Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 Review
I won't be starting off my review of Black Ops 4 as I usually do when reviewing a Call of Duty game because I always start off with a look at the single player campaign and if you haven't heard by now there is no campaign in Black Ops 4. This doesn't necessarily mean that we've seen the last Call of Duty campaign in World War II and its absence in Black Ops 4 is by no means a knock against the game - Black Ops 4 was designed from the beginning to be a multiplayer experience - so I'll just leave it to you to decide how important the lack of a campaign is to you.
The absence of a campaign doesn't mean that you can't play Black Ops 4 at all as a single player, though. First of all, you can play the game's multiplayer and Zombies modes on your own by filling in all of the other player slots with bots - there's no way to play bot battle royale in the game's Blackout mode, though. There is also a Specialist HQ mode in the game designed to introduce you to the multiplayer mode's player classes and game types. This mode includes cutscenes that introduce the backstory for each specialist and tells the story of how they all came together. The storytelling here is definitely on the light side and there will be no mistaking it for a campaign, but it does contribute a bit to the Black Ops series lore. As you play each specialist in turn, you'll receive a video introduction to their special weapons, a tutorial walkthrough that will teach you how to deploy and use those weapons, and then play a multiplayer match as that specialist with bots. This is a good way for those new to Call of Duty to get a feel for the game modes or to let you try out some of the specialists without having to learn under fire from veteran players. You won't level up by playing the multiplayer modes in Specialist HQ, though, so you'll eventually have to jump into the fray as a level one player. There are three difficulty levels for each specialist match that control the quality of the bot AI. Anyone who's played multiplayer shooters before shouldn't have too much trouble with the easiest difficulty level.
While there's no campaign in the game, Black Ops 4 does have more stories to tell through its Zombies mode, or rather modes because the game includes three Zombies maps: Blood of the Dead, Voyage of Despair, and IX. Each map has an opening cutscene associated with it to establish the story background, and the rest of the story is conveyed through the dialog of the characters as you play through the map. Blood of the Dead is a modern re-imagining of the Mob of the Dead map from Black Ops 2, and features the series' favorite foe, zombie Nazis. The map is set in Alcatraz Prison making it a claustrophobic map of cellblock hallways. Voyage of Despair is set on the Titanic moments after it strikes the iceberg, forcing you to face zombie passengers within the confines of a ship which leads to a long but skinny map with stacked levels. IX is set in a gladiatorial arena where you're the entertainment for a strange audience of mask-wearing spectators. You'll be able to move beyond the arena to a series of rooms and other areas around the stadium. A fourth bonus map will be available to season pass subscribers shortly after launch, Classified, which is a remake of the map from the original Black Ops. This map is set in the Pentagon during the Cold War, and features several larger open areas connected by a series of halls and tunnels. I don't want to get into details of any of these maps beyond this, though, because discovering things for yourself is a big part of the Zombies experience.
If you're new to Zombies there's a tutorial mode that will cover all the basics of this mode - zombie waves, weapons, doorways, etc. - and for those who have played before an advanced tutorial will give you a quick intro to some of the new features. These new features include a customized perk loadout that can be activated at special statues scattered through the levels, lethals that recharge after use, and a super attack that gives you limited use of a powerful weapon. You can customize all of these in loadouts, and select a loadout for your character before jumping into the game. Matches of Zombies can be made public or private, but to be really successful you'll need to be teamed up with players who work together well and communicate with each other. You can play on your own with a team of bots who are surprisingly good at playing the game, but since they're autonomous you won't get the level of cooperation from them that you do with human teammates. Unlike the other modes, playing with bots still yields experience and you can level up your character as you learn the game before joining up with other players if you'd like.
Black Ops 4 introduces a new way to play Zombies, Rush mode. Rush mode can be thought of as a competitive co-op mode. You're still all working together to kill zombies, but you're trying to kill the most zombies yourself. It's best to know the maps at least a bit when playing this mode, because the zombies will spawn in waves at map locations called out at random and being first to the zombies is an advantage. On the other hand, you can get a look at the maps' layouts in this mode because they're pretty open without the need to unlock the barriers you'll find in the regular mode. Further adding to the competitive mix are bonus multipliers and points coins that spawn periodically and always lead to a chaotic cash grab among the players. Rush mode is a fun way to focus on the zombies and not worry about advancing a story, especially when you're playing with friends.
With the inclusion of three maps, Zombies mode has evolved from a mod that served as a fun little diversion to a full-fledged major part of the game in Black Ops 4. In the past couple of iterations, the maps in Zombies mode were becoming more and more complex, and as a result a little less accessible to casual players. In Black Ops 4 the Zombie maps feel like they've struck a good balance between accessibility and challenge, and I think that both Zombies veterans and those new to the mode are going to have a great time with it.
As for the traditional multiplayer mode, it feels like a refinement of the multiplayer mode in Black Ops 3 rather than a complete overhaul. There are three big changes to the gameplay in Black Ops 4 that have an impact on the flow of the gameplay, though. First is that the boost moves have been removed from the game. This is a "boots on the ground" multiplayer experience that tones down some of the twitch gameplay that dominated in the recent future timeline Call of Duty games. The second big change is a new Fog of War feature that reduces how much of the map you can see on radar and limits enemy locations marked on the radar to those who can be seen by you or your teammates. Lastly, health no longer auto-generates after you take damage. Every specialist comes equipped with a first aid hypodermic which must be applied manually using the left bumper trigger. Applying the shot requires putting your weapon aside for a moment, so you'll be vulnerable while healing. You'll need to be strategic when deciding whether or not to press an attack or take cover for a moment to heal yourself. The first aid has a cooldown timer tied to its use, and while the cooldown time is relatively short, it's long enough that you won't be able to spam heal yourself. These three changes alone affect the gameplay enough that Black Ops 4 feels more tactical than and not quite as fast-paced as Black Ops 3, and I like these changes.
While your choice of specialist determines your special lethal and weapon, you're free to customize your gear and organize it into different loadouts. The game uses the Pick 10 system used in other Black Ops games that give you a choice of weapons, attachments, gear, and perks. You can pick whatever you want as long as you've unlocked the item and you pick no more than ten of them (there are some limits on the number of a particular item that you can pick, though, such as weapon attachments and perks).
As for the game modes, Black Ops 4 offers two new ones. The first is Control. This has two teams charged with either defending or attempting to capture two zones on the map in alternating rounds. Each team has a limited number of respawns available, so either side can win a round by eliminating the other team. The second new mode is Heist. Heist is played in rounds in which two teams compete to grab a bag of cash and deliver it to an extraction point. Respawns aren't available at all in this mode, so a team can win a round by eliminating the other team as well. Heist also has its own unique set of game rules. The first is that specialist powers are disabled. Second, the health system has been modified so that you no longer have unlimited self-heals available - you'll need to find a health pack and use that when your health is low instead. Ammunition is also very limited and must be collected from packs as well. Finally, every player begins the first round of the match armed with just a pistol. Between rounds you'll earn cash that can be spent to improve your loadout for the next round. You can choose to spend the money on a new weapon, a perk, an attachment, extra ammo, basically on anything you can make a part of your loadout in the other modes. Both of these new modes are enjoyable and provide for a variety of tactical approaches. I especially enjoy Heist, as it's in some ways a team-based variant of Gun Game.
Other modes in the multiplayer mode include the kill everyone modes of Free-for-all, Team Deathmatch, and Kill Confirmed, and the objective-based Search and Destroy (plant or disarm bombs), Domination (capture and hold three points), and Hardpoint (earn points for controlling the hardpoint which periodically moves around the map. These have all appeared in Call of Duty games before and you probably already have your favorites - mine are Kill Confirmed and Hardpoint. A couple of modes are missing from Black Ops 4, though, Capture the Flag and Gridiron. Personally I never played much Capture the Flag, but I know it has its fans being such a multiplayer shooter staple. I do miss Gridiron, though. It was a wild and playful mode that was a decided change of pace from the others. I should also note that there is no equivalent to World War II's war mode here, so Black Ops 4 doesn't have a mutli-tiered, objective-based gameplay mode. Overall there is a good collection of mode types in the game, but I was hoping to see a few more given that Black Ops 4 is designed to be a pure multiplayer game.
On the other hand, Black Ops 4 does deliver a large number of maps at launch, fourteen, with a fifteenth, Nuketown, to be added to the game for free. Four of these maps are remakes of classic Black Ops maps, Summit, Slums, Jungle, and Firing Range, so if you've been with Black Ops for a while you'll get to experience a bit of nostalgia in Black Ops 4. The maps provide for a good variety of open areas and closed quarters, and most stick to the tried and true three lane design.
If Black Ops 4 has a marquee mode, it's the new Blackout mode in which Call of Duty creates its own unique battle royale mode. Up to 88 players enter the game armed with nothing but their fists and battle it out to be the last one standing. Weapons, ammunition, lethals, health packs, and everything else that you might want to equip yourself with must be scavenged from the map or the bodies of dead players. The Blackout map is enormous, each of the numerous locations within the map would on their own each be larger than any map seen in a Call of Duty game to date, and they're all connected by a wilderness that features a variety of terrain and biomes and a large river running through it. When the mode begins all players enter the map on board helicopters and it's up to you when you want to bail out and parachute down to the map. The named locations have the most loot, but they will also attract the most players, so you'll need to decide whether you want to risk a lot of early encounters or try to lay low at first and let the others cull the herd. Early on a circular shroud will appear on the map and will collapse towards its center at periodic intervals. If you get caught outside the perimeter for too long you'll begin to quickly lose health until you either make it to safety or die trying. If at least two players manage to stay alive, the circle will collapse to a singularity, something that I saw happen in one match I played in which the winner of the match survived long enough to watch the circle put the squeeze on their character.
There are some surprises waiting for you on this massive map, and I don't think I will spoil anything for you at this point by mentioning that two of them are vehicles and zombies. While you can't drive every bus or car you see on the map, you will be able to find trucks, ATVs, and helicopters that you can man and load up with other players. None of these vehicles are armed, but you can make things miserable for other players with allies firing out the sides of a chopper as long as you keep your eye out for missile launches. Zombies inhabit certain parts of the map, and for the most part they won't give you too much trouble unless you actively seek them out. Why would you do that? Because the zombies guard the best weapons you'll be able to find in Blackout. Fighting zombies is risky both in terms of death and time, but the rewards can make taking your chances well worth it.
There are three ways to play Blackout, quads, duos, or singles, which determines whether you play in a team of four or two players, or solo in a complete free-for-all. With the team-based versions a team is not eliminated until its last player is, so it's possible for you to be eliminated at the very beginning because you couldn't find a gun but still end up with a win credited to your record. Effective squad play requires good communication, and when you have it Blackout feels more like a tactical game than other battle royale games. Your team can set-up a defensive position, with each person responsible for covering an approach, or you can use distract and flank tactics to try an eliminate another squad. Team coordination is enhanced with map markers and a compass at the top of the screen that let you coordinate your movements and call out enemy locations. The tactical choices ae nearly endless, and you can certainly employ real-world squad tactics within Blackout. Another advantage of the squad-based modes is that players have a short window in which they can revive downed squadmates which means you can be down but not out in this battle royale game. When playing squads I found that the two-player team size worked a little better for me because it was easier to coordinate your actions and watch each other's back, and there were plenty of times in quads when we lost a couple of players early on and were effectively reduced to a duo. This was certainly at least partly due to the fact that my squad was going through a learning phase while playing Blackout, and in the long run I can see quads becoming very competitive among the squads that work well with each other. And while there's been no official announcement about it at this time, I'd love to see quads become a competitive mode in the Call of Duty World League.
The solo experience is also quite good, but it has a different feel to it. When you're on your own there's no one around to watch your back, so it's in many ways a tenser experience. You can think that you're safe, only to be dropped with no warning from somewhere from behind and without the benefit of having someone there to revive you.
The thing that I find more enjoyable about Blackout than other battle royale games out there is that it's built on Call of Duty. You get the weapons, gunplay, and responsive controls that you've come to expect from the series, so Blackout really is a full Call of Duty multiplayer game mode and not a case of yet another game slapping on a battle royale mode to be a part of the craze. While you don't get the weapon and perk unlocks associated with leveling up as you do in the other game modes, there is a leveling system in Blackout that will give you bragging rights and let you unlock additional skinsyou're your soldier. Leveling isn't easy because you don't earn points for just showing up, they come from kills and top 15 finishes. Trying to hide all game and finishing 20th without getting a kill will get you nowhere.
I had early access to the game including time with the Blackout mode, but I wanted to wait until the servers were up and running for a bit before posting this review. Nothing ruins a battle royale mode than endless downtime between matches. I'm happy to say that the Black Ops 4 servers seem to be up to the task of getting you back into another game quickly. Once you're assigned to a game you'll be sent to a staging area which is the entire Blackout map itself until the player count reaches 88. There you can run around exploring the map, try out guns, or just screw around with the other players who are waiting. Since launch I barely had time to do any of that in a lobby, though. After touching down the thirty second countdown timer to launch started almost immediately nearly every time.
Black Ops 4 set out to be a multiplayer experience and it succeeded in delivering on that goal. The game's menus are streamlined to get you into matches quickly, and you'll spend very little time waiting around in game lobbies. Although I miss the single player campaign, Zombies provides story-based gameplay for those who prefer to have a reason to be doing so much killing. I would have liked to see more game modes in the multiplayer mode given the game's multiplayer focus, and the absence of any of the casual alternative modes like Gun Game is surprising. The game does provide some additional variety in terms of the number of maps available at launch, which is welcome. The Blackout mode is excellent, the synergy of Call of Duty gunplay and battle royale gameplay instantly make Black Ops 4 a standout in this gaming genre.
Final Rating: 88% - Black Ops does battle royale with the best of them.