The sheer strength and staying power of the Call of Duty mega franchise is almost mythical at this point, to the extent that if the nuclear bombs drop there’ll probably be mutant cockroaches that survive the fallout playing the game somewhere. It’s a franchise that is near and dear to my heart, and really lit the fire of my passion for online adversarial multiplayer in general. So every year I look forward to a new entry that gives my alter ego IV_XX_YeetNoScopez_LXIX a chance to be freed from his cage. This year it’s Treyarch’s turn to stay frosty out there, so how does Black Ops IIII (sic) stack up?
This shield partially protects me from the Call of Duty community
In a bold decision, BO4 contains no single-player campaign (a move that was considered the death knell for Titanfall and EA’s Star Wars Battlefront), but it is still a strong three-pronged attack. Apart from the core Multiplayer offering, there is also a flavour-of-the-month fedora tip in the form of battle royale mode Blackout, and the obligatory Zombies mode. Each of these modes is incredibly strong on its own merit, and all in all makes for quite a dense and value-rich package, going a long way to remove the sting of a lack of a campaign. It’s worth nothing that there is some single-player content in the form of individual Specialist stories which serve as a prequel to Black Ops 3, but they are essentially painfully boring and drawn-out tutorials that should be avoided with extreme prejudice.
The announcement that the Call of Duty franchise would be throwing its sizeable hat into the battle royale ring was met with more than a few eye rolls, and to be honest I don’t find the genre overwhelmingly appealing in general. However, after spending a swag of hours with Blackout, I feel myself coming around, and really it’s an incredibly smart move to include it. If you’ve ever played Player Unknown’s Battleground, you will know exactly what you’re in for; this is an epic copypasta on every level. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and while it’s not afraid to copy absolutely everything from its rival, it is also a far more polished experience on console, which places it in an excellent position in a genre that is extremely popular right now.
The large map is a love letter to the Black Ops universe, containing multiple biomes inspired by Black Ops maps of yore. From Nuketown to Estate and everywhere in between, it’s a lot like taking a weaponised stroll down memory lane. Given the size of the map and the huge number of players, the environment doesn’t look fantastic running on a vanilla PS4, with some fairly plain textures and lighting, but it clips along fairly well at a minimum of 30fps and certainly outshines the performance and visual fidelity of PUBG on Xbox One.
While it’s an unashamed PUBG clone, there is an added wrinkle in the gameplay in that certain areas contain zombies which drop incredibly powerful weapons, such as the alien Ray Gun or the minigun Zweihander. The zombies spawn in set areas on the maps which are naturally hotly contested by other players, and it’s a great way of adding some PvE elements which ratchet up the tension and feed into the risk versus reward which is so strong in this genre.
The paranoia-inducing tense gameplay is brilliant, and I don’t think I’ve ever had a stronger Mom’s spaghetti feeling than when I closed in on my first chicken dinner. I also have some treasured memories of hiding out in toilets with friends and getting the drop on some very surprised looters, but I think the game would benefit from including a bit more incentive to keep playing. Call of Duty is a franchise that has honed its recipe for carrot on a stick over fifteen years, but I find the Blackout progression a bit lacklustre. You can unlock new characters by levelling up or completing challenges, but I was surprised to see a lack of general cosmetic options. The strength of the game might be enough to keep you hooked, but if you were wanting to play Barbie with your shooty gun man then you’ll be disappointed. I’m almost positive that skins and such will be introduced at a later point, no doubt coinciding with the inevitable introduction of microtransactions. Activision gotta eat y’all.
Camping is not frowned upon in Blackout, it is celebrated
Just waiting for a mate
The paranoia-inducing tense gameplay is brilliant, and I don’t think I’ve ever had a stronger Mom’s spaghetti feeling than when I closed in on my first chicken dinner
The dedicated Zombies mode is deeper than ever, and while it doesn’t exactly set my world on fire, it’s definitely more varied than previous iterations. The mode at launch features three full maps densely packed with Easter eggs and secret objectives, which is impressive given that Zombies maps typically tend to get drip-fed to the masses via DLC. Each map has a completely different vibe and set of four characters to muck around with. There’s the Roman coliseum inspired map IX (now they know how to use Roman numerals?), a fight to escape the tight confines of the Titanic in The Voyage of Despair, as well as a reimagining of a Black Ops II classic in the form of Blood of the Dead. As is now tradition, the Zombies mode has its own completely separate progression system, and it’s deep enough that if Zombies is your jam, you’ve got plenty to keep you playing. It’s a bit galling that a fourth map is locked behind a paywall (it is only available with the Season Pass), but you didn’t think you were going to escape an Activision game without them trying to squeeze you for a little more, did you?
Romans know exactly how to deal with zombies, just read the Bible
Zombies and Blackout are all fine and dandy, but what about the beating heart of the Call of Duty experience? BO4’s multiplayer again favours iteration over innovation, but a few subtle changes end up having quite a substantial impact, and it is easily one of my favourite multiplayer experiences since Modern Warfare 3. The biggest change is the increase in player health, which drastically increases the time to kill. This reinvigorates the battles and goes a long way to decompressing the skill gap that was so tight it was in danger of creating diamonds. While it’s still quick, you’re no longer melting in the blink of an eye, and when you start taking a hit from someone who has the drop on you, you’ve got enough time to reassess and outmanoeuvre if you’ve got good reflexes. There are also health bars over the enemy’s head, giving you handy visible feedback.
Another subtle change is the way in which kills are doled out, and now anyone who does damage to an opponent will share the score for the kill. This fosters a sense of camaraderie and means it’s not quite as difficult to earn scorestreaks. It also means that decent kill/death ratios are easier to foster, which any Call of Duty fan worth their salt is bound to appreciate.
Apart from the classic modes like Team Deathmatch, Kill Confirmed and Domination there are two new modes in the form of Control and Heist. The former is an asymmetric mode in which enemy teams take turns trying to capture or defend two points on the map with limited respawns, and the latter is also a limited respawn mode where players attempt to grab a bag of cash and extract it for fun and profit. Heist is the stronger of the two new offerings, featuring Counterstrike-inspired shopping between rounds for guns, perks and even scorestreaks. It’s easy to see this mode fitting in nicely in the esports scene.
While I love the increased health, it does tend to favour the assault rifles and you don’t generally see too many people rushing with SMGs at the moment. Treyarch have also managed to completely ruin dropshotting, as when you go prone while shooting you are pulled out of ADS (Aim Down Sights for those playing at home). This makes the SMG rush tactic even harder still (although you can try pure hipfire), and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t miss it. But the neutering of dropshotting pales in comparison to the injustices done in the shotgun department, but given the increased health pool it probably had to happen. Shotguns have been relegated to the lowly class of secondary weapon, and may as well shoot fluffy kittens for all the good they do. Even fully kitted out the shotguns fail to feel viable in terms of damage or range. It’s testament to the strength of the multiplayer that I’m willing to overlook these egregious crimes.
Death from above
Fan-favourite map Summit makes a return
Also on the negative side of things, the same issue with networking that has plagued Call of Duty for time immemorial persists. While exact networking details are shrouded in secrecy, Call of Duty games feature a hybrid of P2P and dedicated servers. The former is apparently relied upon in the absence of dedicated servers, but it’s impossible to tell which one is being used at any one point. While matches are generally smooth, expect to experience patches of game-breaking lag, spotty hit detection, odd kill cams and even a host migration or two (which is direct evidence of P2P being used). There is actually a live ping tracker (a strong step in the right direction), but it’s weirdly hidden and could easily be missed. It’s also super inconvenient to consult the ping tracker mid-match. Why not just have it front and centre when you look at the scoreboard? Issues with connectivity and a lack of transparency is a persistent issue with this franchise, and I do wonder if I’ll see something more convincing in my lifetime. Perhaps my children will one day be able to benefit from better netcode in a Call of Duty game.
The lack of a single-player campaign does little to tarnish Black Ops IIII, which given the strength of its three varied modes is still an incredible amount of value. Blackout does an excellent job of directly copying its contemporaries while being objectively better than them, Zombies is Zombies, and the multiplayer is some of the strongest the series has seen in many years thanks to some meaningful changes that have genuine impact without rocking the boat too much. I’ll see you back here next year, where we see if Infinity Ward can keep the good feeling going.
Reviewed on PlayStation 4| Review code supplied by publisher