Game development studio Treyarch is taking a lot of risks with this year’s multiplayer-only Call of Duty: Black Ops 4. And in my opinion, not all of the choices are good ones. That makes me nervous, as I’ve always been a big Call of Duty fan. I’ve liked Call of Duty every year, even when fans say the franchise has had off years.
For years, Treyarch’s studio has delivered the most popular Call of Duty games with the Black Ops franchise, which has been played by more than 200 million players to date. I have been one of Treyarch’s biggest fans. Its single-player campaigns have stood out for their originality, memorable villains, and action set pieces. But Black Ops 4 won’t have a single-player campaign. And that ticks me off.
I understand why the Treyarch, one of three major Call of Duty studios owned by Activision, made the move. The company didn’t come out and say it, but it was about trade-offs. The single-player campaign probably wasn’t coming together well, and the team had to pivot and create the Blackout map to deal with the competitive threat of the Fortnite and PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds battle royale games. Treyarch shifted resources from single player to battle royale, and it also tripled down on its Call of Duty Zombies experience.
“I would say that our commitment to story is still there, but just in different ways. For us, in terms of multiplayer now, building out the multiplayer universe we thought was a really great opportunity for us,” said Rob Kostich, executive vice president and general manager of Call of Duty at Activision, in an interview. “This is a mode that people play for months and years on end. Giving people a better way to connect to this universe made a lot of sense, having backstory there. When you play the solo experience within multiplayer, it’s going to teach you how to play those characters and understand their abilities really well. It’ll also give you a lot of their backstory, so you’ll have a better connection to them than you’ve ever had.”
I don’t really buy that explanation. To me, the single-player campaign is the heart of the game. It is the reason that I stay engaged with Call of Duty, with its emotional messages about sacrifice, loyalty, and betrayal. Black Ops II had a memorable villain in Raul Menendez, an evil man who nearly triggered a war between the U.S. and China. I remember action set pieces like in the original Black Ops, where you rappel from a helicopter, it gets hit by a rocket, and then you are swung through a glass window as the chopper goes down. From there, you’re constantly fighting. And it made me think, “This is Call of Duty. Of course, you don’t just slide down a rope.”
Treyarch decided to cut these moments when it cut the single-player narrative. For sure, many players never crack open the single-player experience and go straight to multiplayer. But to me, this decision suggests that something was going wrong with development on the three-year schedule. And the notion that Call of Duty games are getting so complex that the teams can’t fully build them in three years — well, that’s downright scary to me. Kostich offered his reassurance to me that the overall development strategy of having three studios rotate the franchise is still working. But I’m worried.
By cutting single player, Treyarch was able to add its Blackout map, which is 1,500 times the size of the Nuketown multiplayer map, and bring the Call of Duty style of play to battle royale. We’ll get to experience little bits of solo stories attached to the specialists, but I can’t say that gets me very excited about narrative impact.
Treyarch’s choices give Electronic Arts and its Battlefield V game — which CEO Andrew Wilson said has a single-player campaign — a wonderful chance to steal some market share from Call of Duty this year. Battlefield will offer its usual large-scale multiplayer, single player, and I would guess battle royale too.
As for Zombies, I’m not as excited about getting the extra modes that Treyarch added because they’re so crazy. The Zombies team has always expressed the most creativity in the franchise, because players like the goofy off-topic nature of the Zombies stories and settings. But this time, they’re even more weird.
For starters, the characters in the Zombies Roman (dubbed IX) and Titanic settings are different from the ones that you see in the Black Ops 4 multiplayer. These things have nothing to do with each other. Last year, developer Sledgehammer’s Zombies theme fit the Call of Duty: World War II storyline quite well.
This year, you’ll fight to the death in the Roman Coliseum against a horde of zombies, using what only appear to be melee weapons. It’s as if that crazy idea of Call of Duty: Roman Wars was realized after all. I think this is really a stretch to say this gladiator combat belongs in a Call of Duty game.
The Titanic Zombies story, dubbed Voyage of Despair, was also quite disconnected from the Black Ops 4 multiplayer, as you were confined to older weaponry in that experience. Sure, time travel could make for a nice story, but it means that the parts of the game are more disconnected than ever. I want my Call of Duty game to feel like a single experience spread across many variations. I don’t want my Call of Duty to be a series of disconnected pieces, cobbled together as one.
I’m not entirely grumpy about this. I played Black Ops 4 multiplayer for nearly two hours yesterday, and I was quite happy with it. I couldn’t run on walls or do thrust jumps to the top of buildings, as I could in previous sci-fi Call of Duty games. Grenades exploded less frequently, as access to grenades is on a cool-down feature.
But I think those changes worked well in service of forcing more emphasis on a specialist teamwork and accurate shooting. Now you have to pause and take time to heal yourself before you throw yourself back into action. The pacing is slower. You are fighting on the ground, and you can put barricades and wire in the way of rivals, as you can in Rainbow Six Siege. Multiplayer combat is solid with Black Ops 4, and hopefully everything in the rest of the game will benefit from that.
But I’m worried and skeptical, and I would really like to see Treyarch execute on everything it promised here. Kostich promised we’ll see single-player campaigns in the future, but just not this year. I want a full Call of Duty game. And I figure 200 million other fans might be thinking the same thing.