Call of Duty Black Ops 4 Review: Impressions for Blackout, Zombies and Esports

Chris Roling@@Chris_RolingFeatured ColumnistOctober 14, 2018

Activision

Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 sees Treyarch take some major risks, with the reward being redefining the multiplayer market as players know it.  

The effort feels like a three-within-one offering while also managing to silence the it's-always-the-same-thing crowd. A buttery-smooth battle royale experience, an in-depth co-op mode and traditional Call of Duty multiplayer with some key refinements create a stunning wealth of options and ways to play.

A sacrifice was made in the form of a campaign mode. But while some might see the lack of a single-player campaign as an easy way out for an annual force of a franchise, it's clear after only a brief time with Bo4 it's more of a braggadocious move by a team offering up the best Call of Duty in a long time. 

       

Graphics and Gameplay 

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Like clockwork, this is the best-looking Call of Duty upon release. Saying so does the beauty of the game a disservice, though.  

Refreshingly colorful in all game modes for a genre that often doesn't mind dulling everything out with browns and grays, environments are detailed and varied and actual problems are few and far between. There's a close attention to detail on stuff like firearms, though things like ground textures aren't going to be as beefed up as they are in a single-player RPG. The true varied, powerhouse nature of Bo4 gets showcased in Blackout, which features a double-digit classic map count all slapped onto one playing board. 

But graphics are an afterthought compared to gameplay, as they should be. 

Call of Duty needed a refresher and gets it here for those looking at the subtle mechanics. Regenerating health is gone. The game is no longer just hitscan, as firearms also dole out projectile damage—meaning bullet drop and the realism necessary for a battle royale mode is here. 

It'd be almost dishonest to say Bo4 doesn't build upon its tried-and-true base multiplayer well. While it feels incredibly familiar, which is what happens for such a long-running franchise, the removal of wall-running and verticality and a return to a more realism-based shooter is a welcome change. Dealing with projectile damage and having to strategically manage health adds another layer of depth to what before was mindless engagements before spamming the respawn button. 

At its core, Bo4 is a personification of how the shooting genre has changed over the years. Like Overwatch and others, the specialists system takes cues from hero-based shooters. Four of the 10 specialists are new and add an additional layer of strategy going into a specific game mode or map, whereas in the past the pregame strategy was only linked to a weapon loadout—which is also still there and as in-depth as usual.  

The specialists systems don't work as well, though, in a reality-based game like Call of Duty—things like wallhacks that reveal the enemy on radar are always going to be more important than say, a grappling hook for somewhat-quicker traversal. And part of the problem is the "ultimates" each specialist can earn. Some, like the attack dog, generate kills for a player with the click of a button, while others, such as Prophet's Tempest, require precise aim simply for a stun. 

Still, even that is a minor complaint, as players are properly rewarded for using items like those in the recon class to enable teammates instead of simply going in solo, guns-blazing with individual boosts at the ready. 

It wouldn't be Call of Duty without crisp gunplay, so players familiar to the series know what to expect. There are some spawning issues that need ironed out in traditional multiplayer, but as a whole, the removal of wall-running and a surprising amount of depth between weapon loadouts, unlocks and specialists classes leaves more agency in the hands of players than ever before.  

     

Zombies 

While Bo4 doesn't have a "campaign" per se, the three co-op modes available in zombies makes for an entertaining romp with friends. 

Those interested in the Aether storyline from past games can continue it here. But the real highlight is the new Chaos storyline, a time-traveling affair with some of the most memorable maps in the series. Whether it's a Titanic-inspired ship or a Roman coliseum with onlookers galore, Bo4 doesn't hold back in overwhelming users with pretty environments before sending the dead after them. 

Each of these maps contains fun secrets to unlock, ranging from risking it all while swimming to loot or using points to unlock secrets. Sprinkle a deep customization suite on top of it all, and players can build preferred loadouts for each of the three arcs. 

A Rush mode also strips down the game for those who want to simplify the experience and still play one of gaming's best horde modes. And when one of those three isn't enough, players can also launch their own custom game with user-created rules. 

As an aside, Zombies can be an incredibly intimidating deep dive for those who haven't experienced it before. The tutorial might be one of the best (and funniest) in gaming today, but this mode has layers and layers of systems stacked atop one another for years now, which makes the initial toes-in-water experience difficult. 

Still, it boils down to see zombie...shoot zombie. Given the depth here and a "Left 4 Dead" (remember that one?) style feel with friends, Zombies makes Bo4 worth it on its lonesome for those seeking one of the best co-op experiences available to date. 

      

Blackout

This should be enough to get players invested in Bo4. 

Yes, it's that good. 

It was a matter of time before gigantic developers threw their weight into the battle royale genre. But wading into the deep end was a risky endeavor no matter who attempted it given the stranglehold Fortnite and PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds had on the market. 

Had, because Bo4 dives in and might just send the competition riding out of the pool itself on a wave. 

Blackout is the best battle royale experience available to players today. Blending a realistic take on warfare with upped time-to-kill numbers to match PUBG, Blackout offers critical twists on the genre that offer important pace revisions. 

Classic Call of Duty maneuvering in the form of slide and jumps is here. But so is a smaller map players can reach almost any point on no matter where they drop from thanks to wingsuits. Being able to heal while on the run is a much-needed change to the genre, as is a simplified loot system. In short, players spend less time figuring out menus and more time fighting it out—and this all encourages more aggressive play from all because death simply means quickly loading into the next game and doing it all over again. Despite this, the same late-game adrenaline kick that helped the genre explode is still here in droves, if not more so.

The map gives off a feeling of being massive because it houses a handful of former maps featured in past games on one surface, but it's smaller than other maps in the genre. Small isn't bad, though, as this one is dense. An industrial park bleeds into a cityscape before giving way to farm fields en route to a water dam, all scalable by foot or a handful of vehicles, including a helicopter. 

By design, of course. This isn't a battle royale where a player and friends will stroll through forest for 20 minutes without seeing other players at all. This is the Call of Duty-branded battle royale, and the combination of a smaller map and the mentioned new wrinkles create the perfect-feeling pace for the game mode.  

As an aside, perks and specialist equipment are lootable items out in the world. Those hunting for an uber-realistic take on battle royale in the PUBG mold shouldn't be too alarmed, though—while it can be jarring to suddenly die to a player who got to an unexpected place because he or she happened upon the grappling hook, those moments are incredibly rare because so is the loot. There are zombies at certain points on the map as well and they guard superb loot, but the risk is attracting other players with the noise. 

Blackout is going to draw in players from everywhere. Those who want a smoother PUBG have it. Those who dabbled in Fortnite because they didn't want to deal with the jankiness of PUBG but crave realistic fighting have it. And those who went off the deep end, trying everything from Realm Royale to Ring of Elysium have a title they can settle on for good. 

Knowing the gaming market today, Blackout simply being superb won't be enough to keep players loyal. We'll have to see if a continued stream of player customization, map alterations and general communication from the developers can match those offered by other battle royale games, but what we have from Blackout so far is best-in-class status. 

If the developers can match by accomplishing the rest as the game evolves, it's hard to see how another game comes in and knocks Blackout off the throne. 

       

Esports Appeal and the Rest 

One can feel the esports slant within Bo4's base multiplayer. Classic maps and those taking the typical three-lane approach return and offer up the perfect playground for pro matches. 

We're a long ways removed from the typical Call of Duty shooter too, with specialists and perks adding a layer of depth clearly aimed at asking pro players to find the best possible combinations to mow through the opposition. 

In other words, Call of Duty World League and others won't go anywhere. In fact, they might see a bigger viewership than ever, especially thanks to the small tweaks to mechanics like healing and projectile damage, which shake up things just enough. 

But don't forget Blackout. 

PUBG has tried the esports route to varying success, though stability issues and otherwise popped up. With the way Blackout runs from a technical standpoint and backed by such massive companies, it's hard to imagine these same issues betray the mode's growth. 

Similar to PUBG but with an even faster play style on a smaller map, the possible unintended consequence of fine-tuning the battle royale genre for the sake of finding the proper pacing players will enjoy might have created an esports juggernaut separate from the base Call of Duty multiplayer. 

Elsewhere, the lack of a single-player campaign will turn away some customers. 

But Bo4 does have something of a story in the form of specialists missions. While these are essentially tutorials for the various specialists and their abilities, they also weave in a healthy dose of background info that, when taken as a whole, weave a consistent narrative for those who want it. Keeping with the Overwatch comparison, players aren't going to learn rich details about the universe through character dialogue before and during matches, but it's better than nothing. 

Players will want to be sure to check everything the game has to offer too. Heist deserves a huge nod, by the way. It's one of two game modes, the other being Control. But Heist steals the show, or at least it will for shooter fans who grew up on Counter-Strike, as players have to manage a monetary budget before each round to equip themselves before going into battle. It's an easy game mode to miss tucked away into the other traditional multiplayer offerings, but it's well worth a look. Ditto for the hardcore version of game modes, which is a thrilling alternative featuring the risk of team kills, no HUD and one-shot kills. 

As hinted with Blackout, this release will hinge on support from Treyarch. 

But the developers are already making changes and promising future balances. Spawn points on some maps clearly need fixed. A general weapon-balancing pass is a must, with SMGs getting shredded by ARs even in their optimal range as of the game's launch. Likewise, as of this review, only 85 or so players drop into Blackout, but the cap will get bumped to 100 based on performance feedback. That performance feedback just resulted in an uncapped framerate for PC players. 

And on that note, this feels like the first Call of Duty that won't die off quickly on PC. Thank the emergence of a must-have battle royale mode that is already receiving updates from developers. A super-smooth, well-optimized experience with smart out-of-box keybindings means PC will thrive as the optimal way to experience Blackout, and it only helps that it launches from the Blizzard app alongside other heavyweights like Overwatch and Destiny 2. 

     

Conclusion 

Activision

The king is back, and good luck with the regicide. 

On one hand, Call of Duty has lately felt like it is playing from behind in the industry. It was chasing the futuristic angle, went with Titanfall-esque environment traversal, then the hero-shooter genre and now battle royale. But massive studios wanting a piece of the battle royale pie was a given—it was just hard to see it being this good

Blackout is a genre-best hit through a sheer stunning combination of performance and pacing atop the usual Call of Duty formula. The co-op Zombies experience is more in-depth than most standalone co-op experiences these days. Traditional multiplayer is not only a refreshing return to team-based combat after an oversaturation of battle royale games on the market, but it also changes enough to keep players interested. 

While players who have an opinion one way or another on traditional Call of Duty multiplayer and Zombies won't have their opinions swayed by this release, Bo4 is a three-in-one package of shattered expectations.

It took shoving aside tradition in the form of single player, but Call of Duty has finally not only caught up to the rest of the industry but also once again stormed to a commanding lead.