I revile Call of Duty almost as much as I’m fascinated by it. My frustration with the last Black Ops campaign is what launched me into writing terrible YouTube reviews, and eventually for this here site (to higher quality margin, mind you), and once again I find myself in the awkward position of having to judge the world’s biggest cash-cow honestly. It’s difficult this time around, as Black Ops IIII (hereafter simply referred to as BLOPS4) is both suspiciously and refreshingly bereft of pretence.
There’s no multi-million dollar dumpster fire campaign to be slogged through here, only a savvy collection of multiplayer suites that have taken more cues from the competition this time around to maintain CoD’s long-term appeal as something more than a meandering TDM grind-fest. There’s a BR mode – but those burdened by the genre du jour already knew that – and more importantly, the microtransactions are uncharacteristically restrained…could CoD be an unreservedly worthwhile purchase this year?
But first, an important note on the lack of a proper single-player mode, the absence of which led me to a minor moral dilemma. “Do I enjoy these games just for the carnage and grind of co-op and competitive play? Am I an amoral dil-hole because I didn’t get my spoon-feeding of increasingly banal propaganda-as subtext this year? Am I allowed to keep whipping a horse that’s been dead so long that all that remains is naught but worms and whip marks in the dirt?”
The answer to all of these questions is of course “yep.” A member of the lowest common denominator I may be, but what I am not, however, is hung up on ceremony. Still, BLOPS4 tried to shovel bot-match tutorials into my gob, interspersed with CGI cutscenes in a half-assed effort to illustrate the context for all the carnage that goes on in the main multiplayer mode. They’re a half decent way to learn the controls if you have the coordination of a sentient sponge cake, but otherwise, they are little more than a feeble epitaph for what was the series’ original defining aspect. If you MUST know about what story there is, it’s set some time between the second and third Black Ops games, has something to do with Alex Mason’s granddaughters, and blah, blah, blah. I’m relieved that I no longer have the option to pretend the campaigns are worth paying for. Their irrelevance, it seems, is unavoidable even to the likes of Activision and Treyarch.
And yet, every year, in spite of my bitterness, I dive right back into the multiplayer of CoD with glee, and BLOPS4 has shaken up the formula in ways that make the gameplay feel like the devs are taking the competition seriously. The traditional multiplayer mode is accompanied this time not only by the typically excellent Zombies mode that Treyarch is famous for, but a new Battle Royale mode called Blackout as well, courtesy of Raven Software.
Blackout is the biggest draw this year, and with Battle Royale being the multiplayer genre of the day, it has much to prove. First off, I’m not a big fan of BR games, mainly due to PUBG’s overly ponderous pace and Fortnite’s irritatingly skilled player base abusing the hell out of the construction mechanic. Blackout is the BR game for me, then, as everything feels faster and it rarely seems that I’m out of meaningful options regardless of where I land. Played in groups of either four, two, or solo, the Blackout map seems smaller than PUBG’s, but much denser and filled with more character, and this stems from the greater selection of toys on offer compared to its contemporaries and the level of abundance in which they are available to players.
Aside from the expected pickups of equipment, weapons and vehicles, Blackout also tosses zombies and perks into the mix as well. The undead brain suckers can be both a nuisance to deal with and a hilarious weapon to use to troll your enemies with. Zombies only spawn in designated areas of the map, guarding a mystery box capable of spawning lucrative randomised weapons like those seen in the traditional co-op mode. These boxes only activate once the area has been cleared of the undead, but the zombies’ attention can be diverted with a monkey-cymbal throwable if you manage to find one, perfect for ambushing enemies without having to spare ammunition. Perks in Blackout are consumables with timed bonuses instead of permanent buffs, and the effects of which are often drastically difficult from their multiplayer counterparts, so knowing when best to use them adds another layer of consideration into the typical camp-fests of military-themed BR games.
The coolest innovation that Blackout brings the BR formula, though, is one of those things so simple it stands to reason why nobody implemented it elsewhere earlier. Players all have access to wingsuits by default, and they aren’t just for choosing where to drop at the start of a match. They can be activated when leaping from any height over a certain level, and allow for greater escape options for players in a vast number of situations due to the emphasised verticality of many of the map’s zones. Sure, Blackout has problems; inventory management on consoles feels a bit clunky, and PC players are baffled by the current interface and obtuse control elements, and there’s more than a bit of chugginess in regards to the frame-rate on standard PS4s. Otherwise, I can see Blackout becoming my new favourite mode, so long as I can pull myself away from the traditional multiplayer, that is.
Multiplayer is where I have spent the bulk of my time, and the basic formula has changed in a lot of ways, but mostly it’s still the same CoD, which you either enjoy or despise. Gameplay is yet again defined primarily by unlocks, loadouts and scorestreaks, but this time Treyarch have made a more significant effort to incorporate shooter mechanics from both Overwatch and Rainbow Six Siege. And for the most part, it has made CoD a better game, and it often circumvents the frustration brought on from being hammered by an enemy team’s scorestreaks or mercilessly stomped by quick-scoping turdnuggets.
Perhaps the most significant improvement has been the removal of spammable equipment. Lethal and non-lethal throwables are out, replaced by “special issue” equipment unique to an “operator”(read: “heroes for jarheads”). Both abilities and special issues are re-worked equipment and scorestreaks employed in other CoD games like riot shields, lethal and non-lethal grenades, tactical deployment beacons, mines, attack dogs, one-shot pistols, etc. Every Operator’s special issue operates on a cool-down timer, so well-considered timing of their use is now a more critical consideration. Health, too, no longer regenerates and needs to be manually applied.
Each operator’s abilities are useful enough to a team that composition does become a serious element when playing against co-ordinated opponents. This baked-in need for coordination is supplemented by the “fog-of-war” system which reveals enemies on the mini-map if they are within a team-mate’s field of vision. Some Operators’ abilities revolve around this mechanic, and there’s also the potential for interesting emergent elements because of it, such as players attaching the “Recon” operator’s sensor dart to an RC-XD to act as a mobile spy drone. This sort of thing is always interesting to see in multiplayer games, and I can’t wait to see what variety of tactics and tricks end up defining league play.
And while defensively or tactically designed characters may seem entirely at odds with the long-established “YAAAAAAAARGH!!!” ethos of CoD multiplayer, using special issue equipment like razor-wire, barricades, team tactical insertions and 9-bangs can now be just as important as calling in a UAV or attack helicopter in the right circumstances. Those circumstances always arise in objective modes, but TDM modes don’t suffer as it’s still as chaotic and pointless as it always is. With this in mind, Treyarch saw fit to include a pair of new objective game types on offer this time.
“Control” is a round-based, two-point domination-alike played with a limited pool of lives, and is easily the best mode in all of the multiplayer. “Heist” is essentially Counter-Strike, replete with pre-match economies, and is honestly a bit of a dud. On the upside, amalgamated playlists are now more prominent, with the multiplayer front page now featuring a handful of collected playlists to encourage players to add a bit more variety into their playtime.
Lastly, Zombies is back, and once again I have zero clues as to what in the name of Satan’s scrotum is going on. From what I can glean, other than the fact that everything looks like the offspring from a Slayer album cover having angry, angry sex with an episode of Doctor Who, that there are now two story modes; Chaos and Aether. Aether is a continuation of the impossibly complicated storyline that connects all previous Black Ops zombies modes, whereas Chaos is a new story with new characters. There’s also a “Rush” arcade mode for each map, which opens gates automatically after every round and is a great way to play if you’re strapped for time.
I gravitated towards Chaos as it felt like how I remember Zombies mode being – utterly absurd, and relishing it. The characters are cheesy lunatics with amusingly dumb quirks, and the levels are full of secrets and about as imaginative as they get in CoD. It also contains a level built out of the Roman Coliseum, titled merely “IX” that is now my favourite Zombies map ever. Seriously, it’s a damned hoot. Aether is for old fans, or more accurately, those that kept up with this drawn out pap longer than was worthwhile. Mechanically, there’s not much new in zombies other than being able to craft classes, choosing what perks you can acquire from vendors, what consumables you take with you and what super-weapons you’ll use. Otherwise, it’s all about farming points, building barriers and blowing off heads. Ain’t broke, didn’t fix it.
Before I wrap up, a note about map recycling. Each mode has many layouts softly reworked from previous Black Ops games, and it feels a bit miserly, considering that players will no longer be able to purchase map packs individually. It helps that these levels are all some of the series’ best, but the principle still stands. Activision has brought the universally unpopular “annual pass” content scheme from Destiny 2 to BLOPS4, and it’s shitty. I have listened to Activision associated influencers talking about free maps potentially coming to featured playlists, but so far there have been no press-releases to confirm this. On the other hand, premium currencies, balance-breaking weapon variants and paid-for loot boxes are nowhere to be seen *currently*. Here’s hoping that situation sticks for a good long while.
Aside from some admittedly minor gripes and the typically icky post-launch content malarkey, Black Ops IIII is an undeniably appealing multiplayer gaming package. Blackout is a faster and more dynamic battle royale mode than the reigning PUBG and Fortnite; the arena mode has changed in ways that encourage team play, and strategy and Zombies is still a joy, just with more customisation. Black Ops IIII is like your dad’s favourite brand of beer that finally brought out a bolder tasting summer brew; familiar, reliable and now interesting enough for you to accept that you will one day die. Or something.