Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 review: Black Magic

Treyarch manages to take steps back and steps forward in crafting an overall better Call of Duty experience. Our review.

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There was a point where the Black Ops world of Call of Duty looked like it was going to be confined to a trilogy. But when Treyarch was called upon to put together one of the most ambitious entries in the long-running Call of Duty franchise, it was time to return to that Black Ops setting one more time.

There's not so much a story this time around, since there is no single-player campaign. But that ultimately proves to be for the best, because what is available in Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 proves to be some of Treyarch's best work to date.

The Specialists Return

The first thing to note about Black Ops 4's multiplayer is that it manages to slow down without compromising the overall pace. Jetpacks and wall-running are out the window. However, the core principles of Call of Duty maneuvering, as well as old standbys like sliding, remain in place. There isn't so much of a focus on parkour and trick platforming, as there is on simply completing objectives and taking out other players. That's Call of Duty like it used to be, but it also feels faster than the WWII era, which makes it feel like the best of both worlds.

One of the defining elements of Black Ops 3 makes it return to multiplayer. Black Ops 4 sees the return of the Specialists, some making their return, while a few others are brand new to the series. Like in Black Ops 3, each of these characters bring in their own distinct Specialist abilities, with a new secondary ability also being added. As was the case in the previous Black Ops game, it works to help make this particular Call of Duty game feel more like a class-based shooter, with team layouts and character makeups mattering more than ever.

But also like in Black Ops 3, what doesn't work so well is that Specialists are implemented at the expense of player expression. As much as I like the individual Specialist characters, the Create-A-Soldier feature is greatly missed and it also removes a favorite incentive of leveling up: cosmetic attire. Worse yet, there are some multiplayer modes where the Specialist abilities aren't even allowed, making their presence feel superfluous. The game does attempt to make up for this with custom emblems, decals, and the new Signature Weapons system that allows players to express themselves via their weapon of choice. But it would have been nice to craft a custom soldier, something more visible than the weapon that's about to shoot me in the face, either here or in Blackout. (Be patient. I'll get to Blackout shortly.)

One of those modes is Black Ops 4's newest round-based multiplayer modes: Heist. The objective here is to find a bag of money and take it to an extraction point. Heist operates on many of the principles of similar shooters like Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, with the idea that all players start off with pistols and earn money over the course of the game to put towards something better. That something better doesn't necessarily have to be weapons, either. If players are proficient with pistols, they can put their money towards body armor, perks, or scorestreaks. Heist is an interesting twist on this formula, but one that feels all-too-brief. Just as I felt like the games were getting into a groove, they were already over, a consequence of this game mode being a best-of-five rounds.

The other new multiplayer mode that does take more advantage of the Specialists is Control. Control feels like a round-based Domination, where teams on offense are tasked with capturing and controlling two points across the map. With defenses more focused on singular targets, it leads to more intense firefights and more of a focus on strategically targeting one area.

While the newer game modes feel a bit underwhelming, it's hard to complain about the series' multiplayer staples. Well, the ones that remain, anyway. Kill Confirmed, Domination, and Hardpoint feel as wild as ever, complemented by a handful of open-area maps with their own chokepoints and high-activity combat zones. The action hardly ever slows down and there's rarely any time to catch one's breath. Of course, any downtime that is available is used to heal up, thanks to the new manual stim shot feature that replaces the health regeneration mechanic. This is a welcome change, forcing players to earn that second chance rather than having the game simply give it to them.

It's also a change that would have fit in perfectly with Capture the Flag, a long-time favorite mode that has strangely been left off the launch lineup. That's disappointing, to say the least, given that CTF would have fit in wonderfully with this crop of maps. It also would have fit in better with the new normal that doesn't include jetpacks or wall-running. Capture the Flag would have felt like a more honest game in Black Ops 4, but it's unfortunately not meant to be.

One thing I did notice was that certain classic scorestreaks don't feel quite as effective as they used to. Because maps like Hacienda, Payload, and Seaside have so many indoor structures to them, it becomes much easier to avoid Hellstorms and helicopters. On the one hand, it encouraged me to shift to different scorestreaks, like the remote-control drone and RC car, but on the other hand, it doesn't feel too good to earn an airborne scorestreak like a Hellstorm and have it whiff because the other guys can simply duck into a building. However, the sheer abundance of scorestreak options and the customization options offered in Treyarch's "Pick 10" system make this ultimately feel like a minor quibble.

The Zombie Trilogy

In lieu of a traditional single-player campaign, Treyarch has infused its Zombies mode with an extra dose of story. There are a pair of Zombies campaigns that follow the foursome of Scarlett, Stanton, Bruno, and Diego, all of whom are searching for Scarlett's father, a researcher of myth, legend, and the occult. Following a mysterious enemy, the four are scattered across time, into an ancient Roman colosseum and on board the doomed Titanic.

Both the IX and Voyage of Despair campaigns offer a fresh change of scenery for the Zombies campaigns in more ways than one. The settings allow for some creative stage layouts and designs, as well as some novel ways to challenge players. The IX campaign will mix things up with giant gladiators and undead tigers, while the Voyage campaign will have players looking to the side as zombies climb the sides of the ship and through the wreckage. The classic Blood of the Dead campaign offers a similar level of creativity, tasking players with getting the prison's power grid activated while the undead attack from prison cells and from fallen wreckage.

Treyarch has also taken a sprinkle of its Specialist formula and placed it into Zombies by introducing special weapons. These are mythical relics that can either pack big melee punches, take out multiple targets at once, or even revive allies quickly. When combined with special abilities (activated by drinking a potion), it makes character layouts feel more vital. There's an extra challenge in crafting a character that not only helps the individual go farther, but also one that can complement teammates.

Total Blackout

Lastly, there's Treyarch's boldest addition to the Call of Duty franchise yet. It's bold in the sense that the developer seems well aware that they're riding the wave of gaming's biggest trend, with the challenge being to make Blackout stand out above the battle royale pack. Having played quite a bit of it, I'm happy to say that it does manage to do just that.

When Treyarch touted Blackout as battle royale done Call of Duty style, the team certainly wasn't lying. Like other games in the battle royale genre, the idea is to deploy at any point along a massive map. And I do mean massive, because the play area is exponentially larger than any of the game's standard multiplayer maps. I'm stricken by how huge the Blackout map is, with open fields, abandoned towns, winding roads, and wooden bridges scattered throughout. It doesn't take long to scout out the map's finer points and strategic hiding spots, but there's a lot to explore in the Blackout map.

What makes Blackout stand out is that there seem to be supplies everywhere. It doesn't take long to pick up guns, attachments, body armor, and first aid kits and prepare for a long, drawn-out fight. Of course, "long, drawn-out" is the perfect descriptor for it, because while the stage is set for a Call of Duty throwdown, it takes a while for the actual action to begin, unless you're a goon who rushes Leeroy Jenkins-style into an open field. Those accustomed to the mile-a-minute action of traditional Call of Duty multiplayer will likely be turned off by Blackout's more methodical pace. Unless you actively look for a fight, things can get a bit slow.

However, there are enough random moments sprinkled into the action to make each session of Blackout feel fun. I watched a player drive an ATV off a cliff and attempt to leap off at the peak to catch players below off-guard, only for him to simply go splat on the ground. I watched as dopes in a helicopter crashed in the center of the map, completely wiping out their squad. Then there's me, King Dingus, who found a rocket launcher (practically the Holy Grail in a game like this), only to panic as soon as I saw another player right outside the window and fire the RPG at the ground, blowing myself into atoms.

It may not have the sheer humor value of a Fortnite, but Blackout stands out among the best of the battle royale experiences I've had to date. The more I play it, the more it feels like a Fortnite for an older generation. And that's perfectly fine. In fact, that's how I prefer it. It remains to be seen whether Treyarch can grasp some of the other finer points of what's made the battle royale genre so great, like Fortnite's constantly-evolving map, but the studio should be proud of what they've put together here.

Fourth Time's the Charm

Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 feels like Treyarch taking a step back, evaluating what works, and putting all of its focus into that. The result of this is a crisper multiplayer mode with some outstanding maps, a Zombies experience that's practically a full game in itself, and a Blackout experiment that looks like it's going to pay off in spades.

Treyarch even made sure to go in and add a few little things that make this effort stand out, like multiple options for colorblind users and custom UI options for high-end PC users. The one that stood out to me, in particular, was the Graphic Content option that pops up as soon as the game boots up for the first time. Considering that kids are going to be kids and pop in Call of Duty anyway, the option to turn off the excess violence and language is a welcome addition and one I'm surprised hasn't been utilized more in the past.

Black Ops 4 feels like one of the strongest Call of Duty entries to come along in years. Despite not having a solo campaign or some of the past games' more bombastic mechanics, Treyarch has proved the adage that "less is more." And this game's "less" is good enough to keep me waiting around for "more."


This review is based on extensive hands-on time with the PC version from a review event on site at Treyarch. Further review coverage is based on a PlayStation 4 digital code provided by the publisher. Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 is available now on the Blizzard App, PlayStation Store, and Xbox Live Marketplace for $59.99. The game is rated M.

Senior Editor

Ozzie has been playing video games since picking up his first NES controller at age 5. He has been into games ever since, only briefly stepping away during his college years. But he was pulled back in after spending years in QA circles for both THQ and Activision, mostly spending time helping to push forward the Guitar Hero series at its peak. Ozzie has become a big fan of platformers, puzzle games, shooters, and RPGs, just to name a few genres, but he’s also a huge sucker for anything with a good, compelling narrative behind it. Because what are video games if you can't enjoy a good story with a fresh Cherry Coke?

Pros

  • Blackout is incredible
  • Multiplayer is greatly improved with removal of certain mechanics
  • Manual healing is a brilliant addition to Multiplayer
  • Specialists continue to add a great class-based shooter element
  • Heist and Control are fine additions to Multiplayer mode lineup
  • Maps are well-designed, utilizing buildings and bodies of water to great effect
  • Zombies campaigns are well-crafted stories in themselves
  • Great variety in characters builds, both in Zombies and Multiplayer
  • Few latency issues, a particularly big feat for Blackout
  • Graphic Content filter is great for parents with younger kids

Cons

  • No Capture the Flag is disappointing
  • Zombies and Multiplayer can still feel as grindy as ever
  • Character layouts in Zombies can feel overly complex
  • Blackout can sometimes feel slow compared to Multiplayer

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