Nathan Wertz is the editor of ThisAndThatTech.com.
It's been a little over three weeks since the launch of "Call of Duty: Black Ops 4," which surpassed $500 million in worldwide sales within the first three days. With that launch comes a copious amount of updates, gameplay buffs/nerfs, et cetera. There are many moving pieces that will undoubtedly change over time, but I'm finally comfortable enough to write a review. For additional perspective, I'm currently on version 1.04 for the Playstation 4 and a review key was provided.
What is the game about?
Treyarch's "Call of Duty: Black Ops 4" is still the same "twitchy" first person shooter that many have come to know and love, but decidedly different from previous installments with the controversial omission of the single player campaign (unless you count Zombies with bots) in order to focus more on CoD's take on the highly-lauded battle royale genre that recently took form with games like PUBG and Fortnite. Now, it is essentially a multiplayer-only game divided into three different tiers: Multiplayer, Blackout, and Zombies.
Multiplayer is what everyone is most familiar with. There are eight different modes to choose from: Kill Confirmed, Hardpoint, Search & Destroy, Domination, Team Deathmatch, Free For All, Control (new), and Heist (new). Then there's the Hardcore variant of the aforementioned modes, with the main changes being the addition of friendly fire, no HUD, and one shot almost always kills.
While the match countdown window begins, there's a player vote for which map to play on. Most of the 14 available maps are fairly balanced and entertaining, with maybe the exception of Morocco…The match then launches and the player chooses a "specialist" with unique abilities and weapons, which allows you to cater more to a certain playstyle. For example, one can play as recon and fire sensor darts on the map, which reveal enemy locations to your team. Now, most of these skillsets seem fairly balanced, but there are a few abilities that seem a bit much (Nomad's wandering bullet sponge dog or the 9-Bang* completely crippling movement come to mind), but they can be mitigated if communication is a high priority. At the end of each match there is a "best play" cam typically showing a kill streak of some kind. While entertaining at first, part of me thinks I'd rather just load into the next match instead of being forced to watch it every time.
*Treyarch has just decided to remove the 9-Bang entirely from Blackout mode due to balancing issues. I rest my case…
The weaponry is plentiful with five different subsets that can be unlocked by simple level progression while playing. Further, each weapon can be individually upgraded with enough use, albeit a bit slow for my taste. These upgrades range from scopes, grip stabilizers, armor piercing bullets, suppressors, extended mags, et cetera, and are applied using the "Pick 10" system, with every upgrade using a set amount of points, with 10 being the cap. There's also an inclusion of operator mods for specific weapons that will further change how a weapon handles, but that takes a significant amount of weapon experience to unlock them. It's extremely important that you learn the ins and outs of the upgrade system because it will drastically impact your ability to quickly finish off opponents. Most new to the series may get the inclination that the game is glitchy or that opponents know something they don't. This is why understanding "Time To Kill" becomes extremely important to avoid frustration, especially if you feel like you're striking first and/or multiple times, yet still dying.
"Time To Kill" is the average amount of time it takes to slay an opponent when using a specific weapon, and is usually associated with first person shooters. It's the bane of most player's existence and many don't even realize it. In short, players in Blacks Ops 4 have 150 hit points at full health. One assault rifle bullet may do 30 points of damage to the body and 40 points of damage to the head per shot. You couple this with the rate of fire, recoil, and damage for each weapon, it can be down to the millisecond to determine which player gets the kill and which player gets to live to fight another day. Blacks Ops 4 honestly has me quite torn on this mechanic because despite the overall longer "Time To Kill" for each player, the end result is opponents gaming the system by either jumping into an area or unnaturally strafing left to right to avoid being hit. Sure, it's within the available gameplay parameters and a common behavior in FPS, so one can argue that it's fair game, but at times it feels gimmicky and I'm not quite sure that is the most satisfying way to play for most players.
Thankfully, Hardcore mode addresses some of those issues because all characters are set to 30 health, which means almost any shot will kill. There's also the added additions of friendly fire and no HUD map on the screen (unless an ability is used), which causes players to strategize more in locating opponents and flanking them. Hardcore certainly isn't where the majority of the players are, but my seemingly counterintuitive advice for newer players is to go to "Hardcore" first because they will probably find it to be more "fair" by comparison.
Scorestreaks remain intact and can absolutely decimate the opposition. There's hellstorms, attack choppers, strike teams, or even armored robots that can be deployed if your in-game score gets high enough. Definitely fun to use, but I have to question a bit of the balancing, as I had a few matches that were deploying so often that it was absolutely impossible to even walk out from cover for even a second. Chaos looks great, but I wouldn't mind Treyarch cutting back a bit on deployments.
Other notable changes this year are related to gameplay movement and health regeneration. There is no longer any thrust-jumps or wall-running, which is probably a good thing, considering how many people jump around corners already. Health regeneration is now manual and one has to strategically use it to accommodate the cooldown period between each use. Both these changes are great and I have no complaints about them.
There's no doubt that multiplayer is at its finest when you are playing on a team that is coordinated and tactically taking advantage of choke points to add pressure to the opposing team. Most instances of 2 on 1 will result in a quick death and added frustration to the uncoordinated, while those using headsets continue to dominate. That's a bit of a double-edged sword, though, as not all participants have an active group to play with on a continual basis. Sure, you can argue that it's their fault for not going the extra mile to acquire a team, but I wouldn't mind seeing a mode where no headset communication is allowed during the game. That's probably a stance not held by many, but I think it would be more helpful to newer players who are just looking for a quick in & out game with a chance to win.
Also, I should add that you're certainly going to have a more pleasurable experience if you take time to memorize some of the map layouts and respawn points. You can play a run and gun style and have some success, but the ones who prevail seem to really know how to best use the environment to their advantage. That wouldn't be a problem if matchmaking was more balanced, but there were plenty of occasions where I was paired with someone 30 levels above me. A mismatch doesn't necessarily mean you'll lose to them, but there is a stark contrast in what that player knows about any given area, compared to you, especially if they play in a communicative group at all times. Sure, you can mitigate that contrast spent with time in the game, but it can take away some of the enjoyment if you're looking for a quick fix with the hope of pulling a couple wins off.
The two new modes, Control & Heist, are welcome additions to the "Black Ops 4" core gameplay. Control features 8-10 players who take turns attacking and defending objectives. There are two ways for the offensive team to win, either by capturing both objectives or eliminating the other team's 25 lives. By contrast, the defensive team wins by either running the clock out or eliminating the other team's 25 lives. The first team to win three rounds will win the match.
Likewise, Heist features 8-10 players who are divided up into two teams, all battling to find a stash of cash and take it back to the extraction point. It feels very much like capture the flag, but with the addition of earning cash through each round to purchase weapon and perks. Many will be drawn to it because it puts everyone on an equal playing field and the matches are quick-moving due to the lack of respawns.
Overall, the new modes have the same appeal as Hard Point because they force players to go to a designated section on the map, which leads to more frantic and exciting gameplay. They're a great place to start getting your feet wet, yet still are excellent modes for veterans who want quick matches and that dopamine rush of winning.
Other standouts for traditional multiplayer modes have to be Kill Confirmed, Hardpoint, Domination, and an honorable last-minute mention to Gun Mode (get one kill with each weapon, which helps with the learning curve of each weapon), that recently appeared as an option. All of these force players to be more aggressive, focusing on specific map areas, but also give newbies the ability to contribute without having yet mastered the twitchy reaction time to shoot opponents down. Further, it gives the player an alternative way to level up.
Note that as of last week Treyarch has also rolled out the Black Market, which features cosmetic rewards that can either be earned through gameplay in each mode or bought with microtransactions using real world coin. There are 200 tiers and if you opt to pay with your hard-earned money to save time, you're looking at 100 COD Points per tier, equating to about $160. Playstation 4 was the first to offer COD Points, with Windows PC & Xbox One to follow shortly thereafter. There is also microtransactions for Zombies mode, which we'll get into down below.
Many wondered what the established AAA heavy hitter responses would be to the battle royale genre, given its meteoric rise in a little over a year. "Call of Duty" throws their hat in with a mode called Blackout. In Blackout your character or team (solo, duos, or quads) is initially dropped into a giant sandbox of weapons, items, and vehicles that is ever-shrinking over a period of time, which forces eventual encounters until only one man and/or team is standing. I'd liken it to PUBG, but with more polish.
My experiences with the solo mode felt great. The match was up and running fairly quickly and I dropped in and started looting like a mad man. There is definitely a sense of isolation and foreboding as the map slowly gets smaller over time, especially if you see or hear character movement in the far distance, but that first encounter with another player is always a rush.
And there's many ways to play it too. One doesn't necessarily have to be aggressive. You can hide in the shadows, collect loot, and let all the others do the gunslinging in order to come in at the very end from a vantage point and take everyone out. It was very rare, but occasionally you will drop in with some opponents immediately and your run will be cut ultra-short, but that seems to be more a fluke than anything else. Through most playthroughs, even if you don't make it to the end, it gives you just enough hope that you might be able to secure the next round. Just remember that every game can take a considerable amount of time, so it's not suitable for a quick five-minute match. I've had plenty go 30+ minutes.
Blackout is certainly at its best in duos or quads, assuming you're not partnered with Neanderthals. There's simply a great sense of comradery as you attempt to link up on the map to become a force to be reckoned with. Not to mention that feeling when your crew somehow manages to find a helicopter and lands to pick you up and unleash unholy terror on those around you. If you're team all has mics, even better. You'll need them to strategize. Blackout on a team is surely one of the stand out modes and I'm surprised to say this as I'm somewhat skeptical of being forced to play online and simultaneously losing a single player experience, but it may warrant the omission of that single player campaign…for now.
A fan favorite, Zombies is where "Black Ops 4" really shines. If you're unfamiliar with Zombies, it is essentially a horde mode where four protagonists go up against countless waves of enemies, all while trying to collect points to open doors, gain perks, upgrade weaponry, and unlock "Easter Eggs," which reveal more of the Zombies' universe lore.
At launch there are three individual maps: Voyage of Despair, Blood of the Dead, and IX. Voyage of Despair takes place on the amazingly scenic and sinking RMS Titanic. Yes, you read that right. It's honestly a terrifically dark setting for Zombies. The ship is huge and there are large corridors to run through, giving you options to escape all of the enemies from that era. Blood of the Dead is set in Alcatraz and it's incredibly sprawling and gritty with a terrifying Brutus character hulking around the environments. IX is located in an ancient and mysterious Roman coliseum with a crowd cheering or heckling your every move. All the locations are impressive eye-candy and the graphical fidelity alone makes me wish "Call of Duty" would make a spin-off single player or co-op campaign for all of them.
Other than demolishing zombies with your weaponry and epic special moves to gain points for upgrades, the gameplay revolves around four different perks, four elixirs, and one talisman that can be equipped before each game. Perks can be unlocked as you gain enough points and spend them within the map at certain locations, but they will usually be lost every time you die, unless you are quickly revived. Quick example would be an extremely useful electric shock every time you reload. Elixirs are the main items that you'll be using quite frequently, some of which have a timed cooldown or 1-time use, in order to replenish grenades faster, or my personal favorite, instantly teleport you to a random location. Talismans have a one-time use and grant specific attributes, such as perks that cannot be lost, which is obviously very useful. The consumable elixirs and talismans can be purchased using in-game "Nebulium Plasma" obtained through progress in Zombies or by purchasing COD Points with real money. One max pull of the "Concoctions" will run you $4.99 if you want to pay out of pocket.
Progression through each map can be a bit convoluted and obtuse without a walkthrough or party members who know exactly what they are doing, especially for newcomers. In fact, it can be downright frustrating to be paired with a group of people online that are wandering around with no direction, which is a frequent occurrence. That's why one of the best additions to Zombies this year is AI teammates, which helps you get more accustomed to each level at your own pace. Quite frankly, I surprise myself by saying that I'm thankful for bot play, as previous FPS gaming experiences can be a bit lackluster using only bots, but it's sorely needed and even useful for Zombies mode. The bots themselves won't pursue any objectives, but they do open gates, fight hordes, and even revive your character. They're honestly very impressive in how they handle the environment.
When you do have dedicated partners that are working as a cohesive unit, the fun factor is phenomenal and an argument for Zombies being the best mode in "Black Ops 4" can easily be made. Being able to coordinate your location and funnel Zombies enemies through choke points is extremely satisfying and worthwhile to pursue. Saving teammates at the last possible second is quite the dopamine rush.
One thing you're forced to consider with each wave is the ever-increasing amount and difficulty of the hordes of Zombies. Eventually, you'll hit a point where they become bullet sponges, so the only option is to upgrade your weaponry using the Pack-a-Punch system. Pack-a-Punch can be unlocked through fulfilling requirements in each level, some more obtuse than others, and then placing your current weapon in it for 5000 points. A big of magic ensues and your weapon is then upgraded to better combat the hordes.
If you don't like the idea of managing your points for upgrades or unlocks, there's also the new addition of Rush mode for Zombies. Rush foregoes all point management, as all perks and weapon upgrades are free, allowing you to focus on multiplier streaks and collecting points solely for winning on the in-game leaderboard. So there's a bit of competition here with your teammates, but the gameplay is much more laid back. Overall, a great addition and I'm sure it will preferable to some.
There are still some unfortunate quirks in Zombies mode, with my main issue being the hosting. On multiple occasions I've had the host quit the game after playing 30 minutes, which causes the game to completely shut down. That would be more acceptable if I was still awarded experience for leveling, but many times I didn't receive anything. It's very irritating that they wouldn't have some form of reliable host migration to keep everything running. I suspect this may be patched in the future, but something to be aware of. Again, another point for playing with bots or friends instead of random people online to insure your chance of receiving experience points for your efforts.
Related to hosting, I also experienced some teammates being randomly dropped while attempting to launch a game. When the level loaded, we'd randomly disappear from one another's party and it forced everyone to reset on multiple occasions. Then at other times while searching for other players to play with, they'd sandwich us on top of one another, further adding to confusion as to who was truly in the party. Again, I expect these issues to be patched.
Black Ops 4 Season Pass
The season pass is currently $49.99 and it includes a Zombies map called "Classified" and the Shadowman Blackout character at launch, 4 post-launch additional Zombies experiences, 12 post-launch Multiplayer maps, and 3 post-launch exclusive Blackout characters. The problem at the moment is that other than "Classified," which is admittedly quite fun and set in the Pentagon, we don't yet know how great those other experiences will be. $49.99 at launch is a bit salty for me, especially considering most people have already forked over $59.99 for the base game. I'd personally rather see piece meal DLC where I can just buy for the specific modes I actually play, but I'm doubtful that will ever be an option in my utopian society. May be a moot point if you have the coin, but probably only worth it if you'll still be playing well into 2019. As a side note, it'd be an interesting experiment if Treyarch had offered each separate game mode for $20 a piece instead of the full $59.99. I wonder if that would increase sales even more?
If you're new to the Call of Duty series or have taken a few iterations off, prepare to get smoked over and over again in multiplayer. There's just no way around it. It takes time to learn the weaponry, attachments, and choke points on any given map. Sure, it's a shame that there is no longer a single player campaign, but Zombies mode is still top notch. Couple that with the new addition of Blackout and "Call of Duty: Black Ops 4" will give you plenty of multiplayer fun throughout the holidays.