Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 is as impressive as it is anomalous. The game contains very little that hasn’t been done first by others, but it approaches those features in a way that’s so polished and unique that it doesn’t really matter if they’re particularly original. It also lacks a single-player mode, marking the first ever modern COD game to strip itself of a story campaign — and it’s become more focused and fun as a result. Black Ops 4 could have been a mismatched jumble of ripped off game elements, but developer Treyarch has instead reinvented the franchise in a way that may have lasting effects on how people play Call of Duty well into the future.
To be fair, the narrative around COD was one of lowered expectations. For a while, it’s seemed like publisher Activision and the small army of developers it employs to make COD games each year had simply run out of good ideas. The series remains a best-seller as new installments continue to make gobs of money from its diehard fanbase. But starting roughly around 2014’s Advanced Warfare, COD began to stagnate creatively, forcing its creators to turn to increasingly unrealistic and far-out ideas. Jetpacks and exosuits? Sure. Cybernetics and AI? They went there. Space warfare? Why not.
CALL OF DUTY STAGNATED CREATIVELY YEARS AGO, WHEN ITS CREATORS RAN OUT OF GOOD IDEAS
By the time Activision announced that last year’s entry would return to WWII — after a particularly vocal online backlash against the sci-fi Infinite Warfare — it seemed like the franchise had hit a dead end. Meanwhile, innovation in online multiplayer games was changing everything.
Bungie’s Destiny opened up all new avenues for treating shooters like persistent, online services. Ubisoft’s Rainbow Six Siege delivered unprecedented levels of strategy and customization through its use of a robust class system. Blizzard’s Overwatch completely rethought the competitive team-based shooter, creating a global phenomenon and e-sport almost right out of the gate. And perhaps most importantly, PUBG and Fortnite helped establish battle royale as the new, hottest genre in the industry.
And now there’s Black Ops 4, a game that takes elements from all of the above and remixes them in a clever way to create the most cohesive, forward-looking COD game in a long time. It’s still very much COD at its core: the game is brutally fast and overtly militaristic, and it’s designed solely for the hyperactive teenager in all of us. (Sometimes it feels like it’s primarily for those that are literally hyperactive teenagers.) But setting aside its aesthetics and the untouched core game design, Black Ops 4 is a creative and fascinating deviation from the formula. It is no surprise that the title is topping the Twitch charts in its first week, giving mainstays Fortnite and League of Legends a run for their money and keeping the competitive community in thrall. Casual players seem to be returning in droves, too.
The mode feels vibrant and dynamic, and just playing a handful of hours this past weekend was enough to hook me in a way that feels reminiscent of my first few Fortnite and PUBG sessions. The big difference I’m seeing with Blackout — and what I think will help it stay relevant to a uniquely large audience that doesn’t typically like battle royale games — is the skill gap and the necessary tools it takes to win.
PUBG matches are long, arduous, and can end in a flash if someone gets off a couple lucky shots from half a mile away. You can often die without ever seeing it coming, and in situations where you simply couldn’t have done much of anything about it. Many newcomers to the game, even when it first launched last year, found it hard to secure just one kill per game, let alone make it to the final circle and win. And because the matches are so long, practicing is hard and improving your play takes serious time and effort.
Fortnite, on the other hand, now relies almost entirely on your ability to build structures and sharpen your aim until it’s lightning-fast and accurate. Epic continues to add zany new items like a structure-destroying ATV, deployable fortresses, and invisibility stones to mix it up. Yet unless you master the core skills of building, quick aiming, and maneuverability, you’re unlikely to ever win a Fortnite game as the average player is much more skilled than they were six or even three months ago.
BLACKOUT HAS A MUCH MORE ACCOMMODATING LEARNING CURVE THAN PUBG AND FORTNITE
Blackout is a different story. Sure, the best of the best will always be able to aim better, move faster, and out-maneuver their enemies. But the playing field feels more level, and not just because the game mode just came out. By its very nature, combat in a COD game is more flattened — it’s easier to kill and get killed in almost every situation. That gives less skilled players an opportunity to beat opponents and even secure victories by playing smart and getting lucky.
I can of course see the player base getting better at moving around the map, using strategic positions, and relying on the most effective firearms as the mode matures. But the learning curve here is much more inviting. Blackout is like playing a standard first-person shooter, but in a different context and at bigger scale. That’s a whole lot easier to manage than building structures out of thin air or maneuvering an environment for 20 minutes without seeing a single opponent.
There’s also a lot of room for the mode to grow. Treyarch plans to add new modes, vehicles, and items that shake up the combat and change how players get around. Even right now, players are finding ways to take out opponents with basketballs, the tomahawk projectile, and by crashing vehicles into another. Over time, there’s a good chance Blackout can become the more polished and accessible version of PUBG, yet with Fortnite’s willingness and capability to constantly evolve.
While Blackout has certainly dominated the narrative around Black Ops 4, the standard multiplayer remains largely intact and refreshing. Now, players choose not just between a set of custom loadouts, but also special subclasses that grant you abilities and a more powerful ultimate-style ability, like you’d see in Destiny or Overwatch, that charges up over time. These existed in Black Ops 3, but Treyarch is leaning harder into them here, adding new specialists and letting a lot of the late-match combat revolve around strategic ability use.
Those abilities also have heightened importance considering game modes are now more objective-based and not simply about who kills more of the enemy team. Control, Hardpoint, Heist, Search and Destroy, and Domination outnumber the traditional kill-or-be-killed modes, of which there are just three. It’s clear Treyarch is encouraging players to try the objective-based modes by giving them prominent placement in the featured list. Attached to the mode is the same progression system we’ve come to expect from COD, but with even more unlockable cosmetics, weapon skins, and other vanity items to keep players hooked and fixated on goals and milestones, including the ever desirable prestige emblems you get from maxing out your level and starting over anew.
A lot of the changes you’ll recognize as the influence of Rainbox Six Siege, with little bits of Destiny and Overwatch sprinkled in. But no one element feels so prevalent that it dilutes the core COD experience, which is still about running around as fast as you can and racking up a high kill count while (hopefully) achieving an objective for your team. Players who’ve liked past COD games, especially the recent ones, will still find this one enjoyable, while those lapsed players that maybe haven’t played since the Modern Warfare or Black Ops 2 days should be able to acclimate just fine with a few hours of practice.
IT’S HARD TO THINK COD FANS WILL PURCHASE ANOTHER GAME IN THE SERIES UNLESS IT HAS BATTLE ROYALE
Rounding out the experience is a revamped Zombies mode, which sends wave after wave of AI-controlled undead at you and a team of strangers or friends. There are now two distinct storylines to Zombies, Aether and Chaos, that have different maps and characters, and it’s clear the mode is designed to stand in for a traditional campaign as the story is fleshed out through dialogue and secret cutscenes locked behind Easter eggs. It’s a far cry from the Hollywood-style stories COD has delivered in the past, but Zombies should, for most people, get the job done and scratch the single-player itch.
It’s too early to tell how big Blackout will become, or what the future of COD will look like next year, when it’s developer Infinity Ward’s turn to release the next entry as part of the franchise’s three-year development cycle. But Black Ops 4 will have an undeniable and outsized impact on where this series and the genre it dominates goes in the future, if only in cementing the battle royale mode as a must-have for any big-budget online shooter.
We might see the return of a story campaign next year, while Zombies fades into the background until it’s Treyarch’s time to shine again. But I can’t see COD fans eagerly buying another entry unless it does everything and more that this game has accomplished, Blackout included. For a franchise that’s older than many of its players and hasn’t stopped annually releasing a game since the PS2 era, that’s quite the accomplishment. And while Black Ops 4 might not be a Fortnite killer, it’s certainly proved that the sluggish, risk-averse shooter industry can still take a big leap when it wants to.