For the 14th consecutive year, Activision has published a mainline Call of Duty game, and for the sixth time it’s developed by Treyarch. It’s the first time during that run that the series has gone without a campaign, however, as Black Ops 4 features three modes (multiplayer, zombies and Blackout) but almost completely foregoes any semblance of a narrative.
While there’s little doubt that the single-player campaign has been pushed further and further into the background over the years, its removal is still a significant move. We may be in the minority, but we enjoyed the campaigns — at a bare minimum they provided an alternative to battling it out with profane adolescents — so we’ll see how well things hold up without it.
Before diving it into the meat of the product, let’s briefly touch on a couple of things. First, the game still handles the same, which means weighty gunfire, exaggerated sprint slides and all the usual accouterments. Second, the presentation is respectable. It’s not a great looking game, particularly the campy zombie mode, but there’s nothing here that’ll detract, either.
As noted, there are three options for playing Black Ops 4, and we’ll touch on each one individually.
CoD’s longevity, both annually and as a series, stems from the popularity of its multiplayer. There have been additions, subtractions and tweaks aplenty over the years, and this is no different. Compared to Treyarch’s last offering, Black Ops 4 feels restrained with much of the frenetic movement (such as wall running and thrust jumping) toned down. It’s a good move that re-emphasizes steady aim over spastic parkour.
Specialists have also been added in the same vein as Rainbow Six Siege, where each of the 10 operators offer a pair of unique skills, one being a piece of equipment that charges fairly quickly and the other a powerful ability that loads more slowly. While each is theoretically viable, you’ll frequently see the same handful — lots of Seraph, Ruin and Recon, not much Firebreak.
Beyond those couple of unique elements the gameplay is instantly familiar as you’ll be able to customize your primary and secondary weapons, add attachments, select from the usual set of perks, level up equipment to unlock more stuff and so on. You can also eventually swap out your operator’s unique skills for more traditional fare if you prefer.
Black Ops 4’s other big multiplayer change is that healing is no longer automatic. Rather than duck out of sight for a few moments you’ll now need to press a button to administer a shot, which is then briefly unavailable on a cooldown timer. It adds a bit of strategy to one-on-one fights, and it becomes second nature very quickly.
While multiplayer is mostly enjoyable, there are a few issues. There’s a ton of people jumping around during matches. It’s being done for tactical advantage, but we’d love to see it patched to tone it down as it’s currently as unrealistic as it is stupid looking. Control, one of two new modes, isn’t particularly fun and typically results in lopsided matches. Map variety and layout feel largely uninspired, too, with few standouts.
Following the success of Fortnite and PUBG, Call of Duty makes its inaugural foray into the battle royale genre with Blackout. For the uninitiated, the basic concept is that up to 100 players are dropped into a large map, forced to scavenge for weapons and equipment and then fight until only one person is left standing — there are a couple wrinkles on that with two- and four-player team modes available.
We’ll leave whether or not Blackout can surpass its inspirations to others, but one thing that immediately stood out to us was how much cleaner the actual shooting felt. Although that shouldn’t be a surprise given CoD’s longevity, it’s true nonetheless. That familiarity with how things play and feel removes a barrier to entry some may have felt with other battle royale games.
It’s not a one-to-one transfer of skill, however, as being adept at mowing down opponents in a confined map with minimal consequences for defeat doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll step right in and succeed. Patience and tactical thinking are virtues here, and even the best plans can go south in a heartbeat.
Still, the act of weighing the pros and cons of tracking another player, jumping into an ongoing firefight or even just entering a building to look for supplies is a refreshing alternative to the twitch-heavy multiplayer. Plus, since there’s no respawning the specter of defeat is your constant companion, which adds a wholly different vibe.
Veteran CoD players will recognize previous multiplayer maps integrated into Blackout, which is a pretty cool touch. On the other side of the spectrum, the inventory feels unwieldy, especially when trying to quickly rifle through a defeated player’s possessions.
We’ve been pretty open over the years about our general ambivalence toward Treyarch’s signature creation, and though it doesn’t dissipate entirely in Black Ops 4, this is the most we’ve enjoyed it since it grew beyond the simple bonus at the end of World at War. The addition of A.I. teammates makes playing alone more viable, and a beginner’s mode helps ease you in as well.
Of course, playing with friends is the best way to proceed, and there are now multiple storylines to follow. You’ll still need to piece together a lot of semi-opaque clues to see the end of these modes, but that’s not necessary if all you want to do is jump in and kill waves of increasingly tough undead.
Zombies is still a distant third for us, though for others it’ll be the main event. That the game is able to offer three such fully formed options is one of its biggest strengths.
Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 made a bold decision to forego a campaign and focus on three distinct multiplayer modes, and despite some initial skepticism we found a lot of fun waiting for us.