On the outside, it might seem like Blackout is gunning for PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds' crown, instead of the more colorful reigning champion Fortnite. And yet, during the hours I've spent wingsuit gliding over the relatively small map in Blackout, I realized it was taking more cues from the latter than the former. It's a Fortnite-wolf in military sim-PUBG clothing; hosting a map with far more character than it may initially seem.
I'll admit that I've been hesitant about Black Ops' own iteration of the battle royale genre. When I think of Call of Duty, I associate it with quick matches; hop in, hop out sort of multiplayer. Battle royale matches typically last from 15 minutes to a half-hour depending on the game, and retrofitting the Call of Duty model over that has struck me as not being ideal. Then the Blackout beta rolled around, and then Black Ops 4 proper when it released last week, and I found myself clicking with Blackout in a way I didn't expect.
Blackout has a lot going on. It may only be 88 players on the battlefield, but it makes up for that in zombie encounters, helicopters, and other wild shit. It has so much that the map inevitably feels pretty small compared to other battle royales because you can fly or drive across it in a variety of vehicles with some ease. It makes use of its space though, as it's bustling with activity and secrets that have caught the interest diehard fans of Call of Duty and casual players (such as me) alike. And it's the pockets of Blackout that fans have latched onto: the callbacks to the history of Call of Duty that is in many ways, a celebration of the series.
Easter eggs, as Call of Duty labels them as, have been a foothold in its own Zombies mode for quite some time. The Easter eggs in Zombies give players a bit more lore, maybe a secret song too. In Blackout, while it's not precisely the same, it does feel like a logical extension of what's helped make Zombies such an unstoppable force in the Call of Duty canon. Just like what's made Fortnite such a smash over its seasons.
Fortnite's Map Has A Life of Its Own
One of the most recent secrets plopped into Fortnite was perhaps its most intricate yet. A giant floating cube appeared on the map in August, transporting to new areas regularly. It ended its journey by melting into Loot Lake before Season 6 commenced. And then a new floating island appeared with Season 6's reveal, and is moving just as the cube has ever since. While Fortnite doesn't really have characters or much of a concrete identity at all, its map instead serves as a character with endless twists. The malleable nature of the map is, honestly, what's kept Fortnite exciting for well over a year now. It's a sensation because its map is constantly surprising us and leading us to dig for answers. It inspires the community to look deeper, like a treasure map with the promise of gold at the end.
Whereas PUBG has been in a down place as of late. While it's performing well in Asia still, in North America, it's been largely greeted with disgruntled Redditors calling the recent "Fix PUBG" campaign a wash. There's a new map on the way, with the promised tease of "snow," but the excitement around it seems minimal compared to the introductions of Sanhok and Miramar in the past year. The new game players are flocking to isn't necessarily Blackout (and especially isn't Fortnite): it's a different game altogether. It's Tencent's own free-to-play battle royale experiment Ring of Elysium, which is essentially PUBG in the snow... with snowboards.
Weirdly, Ring of Elysium has reminded me a lot of Black Ops 4, with the sort of Specialist-like class you choose at the start of a match. You can pack in a snowboard to glide down a hill, you can take on the "Climbing" class that gears you with a climbing axe and zipline, or you embrace the skies with a handy glider. The goal isn't to kill everyone unlike most others in the genre, but to reach the escape helicopter that only has four seats. Some of the UI and font choices are questionably similar to PUBG, but overall, it takes the classic battle royale experience and flips it in interesting ways. And considering its military sim-lite elements, it's easy to see why so many PUBG players are flocking to it. (Plus it's free.) It's that action of taking the battle royale genre and throwing new ideas into it that's helping the likes of Blackout, Ring of Elysium, and Fortnite forge their own unique paths forward in the genre.
Blackout is still showing to be a viable alternative though, with its straightforward-shooting and its similar less-colorful identity. I mean seriously, there's not even different outfits for your characters that you can unlock or build up to like in Fortnite and PUBG. There's only new characters from Zombies, Specialists, and so on. In that sense, progression is a little strange in Blackout. While I wish there was a little more liveliness in character customization for Blackout, it's possible that additional cosmetic features may come to it later.
How Black Ops 4's Blackout Celebrates Call of Duty
It's been long known that Black Ops 4's Blackout map is a bunch of classic Call of Duty maps stitched together. Gliding downwards, you'll see the familiar Nuketown, Construction Site, Hydro Dam, and more. For someone like me, who's only dipped into the occasional Call of Duty game over the years, a lot of these "iconic" locations are lost on me. But within them, players are discovering callbacks and other interesting tidbits.
Another way Call of Duty has made the battle royale genre its own is by directly inserting Zombies into its Blackout map, and rewarding players for taking them out. If you clear a spawn point of zombies in Blackout, then you're rewarded with a familiar Mystery Box, similar to the ones you find in the Zombies mode. You might even get a nifty Ray Gun, one of the strongest guns in the mode.
And I think it's these clever twists on the battle royale genre that will help Blackout last beyond a blip on the Call of Duty timeline. Some may still prefer the purity of PUBG's own battle royale, but for those looking for a change, Blackout definitely serves that purpose. While the annual structure of the series may render this version of Blackout obsolete in a year, I can also see it keeping the Black Ops 4 legs strolling for longer than usual. We're already seeing it directly reflect in sales and Twitch streams, where it reached the milestone of the "highest level of viewership" over its launch weekend. The latter is likely, in my opinion, due to Blackout and the battle royale genre's spectating-friendliness.
In fact, I'm curious to see if the next Call of Duty even has a Blackout equivalent, or if this will remain a Black Ops-centered mainstay for the years to come, with updates hitting it just as PUBG and Fortnite have. In the meantime, Blackout stands as proof that in order for a battle royale game to stand out today, it must have a unique twist to keep players interested. For Call of Duty, that twist is just in molding the battle royale over its own model—from Zombies to "game feel" to Easter eggs—and honoring its own history in the process.