When Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 unceremoniously dropped the series mainstay of having a campaign following rumors that it wouldn't be completed in time, some were loudly upset. The diehard fans, though, seemed unbothered by the update. Maybe that's because for some time now, the campaign was really just a shiny thing with a celebrity face at its center. Call of Duty: WW2's Band of Brothers imitation last year had Transformers star Josh Duhamel at its center; Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare's villain was a, well, now-actual Hollywood villain.
Even as one of the people who was disappointed at the news of a lack of a campaign, Black Ops 4 is the most I've clicked with a Call of Duty in years. Admittedly, I've only dabbled in some of the entries since Modern Warfare 2. I wasn't into the Titanfall impersonator Infinite Warfare, even with as smooth as it felt. I can't even remember the intricacies of other entries in the series I've played. Strangely though, Treyarch's Black Ops series always eluded me. Black Ops 4 is my introduction to the subseries.
It brings a lot of changes to the core formula that I once knew. In lieu of its campaign, it has the new battle royale mode Blackout. Like its predecessor Black Ops 3, Black Ops 4 has a specialist system too. As a person who used to play Overwatch on a daily basis, the quasi-hero shooter structure was immediately recognizable to me. While it does have its annoyances—like, c'mon, why aren't frag grenades a default essential—the specialists add a spice of variety into matches. Rounds can still be smooth and quick in the ideal Call of Duty way, but the addition of class-based characters with unique abilities adds a bonus strategic quality. I'm always alternating between Recon, Nomad and his trusty dog, and others.
The fact is: the campaign hasn't really mattered in Call of Duty in a long while, sadly. While we get the occasional memorable moment ("Press X to Pay Respects"), the shocking, groundbreaking sequences that helped propel Call of Duty to glory don't come as often anymore. So when Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 arrived sans-campaign, judging from its sales it was hardly missed. Call of Duty will always be Call of Duty, and Call of Duty always sells.
And sold it did. Since its release a little over a month ago on October 12, it's become the best-selling game of the year so far—even overcoming Rockstar's Red Dead Redemption 2. Black Ops 4 had the best-selling digital launch day sales in Activision's history too.
In that time, it's seen patches, a new Nuketown map for multiplayer, and most notably, microtransactions. In a sneaky addition at the end of October, PS4 players got access to its "COD Points" first, with other platforms following in the week after. With COD Points, players can buy plasma for Zombies, speed through the battle pass-like Contraband stream's tiers that unlock goodies, or—thanks to the November-added Blackjack's Shop—go shopping for specific items in the Black Market with a weekly rotating selection of items.
Post-launch microtransactions aren't anything super new. Rainbow Six Siege threw in loot boxes at the beginning of this year, nearly three years after its launch to the chagrin of fans. Battlefield 5 has microtransactions in the pipeline. Star Wars: Battlefront 2, after having microtransactions at launch and then having them stripped away, re-implemented them later but reeled it to cosmetic only. Even Call of Duty's direct predecessor, last year's Call of Duty: WW2, followed the same post-launch formula as Black Ops 4.
The microtransactions balance out the slow grind that is the Contraband stream in the Black Market. With Contraband, the more someone plays, the more goodies they unlock in special tiers (with 200 in total) just like in Fortnite's popular Battle Pass system. While Fortnite's Battle Pass is a buy-in pass due to being free-to-play (with a more expensive version that automatically nets you the first 25 tiers), Contraband allows a similar service, but the problem is that grinding upwards is ridiculously slow. This, as players feared upon its launch, is where microtransactions come in.
With COD Points, players can accelerate their progression in Contraband, unlocking more tiers at a faster rate. If someone doesn't want to pay to progress faster, they need to play an estimated eight hours every day day—basically a full-time job—in order to unlock everything in the Contraband stream by the time this "season" ends. That's 400 hours in total. Microtransactions make that input not as daunting if you really want all the Contraband's weapon skins, Blackout characters, signature weapons, Specialist outfits, tags, and emotes ("gestures"). For most, I suspect, fully completing the progression tiers is basically a fool's errand.
When I wrote about Blackout at launch, I lamented that the lack of any progression system hurt it: there was nothing to work towards, unlike Fortnite's Battle Pass or even PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds' slow-grind loot crates. With the Contraband, that's luckily been remedied, even if the progression feels far too slow and for standard multiplayer is a bit too tied to actual power rather than cosmetics. Cosmetic-only microtransactions are usually preferred, personally, given that the game inevitably feels more balanced for all players—whereas the players with cash to burn can immediately get the most expensive and powerful gear whenever they wish. But I guess that's capitalism.
Blackout, in general, has shaped up to fill in the missing piece for this year's Call of Duty. Essentially the replacement for a campaign (though the bigger focus on Zombies, for the hardcore Zombies fans, helps stymie the loss too), Blackout is not just a great new entry to the battle royale genre, it brings everything that people love about Call of Duty to a new framework. From the specialized perks of classes being random items found in the world, to classic Black Ops maps being sewn and reimagined for the island setting, Blackout is an embrace of the Call of Duty series' history. And it's a damn good time too.
While Blackout has the most in common with PUBG, it has taken some cues from Epic Games' approach to keeping Fortnite exciting. Over just the past month, loads of easter eggs have been discovered all across Blackout's map, keeping in line with the Zombies lineage (the map has zombies too, of course). For the recent release of the Nuketown map in multiplayer, Treyarch even plopped zombies onto Nuketown Island, a location on the Blackout map, to celebrate the occasion—an homage to Nuketown Zombies from Call of Duty: Black Ops 2. Blackout's map isn't stagnant, it's mysterious and engaging with its playerbase, just like Epic Games has with Fortnite.
Nearly two months on, Black Ops 4 is thriving as Call of Duty always has. Browsing communities, you'll see a few lingering complaints here or there; on the front page of its main subreddit alone, one of the top threads is about the Call of Duty series' unwillingness to let go of its past and its constant recycling old maps, while others have grievances with the general design of Black Ops 4's multiplayer maps in general. (Both are complaints I can understand).
Changes, at least, are in the works for the future of Black Ops 4. Studio design director David Vonderhaar teased yesterday on Twitter that something's coming to the Blackout map that sounds more robust than the zombies for Nuketown Island drop. Camouflage and audio tweaks are also in the works for the mode. Just this week, Treyarch rolled out two new map variants that change the weather and time of day for the maps Seaside and Firing Range. A new multiplayer mode, Safeguard (returning from Black Ops 3), was also tossed in.
The lack of a campaign hasn't seemed to damage Call of Duty at all. While it enacted once again the shady practice of only implementing microtransactions after launch—maybe a conscious effort to avoid criticism in reviews about its implementation like Star Wars: Battlefront 2 weathered from critics and fans alike—Black Ops 4 is maybe the best Call of Duty game in the past few years. Or at least it is for me, as it's the only one to hook me, like the specialist Ruin using his grappling hook to get the jump on an enemy.