After a disappointing couple of releases in Infinite Warfare and World War II, the Call of Duty series has finally reigned me back in with Black Ops 4. Treyarch’s latest may be lacking in any sort of single-player offering, but beneath that is an absolute wealth of content for those wanting to dive in online. With two great new multiplayer modes in Heist and Control, three excellent zombies maps to journey through, and the insanity of battle royale mode Blackout, this year’s Call of Duty is back to its best.
The omission of a traditional single-player campaign was surprising when it was initially announced earlier this year, but in its place is something that I found to be of much more value: Blackout. Call of Duty’s take on the Battle Royale genre is different enough to make it not feel like a direct rip of PUBG or Fortnite, and instead manages to find a balance between the hardcore, militarised focus of the former with the arcade-like nature of the latter.
So yeah, while a 100-person Hunger Games-styled deathmatch may not be the most unique of premises after the genre took off in 2017, Treyarch has managed to expertly blend in the best elements of classic Call of Duty gameplay with a game mode that feels fresh and fun each time you jump in. Further to this, the sprawling map — which includes a handful of notable areas from previous Black Ops games and World at War — is excellently designed, with Nuketown Island and Asylum particularly fantastic renditions of classic areas from Treyarch’s previous games in the series. I am curious, though, as to how the mode will change overtime, and am a bit worried that it may become stale if the map doesn’t change or there aren’t extra maps added post-launch.
"Acting as a bit of a training mode of sorts, Specialist HQ allows you to get to grips with a Specialist’s abilities and find out more about their backstory..."
While Blackout won’t include some sort of battle pass, you still have things to work towards while out exploring the map and competing for top placements. Merit points, as they’re known, are awarded for downs, kills, placements, and challenges completed each time you finish up a match of Blackout, in turn allowing you to level up. While you aren’t paraded with unlocks each time you gain a level, you’ll still be able to unlock a handful of character skins to use in the mode. Although these skins are fairly generic, I do appreciate the fact there’s something to work towards here, especially when traditional multiplayer and Zombies in Black Ops 4 are filled to the brim with unlocks pertaining to levelling up. There are challenges included in Blackout as well, which award you with calling cards to use on your profile — a nice little touch.
Playing as well-known characters from the Black Ops series like Mason, Menendez, or Nikolai in Blackout doesn’t require straight levelling, however, as you’re instead able to play as them by completing their character-specific mission in Specialist HQ.
Acting as a bit of a training mode of sorts, Specialist HQ allows you to get to grips with a Specialist’s abilities and find out more about their backstory, alongside playing through character-specific missions in order to unlock fan favourites for Blackout. While fairly basic in premise, I found Specialist HQ to be a nice surprise — the opening cutscene felt like a nice aside, showing how Battery, one of the better Specialists in the game, ended up with robotic arms, alongside Frank Woods’ brief role in the newer Black Ops games.
Each character mission in this mode can be completed across three difficulty settings — Recruit, Regular, and Veteran — with stars being awarded for successful completion. Again, I found this to be a nice little way of coming to grips with how to play as specific Specialists (especially when it comes to multiplayer), and is a welcomed change up from the other main modes on offer in Black Ops 4. While I can see most running through this primarily for Blackout character unlocks, it’s a great area to see what Specialists work best for your play style before jumping into traditional multiplayer.
On that subject, Black Ops 4’s multiplayer is fantastic — easily being the best the series has been in a long time. Ridding Specialists of parkour-inspired exosuits from Black Ops 3 while giving them a bit more mobility than what was seen in last year’s Call of Duty: World War II, makes for fast-paced gunplay that combines well with each character’s unique abilities. Further to this, the increased time to kill (with a player’s health now being raised to 150) and manual healing makes for more balanced fights with a bigger focus on team-based play. Getting the drop on two enemies may not automatically guarantee a double kill anymore, for example, so lone wolfs may struggle a bit more than usual and will need to adapt.
"His assault pack drop was an excellent go-to option that gave teammates passing by a small health boost, while his ultimate acted as a full team health boost..."
Specialist abilities also come into play, and Treyarch has clearly taken a cue or two from some of the other popular multiplayer class-based games out in the wild. Each Specialist is equipped with one ability mapped to the right bumper and an ultimate (of sorts). Both charge during a match (and can charge faster depending on how you’re doing), benefitting your team in a variety of ways. Battery, for example, is an attack-minded Specialist, and has a cluster grenade as her ability and a multi-tiered grenade launcher as her ultimate. While the former is great for clearing out a camping player or keeping opponents off of a hardpoint, the latter is a game-changing weapon that can clear out an entire team with a couple of well-placed shots — handy for when the going gets really tough.
I was all about Battery during the Black Ops 4 beta and throughout the first few hours of the review event, though I eventually ended up making use of defence-minded Specialist, Crash, the most. His assault pack drop was an excellent go-to option that gave teammates passing by a small health boost, while his ultimate acted as a full team health boost — no matter where teammates were at the time. This — in combination with a few of my other teammates using attack-minded Specialists — meant we had a great balance throughout the majority of our matches.
The two new modes in Black Ops 4’s multiplayer are welcomed additions as well. Control, which has one team defending two points while the other team attempts to capture them, is satisfying team-based warfare. Games were won when a team was victorious across three rounds, with the other notable part of Control being that each team only has 25 respawns to make use of during play. This means communication is integral to victory, especially when respawns become limited and control points are still up for grabs. I’m not sure how much I’d enjoy this mode while playing online with random players who don’t (or won’t) communicate, but with a good team it’ll be excellent.
Heist is the other big new mode in Black Ops 4, and plays somewhat similarly to objective-based modes seen in Counter-Strike: Global Offensive. Players kick off with a pistol and $500 in their bank to spend on perks, refilling ammo, weapons, attachments and the like. In order to get more money to buy better weapons and more gear — alongside winning the round, of course — your team has to retrieve a money bag and reach the rendezvous point to extract the cash. You’ll be rewarded for getting downs and kills too, though extraction is the best way of bulking up your funds to dominate the competition in later rounds. If you die in this mode you’re out for the round, so communication was again pivotal to success.
Rather than a best of three like Control, Heist was a best of four, which felt like a good amount of time to shine a light on the better team. Of course, if your team isn’t working together and/or die too early you’ll likely find yourself with a pistol for the majority of the time and will no doubt feel some serious frustration. Much like Control, good communication is key to winning, and I can only see myself diving into this mode when I have a group of friends eager to play. It’s also worth noting Specialist abilities are disabled while playing Heist.
"Customisation is, once again, at the heart of the Zombies experience this year, with elixirs and talismans key components in surviving against the harder waves..."
Given Treyarch are the minds behind the original foray into Zombies in the Call of Duty series many years ago, it should come as no surprise to know the mode is excellent in Black Ops 4. More than that, three maps (with a fourth also available on day one as part of the season pass — ugh) gives the mode more than enough replayability if you get sick of playing through a single map. That said, I found all three maps to be great in their own right, with the colosseum-themed IX a particular highlight.
Customisation is, once again, at the heart of the Zombies experience this year, with elixirs and talismans key components in surviving against the harder waves. The former — which are assigned to the four d-pad commands and can be customised depending on what build you want to go with — give you a range of different abilities or perks. One, for instance, is called Anywhere But Here, and upon consuming the elixir teleports you to a random point on the map — perfect for when you’re boxed in by a horde of zombies. Another, known as Cache Back, instantly spawns a max ammo pick up.
Elixirs come in different tiers though, with the former a part of the ‘classic’ tier, and the latter a part of the ‘epic’ tier. Classic tier elixirs can be used an infinite amount of times, whereas anything above that can only be consumed once. In order to get more, you need to head to the laboratory area of Zombies and buy more mixes. I’m fairly confident this is where the in-game micro-transactions come into play, though you do earn points that can be used toward lab concoctions by just playing the mode, too. That said, it’ll take you a lot longer to earn if you do go down that route.
Talismans are one-time use items that give you a range of benefits in-game. These can be things like starting a Zombies match with an SMG rather than a pistol, or having to pay less for a quick revive power up at one of the vending machines. Again, each talisman is assigned a tier, though you aren’t given any that can be used as many times as you want — they need to be earned.
The other major change in Zombies comes via special weapons that you can assign to your character. These special weapons — which act as an ultimate, basically — are game-changers when you’re struggling against the horde or need to take out a boss, making you practically invulnerable for a limited amount of time and dealing a ton of damage to enemies in the process.
"Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 is a pleasant surprise. While it’s lacking in any major offering for those wanting a campaign to play through, everything else is refined and iterated on in meaningful ways..."
Don’t think that these make the experience any bit easier, though, as Zombies is still as insanely tough as ever. The best my squad ever managed to get up to was Round 14, and that was through sheer luck at times. Even so, I’m really quite keen to see how the experience develops over time and think that the new maps that have been introduced are excellent. You can also adjust almost every little element of the Zombies experience through custom mutations now too, allowing you and mates to fine tune the mode to your liking.
Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 is a pleasant surprise. While it’s lacking in any major offering for those wanting a campaign to play through, everything else is refined and iterated on in meaningful ways. Blackout is a blast, traditional multiplayer is as good as it’s been in years, and Zombies is insanity in all the right ways. Minor concerns aside, this is the best Call of Duty package I’ve played in a long, long time, and think the trade off of a campaign for Blackout — something I was more than surprised by — has been well worth it.