Zombie mode is a lot of fun and packed with ways to customise the experience. You can sometimes end up with three players who are just not interested in working together, which is always a problem when relying on PUGs. If I’m being fair, I have also met some very likeable people who do help, chat on the voice coms and even add you as friends for future sessions. If you do have a group of mates who own Black Ops 4, this zombie mode is well worth a look.
When a gaming series becomes a yearly event it leaves itself wide open to accusations of lacking innovation and doing the bare minimum in favour of a yearly cash in. In all honesty, I have not been part of this yearly event for over a decade, so I cannot really comment on how the series has made changes from version to version. One thing I can say is that I don’t believe in hacking on a game just because everyone else does. COD is the butt of many jokes in the games industry and its fanbase is often painted with a not too flattering generalisation; that they are all foulmouthed adolescents. Yes, the internet being what it is, there will always be dickheads out there. However, if I am being honest, most of the people who have spoken to me via in-game coms have been friendly and passionate about the game.
The Multiplayer section of Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 is fast, refined and an absolute blast from start to finish. Two opposing teams of five must choose from a roster of themed characters, each with their own special abilities that charge up as you make kills etc. One of these is smaller and will become active frequently. The other is a larger special and can turn the tide of a battle when deployed. All of the characters have their own look but other than the specials, they all have access to the same weapons and gear. While each character doesn’t have the same personality as say Overwatch, I do get the feeling this is the direction the developers were going. Never once did I see an enemy soldier and think, ‘oh that’s Ajax, I’d better watch out for flash grenades’. The gameplay is so fast there is barely time to register an enemy is nearby before your off to respawn. This is where a game like Overwatch does have more meat to the characters and who you are fighting will have an influence on how you play. It is well known that Treyarch had already developed a portion on the single-player campaign before deciding to remove it. There is, however, a dossier for each character which will teach you how to use that characters particular skill set. What is also pretty cool is that these also contain some decent CGI cut-scenes that add an element of context to why you are fighting in the first place. While not very complex, these small story pieces do add a worthwhile distraction.
There are fourteen maps as of right now, four are remakes of previous maps which ten are brand new. While most of these levels are compact, they do have some great design which you would expect from a developer who has been making shooters for this long. The only real issue I found was with balancing, both in terms of skills and player numbers. Often when a player (usually the losing side) drops out it can take another few rounds to fill that space, effectively making it four or even three versus five. I also think that some of the main specials skills are way too overpowered. I do have faith that Treyarch is working on these minor wrinkles and will make adjustments accordingly.
There can be only one!
Do you know why Apple is so successful? It’s because they take good (but flawed) ideas and make them beautifully accessible. Ok I admit, they have started losing their way since Steve passed, but when I was playing Blackout, this is the comparison that came to me. Battle Royale games are not a new concept, but it was Player Unknown Battlegrounds that made the genre such a huge part of the current gaming sphere. PUBG was (is) a heavily flawed blueprint for how Battle Royale games could work and (Fortnight aside) Treyarch are the ones who did an Apple. They have fixed pretty much every problem with the sagging framework that Bluehole mashed together from Unity assets and have the first realistic Battle Royale game worth playing. If Treyarch and Activision play their cards right, this could be massive.
So for those not too clued up on the current Battle Royale formula, here’s the skinny. You and another ninety-nine players are dropped into a large gaming map and the last one standing is the winner. As you hurtle towards terra firma in your trusty wingsuit, you must decide which part of the zone you will decent upon. As you reach a certain altitude you will deploy a parachute and flutter to earth. Once on the ground (which is seamless) it becomes a race to gather weapons, ammo and other items in order to defend yourself against the other players. Or, of course, you can play more aggressively and go hunting. Shortly after landing a large circle will appear on the map and soon after that the wall of energy will start to shrink, slowly killing anyone left outside the sphere. This happens in random places so it will only be after you have landed will you know if you are in a safe area or if you need to start doing some cross country running. As the playable are gets smaller the remaining players will be finally be forced to duke it out.
As you might imagine, there is a whole range of weapons on offer, from pistols, shotguns, assault rifles right up to snipers rifles and rocket launchers. Each weapon can be upgraded with mods and I love how these will bolt onto your current weapon if the slot is free. This is great design and saves vital time in the menu. Speaking of menus, the inventory system in Blackout is slick and easy to use. You can carry two weapons at a time and once you’ve filled your five items slots you will need a backpack to expand on this. I like that I can carry on running while my inventory window is open, which is another small thing that keeps the gameplay flowing.
The game map is actually made up of various themes from previous COD games, like Nuke Town, Firing Range and Turbine. All these areas feel like they mesh together really well and it’s a nice nod to long-term fans. It is obvious that in order to get this game running as well as it does, a few visual sacrifices have been made. With that said, I think the game looks great considering the lag-free experience we have here. Firing guns, moving around and even driving vehicles all feel responsive and snappy. Many times I have fired off a volley of bullets at the 200-300 meter range and the feedback is incredible. More to the point, the bullets, drop off and net-code all behave perfectly. This is the key to why Blackout is the first Battle Royale game I would recommend.
Aside from a bloody great big collapsing circle, one essential element that Battle Royale games need are metaphorical watering holes, places that draw players together. One tried and tested mechanism for this is loot drops and in Blackout they work perfectly well, offering high-level weapons and armour for those who dare to take them. As you move around the various areas you will also come across zombie infestations; I love this for a few reasons. The carrot is that if you clear them you will be rewarded with advanced weapons and quality armour. The rub? Everyone can hear you sending the undead back to their shallow graves, this is the kind of risk and reward gameplay that adds so much tension to this Battle Royale experience. I think this also shows that Treyarch is willing to be playful and have fun with Blackout, like the developers of Fortnight have been successfully doing. Maybe we will see new maps and events in the future? There is a wonderful tension when playing Blackout, especially when you get down to the few remaining players. It is true that you will need a degree of skill to win a solo match but there are also duo and four-player groups if you feel like you need a bit of help.
It is unfortunately common for people to dismiss and criticise something through habit, but this can often be counterproductive. For a long time now it has been a yearly routine for many to mock Call of Duty games when never actually sitting down to play it. In my book, if you’re going to rip something apart make sure you know what you’re talking about or keep your yap shut. The basic idea for Call of Duty games has remained the same for years, this is true, but after over a decade away from the franchise, I have found the multiplayer maps to be both insanely fun and exhilarating experiences. The zombie mode is also growing beyond its initial gimmick status and is a worthy main component of the game.
Of course, the big reason for gamers to check out Black Ops 4 is the new Battle Royale mode, which is by far the very best there is on the market right now. If you have been looking for a game that gets this popular genre right, then this is the game for you. As for price, on this front, I am biased because I don’t like this new shift towards games costing sixty pounds for the basic version and ridiculous prices for the extra content. With that said, I have been pleasantly surprised by how much value there is hidden within Black Ops 4, even without the single-player campaign. Obviously, if you are just interested in Battle Royale, this might be a deal breaker. I do hope at some point Activision sees the light and releases Blackout as its own self-contained game, I’m sure it would sell like hotcakes.
Thank you for reading my review of Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 and supporting my website. I would also like to thank Treyarch/Activision for providing a copy of the game for the review.