This year is a grand experiment for Activision. The community has a certain expectation of what a Call of Duty entails: a single-player campaign, a host of player-vs-player multiplayer modes, and the fan-favorite Zombies. Every year, one of Activision's Call of Duty studios delivers that without fail. Until now.
Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 is launching without a single-player campaign, in probably the biggest shift for the Call of Duty franchise in some time. While multiplayer has been the core of Call of Duty, it's not hard to say that the blockbuster film-style campaigns allowed the series to stand out. Players still remember Captain Price and Sergeant "Soap" MacTavish from Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, alongside the classic All Ghillied Up mission. Call of Duty: Black Ops introduced Viktor Reznov, played to perfection by Gary Oldman. No Russian was the controversial touchpoint of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2.
Without single-player, can Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 stand up to established expectations? Let's see.
Judgment Day: On Multiplayer
Black Ops 4's basic multiplayer stands between the more mobile iterations like Black Ops 3 and Infinite Warfare, and the boots-on-the-ground play of Call of Duty: WW2. Things like wall-running, double jumping, and thrust jumping are gone completely. Diving into a prone position looks to be out as well, with sliding being the bread-and-butter for alternate movement.
Despite the loss of these abilities, movement overall feels fast and aggressive in Black Ops 4. Sprinting looks to be unlimited. Likewise, the idea of "Guns Up" is a big part of Black Ops 4, with shooting is always being available, whether you're sprinting, mantling, using abilities, or calling up scorestreaks.
Given this focus on speed and fluidity, it's interesting that Treyarch also chose to slow things down with two changes. The first is that healing is no longer automatic. Instead, every Specialist has a manual heal that you have to activate, which means you occasionally have to stop your forward momentum to hide behind a wall and heal up. At least for someone of my skill level, this introduces frequent pauses to normal play.
The second change is in the meatiness of your opponents. I don't know whether it's gun damage or player health, but it takes slightly longer to kill targets in Black Ops 4. Tracking targets while firing is a more meaningful skill and you're more likely to wound a target. As such, team kills are more prevalent, pushing the game away from lone wolf play.
Another new addition seems to be in response to the rise of multiplayer-only games like Fortnite and Overwatch. Black Ops 4's multiplayer has emote Gestures, spray Tags, and voice lines that can be unlocked, bound to a radial menu, and used mid-match. These go alongside all the other things you can unlock in Black Ops, including weapons, weapon attachments, and weapon camo. It allows for a slight amount of personalization, considering the stoic Specialists are a poor replacement for the robust character customization of Call of Duty: WW2.
Specialists return from Black Ops 3 with a few tweaks. Now each Specialist has two additional unique abilities, one usable on a short cooldown and another that requires charging through play. Black Ops 4 poster boy Ruin has a point-to-point Grappling Hook as his standard ability, while his special attack is the Glav Slam, which damages everyone in a radius around him. Torque can drop damaging Razor Wire on the battlefield, while his special is the heavily armored Barricade, with a microwave field that hurts enemies. I'm personally a big fan of Prophet, who has an automated Seeker that hunts down opponents and shocks them, alongside his Tempest special, which summons a rifle that stuns enemies and their nearby teammates. The Specialists aren't wildly different, but each one brings something worthwhile to the table, especially given the small team sizes of Black Ops 4 multiplayer.
The Specialists themselves might need more play variety, but Black Ops 4 retains the Create-A-Class feature that's been a part of a number of past entries. Once unlocked, Create-A-Class allows the player to create different loadouts of weapons, weapon attachments, additional equipment, and perks. Early on, this means you're kind of locked into vanilla play, but as you work your way up the ranks, you can ultimately unlock more options that allow you to specialize towards your chosen playstyle or a certain game type.
Black Ops 4 is launching with a total of 14 multiplayer maps: Arsenal, Contraband, Firing Range, Frequency, Gridlock, Hacienda, Icebreaker, Jungle, Militia, Morocco, Payload, Seaside, Slums, and Summit. Of that list, Firing Range, Jungle, Slums, and Summit are remakes of previous maps, meaning Treyarch has delivered a total of 10 new maps for Black Ops 4, with the fan-favorite Nuketown coming as a free download in November. The maps themselves feel rather tight, promoting constant firefights and offering a ton of alternate paths to flank your opponents.
You'll be playing those maps across eight multiplayer modes: Free For All, Team Deathmatch, Kill Confirmed, Search and Destroy, Domination, Hardpoint, Control, and Heist. The last two modes are are completely new. In Control, you have to defend two points of the map from attackers within a time limit; if they take both points, you lose. Heist works somewhat like Counter-Strike. You begin with a mere pistol and $500 to buy other weapons and equipment. Somewhere on the map is a cash drop. Your objective is to grab it and bring it to the extraction point, but the trick is you only have one life. The team that extracts the cash has more money to buy weapons and equipment in subsequent rounds. Control slots into the Call of Duty rotation rather well, but I didn't find myself to be a fan of Heist. The latter mode ends in a lot of spectating (for me personally) and the winning team having more cash pushes future rounds in their favor.
Black Ops 4 also offers five game types-Free for All, Team Deathmatch, Kill Confirmed, Domination, and Search and Destroy-in Hardcore mode. Hardcore drops the game's HUD and player health, meaning hits are more likely to kill your target. This was my meat-and-potatoes mode and where I fhad the most fun. I'm decent with hitting a target, but not so great at continuous tracking. In Hardcore, my hits meant my target usually died and the rapid deaths increased Black Ops 4's overall pace. It just feels faster and more fun than the basic multiplayer modes.
All told, multiplayer feels meaty. There's enough here that players shouldn't get tired of everything in a week. We'll see how the community thrives on the live game though.
Call of the Dead: On Zombies
I already wrote a lengthy article about Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 Zombies, but let's go over the basics. Zombies is a cooperative multiplayer mode, pitting up to four players against hordes of zombies. The zombies come in numbered waves and every time you survive a wave, the next one is slightly harder. It's an endless mode, with teams tasked with pushing those wave numbers farther and farther.
As I said in my previous article, Zombies feels like the soft replacement for the lost single-player campaign. This is where Black Ops 4 delivers a narrative, outside of the cinematics for the Specialist tutorial missions. Zombie is split into two storylines this year. The Aether story is focused on the crew of original characters (Richtofen, Dempsey, Takeo and Nikolai), while the Chaos story is focused on an all-new cast (Scarlett, Diego, Stanton, and Bruno). Aether gets a single map, Blood of the Dead, a reimagining of the Mob of the Dead map from Black Ops 2. Chaos is the clear focus though, with the medieval Roman map IX and the Voyage of Despair, which takes place on the Titanic.
IX is the clear stand out from what I've played so far. It's starts in a gladiatorial arena in the Roman Empire, but the branching paths from the hub area include dark catacombs full of mushrooms and other plant life, an Egyptian-themed area, a Viking rowhouse, and much more. Voyage of Despair and Blood of the Dead stick to singular themes-corrupted versions of the Titanic and Alcatraz-but IX plays around with its map concept far more. Assuming there will be more maps added to Zombies, I'm hoping they're more like IX.
The Perk system has changed a quite a bit from Black Ops 3. In this newest Zombies entry, you choose your perks ahead of time out of a list of the ones you have unlocked. Those perks remain inactive during play until you interact with an object on the map: it's soda machines in Blood of the Dead and god statues in IX, for example. The object will activate the perk in the slot associated with it. A statue of Ra will activate whatever you have equipped in the Ra slot.
There's also new Special Weapons that can super-charge you and clear huge crowds of zombies. The weapons are separated by storyline, the Chaos story having magical objects like the massive Hammer of Valhalla or the burning Sceptre of Ra, while the Aether story includes more grounded weapons like a Flamethrower or Katana. The Chaos weapons once again add more flavor to Zombies, further differentiating the mode from the basic Black Ops 4 multiplayer.
Zombies is the mode that will require the most time to dive deep into. There's a lot hidden under the surface there in terms of storytelling and the Easter Eggs that actually allow you to finish each level. I doubt I'll even completely get there by time I finalize this review.
New World: On Blackout
Where are my impressions of Blackout? I played Call of Duty's new battle royale mode in the beta, but it wasn't available to dive into at the event I attended. As such, I'm holding back on my feelings on Blackout until I've played its final release in live conditions. Yeah, I'll be hiding in a shed right alongside you.
All told, it feels like I could justify the $60 price tag of Call of Duty: Black Ops 4. That's always been my ultimate question, as the feeling of value is wrapped up in existing expectations, which include a single-player campaign. Treyarch's uphill battle was convincing me that Blackout made up for the loss of the campaign, with multiplayer and Zombies seeing mprovements over previous iterations. So far, I'm almost onboard with that concept. As a cornucopia of multiplayer action, what I've played of Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 feels like it delivers.
But we'll see if that feeling survives live release.
Final Review Update
It's been a week since Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 launched worldwide. I played the game prior to its launch, but I wanted to hold off my final thoughts until after the live release. I had two questions overall: How was real-world online play, and was the combination of multiplayer, Zombies, and Blackout enough to overcome the missing single-player campaign?
To answer the first question, I'll say that my online time has gone off mostly without a hitch. On launch day, I did fall prey to an error that prevented the game from connecting to servers, which in Black Ops 4's case meant I couldn't even access the opening menu. But an update solved that issue and online play has been mostly smooth since then.
Blackout has been a highlight of my overall play. In practice, it feels very similar to PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds, albeit with a level of polish that feels absent from that game, even outside of its Early Access origins. It also helps that Blackout's overall map is comprised of hotspots that mirror classic Black Ops levels. This means competition around these regions can actually be stronger than it is in other Battle Royale titles.
I wrote a lengthy article about Zombies potentially being the primary "story" of Call of Duty: Black Ops 4. I still agree with that assessment, but the problem is that story is hidden behind several layers of effort. It's somewhat present if you're just playing, but it requires a strong and consistent group in order to dig any deeper. That's something not everyone has. Essentially, the story is there, but only for the hardcore. I can see why Zombies fans love the mode, but I admit I don't have the time or resources to get the most out of it.
That leaves the basic multiplayer, which remains strong with a number of modes and maps to keep you playing. It's polished, it's well-done, and I only have a few issues with it. (Like the dog. Damn that dog.) There's several layers of progression inn multiplayer and it feels good to get better with a certain weapon, unlocking further handling and cosmetic customization for it. The new Heist mode wasn't my cup of tea, as I don't necessarily have the skills to do anything but die in the early rounds. And once you've lost, it feels like you keep losing because the winning team has a monetary advantage. My overall multiplayer time tends towards Kill Confirmed, Control, and Domination, where I can contribute without being the best or most accurate shooter.
At the end of the day, I honestly still miss that blockbuster single-player campaign. There are hints of what could've been in the Specialist HQ tutorials, featuring a G.I. Joe-style squad of formerly disabled soldiers given futuristic prosthetics and weapons to fight a private war, but ultimately, they're just hints and teases. I understand leaving behind that campaign as an experience for Black Ops 4, but I'm hoping it's not the new normal for Call of Duty or Black Ops in particular.
What I'm left with is a package where I see the polish and effort put into multiplayer, but it falls a bit short when it comes to me in particular. If multiplayer is completely your jam, this probably won't bother you, leaving Black Ops 4 in an excellent series that's always trended toward multiplayer. If you're a fan of the single-player outings are part of the meal, Black Ops 4 can still provide a good deal of fun, but doesn't sit as the best the Call of Duty franchise has to offer.
Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 lands with a quality combination featuring multiplayer, Zombies, and the new Blackout battle royale mode. It's a clean, polished package of multiplayer goodness all around. The lack of single-player campaign still hurts, but for some, it probably won't be missed.