Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 is proof that the series has outgrown the notion of a single-player campaign. Last year’s Band of Brothers-inspired trek from Normandy to Berlin was a spectacular send-off for COD story missions, but their replacement – a battle royale mode called Blackout – marks a new pinnacle for the 15-year-old series, one that’s matched by the most competitive Multiplayer offering yet, and a Zombies experience that’s rich and vibrant right from launch day.
I’ve grapple-hooked to victory in Blackout, unearthed secrets in Zombies, and been bested by quickscopes innumerable times in Multiplayer. After a whole day spent in one game mode it only takes dipping my toes in one of the other two to drag me back in for another few hours. Black Ops 4 is bursting at the seams with content and polished to perfection.
The addition of a battle royale mode, however, marks this year’s entry as the first to offer something totally new to the series since Treyarch added Zombies to World at War almost a decade ago. Blackout isn’t just a throwaway addition, either: it’s the best time I’ve had in a Call of Duty game in many years. It has already produced countless memorable moments, from incredible against-the-odds wins, to calamitous errors that have sent my squad back to the lobby screen laughing uncontrollably.
The past year has seen battle royale games surge in popularity, and even break into the mainstream through Fortnite. This begs the question: what can a veteran studio like Treyarch do to make its mark on the genre? In the best way possible, Blackout doesn’t do anything drastically different in an attempt to stand out, nor does it abandon the feel of its multiplayer to align to the latest trend. All the hallmarks of a PUBG clone are present – think parachutes, a shrinking circle of death, vehicles, and bullet drop – but Blackout is first and foremost a Call of Duty battle royale, rather than a rip-off with a Black Ops lick of paint.
Blackout uses the searing pace of Black Ops 4 multiplayer to empower players in every skirmish. You can chain together a few knee-slides and jumps to escape a hail of bullets, or rapidly close the gap on a weakened enemy and finish them off. Blackout is packed with subtle tweaks to the genre that encourage fast and aggressive play. Whether you’re wingsuiting off high ledges or healing while running, Blackout is a liberating experience where all the mechanics that typically slow down a battle royale game have been ousted in favour of streamlined, flowing gameplay.
The new battle royale mode fits snugly between the two disparate behemoths that currently dominate the genre. There’s the accessible gunplay and variety of gadgets that you’d associate with Fortnite, while the tiered armour, vehicles, and bullet drop recall PUBG’s MilSim tone. But Blackout also has a skill ceiling that’s approachable for the average gamer: the bullet ballistics and recoil patterns are generous, while high mobility takes the place of building mechanics, giving players scope for attacking and fleeing without having to learn how to build complex structures.
Treyarch has injected its storied history with the series into Blackout wherever possible. There are maps from World at War, areas across the map where you can fight zombies in order to access a Mystery Box full of loot, consumable perks, and a bounty of easter eggs waiting to be discovered. Black Ops has always been one of the most consistently bonkers threads within the branching Call of Duty brand, and – as is made startlingly clear when you zap an enemy off a quad bike with a Ray Gun – Blackout carries that fine tradition forward.
But Treyarch’s greatest achievement is the Blackout map – a massive patchwork quilt of biomes, towns, and industrial facilities that makes deciding where to drop a challenge in and of itself. Clusters of buildings are dotted around the map with such frequency that you can land practically anywhere and feel confident that you’ll find a half-decent gun along with some equipment, healing items, perks, and attachments.
Landmark spots like Nuketown Island and Hydro Dam will drag in smatterings of players with the promise of copious loot, but with 14 named locations evenly spread around the map – as well as a few large towns nestled in-between – the 99 other players dropping alongside you will usually scatter themselves fairly evenly. The fact that you can reach anywhere on the map regardless of where you begin your descent certainly helps in this regard, too. As a result, Blackout’s 20-minute matches are well-paced, which means far fewer games spent chasing the play zone across vast fields of not a whole lot, only to be gunned down in a split-second by a player who had been hiding in the same spot for the past who knows how long.
Manage to make it to the final few play zones and you’ll be treated to some delectably tense clashes in which anything goes. I’ve experienced everything from a claustrophobic home-invasion thriller, with three squads vying for control of the same suburban house, to a nerve-wracking sniper shootout on a densely wooded hillside – not to mention a botched Grapple Gun play that continues to make me chuckle every time I think about it (see Grapple Guff). Relative to the number of hours I’ve plunged into various other battle royale games since the genre’s explosion, Blackout delivers standout moments thick and fast.
Treyarch is equally comfortable pushing the boundaries over in multiplayer. This year’s PvP mode boasts a slew of controversial, but ultimately successful, changes that raise the competitive skill ceiling higher than ever before. It’s the same fast and frantic multiplayer you know and love, but sharpened up, bulked out, and then refined.
The biggest adjustments to this year’s formula revolve around pacing. For years, Call of Duty multiplayer has had a punishingly short time to kill, where three or four shots separate max health from staring at yet another killcam. In Black Ops 4 however, max health is set to 150 instead of 100, which drastically increases how long it takes to down an enemy. You’ll still die pretty fast, but this extra bit of health gives you an opportunity to retaliate once you’ve honed your reflexes.
The pace of multiplayer is somewhere between ‘very high’ and ‘breakneck’
Similarly, Treyarch has changed how healing works in Black Ops 4, ditching automatic regeneration over time in favour of a manually applied boost. It seems like a small change, but it gives players a lot more to think about in the heat of battle, allowing you to toy with an enemy who has just wounded you by jumping straight back out of cover and catching them off guard. The sensible thing might be to take a second and heal up, of course, but the potential for psychological warfare adds more dynamism to gun battles in Black Ops 4 multiplayer.
Mobility is another key point of change. Treyarch maintains the high-speed movement of Black Ops 3, but cuts back on some of the cheesier aspects of it – not least that game’s irritating and inconsistent wallrunning. Knee-slides and ample stamina remain, but a subtle tweak to mantling that lets you shoot while vaulting keeps the general pace of multiplayer somewhere between ‘very high’ and ‘breakneck’.
Black Ops 4 also keeps Black Ops 3’s Specialists – essentially hero characters who each possess two unique abilities. Ten Specialists are available at launch, each feeling equal parts accessible and powerful. Refreshingly, I still don’t have a ‘main’ and can happily swap between Specialists on a whim. Fancy a bit more mobility? Ruin’s Grapple Gun will let you rapidly flank enemies or help reach an objective before the enemy team can capture it. Want to lock down a building? Consider Torque for his Razor Wire and Barricade, or Recon for his powerful Sensor Dart that shows enemies within its range on the mini-maps of everyone on your team.
Specialists add a layer of tactical depth to Call of Duty, but the setup is still a far cry from the Rainbow Six Siege: if all you want to do is load into a match and start racking up kills there’s no wrong choice when it comes to which Specialist you use.
The Pick Ten Create-a-Class system returns in Black Ops 4, but Treyarch has added a new set of weapon-specific attachments called Operator Mods to expand your options even further. Operator Mods include a bayonet attachment for the ICR-7 that grants one-hit melee kills, and a Belt Fed attachment for the Cordite SMG that increases the magazine size tenfold. These curiosities allow for some truly exotic loadouts, like a revolver-only build capable of guaranteed lethal headshots, or a sniper class that’s tailor-made for quickscoping. While submachine guns and assault rifles reign supreme in multiplayer, Black Ops 4 gives creative players ample opportunity to work outside of the meta.
Treyarch has also worked hard to address shortcomings in the quality and quantity of maps available at launch in Call of Duty: WW2. Black Ops 4 ships with an impressive 14 maps, all of which feel fair and balanced. Fan-favourite remasters like Summit, Jungle, Slums, and Firing Range set the bar very high in this respect, but already a few of the new maps are starting to elbow their way into my subconscious.
Icebreaker, for example, wraps the traditional three-lane map design of Call of Duty around a partially submerged submarine in the arctic. The submarine itself is a chaotic mess of tight corridors and suspended walkways that’s ideal for submachine-guns and shotguns, while the exterior of the vessel boasts some of the game’s longest sightlines, ensuring all play styles are served well. Militia is another gem: set in the remote compound of a group of anti-government extremists, this map instantly evokes memories of slaying cultists in Far Cry 5. It’s design is very different from anything else in Black Ops 4, too, with a lane that circles the entire map and an open gulch that snakes through the centre and leaves anyone brave enough to enter vulnerable to attack from multiple angles.
The ten-year anniversary of Zombies means that admirers of the fantastical, easter egg-laden survival mode have three new maps to explore at launch, which is a whole two more than usual.
First up is IX, which sees a new cast of heroes thrown into a Roman coliseum and pitted against zombified gladiators and tigers. It’s the first Zombies map to be set on a bright, sunny day, and that visual approachability is matched by its layout: you’ll find plenty of open space for kiting packs of undead. The second map, Voyage of Despair, also features the new crew of zombie slayers, but this time your adventure starts aboard the RMS Titanic immediately after its collision with the iceberg that sank it. This is a more labyrinthine map, with tight corridors and countless dead ends. Despite being a remaster, third map Blood of the Dead is arguably the most anticipated. This one continues the bafflingly complex timeline of the original zombies crew, which dedicated fans have been following for ten years now.
As ever with Zombies, it’s the thrill of exploring each map and uncovering its secrets that makes each one memorable – more so than breaking a personal best wave count or grabbing a life-saving pickup just before being overwhelmed. Even cracking relatively basic puzzles like finding special weapons, unlocking challenges, and accessing the Pack-a-Punch Machine took numerous, hour-long runs for my team to crack. Every new hint, however minimal, is enough to drag you straight back in, encouraging you to scour every wall and floor for artifacts, and even take potshots at random bits of decor in case they activate some magical event.
Treyarch has once again expanded the Zombies progression system, letting players choose which four perks they want dotted around the map, and even where they spawn. Black Ops 4 also introduces special weapons – like the Scepter of Ra and a hammer reminiscent of Thor’s – which put even more power in your hands with the caveat that they take a few rounds to recharge. The ability to melt hundreds of zombies in a matter of seconds is a welcome addition when your back is up against the wall, but if you really want to get the best of these tools then you’ll have to work closely with your teammates.
In addition to perks and special weapons, you can also unlock new starting weapons, grenade types, and brew powerful, one-use Elixirs that can dramatically bolster your chances of survival.
Casual Zombies players will still be able to jump in and start slaying without having to tweak a single thing, don’t worry, but Black Ops 4 promises to keep the Zombies community occupied for hundreds upon hundreds of hours. One of the neatest additions for the core fan base is Custom Mutations, which is a comprehensive options menu that lets players tinker with every conceivable element of a map so that they can create their own challenges – like locking all of the doors to see how long your crew can survive for in the first room alone.
The list of configurables in Custom Mutations is matched only by the range of adjustable settings available on PC. Seemingly everything can be tweaked, from an exhaustive list of graphics options to key bindings that can be adjusted for every Specialist in the game. A lot has been made of the amount of effort that Treyarch and Beenox has made with the PC version of the game in marketing, but so far that’s been reflected in my experience with the game.
Every year we get a Call of Duty game that’s brimming with new content and exciting changes, but nothing in recent years matches the scope of what Treyarch has achieved with Black Ops 4. Multiplayer and Zombies are the best they’ve been in a long time, but it’s Blackout that steals the show. When it was first announced few could fathom what a Call of Duty battle royale would look like, but sure enough I’m staring down the barrel of a COD game mode with, vehicles, bullet drop, a map 1,500 times bigger than Nuketown, and 100 players – all this and it runs more smoothly than any other battle royale game I’ve played.