By Mike O’Brien | ★★★★✰
Disclosure: Activision provided Quench with a copy of the game for review purposes.
Call of Duty, arguably the best known shooter in the world, annually shatters industry sales records with impunity. Yet, for years now, it’s been bedeviled by its passionately vocal community who aren’t quite convinced that Call of Duty knows what it is. What began as a Second World War shooter has ventured just about everywhere from the Cold War to outer space. Throughout these wildly transformative years for the franchise and its gameplay, Call of Duty has been widely criticised for either shattering its mould beyond recognition, or settling too comfortably within it. This year, with Call of Duty: Black Ops 4, developer Treyarch tries to strike the seemingly impossible balance between convention and evolution – and gets it just right.
Perhaps the most significant departure from the treasured days of CoD past is the absence of a single-player campaign. This decision was met with quite some backlash initially – but it’s clear that the exhaustive resources typically dedicated to the single-player portion have been well-distributed to other areas. Many have remarked that Black Ops 4 is like three games in one, and whilst that is somewhat of an exaggeration, the truth is that its three separate components are well-nourished with an abundance of quality content.
Headlines have chased one mode in particular: Blackout. It’s Call of Duty’s answer to the battle royale craze ushered by overnight sensations PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds (PUBG) and Fortnite, and what an answer it is. Blackout is, without question, the most mechanically polished battle royale on the market. For those living under a rock for the last year or so, the format is simple: you parachute onto an enormous map with 99 other players whom you must outmanoeuvre and outlive using whatever resources you can scavenge. Conceptually, the game is much closer to PUBG than any other battle royale title, but the sheer mechanical superiority alone is enough to set it apart. Call of Duty’s DNA is woven carefully into Blackout; perks appear as consumable timed boosts that can be found on the map, whilst weapons and maps from older games make appearances throughout. In a sense, Blackout is not just a superbly polished and streamlined battle royale game, but a love letter to Call of Duty’s days of yore that will give veteran fans a sense of nostalgia amidst the tension and chaos.
Black Ops 4’s famous Zombies portion has seen arguably the most drastic evolution of all. If you haven’t played Call of Duty since zombies was as simple as roaming a small map, buying a handful of perks, and lasting as long as possible, it’s likely you’ll be very confused by the onslaught of customisation options, special weapons, and secrets on display. Fortunately, tucked away in Zombies’ various matchmaking playlists is a tutorial which explains most of the new mechanics – but it’s certainly a lot to take in at first. Black Ops 4 launches with three zombies maps: IX, a Colosseum-styled gladiatorial complex, Voyage of Despair, which is set on the RMS Titanic right after its collision, and Blood of the Dead, a revamped version of Mob of the Dead from Call of Duty: Black Ops 2. These maps are all enormous with a variety of secrets to discover, but even as someone who pines for the simpler days of World at War and Black Ops, I never felt overwhelmed by the scope and depth of Zombies. Players now have access to equipment and special attacks, both of which recharge over time – but with these new powers come greater adversaries in the form of special enemies and minibosses, akin to Left 4 Dead’s special infected. For those who love the matrix of complexity that Zombies has become, you ought to be beaming. For those reading these with a cynical squint, give it a try – it’s not as bemusing as you think. And if it is, there are a variety of modifiers you can use to tailor the experience.
The last mode, and perhaps the most important, is Multiplayer. After years of indecision regarding whether or not players ought to be fighting on the battlefield or on the ceiling, Black Ops 4 strikes an amicable balance of boots-on-the-ground gameplay with relatively futuristic technology. Anyone familiar with Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 will feel right at home in Black Ops 4 – but Treyarch have also made some changes to how Call of Duty works fundamentally in a way that keeps the gameplay loop interesting whilst familiar by lifting some conventions from MOBAs and hero shooters like Overwatch.
You can create-a-class just like always, but on top of that, players now pick their Operator (hero), each of which have a rechargeable skill and an ultimate ability. Whilst intimidating at first, I haven’t found any of these abilities to be particularly unbalanced, and the ones which are demonstrably stronger can often only be used once or twice per match, depending on performance. It’s a welcome to change to Call of Duty, and a nice means of customising your loadout beyond the decision to use an assault rifle or a slightly faster assault rifle with less stopping power. Other major changes include a much higher time-to-kill than usual, which makes for more generally interesting combat encounters and decreases the likelihood of being killed in frustrating situations. Oh, healing is now manual as well, which adds an additional element of control and strategy, but otherwise doesn’t change the game all that much.
This is a Call of Duty game for everyone. Whether you’re a longtime fan who’s grown disenfranchised with all that jetpack and spaceman nonsense, or a disappointed ex who feels Call of Duty is too immature to develop personally and satisfy your needs, abate your cynicism for Black Ops 4. The value for money here is far and away the highest it’s ever been for a Call of Duty game at launch, and it’s clear that each of the three modes has been crafted with care and polish. It’s not perfect; the server tickrate is thrice what it was in the beta, the hitboxes are a bit naff, and the microtransaction model is ethically questionable in its current state – but it’s definitely worth the trouble. Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 is unquestionably the series’ best effort since Black Ops 2.