Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 Review: Exerting Dominance
Ben Sheene / Oct 12th, 2018 No Comments
Six years ago, the developers at Treyarch plucked elements across a variety of genres and blended them together in the soup that is Call of Duty: Black Ops 2. Players had a campaign with branching storylines where decisions and actions made over the course of the game would eventually influence the ending. Strike Force Missions allowed players to deploy units onto a map for large-scale insertions. Zombies, of course, was a roller coaster horde mode that enjoyably went off the rails.
In the later years of the PS3 and Xbox 360 era, developers weren’t afraid to blatantly rip off popular trends and insert them into series where they did not belong. Remember when Kratos brought out his inner Guitar Hero in God of War 3? Or what about when Ezio became a tower defense connoisseur in Assassin’s Creed Revelations? If you’re going to copy, it better be creative rather than clumsy. As strange as those genre mashups seemed for Black Ops 2, they worked because Treyarch took a risk.
Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 is perhaps Treyarch’s riskiest move to date, achieved not by cutting the fat but by focusing on what the series excels at. In lieu of a traditional campaign, the studio is putting maximum effort into the modes players are going to stick around with for weeks and months to come. And, of course, Blackout explodes onto the scene, proving Battle Royale inches ever closer to becoming synonymous with multiplayer, just as Team Deathmatch and Capture the Flag did years ago.
Months ago I had a mild revelation: Call of Duty works best as an amalgamation of different genres. As chaotic as Black Ops 2’s various ideas may have been, they made sense in the grander picture. When playing Black Ops 4’s beta, I took control of Firebreak, one of the multiplayer modes’ ten Specialists. Firebreak has a unique piece of equipment called the Reactor Core, which spews out a hazardous field of radiation that hurts opponents and prevents them from healing for period of time.
During a match of Hardpoint, I used the Reactor Core to slowly chip away the health of the opposite team as they defended the point. Because the Reactor Core could damage through walls, I racked up kills even while my own health was melting away. The damage I inflicted quickly built up my charge for the Purifier, a flamethrower that was equally deadly. That cycle repeated itself across Team Deathmatch and other objective-based modes.
In those moments, Black Ops 4 felt like a wildly fast-paced hero shooter where players could select a Specialist that fit their specific goals for the match and wreak havoc. Those who adored the system when it was first introduced in Black Ops 3 will rejoice in its return this year. Despite the fast time to kill, Treyarch was among the first to latch on to the concept of a hero shooter and actually make one. However, that system limited players to choosing between a Specialists’ signature weapon or ability. In Black Ops 4, no sacrifices need to be made, which only increases their viability.
Similar to other class-based shooters, some specialists truly shine in objective-based modes. Torque can lay down razor wire to damage and impede opponents who attempt to cross his path; he can also deploy a barricade that soaks up bullets and emits damage-dealing microwaves. Nomad is a perfect camper with his mesh mines ensuring your backside is covered while his dog will patrol areas for a throat to bite into. Crash heals the team with his ability and drops an assault pack that provides score-boosting ammunition for everyone.
All ten Specialists are viable because their set of skills can be used in nearly any encounter and mode. I enjoy being able to pull off spectacular kills and strategic power plays by combining my abilities with those of my teammates, as cooperation is an essential tool. Players who wish to settle into their own niche are rarely penalized because multiple Specialists can be picked per team. Flexibility is encouraged and rewarded, however, because the flow of matches often change and improvisation may turn the tide. Though many familiar faces do return from Black Ops 3, I do lament that there are only two female Specialists. Outrider should be here with her awesome bow and arrow, especially since her vision pulse is being used by the Recon Specialist. Treyarch said more Specialists are coming down the pipeline, hopefully the lineup will be a bit more diversified in time.
Those “hero moments” derived from the synergy of Specialist abilities and gunplay are one of the most rewarding things in Black Ops 4 and an example of what makes Call of Duty multiplayer feel so pristine. Veterans of the series should expect the smooth controls and brisk pace that has become standard over the course of time. Further customization comes from the old Pick 10 system which allows ten slots for weapons, attachments, equipment, and perks. The only twist is that if players choose their Specialist’s unique piece of equipment over a grenade, it won’t count as a used Pick 10 slot.
Ranking up to Prestige and beyond still results in the feed of unlocks and emblems, except this time the pool of rewards feels better spaced out. Some of my favorite perks like Dead Silence and Engineer are either already available once Create a Class is unlocked at level five or unlocked much earlier than in previous entries. Treyarch seems determined to give players the optimum versions of their characters much earlier than ever before.
Guns are much less bloated as each category caps at five. This will likely change once DLC content rears its head but the current list is refined enough that only a few guns should be left behind for the coveted meta. The real update with weapons is that nearly each one can be equipped with an “operator” mod that can alter their usage just enough to make it feel like a new gun. This incentivizes players to level up a weapon to experience it in a new way. Additionally, weapons now take advantage of a ballistic system. This means that bullets focus on weight and distance rather than the hitscan of years past, which becomes a definite factor in Blackout.
Multiplayer’s most sweeping change is undoubtedly the removal of automatic health regeneration. Players are now required to hit a trigger button to initiate healing. Health packs are infinite use but now give players one more thing to think about during a gun battle. Do you press on after trading damage in hopes of getting the jump on the other player while they heal? Or do you scurry back and recover to rally for another fight? It’s a mechanic that will take a few solid rounds to adjust to. I’m sure there will be many players who just forget that they have a health bar and need to heal. Luckily, the pace of matches does not suffer from this either.
The “fog of war” system for the mini-map places more emphasis on team coordination as players are no longer staring at a corner of the screen awaiting red dots. The map will now show your sight-lines and those of your teammates. Loud players are still going to pop up as angry red dots but it also means a slightly more tactical approach is needed to gain the upper hand.
Across 14 different maps, players will be treated to the same assortment of modes they’ve been given for over a decade. For me, the real standouts are Heist and Control. Heist is much like Counter-Strike where each player starts with a few hundred dollars of cash and must shop for upgrades at the beginning of each round. Every action rewards cash that is used to unlock equipment, armor, perks, and attachments. Killing the other team and extracting cash is the goal of Heist and it is best when playing with a group that communicates. Control is like a King of the Hill or capture point mode except here, lives are limited and each death by any player slowly ticks away your team’s chances of either capturing or defending a point. The pace is much less furious than similar modes and focuses less on constant Hail Mary death rushes to save a point because lives are so precious.
Have you been a fan of Call of Duty multiplayer over the years? Black Ops 4 isn’t going to commit any particularly egregious sin that will turn you off. If anything, the mode has been cooked up by Treyarch to distill its best parts that exemplify the competitive and skill-based glory that has become Call of Duty’s bread and butter. The small changes in place actually serve to break away from trends that were all but set in stone and forces everyone to rethink their game just enough that it feels meaningful.
Death Becomes Her
Zombies, unsurprisingly, is back. Except Treyarch has done what I feel many have requested since Black Ops 2: make Zombies a standalone product. Well, Zombies is still locked behind a $60 purchase and is included with two other Call of Duty experiences but it’s apparent this is more than players have ever been given.
Three Zombies “maps” are provided to players with IX, Voyage of Despair, and Blood of the Dead. Both IX and Voyage of Despair focus on the new “Chaos” storyline while Blood of the Dead is a play on Black Ops 2’s Mob of the Dead map and a continuation of the Aether story that has perplexed players for a decade.
I will caution anyone who loathes Zombies to anticipate a complete overhaul of what can be expected in Black Ops 4. Players are still shooting bullets at waves of increasingly difficult zombies, wandering aimlessly around a complex map trying to solve secrets, and using points to buy essential upgrades. It may be my biggest gripe with Zombies that only a few big risks were taken. The gladiator-inspired IX would have been the perfect avenue to shift emphasis from guns to a unique melee system.
Then again, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, right? The enigma of Zombies has always been about not only discovering the mountain of Easter eggs Treyarch has thrown in but finding ways to use the mechanics to outlive the shambling hordes. Nearly ever strategy that has ensured survival in the past will work here, it’s a comforting proposition that fans will be able to immediately jump in and partially succeed. After about the tenth wave, puzzling out the elaborate Pack-a-Punch system is crucial and all three maps do a brilliant job of making players think and work.
Emphasis has been placed on an elaborate new story that involves a mysterious Illuminati-like group, time traveling vapors, a daughter trying to solve the mystery of her father’s disappearance, and the “real” history of the Titantic. The interplay of the four new characters chatting between each other includes vital story bits along with the commentary of how ridiculous the concept of getting points are in this reality. The brilliance of the writing team to explain every single bizarre element of Zombies is an admirable feat. It will be nearly impossible to comprehend the whats and the hows over a handful of matches. Not only does the intensity of matches make a coherent plot hard to follow, it’s just a lot to take in. As repetition of matches sets in, I expect players will become more familiar with what is actually being said among all the blood and gore and enjoy the story being told.
The challenge of Zombies has always resulted in fun for me. The mode is a pain in the ass because of its difficulty but it never is frustrating. You’re always itching for one more run in an attempt to suss out some secret you think you may have discovered in a previous run. What I appreciate the most is how Treyarch has opened up the mode to embrace players of all skill levels. Four difficulty modes tailor the challenge the way players want it, to either make the mechanics less obtuse or punish themselves for fun. This year, “custom mutations” offer further adjustment of the game’s rules to make the “perfect” match. This could include impossibly difficult zombies against your fragile health pool with only melee weapons available. Truly, the possibilities are endless and I see the community creating malevolent challenges for each other within days.
Zombies also gets a little competitive with Rush mode. Here, friendly competition is afoot as the path forward in maps are opened up and weapons become free. Players will have to defend specific points and then move on to a new zone while collecting glowing golden points that spawn from zombies or around the map. The Easter eggs are absent and focus is about getting more points than your teammates. Rush is much less methodical than a traditional match of Zombies and because it moves players through maps, it provides a glimpse for what lies ahead. Though a tutorial is available, Rush is just as sufficient a way to show players the ropes of a map.
Since Black Ops 3 I have tried to force my group of Call of Duty friends to play Zombies. Whether due to stubbornness, the desire to play multiplayer over anything else, or because they were scared, I was often left to just hop into matchmaking to blaze my own trail. With Zombies taking on renewed emphasis and accessibility, I think my chances of convincing them to play is going to be much better this time around.
Cream of the Crop
PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds dominated the conversation in 2017. Every passing week countless podcasts were regaling listeners with a new quip or story about the addictive allure of shooting for first place among 99 other contenders. Battle Royale was a near instant sensation. Word of mouth snowballed and Twitch gobbled up a wave of viewers and streamers. It was quite obvious there was some magic with this genre. But I doubt little could have prepared us for the lightning in a bottle that is Fortnite. The F2P behemoth has overtaken entertainment, it’s a fact that no one can deny. It’s a game that has launched careers, dominated the gaming industry, and has found ways to seep into the very pores of daily existence.
Blackout, then, is an obvious inclusion in Black Ops 4. I opened with my Black Ops 2 analogy for a reason. The triple-A budget given to Call of Duty has allowed each studio to toy around with the formula in expected and unexpected ways. Those branching paths in Black Ops 2 echoed the gaming environment it debuted in. Look back at 2012, a year where Telltale’s The Walking Dead premiered, Journey floored critics, and Mass Effect 3 wrapped up Shepherd’s long path to save the world. As the saying goes, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Yet imitation is often confused with a springboard for ideas.
The pessimistic gamer may see Blackout as Activision’s “us too” cash in, a way to line the pockets by honing in on what’s popular. If Blackout was a poor imitation of Battle Royale’s success, it would have no chance among the flood of competitors that are likely on the horizon. Instead, Treyarch has made the best Battle Royale game available.
Few series have as comparably exceptional gunplay as Call of Duty and to see it implemented in a 100-player mode is a delight. Treyarch has littered the biggest Call of Duty map ever with guns, attachments, perks, and equipment that can all be used to take out the competition. Fortnite’s building mechanics and colorful style has always been it’s biggest appeal. Personally, I usually find myself at the losing end of a gun battle, left with the feeling that something was missing with the shooting. That emptiness is absent from Blackout as bullets trace across the map and drop with realism. A victor emerges because they either got the drop on you or they out-gunned you.
During my time at a review event for Black Ops 4 provided by Activision, I was treated to the bleak reality of a Battle Royale game at the end of its life. Because there was only a group of maybe 50 reviewers and a few remote studios, only two games of Blackout could be run at a time. To make matters worse, I was disconnected at the onset of multiple matches, leaving me waiting for 15-20 minutes at a time for the second one to get populated. I thought about games like The Culling 2 which couldn’t even reach player capacity at launch. It’s a strange thing to consider but luckily, Blackout at launch suffers from none of this.
As servers went live it was a mild struggle to find a game because so few people were trickling in. Once the game fully launched into everyone’s hands, it took me seconds to find a match. Each of those matches were maxed out at 100 players and after a few dozen rounds, I only got disconnected once and encountered minimal lag. Any fears of a disastrous launch should be eliminated.
Black Ops 4’s setpiece is obviously Blackout. The watered-down multiplayer tutorial/campaign hybrid that is Specialist HQ is a small square to the left of the main menu while Blackout is listed front and center. I would argue that it is strong enough to leech players from the game’s popular multiplayer. Blackout has its own calling card challenges, obscure objectives for unlocking characters, and teases for mode variations. In its current iteration, there is nothing similar to a Battle Pass that grants players unlocks (at a cost) for completing challenges. If Treyarch can roll out something similar sooner rather than later at no cost, I can see Blackout chipping away at Fortnite’s player count.
Many may feel that Call of Duty’s military and realistic aesthetic will result in a drab map with little interesting to see. Smartly, Treyarch wove popular multiplayer maps and themes from past Black Ops. It’s in these named locations where the head-to-head battles really shine and the most skilled and creative players will pull off exceptional feats. In many ways, Blackout is the perfect harmony of everything Call of Duty has offered, minus boost jumping which, to be fair, I enjoyed. Hell, there’s even zombies to be found!
Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 is a robust game full of content for just about anyone. I will be among a small group that is saddened by no campaign, especially after the insane cooperative campaign Treyarch put out with Black Ops 3. Ultimately, though, is that going to be enough to harm this varied and layered offering? No.
Year after year there is an argument to be made about what refinements and adjustments can be made to make Call of Duty’s multiplayer better. “Better” is difficult to capture, especially when you see the three developers ping-ponging concepts and mechanics between each other. Each new idea captures something unique about the Call of Duty formula and enhances it while remaining true to the series’ DNA. If anything, Black Ops 4 multiplayer has found a sweet spot between too much and too little, making it one of the best to date. Zombies, being its own beast, is finally put on the pedestal it deserves and is the most fleshed out yet, even when taking last year’s horror-centric WW2 Zombies into consideration.
This complete package is bolstered by Blackout, Call of Duty’s first foray into Battle Royale and it will doubtfully be the last. Whether or not this mode should be free or packaged on its own is not a concern of this review. I was once told by Gaming Illustrated’s Editor in Chief Ryan Bloom that a game should be reviewed based on what is presented, not what it should have been or what you hope it will be. Like any person who will squeeze an inordinate amount of fun out of Blackout, I do hope that it becomes a platform that is built upon over time, much like Epic has done with Fortnite. But again, I’m not going to strike Black Ops 4 down for not including a campaign or this or that.
Black Ops 4 is three modes of absolute fun. It is one of the best shooters available because it tinkers with the genre in ways only Call of Duty can. I can’t imagine a player who won’t gravitate towards each mode at some point just because the quality is set at such a high bar. Treyarch has given players a complete package. Black Ops 4 is an addicting formula concocted by one of the best teams around. That’s hardly something to complain about.
Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 was reviewed using a retail copy of the game provided by the publisher for the purposes of this review.
tags: activision , Black Ops 4 , call of duty , Call of Duty Black Ops 4 , Call of Duty Black Ops 4 review , ps4 , PS4 Game Review , review , treyarch