Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 - Multiplayer Preview
We go hands-on with the first look at this year's shooter
To me, Call of Duty is like doing shots. There was a time in my life when it was a weekly activity, but these days I often feel like I’m too old for it. Like I’ve outgrown it. Yet, when a certain mood takes me, when there’s a certain energy in the air, I crave a good shot. Shots are a burst of energy, a furious explosion of something that is usually enjoyed in longer, more deliberate measures. And as I sat at the Reveal Event last week, PS4 controller in my hands, playing Call of Duty: Black Ops 4, that same energy pulsed through me. The old, familiar fast and furious bursts of violence excited me and the frustration of defeat drove me mad for vengeance. It only took a few minutes for Treyarch to remind me why Black Ops is returning and why it’s likely to be another smash hit for Activision. After years of Call of Duty dominating the video game industry, it’s easy to be dismissive of the solid foundation on which the series is built, easy to forget that beneath the specialists, the classes, the loadouts, and the maps, the franchise’s satisfying shooting mechanics are still the best in the business. It’s the backbone on which a billion dollar franchise is built, and it remains solid as ever.
I thought it was interesting when I was told that my time with Black Ops 4 would include a PC showing. I couldn’t help but remember how Activision had made a concerted effort to target the PC audience with Destiny 2, and guessed that a similar effort was in store for their newest shooter. But what stands out, and what any PC FPS player could already tell you, is how much faster the game moves on PC - amplifying the run-and-gun feel of the action. Call of Duty has always been a twitchy shooter, a game where getting the first shot on an opponent is crucial and that tension is all the more obvious when playing the game on PC.
Going from the PC to the PS4 felt like going from a fighter jet to a biplane. The PS4 version is much slower to accommodate the twin-stick shooting and thus feels like it’s lacking a bit of the thrills one looks for in a shooter like Black Ops 4. The PC version also helps with the “guns up” feeling that was discussed during the press conference. The fast-paced, reactive nature of the game just feels at home on the PC. Activision also undoubtedly hopes to recover their image in the PC community after a number of lackluster ports a few years ago that had many technical issues.
The menu screen seems to have taken a note from Destiny, using a reticule that’s controlled by the analog stick / mouse. This is something that is much more effective and natural on PC; on the PS4 it feels much like Destiny’s does, which isn’t bad but still slower than just naturally flipping between options like a regular menu. To start, you choose the class you want to customize with create-a-class loadout. You start by picking the template for your class (Guerilla, Frontline, Tactical, Heavy Fire, and Marksman), the weapon you want to use, the perks, wildcards, equipment, attachments, and gear. You can equip a total of ten items total (hence the Pick 10 name assigned to the system by Treyarch), forcing you to make hard choices between the different options.
Once I was fully loaded out, I was able to choose between eight specialists. The specialists are multiplayer characters introduced in the Black Ops 3, returning for the newest version of the game. Eight specialists were available during my time with the game. These characters included some returning faces like Seraph, Ruin, Firebreak, and Battery, and some new ones like Crash, Ajax, Torque, and Recon. Each specialist can only be played by one player, so it can be a bit of a mad dash to try and grab the one you want. I tried to play as each of the specialists, but a few times I was too slow and couldn’t get the one I wanted. It can be a bit of that same feeling you get in Overwatch or Rainbow Six Siege when someone jumps on the character you want, but since the specialist options are more limited in Black Ops 4 I can see it being more frustrating.
My first mode was Domination on the map Contraband. Much like in Black Ops 3 most of the maps feature three action lanes with the control points spread out so each side has an easy point to claim for themselves and one point positioned right in the middle that is likely going to exchange hands throughout the match. It was a fun map and is particularly suited to Domination in that each point is located in different terrain. One point is on a beach, meaning that enemies are likely to rise up out of the water and take you by surprise. Another is on a bridge, forcing players to bottleneck themselves in an attempt to claim control. Lastly, one is surrounded by jungle which provides a lot of hiding places but also a lot of avenues for enemies to sneak up behind you.
I had a lot of fun on this map. There was a fluidity to the action and it allows for a balanced experience. You can quickly go from the close quarters of ruined stone tunnels to the more spacious beaches, creating a variety that kept my encounters fresh. It’s interesting to see Black Ops backing away from the multilevel combat of games like Titanfall and revert back to combat that’s focused on ground level, but Contraband proves that taking these elements away doesn’t necessarily mean a lesser experience.
I played this map as Toque, a specialist who can manipulate the battlefield by laying down razor wire which hinders enemy access to areas of the map, causing enemies to take damage and move slowly when they go through it. You can use the razor wire to block off certain areas to your enemies and channel them to where you want. Torque’s ability, which can only be used after accruing a certain number of points, is to deploy a barricade which came in handy on the aforementioned beach, creating cover while I tried to hold the area on my own.
I got to play each of these maps and modes twice - once on the PC and once on the PS4 - and aside from the previously mentioned speed of the game, they are largely similar experiences. Most of the matches I played were close, and Domination on Contraband in particular had really great balance.
After this we played Control on Seaside. This mode was much like Domination, except that one side is on offense and the other is on defense, switching back and forth round by round, until one side has won three matches. Seaside was the first moment when the grounded gameplay of Black Ops 4 really stuck out in a negative way as the map begs for wall runs and double jumps. There are sniper towers that felt difficult to circumvent with the limited movement and I desperately wanted to wall-run/boost-jump through the docks that skirted the edge of the map. One time I had to stop myself on the very edge of the docks, reminding myself that if jumped, all I would do is drown in the water. Thus keeping your feet firmly on the ground feels a little off after the last few years in the franchise.
Still, the action lanes work well as they channel players onward in attempts to either rush the points, or hold them. The mode leads to a bit of the dreaded spawn camping as defending enemies have a tendency to tuck themselves into corners, but I was playing as Battery and her cluster grenade works well to clear out an area, the initial impact knocking out some enemies and the following blasts picking up the spares. Her grenade doesn’t travel all that far and it takes a bit to load up, so you have to be careful about when to use it. There isn’t a lot of room for spontaneity and if you’re caught by an enemy while trying to get the grenade off, it’s unlikely you’ll get the time to throw it.
But that’s largely true of all the encounters I had while playing the game. Part of this is my struggle to readjust to the idea of always being able to shoot, even when you’re in the middle of an animation, but largely the game feels like it’s designed to reward those who are patient and plan their attacks. Coordinated attacks almost always work as your health depletes so quickly there’s hardly to time to react to anything unexpected.
The next map and mode was easily my least favorite, which is a little odd because I think I found my favorite specialist while playing it. Ajax, the breaching specialist, was perfect for me. Once I figured out how to use his flash grenade, it was satisfying to have a tool that disabled enemies before going in and wreaking havoc with my heavy machine gun. Ajax’s ability is the ballistic shield, which you can use to deflect enemy fire, making you relatively invincible to targets in front. You can tell the specialists are designed to work linked together as a team. Certain characters are all about preparation, others are designed to initiate combat, and still others can assist once the fighting has started in earnest. For instance, the other new specialist I used on this map was Crash who could deploy assault packs to help teammates, and use the Tak-5 ability to heal during a fight. I didn’t get nearly enough time to dig into the minutiae of these tactics, but long enough to realize the potential of these roles working in tandem.
Like I said, unfortunately I played Ajax while doing Hardpoint on Payload, and Payload is kind of a weird map. Again, you can see a lot of opportunities for wall running and multi-level map design - not to mention a slew of ways to fall to your death. But instead of a free-running style, you’re forced to navigate your way through the established pathways. That being said it was a little more difficult to get a sense of the map with Hardpoint as the locations I was trying to reach kept changing and thus the map felt less familiar.
It also felt like Hardpoint was less balanced that the other modes. Teams that cap a Hardpoint tend to roll that success into taking another one, constantly on the defensive and able to dig in a bit. Again, you can see Payload is trying to counter this by being more open so that it’s hard to sit in one spot and camp, but once you have all five players on the point, it’s pretty easy to split into teams of two and hold specific choke points. This meant heavily relying on characters like Ajax or Battery who can disrupt these defenses.
Lastly, we returned to Team Deathmatch on Seaside. It’s funny because one usually thinks of Team Deathmatch as the most chaotic of modes, but it felt like the most measured and slowly paced when I played. Again, Black Ops’ gameplay rewards caution, tactics, and preparation. If you miss your first shot or an enemy sees you before you see them, it’s highly unlikely you’re going to win the fight. This makes Team Deathmatch largely about traveling in groups, and slowly scouting out areas.
It’s here that the new mini-map features are really important and you learn how characters like Recon can be invaluable. Recon fires a sensor dart that tracks enemy movement in the area. Playing as this character I would use the sensor to expose locations of foes, then allow my team to respond accordingly. The knowledge of where your enemies are and setting up traps for them are of the utmost importance, especially when each death matters as far as points are concerned.
Seaside also was a great map to showcase these smaller battles. The various lanes have creative ways of inspiring combat, whether it is with the scattered cover you can find in a wine cellar, the open space of a courtyard, or the large tank that sits in the middle of the bombed out church, each room felt like it had its own quirks that would change your strategy.
I’m sure when Black Ops 4 launches, every design decision is going to be picked apart and raked over the coals, steadily dividing the community on what works and what doesn’t. I can see specialists driving people crazy when they can’t play as the character they want. I could see the lack of vertical movement being baffling, or some players needing time to adjust to the "guns up" approach of always being able to shoot. These changes in gameplay will certainly get reactions and responses from the community upon launch. But in the two hours I spent cycling through maps and characters, I was reminded that even if Call of Duty isn’t a must-own for you every year, there’s an energy that pulses through the game. An electricity that makes it something unique - something that many developers have tried to replicate over the last decade to limited success. It’ll be interesting to keep an eye on the development of Black Ops 4, and despite a lack of campaign, I’m onboard to play more this October.
Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 is set to launch October 12th on PlayStation 4, PC, and Xbox One.
Disclaimer: Activision covered travel and hotel costs for New Game Network to attend a Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 preview event.