Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 Review
A tactical twist for the franchise that leaves it without a story to tell
Derivative is one word you could use to describe the Call of Duty series over the last 10 years, and the fourth entry in Treyarch’s sub-franchise is no exception. The big difference with Black Ops 4 is that it is influenced more by external factors than any previous game in the series. With the recent success of battle royale, CoD has decided to create its own version of the last-man standing mode. Traditional multiplayer harks back to the older games and adds a tactical layer. Zombies return, and remain the quintessential Easter egg hunt mode with more undead killing than ever before. When put together, it is a decent package and would be stronger without its technical issues. But series veterans will know that there is one mainstay of the franchise that has yet to be mentioned, and its absence may be the difference between success and failure.
Fans of single player will be spitting fire
There is no campaign in Black Ops 4, which is strange given Treyarch’s accomplishments in this area. The first Black Ops game had a great story and awesome pacing. The sequel continued this and brought in branching paths. Even the third game offered a co-operative campaign, albeit with a convoluted story. So it is disappointing that the fourth entry lacks the bombastic set pieces. Some players enjoyed the narrative too, but that part is not completely gone. There is a “story” paired with tutorials and bot matches for each of the multiplayer Specialists. Unfortunately the AI bots are abysmal at navigating the levels and pose no threat. And the narrative itself is just a prologue mixed with clichéd back story told via unengaging CGI cutscenes. It is best to ignore the story and bow down to the king of the hill—multiplayer.
Traditional competitive multiplayer is a devolution of Black Ops 3 and not just technologically. Most of the Specialist characters return, with their unique hero-like abilities, but wall-running and boost jumping have been culled in order to appease the ground-huggers. Modes staple to the series are back, including TDM, FFA, Kill Confirmed, Search & Destroy, Domination, and Hardpoint—no CTF this year. Many prominent franchise scorestreaks reappear, including the wheeled RC-XD from BO1, which is not easy to control this time around. In lopsided matches, scorestreaks snowball and the imbalance increases. Apart from TDM and Kill Confirmed, which are both 6v6, all modes have been reduced to 5v5 which, surprisingly, provides enough action because players have unlimited sprint and maps are compact.
This time you can heal yourself and make the strawberry jelly go away
One big change to the combat is needing to manually heal after taking damage. Paired with higher time-to-kill, this elongates encounters and adds another tactical layer. Do you retreat and heal or attack and catch the enemy off guard? Healing will become second nature, just like reloading. If you never plan on retreating, you can opt to reduce self-healing to gain benefits from other items, like armor or an acoustic sensor. The Pick-10 system allows this type of customization, although there are some caveats when it comes to the Specialist loadouts.
Out of the ten Specialists, six are younger versions of those found in Black Ops 3. Their abilities are generally the same. Battery still has her grenade launcher, Ruin has his ground-pound thingamajig, and Seraph has her sweet one-hit-kill revolver. Unlike BO3, each character gets a unique piece of equipment that takes up the grenade slot. Prophet has a seeker bot that gets stuck on objects as it twirls around looking for enemies to incapacitate and Firebreak has a radioactive core for sustained and through-wall area damage. If you want to use a regular frag grenade (perish the thought), you must be level 42 and will need to give up one customization point. Since all equipment has a cooldown, there is no grenade spam, which is fantastic.
New Specialists focus more on team benefits and defense. Crash can drop special ammo and boost the health of all teammates. Recon has a sensor pulse and x-ray vision to show where enemies are located. Ajax has one of those horrible, impenetrable riot shields with a super-mega flashbang. And Torque is a camper’s dream, as he can set up a microwave barricade and drop razor wire under windows as though he were from another time period. None of these new characters are fun to play aggressively but they are strong. Razor wire is excellent in defense and extra health can turn the tide. The prevalence of defensive team abilities is bizarre to see in a Call of Duty game and might be influenced by the likes of Rainbow Six: Siege. Both defensive and offensive abilities don’t change the action too much because of generous cooldowns and vulnerability.
It's a dog-eat-everybody-else world out there
Two new modes, Control and Heist, further emphasize the game’s shift towards tactical, team-based action. Control features two large capture zones that take quite some time to conquer. Think of a slower version of Domination but with one team attacking. Defenders can only reset the point part of the way. Both teams have limited lives, so running into a no-win situation is a sure way to not win. With two objectives and three-lane maps, there are many good flanking opportunities.
Heist is even more tactical and draws comparisons to Counter-Strike because each round gives players a single life and it removes Specialist abilities. The goal is to grab a money-bag and take it to an extraction point. Before each round, you can spend earned cash on weapons or perks or other gear. When players take lethal damage, they enter a temporary downed state and can be revived, so sticking together is advised. Health packs must be picked up around the map and the same for ammo. The refreshing mode offers compressed action, plenty of teamwork, and tension. Both of these new modes are playable on most of the 14 maps, so there is no worry about needing hand-crafted levels like the War mode in WWII from last year.
At this point it may be impossible to design a map that does not evoke memories of an earlier level in the franchise. And Treyarch seem to know this because they have opted to include some of those old maps with suitable visual upgrades. There are fourteen maps available at launch and four are remakes. Since the action is grounded, the remakes fair well enough in terms of play style. Summit is still awesome and Firing Range just plays well despite its tiny size.
Maps are generally vibrant and detailed
Most of the new maps are thematically similar to older maps in the series. Contraband is a bit like Pointe du Hoc from WWII. Hacienda is a mix of Stronghold from BO3 and Raid from BO2. The layouts are different, but it’s hard to shake the past. One upside of the new maps is that they are vibrant and thus more pleasing on the eye than the grim, war-torn arenas of yesteryear. In terms of layout, the good work done in Infinite Warfare and BO3, with regards to wall-running channels, has been for naught. To pour salt onto the wound, the Frequency map seems to be ripped straight from IW because it has spots that would be ideal for wall-running. There are no bad maps but also few standouts, so the new arenas do their job on the small scale.
There is one big map and it is used for the separate battle royale mode—Blackout. It is surprising to see such a large playable landmass in a Call of Duty game. The map consists of areas that are based on levels from older games in the franchise, like the satellite array, cargo port, and construction site. It is weird, in a good way, to play on the Firing Range in normal multiplayer and see a much larger version of it in Blackout. Vehicles will help you get around, and their controls are decent enough. In a similar vein to PUBG, the map has hundreds of buildings containing resources—ammo, health, armor and equipment. There are even items from the traditional multiplayer, including barricades and razor wire. Perks are temporary consumables that boost things like hearing, healing, swimming, or searching. Drop anywhere on the map, find yourself a weapon, and try not to die.
But you will die, many times, because matches are 88 or 100 players in solo, duos and quads. Sometimes you get unlucky and land in an area where there are few weapons and multiple enemy squads. Other times you will drop far away from the closing circle and play catch-up until some camper, with a sniper rifle, spots you running across the cabbages at the farm.
No time to smell the flowers when the Blackout circle is collapsing
The appeal of Blackout comes from the hunt for perfection. After dying, there is an immediate compulsion to get into another match and do it better. Ideally you play with friends or join strangers with healthy teamwork prospects. The hope is to land in an area that has all the good items. Then it would be nice to navigate towards the shrinking circle without being surrounded by foes or caught in the storm’s wake. And once near the finale, a bit of luck might help bring home the win.
Blackout is quite popular. Lobbies typically filled up in a minute or two. Due to the number of players, the netcode was occasionally scratchy. Although comparatively difficult to get a stream of action, there were a few cases of poor hit registration. The jackrabbit movement of players, enhanced with speed consumables, exacerbates the issue. Blackout should remain popular for months, but it puts too much emphasis on waiting, camping, looting, and luck to provide consistent enjoyment.
Lastly, never fear, Zombies is still here. The upside of dropping the campaign is that Zombies is more fleshed out this time. Four quip-laden characters are thrust into zombie scenarios and do their best to survive by killing the undead, buying weapons, and unlocking areas. Like before, the experience is best played in four-player co-op, although solo mode is not bad if you can forgive bots running into deadly traps. As the rounds progress, zombies get faster, tougher, and there are more of them to headshot.
There are three Zombie maps to play and each offers a different feel. Blood of the Dead is a remake of Alcatraz prison from Black Ops 2 and it has some nice music and quite a large area to explore. The other two are new; Voyage of Despair takes place on the Titanic after it is struck by an iceberg, and IX occurs in a coliseum where players fight undead tigers and earn praise from the crowd. All maps are fairly cramped and confusing, and zombies spawn from everywhere. The corridors of the Titanic are narrow but that can be a good thing when you have a horde in pursuit.
I've done my research and I'm 60% sure there weren't many zombies on the Titanic
Like in previous games, obscurity is the aim of the Zombies mode. Objectives are hidden and new players must rely on guides or the generosity of veterans. They can at least benefit from the pros, like being able to acquire a shield if all the pieces have been found. Upgrading weapons is done via pack-a-punch and accessing that is different on each level. In the chaos of zombie attacks, trying to work out what to do is hardly practical. This design mantra is exclusive and it is a shame that these modes did not strive for simpler objectives.
One easily understood part of Zombies is the wonder weapons that players can select before each match. They are powerful offensive tools that can decimate hordes. Players can use a hammer, flamethrower, minigun, or chakrams. The Sceptor of Ra is neat because it kills the undead and revives downed allies. Each weapon charges over time, like the Specialist weapons in multiplayer, and is sometimes worth saving for certain threats. Notwithstanding a few tweaks, Zombies is more of the same, and that is probably a good thing for fans of the mode.
There are sadly a number of random technical issues across all modes. Crashes occurred a bit too frequently. Theater mode did not function properly, either refusing to load a full match, displaying the wrong information, or hanging entirely. Spawns are bad in base multiplayer, particularly in Domination where enemies appeared beside points that were being captured. One player even spawned on their own dogtag in kill confirmed. Framerate dropped in some areas of nearly all modes, like in the middle of the Gridlock map, although not usually to unplayable levels. Numerous UI bugs cropped up, preventing class customization and other functionality. Keybindings were entirely reset after one small patch. Even Zombies got on board with some freezing, disconnection, and map-ownership issues. The game might take another few patches to sort itself out.
If you can drive the RC-XD well, you've already won
Even without a campaign, Black Ops 4 manages to scrape together enough content. That the game brings more tactics, teamwork, and a last-man standing mode is either a sign of maturity or an attempt to stay relevant. Those who have not played the series in years will get the most out of the standard multiplayer and it features two good new modes on fourteen decent maps. Blackout has enormous appeal and the reliable Zombies mode offers obscure tasks and loads of cramped undead killing. As Treyarch fix the niggling issues, Black Ops 4 can be endorsed for its broad multiplayer offering and it should last until the next Call of Duty drops.