Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 Review

Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 boils down the long-running shooter series to its essence. There’s a hefty multiplayer suite full of all the competitive modes you know and possibly love. There’s also a ghost of a story tied into some glorified tutorials. But what looks like a less “complete” experience on paper (there is no single-player campaign at all this year) belies some massive, mostly positive changes to the immortal Call of Duty formula.

I personally don’t mind the sacrifices made to ring in those changes. Call of Duty campaigns have always been glorified tutorials. Black Ops 4 just cuts to the chase with some not-very-interesting cinematics that tie together the last two Black Ops games.

Supposedly. I couldn’t really tell, because the “plot” is incomprehensible (and blessedly inessential) mush. A descendant of the first game’s protagonist, Alex Mason, is assembling an army of dude-bro cyborgs. They scream at the camera lot. I fail to care.

Worse, it’s all gratuitously grimdark even by Call of Duty standards—especially without an overarching plot to make these non-characters’ back stories matter. The player characters literally only exist to shoot at each other in silly, never-ending deathmatches. It’s like developer Treyarch wanted to produce their own Overwatch character shorts, but with more incinerated child corpses and severed human jaws.

Specialized for Special Tasks

For all their sins, these tutorials do provide vital info; they walk you through Black Ops 4’s new specialist abilities. Each merc has a pair of character-specific abilities on separate cooldowns.

The lighter of the two cool down very quickly and basically replace grenades. They range from trip mines to flashbangs to razor wire barricades that hold foes in place. Ultimate skills take quite a lot longer to charge—almost the entire length of a match—and are more directly devastating. I personally favor Firebreak’s super-flamethrower, which almost instantly kills enemies at mid-range and docks the maximum health of any survivors.

The whole specialist system is also Overwatch-y. Although the abilities take so long to recharge that they’re not nearly as essential to the flow of battle as in that game. They’re closer to killstreaks that don’t require actual kills. Which is a nice little boost for players who aren’t as savage as the die hard Call of Duty community. Some folks out there have gotten quite good at this yearly franchise since 2007.

But specialists are awfully uneven. Many of their skills simply don’t suit certain maps and especially modes. Seraph’s Tac Deploy beacon, for instance, lets allies spawn at a specific location, rather than randomly across the map. That’s great when you need to capture a specific area in Hardpoint or Domination! It’s also completely meaningless in Heist—a Counter-Strke-like mode where there are no respawns.

There are more subtle examples, but the key point remains: Black Ops 4 just isn’t entirely built for its own playable characters. Now try explaining that to your matchmade teammates. This entry skews a bit more “tactical” than past Calls of Duty. You need to think more about how your choices, both in who you play and how you play, affect your squad. Yet the greater community still plays every objective-based mode like Team Deathmatch. Which was a problem long before Black Ops 4’s major adjustments.

Some Much-Needed R&R

It’s not just the specialists, either. Healing has also completely changed. Regenerating health is out and a fast-acting med kit (with a very short cooldown) is in.

It’s a small change, but a significant one. Harrowing bullet-to-bullet encounters no longer end with you hiding behind a corner and waiting for a red filter to disappear. Now you have to make a choice: do you take the time to heal or reload first? That UAV says another foe is right around the corner. Can you get the drop on them with just your remaining hit points?

This mode-wide decision-making fares far better than the push towards unique, character-driven tactics. It feels built from the ground up to make Black Ops 4 a more considerate beast than its predecessors, rather than a shoehorned bit of flavor.

And “shoehorned” is exactly what I feared from Blackout. The new battle royale mode is undeniable a fad grab—an attempt to keep up with the cool kids playing Fortnite. Although Blackout’s modern(ish) military skin more directly pits it against PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds. Call of Duty has a major leg up on its more “realistic” competition, too: polish.

For those unfamiliar, battle royale modes drop 100 (or sometimes 88 in Blackout) players onto a single map. The goal is to grab weapons and gear, stay inside the eye of an encroaching circle of death, and remain the last player (or team) standing. The mode has gotten… let’s say mildly popular of late.

PUBG, the game that largely kick started the craze, quickly fell behind the competition. One oft-cited reason being that the silly shooter is also extremely buggy. Black Ops 4 offers a very similar experience to PUBG, but with Activision money behind its tech. As such it’s an incredibly smooth take on the wildly successful (and wildly fun) battle royale.

Blackout also benefits from the sheer volume of wacky doodads already present in Black Ops 4. Cluster grenades, grappling hooks, and sci-fi ray guns pockmark the map. The best of them do more than change the average range of gunfights. They significantly alter how you engage other players. Who needs a sniper rifle when you can just drop a helicopter on someone, after all?

Further, Better, and More

I’d just like to see the game go a little further. Fortnite has set a high bar for willingness to get wacky (rocket riding should be its own extreme sport). Blackout meets it halfway there with better shooting, to boot, but could go even further off the rails. Why not throw in the cyborg attack dog from the normal multiplayer? Or how about integrating the zombie mode’s godlike superpowers? Give me even more ways to reshape the battlefield beyond “better guns” and this mode could deserve a game all on its own.

The only mode that doesn’t feel like it’s carved out its own, new niche for Black Ops 4 is Zombies. The cooperative horde mode is… pretty like I remember. Which is another way of saying I still don’t like it very much.

Four playable characters who don’t like each other very much snipe snarky, unfunny one-liners at each other while fending off the undead for as long as possible. That’s the basic premise. It’s all so much more complicated than it seems. And that’s my key, continuous issue. Zombies is intentionally, excruciatingly, illogically complicated.

Each zombie-filled arena (there are two this time, which is more than Call of Duty usually launches with) is filled with nonsensical “Easter eggs.” Bringing these hidden gewgaws to nonspecific locations is vital to progress through what passes as Zombies’ plot—a strange, winding thing called the “Aether Story.” Black Ops 4 makes no attempt to ease newbies into the ongoing saga. Although the mode’s tutorial is a bit more comprehensive than in past games. Which is a genuine plus!

The Messes We Made

I just don’t care to learn the rest. The mode itself is functional. You blast zombies to earn points, spend points to buy guns, and use guns to blast zombies better. But something about it feels slightly off. Specifically, the shamblers are just a bit too sturdy. They shrug off one or two too many bullets to the head, possibly to make the slow-moving monsters an actual threat, and don’t provide a satisfying sense of mowing through moldy flesh.

The rubbery action is exacerbated by poor communication. You need to play Zombies with friends. Anything else is, to quote another piece of famous military media, totally FUBAR. Nobody sticks together to revive their friends. Nobody readies up in the lobby (I’ve had to cancel out and search again at least twice for every match). The kind of pregame wiki research needed to progress through the game? Nobody has any, nor the patience to execute on it if they did.

A more dedicated clan of Zombies players might have a great time. I don’t have that. A lot of others folks with jobs, school, and similar responsibilities don’t, either. Even if it was more accessible, there are other, more satisfying cooperative games out competing with it than ever. The raids of Destiny 2 are challenging, for example, but also totally unlike anything else in shooters. Zombies is still a horde mode. And it’s the one pillar of Black Ops 4 that feels dated.

As for the rest of the game? Parts of it are still stuck in the past. The “story” is perfunctorily edgy. I wish some of the new specialists were more considered, too. Even so, it’s the most fun I’ve had with Call of Duty in a long while—with the right mix of fast, “boots on the ground” multiplayer and new ideas. It’s tighter and more tactical, and much more enjoyable for it.