Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 could have been a disaster. Battle royale games from rivals came out at a very inconvenient time: during the middle of development of Black Ops 4. Fan expectations changed completely. Activision’s Treyarch studio responded by dropping the Black Ops 4 single-player campaign, tripling the Zombies co-op experience, and adding the Blackout battle royale mode to satisfy the fans heading to Fortnite and PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds. It might have been a rush job.

But the game debuts today on the PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC with a delightfully solid multiplayer experience that will be fun for both veteran Call of Duty fans and battle royale loyalists. Treyarch has pulled off a hat trick, finding a space for Blackout squarely in between the free-to-play craziness of Fortnite and the military sim experience of PUBG. I think Blackout will be huge.

I played all of the pieces of the game, and I love it. I thought I would hate it, as I have been a dedicated player of all of Call of Duty’s single-player campaigns over the last 15 years. And while I still miss the campaign, I can see the fun of Blackout, which does battle royale in Call of Duty’s unique style.

For me, this change was hard, and it required me to open my mind. But Treyarch’s team has captured the thrill of battle royale and made it easy to play for those who are familiar with the action, weapons, and gameplay of Call of Duty. The multiplayer campaign and Zombies mode are also well executed with that familiar heart-pounding Call of Duty action.


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What you’ll like

Wonderful Blackout moments

Blackout is peppered with many tense and funny moments. Crazy things happen, and they break the tension, making you laugh out loud. In Blackout, anywhere from 80 to 100 players will parachute out of choppers onto the largest Call of Duty map ever created. Then they fight until only a lone survivor or single team remains. Like other battle royale games, you are unarmed when you land. You feel naked, feeling that “fear of no gun.” You have to scavenge for weapons as fast as you can. Then you can gear up more and move to stay just inside an ever-shrinking play circle.

I had some great moments when I was playing Blackout in the same group of four people. Like the time we all thought we were lucky when we found a helicopter and all piled into it, even though it was smoking from damage. We flew to the center of the circle and waited in the air to pick off survivors below. But the damage from ground fire and the weight of our crew made it hard to fly, and our pilot crashed, killing all four of us. We laughed it off.

I also was down to a half-dozen survivors in another match. I found a rocket launcher and saw another player moving in front of me. I refrained from shooting, as the player didn’t see me, and I wondered if the player would draw fire from someone else. As I watched that player, someone else came up behind me and took me out. I was aghast that I didn’t get to use my rocket launcher. One time, I fell out of a speed boat, swam to land, and revived a friend who fell out of a lighthouse.

Call of Duty: Black Ops 4's Blackout map.

Above: Call of Duty: Black Ops 4’s Blackout map uses a lot of familiar spaces.

Image Credit: Treyarch

My team of four players got one victory in battle royale. I parachuted into a house and found nothing at first. Then I ran, feeling naked and unarmed, to the next house, where I got a pistol. I joined my colleagues feeling quite under equipped. I ran to a third house, where I got a second pistol. My survival was looking grim, but at least I was with my comrades. After about seven tense moments, I got my real weapons after looting an enemy that my comrade shot.

Against the odds, we moved to the small circle and survived to the end. Four of us and a few others were left in a small circle. My comrade Toby got shot by a sniper while we were both lying in the grass behind a tree. I healed him. Then the sniper shot him again. Without getting up, I crawled to him and healed him again. Then he got shot a third time by the same sniper, and I healed him yet again. Finally, as the circle shrank, our other guys figured out where the sniper was and took him out. We got a sweet victory as all four of us survived. I never saw the sniper. But I was happy to savor my first battle royale victory. I’ve since gotten a couple of more.

Multiplayer sets up duels between Specialists

Each multiplayer match is like a grudge fest between Specialists. You always find that you’ll go head-to-head against another player. You’ll peek around a corner and see an enemy. You could invoke your special ability, like Battery’s grenade launcher, or stay behind cover and heal yourself. If your enemy comes out on the attack as you heal, you might not be able to pull out your weapon in time. The multiplayer experience of Black Ops 4 is just one duel of wits after another.

I found that I could hold my own in early matches with press comrades, but I’ll see how I can do in the general population. In some matches, I did well, getting above a 1.0 kill/death ratio (a measure of how many kills I can get for every death). But in others, I was humiliated. That’s just the way the matches go.

I did OK once I leveled up enough to around 10 or 12. At that point, I was able to level up my light machine gun (LMG) to the point where it had full-metal jacket bullets that could kill with one or two shots. I also stabilized it with a stock and had a basic Reflex gun sight so that I could hit targets from either close range or far away. But I liked how I had to think about the other player in the duel before I took any actions of my own.

The Specialists add variety to the combat

Seraph has a deadly revolver that can kill in one shot.

Above: Seraph has a deadly revolver that can kill in one shot.

Image Credit: Activision

The Specialists have their own back stories and come with special abilities that they can use once or twice in matches. I loved playing as Battery, who can earn a grenade launcher and spray death and terror on the enemy side. Ruin has a grappling hook that can carry him into a third-story window. I actually managed to grapple into a building and shoot the enemy inside it. Nomad can loose an attack dog. Each one of these abilities takes time to master, but if you release it at the right time, it can help turn the tide of a match. Mastering each Specialist could take a long time. 

The maps and modes are plentiful and fun

The multiplayer beta had six playable maps and eight more are available at launch of the game today. I’ve played almost all of them, and I like how you have to pay attention and learn each one. Some have the traditional design of three combat lanes and some sideways paths. Others throw curves at you in their basic design. But you always have to be on the watch for the long lane where you can snipe or fire a light machine gun and take out multiple enemies.

I’m already starting to get used to each map, finding my favorite places to grab cover and ambush rivals. Arsenal takes place in a factory and it has a secret crawl space where you can snipe at those running by. Militia has an unusual design with multiple heights. Hacienda has long corridors, horizontal paths, and two-story perches that will keep you always watching your back. Nuketown, a Black Ops favorite, will return to multiplayer as the 15th map at no charge in November.

In the Hardcore modes, you have to play without a mini map and deal with expert players. With Kill Confirmed, you have to shoot an enemy and recover the person’s dog tags, exposing yourself to fire. With Control and Hardpoint, you have to hold a piece of ground or a building. With Heist, you start with a pistol and work your way up while trying to avoid the ignominy of permadeath. I still love Team Deathmatch for its raw combat.

I can see how these maps and the modes will keep me busy for a long time. After all, everyone will need a break now and then from the intensity of Zombies or the repetition of Blackout.

Zombies times three

I’ve never been able to last long in Zombies. But if you find a group that is patient and directed, you’ll be able to learn and navigate quickly. My group dealt with my frequent deaths, healing me often and giving me advice on how to stay close to others. I learned to play it well enough to enjoy its nuances, like opening doors at just the right time and trying to avoid getting trapped by zombies coming from multiple directions.

You have to find mystery boxes with good guns, tune your potions to help you in the inevitable pinch, and remember to repair your defenses whenever you get a moment of respite between rounds.

The IX story, set in ancient Rome, is a good starting experience. Blood of the Dead, set in Alcatraz prison, is harder, as it’s easy to get mashed into corners and narrow corridors by the zombie horde. And Voyage of Despair aboard the Titanic is hardest of all, as it has so many different places where the zombies can surprise you and trap you. I always wanted to play just one more round and figure out how to survive for just a little while longer.

What you won’t like

The MIA single-player campaign

I have a played the single-player campaign from start to finish in all of the previous Call of Duty games. That means that, since 2003, Activision’s studios trained me in 14 games to play and expect a high-end narrative single-player experience. Not only did these campaigns have interesting heroes, villains, and stories, they also had great moments and dubbed set pieces that showed the craziest things that could happen in a scripted event where the idea was to completely astound the player. If you think about the iconic moments in Call of Duty, many of them happen in the single-player campaign, like when you have to jump off a sinking ship to a hovering helicopter or like when you swing around on a crashing helicopter, smash through a window, and then go right into combat.

To salve the wounds, Treyarch has offered the Solo Missions mode, which focuses on the back stories of the Specialist characters that you play in multiplayer. You can understand these characters better when you play them in multiplayer, but I don’t think this will satisfy anyone who wants a narrative campaign. Multiplayer has no real villain. It’s almost more like an esport, with athletes choosing sides before they spar in a match. It’s not like you’re on a mission to save the world, which is the feeling I got in games like Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare (2007), when my failure to stop the enemy resulted in the detonation of a nuclear bomb in a Middle Eastern city.

I really hope the absence of a single-player campaign is an aberration, because I still believe that six or eight hours of single-player provides you with the backstory and motivation to play 100 hours of multiplayer.

You may never get to the end of Zombies

When I say I miss the campaign, the developers say they are delivering three times as much narrative in Zombies. But you have to remember you may not finish Zombies. You have to team up with three other players of sufficient skill to fight through each round. If you all die, you have to start over. I’m not sure how long it takes to finish each of the three Zombies stories. But the level cap has increased from 255 rounds to 1,024 rounds. I can guarantee you I am not going to see the end of Zombies, and so it’s a false hope to say this narrative is a good replacement for a single-player campaign.

Blackout’s beginning is always the same

Call of Duty: Black Ops 4's Blackout mode.

Above: Call of Duty: Black Ops 4’s Blackout mode.

Image Credit: Activision

You can tell that Treyarch has been under the gun to get the game out in some ways. For instance, you see the exact same cutscene cinematic every time you start Blackout. For god’s sake, it’s a cinematic opportunity. If they had time, they could cycle through a half-dozen different cutscenes to keep players engaged. If I ever get bored of Blackout (and I haven’t yet), it will because I’ve seen this opening cinematic about 2,000 times.

This is a kind of warning to Treyarch and Activision. They need to follow up with more variety. Fortnite and PUBG have a big headstart on providing a diversity of experience for players. PUBG has multiple maps and much bigger ones, followed by a relatively small Fortnite map and an (estimated) even smaller one for Blackout. Treyarch’s journey on churning out content for its battle royale mode has only begun.

Conclusion

Above: Dean Takahashi’s Call of Duty: Black Ops I, II, and III stats.

Image Credit: Activision

You can see from the stats above (you can get yours here) how many hours I’ve put into the three previous Call of Duty: Black Ops games alone. I’m not a great shot. I’ll grant you that. But I’m a dedicated Call of Duty player who has provided many other Call of Duty players with a good target. And so this Black Ops 4 is a very important game to me.

I was predisposed to hate this Call of Duty. It had no new story, no single-player campaign, no compelling villains, and it doubled down on the things that I didn’t play. I was going to pout about the loss of over-the-top “set piece” action scenes.

But it turned out that Blackout is so fun that it could be a game unto itself, complete with set pieces that the players themselves create, either through bloopers in my case or amazing expert gameplay by others. It might take you 30 matches to become proficient at it. Multiplayer delivers as usual on fast and satisfying action, and I am inclined to give the Zombies experience a try. I think that Blackout represents a threat to PUBG and the rival upcoming Battlefield V. Fortnite is probably OK, but much of the battle royale fan base may migrate to Black Ops 4.

I enjoy the Call of Duty experience, from the feel of the weapons to the fast-action gameplay that throws you into the action. Call of Duty works best when it throws a diversity of experiences at you. The multiplayer game accomplishes this with the constant duels between the Specialists. The Zombies experience will keep you trying to survive for just one more round. And Blackout could provide an endless set of crazy and fun experiences.

I hope that Treyarch and Activision see this as a new jumping off point, with frequent updates to add new experiences and maps to Blackout and the other modes. But we’ll see just how much the Call of Duty community appreciates what Treyarch has done.

[Update] In my review score, I waited until I played the game thoroughly on live servers, and it played up to expectations. I docked the game for a lack of single player, but I gave it points for a superb Blackout experience. In previous reviews, I scored Call of Duty: WWII at 94, Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare at 93, Call of Duty: Black Ops III at 92, Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare at 86, Call of Duty: Ghosts at 80, Call of Duty: Black Ops II at 89, and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 at 90.

Score: 90/100

Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 comes out on October 12 for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and the Windows PC. The publisher sent us a copy of the game for this review.

[Updated 8:47 pm 10/15/18 with final review score].