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Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 review

A social trifecta.

Change is an inevitability of life, and while past Call of Duty games have felt like an exception to this rule, Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 is the title that may start us down a new direction for the series. Between the removal of some features and the evolution of others, Black Ops 4 rebels from what we know to be Call of Duty in several immediately noticeable ways. Returning fans will still find the sequel recognizable in a broader sense, but nothing in Treyarch’s newest Black Ops installment is exactly what you remember or expect.

Booting up Black Ops 4, the game’s first and most evident anomaly is its lack of a single-player campaign. The closest thing to a campaign is something called Specialist HQ, in which players take on tutorial missions and bot-filled skirmish matches as one of the game’s ten different Specialist operators. Earning stars from replaying these skirmishes unlocks cinematics that unravel the secret backstory of Black Ops 4. This, at least, gives the Specialist HQ a purpose beyond testing our ability to follow patronizing orders, but there is no doubt that fans of single-player will find it to be a weak substitute.

Fortunately, players can choose to jump right into Black Ops 4’s competitive multiplayer to learn the ways of each operator. Every Specialist boasts one unique weapon and special issue equipment, although that equipment can be swapped out in Create-A-Class for a more common tool like a grenade or trophy system (should the spirit of bad decisions possess you). That’s not to say non-Specialist equipment is useless, it simply doesn’t stack up to what the operators bring to the table.

The Specialist weapons, which recharge faster the better a player performs, have some mild balance discrepancies across the board. Battery’s War Machine grenade launcher, Seraph’s Annihilator handgun, and Nomad’s K9-Unit are easily a tier above the other weapons, but none necessarily break the experience, and every weapon brings a distinct flavor to their respective engagements. Particularly in objective-based modes, some Specialist weapons and equipment can fill strategic roles when coordinated with one’s team, giving Black Ops 4 more of a teamshooter feel than any installment prior.

The mode selection is conspicuously limited given the game’s unmistakable social focus, but all of the essentials—Team Deathmatch, Domination, Kill Confirmed, etc.—are present, with a handful of hardcore variants in tow. While there may appear to be two new modes on its list, Control is simply a rework of the franchise’s classic Demolition game mode, with capture points instead of bomb sites. This leaves only one legitimately new mode, Heist, which is a round-based no-respawn mode that will be familiar to any gamer that enjoys countering and striking (if you catch my drift).

In Heist, players start each match with naught but a lowly pistol, although new gear can be purchased between rounds with money earned from damaging and killing enemies, as well as from completing objectives and finishing the round. This gear includes weapons, equipment, perks, and even Scorestreaks, all of which could turn a match around. Heist is a genuinely fun endeavor that works well within the Call of Duty template, although it is a little bizarre that Black Ops 4’s only true new mode doesn’t make any use of its Specialist characters.

Black Ops 4 makes up for this limited mode count with one of the biggest launch-day map selections Call of Duty has ever seen. The game boasts 14 different multiplayer maps, and while four of them are remakes from previous Black Ops games, it’s still a hearty spread. Unfortunately, the selection size seems to be getting undermined by the multiplayer’s own map-rotation system. In the first few days the game was live, I played two of its maps only one time each, while a different handful of arenas came up easily 80 percent of the time. This is an easy fix, but until it’s made, the multiplayer may come off a bit staler than it would otherwise. As for the maps themselves, they are vibrant, well laid out, and altogether accommodating of Black Ops 4’s slower pace.

Black Ops 4 dials back the speed of the series’ multiplayer gameplay considerably, primarily by reworking the standard Call of Duty health system. Players now have more health than ever before in the series, which slows down the time to kill, and consequently the player doing the killing. Automatic health regeneration is also out the window, replaced with a manual action which forces an assailant to tactically decide between healing, reloading, or retreating as the best option in a fight.

On top of all of this, Black Ops 4 removed platforming mechanics like wall-running and double-jumping, keeping engagements at a more grounded level. These changes combine to incentivize more methodical conflict between players, valuing precision over twitch reflex for what feels like the first time for the franchise. The breakneck speed of Call of Duty year after year started to get exhausting, so this is a welcome shift.

With this change in kill time and pacing comes another interesting alteration to series’ norms: an assist of any damage now counts as a kill. This includes how kills are valued for Scorestreaks. If a particular mode values kills at 100 Scorestreak points, that’s how much you get when an enemy you damaged gets finished off, regardless of who finished them or how much damage you did.

This rebalance mitigates all the potential frustration of teammates stealing kills and is one of the best consequences of the new health system, but there is another, less advantageous consequence. The bigger health pools mean that flanking large groups of enemies is a much less viable strategy than it’s been in the past. No matter how good your accuracy is, the time it takes to kill one person is long enough to give surrounding enemies a much greater chance to hone in on your position. It’s not a “problem” with the game, but it does swing the competitive pendulum even more toward teamplay.

This is not to say, however, that there aren’t gameplay problems to be found, specifically involving the target assist. For console players, this is the options setting that slows down one’s gun sight when passing over an enemy, allowing for more precise aiming. Or, at least, that is the usual intent. In Black Ops 4, the target assist is so unreasonably strong that it comes off more like wrestling with the aim than fine-tuning it. It often feels like the stiffness of the function is completely locking up your sights, which makes microadjusting the aim so much more difficult and frustrating than it has to be, particularly for players that prefer high sensitivity speeds.

So why not just tweak the target assist in the settings menu? That’d be a fair point, if there were target assist settings to tweak. There is the option to switch it off completely, but that leaves it too imprecise. What we actually need is a strength dial. In this day and age, there is simply no excuse for a lack of extensive controller settings in console shooters. Target assist strength, dead zone size, analog acceleration, the whole nine yards.

Players may want to take these aim restrictions into consideration when building their weapons and classes. Black Ops 4 brings back the Pick 10 create-a-class system, letting players allocate which weapons, equipment, and perks they want in their build. New to the series are the Gear choices: powerful pieces of equipment around which classes should be built, such as the Acoustic Sensor, which indicates the direction of nearby enemies, or Body Armor, which reduces initial bullet damage to the chest (and has fortunately been nerfed since the beta to slow the wearer). Every weapon the game offers is creatively designed and viscerally satisfying to fire, with the game’s predictive recoil system giving personality to each weapon’s firing pattern.

Players will want to use Black Ops 4’s multiplayer to get accustomed to the game’s full arsenal, because weapon options are much less flexible when jumping into Blackout. Blackout is Black Ops 4’s take on the increasingly popular battle royale genre, setting 100 players against each other on a massive map until only one player (or group) stands. Most of the arena is rolling hills covered in rocks and vegetation, but scattered across it are key locations, many of which are pulled out of the multiplayer or Zombies modes of previous Black Ops titles.

For those of us who were with the series from the beginning, there’s an undeniable charm in running across the terrain and finding yourself in Firing Range, Asylum, or any other recognizable locale. Locations influenced by any of the series’ Zombies modes may even have undead shambling around. Zombies guard some of the game’s best gear, but taking them out will undoubtedly attract nearby players, so the risk has to be weighed against the reward. The inclusion of zombies and a modest selection of vehicles give Blackout a bit of identity, but all things considered, it’s almost exactly what battle royale fans will expect. If you like battle royale, Blackout is a solid alternative to the other games currently leading the genre. If you don’t like battle royale, Blackout won’t be the cause of any epiphanies.

If you are in the mood to kill zombies, however, Blackout is not where you want to be. Treyarch’s Zombies cooperative survival mode has risen again, this time with three full maps available in the game’s standard edition—the most ever included in the launch of a Black Ops title. The first two maps are titled Voyage of Despair and IX—set aboard the sinking Titanic and in an ancient Roman coliseum, respectively—and these follow the new Chaos storyline with a brand new cast of faces.

The third map, Blood of the Dead, takes players to a remade version of Alcatraz from Black Ops II’s Mob of the Dead, this time following our iconic zombie-killing crew in the game’s Aether storyline. After building a connection with Richtofen and the gang over so many years, it’s hard to be unbiased when judging this new group and their storyline against that of our familiar friends, but the Chaos group just doesn’t seem to have quite the characterization or clever repartee that our veterans do.

The gameplay changes found in this iteration of Treyarch’s undead magnum opus range from subtle to extreme. By far the biggest change when compared to past modes is Black Ops 4’s removal of several classic perks, including Speed Cola, Double Tap Root Beer, and—most distressingly—Juggernog. The first two are tolerable, as their effects can be replicated through unlockable weapon attachments, but the lack of Juggernog and the extra health it grants is a serious blow.

Without the substantial durability Juggernog offers, good spatial awareness and slick maneuvering more valuable than ever before. Some nuanced adjustments to the mode’s player health and zombie behavior make maneuvering a more feasible strategy for those outside the hardcore community, but survival will occasionally be as frustrating as it is exciting, even for veterans.

Rather than making players the tanks they were in the past, Black Ops 4attempts to facilitate our survival through other means. There are significantly more perk options than ever before, and while none effectively replace Juggernog, the selection is now far more varied and creative. Stone Cold Stronghold, for example, spawns an area-of-effect that boosts the player’s armor and damage as long as they stay inside it. Mobility is key in this new version of Zombies, but should a scenario arise in which players have to stand their ground, this is a good perk to have.

The Zombies perk system in general has been completely reworked, with each player now choosing the perks they bring into the map, and the locations those perks appear in. From a selection of 14, players equip four perks into their Zombies loadout, along with one of the insanely powerful special weapons that vary depending on the story. The new Elixir and Talisman consumables are additional buffs that can be equipped to a loadout, and completing matches unlocks currency to buy more, giving value to each match no matter how long it lasts. These features form a new survival dynamic more complex than simply relying on a few key perks, so while the potential for frustration is much greater than in games past, so to is the potential for pride in conquering rounds that demand more from us.

Should this new age of Zombies still prove too challenging, there a four difficulty options with which players can tone down the intensity of the game’s classic mode—or crank it up a notch if you’re feeling brave. This experience manipulation can be taken one step further with the game’s new Mutation settings. Mutations are a way to tweak one’s Zombies adventure to a frankly hilarious degree, with dozens upon dozens of different settings for adjusting everything from Zombie speed to what round the match starts on. The maps’ secret mission paths cannot be completed in mutated games, making Mutations more novelty than cornerstone, but the endless augmentation combinations free up the Zombies mode to be whatever community members want it to be, and more player choice is never a bad thing.

The flexibility in how players experience Zombies is the essence of Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 in general that makes it a success. The lack of a story campaign may feel instinctively unforgivable, but in practice, what we have in its place are three sizable and distinct multiplayer options that groups can flip between on a whim. Each mode is addictive in its own right, and their separate and rewarding progression paths will ensure a constant drive to enjoy them at equal rates.

This always seemed like the inevitable conclusion we faced as Call of Duty fans. With the exception of the side-thought that is the Specialist HQ, Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 is a wholly social experience, and it stands all the stronger because of it. Committing to three full-fledged multiplayer modes was a necessary risk for making a Call of Duty game that will likely have longer legs than any installment before it. Quality single-player campaigns are always welcome in our Call of Duty games, but if this is Treyarch’s new direction for the series, that works too.

★★★★☆

Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 has made some bold changes to the series, and ultimately, they’re for the better. The inclusion of a battle royale mode is a first, and even the more familiar multiplayer and Zombies survival mode are not what they once were. Changes are always risky, but in Black Ops 4’s case, it worked out for the better.

Developer
Treyarch Studios
Publisher
Activision
ESRB
M – Mature
Release Date
10.12.18
Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 is available on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC. Primary version reviewed was for PlayStation 4. Review code was provided by Activision for the benefit of this review. EGM reviews games on a scale of one to five stars.

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