Rule number one of managing a videogame franchise: The bigger you are, the safer you play it. For as much as you’ve got an audience to satisfy, you’ve got an audience alienate.
Call of Duty, however, has shown an admirable tendency over its many years to develop new ideas of its own or absorb those that have worked for others. While it always remains true to its action-shooter framework, nuances of game modes, pacing, setting and narrative have changed dramatically over time.
Black Ops 4 is perhaps the biggest alteration of course the franchise has seen for many years. The traditional single player campaign is gone, a ‘battle royale’ mode is in, inspired by the phenomenal success of Fortnite, and there’s a new emphasis within its competitive modes to encourage much greater levels of co-operation, teamwork and to draw out a stronger sense of narrative within each match.
There are three main pillars this time out: competitive multiplayer, Zombies and battle royale. Let’s start with the latter and most interesting of the three.
The battle royale mode, dubbed Blackout’, is being kept away from our hands for now, but hints and assurances as to its direction and content are plentiful. The map itself remains hidden for now, but it is described as being over 1500 times the size of the fan favourite Nuketown map seen in the original Black Ops in 2010.
Sections of the map are inspired by locations seen in previous Call of Duty games, although how they’re all sewn together is unknown. Whether these locations are to be taken wholesale, and thus give the Black Ops players with the best memories a headstart, or whether they are being used solely as inspiration for new level designs is not yet known.
Gadgets from the series are also being bundled into Blackout, although a full list of which have made the cut is presently being withheld. The exploding RC Car is definitely in, though, and could make for sure interesting tactical decisions depending on how far (and/or for how long) you’re able to drive it away from your avatar’s location.
You can play as characters who have appeared in both Black Ops’ single player campaigns and its Zombies offerings, although whether or not your choice impacts your abilities and gameplay options is unclear.
Vehicles will also be making an appearance, allowing you to travel across land and sea as well as through the air. Again, though, no specifics other than Treyarch telling me that inspiration for vehicles has been taken from previous Black Ops campaigns.
In all, Blackout is Black Ops 4’s most intriguing mode. It’s a bold step for a franchise that has hitherto tried to focus its players on team-based matchups in precisely controlled, small(ish) environments.
The speed of Call of Duty’s movement will make for interesting playing within the expanse of a battle royale setup and, should, help it stand apart from genre behemoths Fortnite and PUBG.
Black Ops as a series has tended towards comic book-esque excess at times, which should work in Blackout’s favour in regards to potential diversity and providing a steady stream of unique encounters.
Pleasingly, the terrible design choice that was the introduction of wall-running and thrust jumping in Black Ops 3 has been rolled back. ‘Boots on the ground’ is one of the many taglines being thrown about amongst the game’s promotional stream and I couldn’t be happier about it.
Call of Duty is best when it innovates on the core sensations and ideas that saw it develop such a fervent fan base, and entirely rewriting the movement rulebook doesn’t fit that agenda.
Black Ops 4 multiplayer is all about how well and how creatively you can employ, as a team, its suite of soldier abilities and weapons across each map. Movement is back to being what we know and that allows you to focus more keenly on best practises and tactics elsewhere.
As part of your loadout you now select a ‘Specialist’, each of which has abilities unique to them. Ajax, for instance, can launch a dart that, within a small area of effect, reveals enemies on the mini-map. Seraph can deploy a beacon that gives allies the option of respawning onto it (great for capture-based game modes such as Domination), and Ruin has a grapple gun that can be used to scale high buildings.
The best way to play is to incorporate each of the skillsets together. Respawn on Seraph’s beacon as Ruin, for instance, and you can immediately grapple your way into an unusual and dangerous position and catch the enemy off-guard.
If you’ve got a Ajax and a well positioned dart in the same area, then all the better for choosing where to grapple to.
This freedom of interaction between players is mimicked on the solo end, too. Your health no longer regenerates, instead you need to manually heal yourself using a tool assigned to the PS4’s pad L1 button by default.
It might sound like a small change, but the effect is quite dramatic. You could choose to continue rushing an injured enemy even if you’re hurt yourself, risking death for the quick kill. Alternatively, you could hang back and try to heal yourself – but here you’re risking being rushed yourself or your enemy healing up.
The change in how healing operates is a great example of Black Ops 4 iterating well-known, staple mechanics in a way that has a marked affect on the wider experience. Having played for an hour I can say that the healing change is a positive one for now, but – obviously – more time is needed before an ultimate decision on its merits can be made.
The main gameplay focus of the returning Zombies mode is to promote personal customisation. Difficulty level choices have been reintroduced, allowing you to decide just what kind of a challenge you want. If you’re a veteran you likely want to jump straight in at the deep end, whereas newcomers would do well to take things slower.
Additionally, a suite of modifiers can be tweaked to your liking. Supposedly there are going to be 100 such options on day one of release, including your altering health allowance, how much damage you and the zombies are capable of inflicting and how fast enemies move.
Setting up a custom match, completing it and setting a score before sending it to a rival team feels like the order of the day. It’s a smart move from Treyarch to put so much control in the players hands as it allows considerable curation for what is otherwise Black Ops 4’s most directed game mode. Player freedom is, after all, the order of the day in video games today.
The Call of Duty community is voracious enough that favoured Zombie setups will be shared and promoted, the player base essentially performing the final tweaks of level design and allowing the mode to stay relevant as trends change.
Zombies is perhaps the least interesting of the three game modes given Blackout’s freshness within the realm of Call of Duty and multiplayer’s worthwhile tweaks. However, it’s different enough from its stablemates that it warrants a seat at the table and should act to break up the wider Black Ops 4 offering.