Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 review — A three-pronged attack that brings Duty back to the top

Call of Duty is back.

We weren't sure what to think when Activision and Treyarch announced there would be no single player campaign in Call of Duty: Black Ops 4. For the first time, the game would have to thrive entirely on its multiplayer components.

There are three such components on tap in Black Ops 4, and they all cater to different types of gamers. Is the total package worth its cost?

The Good

  • Three meaty online game modes
  • A superior Battle Royale experience
  • Extremely focused gameplay mechanics
  • Well-optimized performance

The Bad

  • No single-player campaign
  • Could be more casual-friendly

Boots on the ground

Seeing as head-to-head multiplayer is Call of Duty's bread and butter, it was especially crucial for Treyarch to get it right. Black Ops 4's theme this year is "Boots on the Ground," an emphatic declaration that the fans' disdain for jetpacks and wall-running and all that crazy stuff has been addressed.

Indeed, you'll spend a vast majority of your time on the ground throughout your firefights. The game ditches the jetpacks and instead offers more exciting classes, tighter gunplay, and more balanced gameplay overall.

This change impacts the various specialist classes the most, as it adds a lot more strategy to the game. Space-controlling specialists like Torque get better since enemies can't leap over his barbed wire and barricades. Recon gets better because you can use the vision to help you monitor key choke points without enemies being able to clear it. And if you are missing aerial action, Ruin offers a bit of the high-flying ability you've given up, thanks to his grappling hook.

Black Ops 4 made other gameplay changes that make the game feel, well, we'll just say different. One of those changes gives up regenerative health for a user-initiated healing mechanic. Yes, that means you can heal anytime you want instead of waiting to be out of combat for a few seconds.

I thought this might be a little too potent when I first heard about it, but after playing the game, I can't say it has the potential to hurt the formula. In fact, it helps add to the intensity that comes with surviving until your next score streak. And because it's on cooldown, there are plenty of moments where you can't get a heal right when you need one, making those situations where you're reaching for a score streak even more unhinging.

Despite all its changes, at the end of the day, it's still Call of Duty.

Other than that, it's still Call of Duty. It's fast-paced engagements in tightly designed maps from the past and present. It's a vastly flexible loadout system that lets you create the perfect build for your playstyle. It's ridiculous kill-to-death ratios thanks to slightly overpowered scorestreaks. (Seriously, those dogs and juggernauts are unkillable!)

That also means some of the series' pain points are still in play, the biggest of which being a frustrating random respawn system that'll be responsible for more instant deaths than you can stomach. The system is in place to prevent the spawn camping that many-a lovely soul tend to do, but it feels like it does more to punish you than it does to help.

I would have also preferred more choices in weaponry and accessories. That's not to say there's no variety in that regard — there's something for every soldier here. But you can count the number of weapons in any given category on the one hand, and that might be a bit of a deterrent for some. And, well, at least the progression track needed to get those weapons and accessories doesn't feel overly grindy.

As far as performance goes, it seems to be giving the Xbox One X all it can handle. It enjoys nearly 60 frames-per-second framerate up to native 4K thanks to dynamic resolution scaling (we hear the game doesn't dip below 1560 x 1500). It doesn't run at such crisp detail on the standard Xbox One S, of course, but it does still sit near that 60 frames-per-second mark. And, for what it's worth, PC optimization seems great according to our own Senior Writer Cale Hunt, who notes there are a plethora of graphical settings that can be tweaked to hone in performance on your machine.

Fortnite's worst nightmare

Blackout is the mode that unceremoniously replaces campaign, and has hopes of supplanting others in the genre it challenges. Blackout is Battle Royale Call of Duty style and is probably the biggest thing that contributed to the hype train leading up to Black Ops 4's launch.

For the uninitiated, Blackout follows the hunger games formula almost to a T. As many as 100 players drop into a map empty-handed. Your goal is to find a gun and be the last one standing. Along the way, you'll search and loot houses, find weapons, attachments, and gear, run from a harmful zone that doesn't stop closing in around you, engage enemies in sudden death battles, and even fight a zombie horde or two.

Up against the poorly-optimized mess known as PUBG and the ever-changing Fortnite that has become as polarizing as it is addictive, Blackout had real opportunity to tap into this growing genre, and I must say that Treyarch delivered emphatically. This is one of the smoothest, most polished Battle Royale games out. Only Fortnite can contend from a performance standpoint, with other games of the realistic nature not even coming close. While Call of Duty: Black Ops 4's Blackout mode isn't always running at a locked 60 frames per second, it runs damn close nearly all the time, and that's a far sight better than games like PUBG.

While Blackout doesn't do anything to jump off the Battle Royale rails completely, it does have enough of its own flavor to avoid the "shameless clone" badge. The game employs the usage of unique gadgets that can help in a variety of situations. There are your typical throwables like grenades, Molotovs, and flashbangs, but you also get grappling hooks, RC cars, proximity mines, tripwire, and barricades.

Beyond that, consumable perks give you a temporary edge. While there was potential for power creep with this idea, the perks have proven highly situational, and the fact that they take up valuable inventory space while in use helps maintain a healthy balance. I was also worried about vehicles, but they haven't been problematic in Blackout. There's so much risk involved with using them that I only opt to take one if I feel I can't make it to the next safe zone on foot.

Sacrifices had to be made, but Treyarch's gamble on multiplayer paid off.

Blackout is a rather enjoyable experience from beginning to end. Jumping out of the plane and wingsuit gliding down to your target is exhilarating, and once you're on the ground, the match pacing is just about right. The map — which is littered with open-ended locations based on fan-favorite maps from previous Black Ops games — seems to be sized perfectly, and the safe zone timings ensure you can't get too cozy in one place for too long. The result? More movement and more engagements, fewer lull periods, and faster matches overall. Hell, you could even decide to go shoot some zombies if you're hungry for action and happen to avoid the rest of the lobby.

We'd appreciate better inventory management and looting, more varied attachments, and armor can be a bit too effective at blocking damage, but all in all, Blackout deserves all the hype. It takes all the best parts of the battle royale genre and builds on it in a way that no other developer has been able to, all the while avoiding some of the mistakes that eventually caused incumbent players like Fortnite and PUBG to lose good chunks of their player bases.

The future of this mode will depend on how much attention Treyarch will give it and whether it listens to user feedback to inform future decisions. With a promise that it's doing just that, we could have a winner.

These zombies are scary

I've never been a huge Zombies guy myself, so when I ventured into the mode with a few friends, I was a bit skeptical on its ability to hook me. Throw a line into the water and call me a dumb fish, because I have never had so much fun in this mode than while playing Black Ops 4's version of it.

In Zombies, you start with a weak-ish starting weapon as you fight a horde of undead. They'll start out weak and thin in numbers at first, but as you fight more waves, you'll notice their ranks start to grow and their power start to inch from laughable to terrifying. You'll earn points for the kills and objectives you complete and you can use those points to open gates and unlock new areas, buy new guns, and to buy perks and power-ups.

Zombies provided the kind of fun and laughter that feels like it's healing you.

Black Ops 4 takes the zombie experience to a new level with the addition of elixirs and talismans. The former can be seen as consumable perks, offering some benefit to you for a short time, while the latter is a passive ability that'll be active as long as you play. The cool thing with either mechanic is that you can customize your loadout before each match to get the exact abilities and perks you want. The game has a range of unlimited use "classic" elixirs and talismans to take into matches, but there are stronger limited use options that can be earned by spending points at the laboratory.

All of this is saved within customizable classes, though there is a range of default ones to start you off with. I initially chose the warlock preset build which hooked me up with an ability that paired a sawed-off shotgun with a machete and dishes out massive melee damage. It's the most empowered you'll feel in this game, and it adds a whole new feeling that I have yet to experience in any other Call of Duty game.

I won't lie and say I wasn't overwhelmed by it all at first, though. The game foregoes delicate onboarding to give you more upfront choice. This is cool for those who want everything all at once, but it doesn't do well to lessen the burden of knowledge for the more casual fanbase it's targeting. Unfortunately, that lack of hand-holding extends well into the game mode itself, with the game being a bit unclear on how to tackle its various objectives in order to earn more powerful guns and perks. I'm not sure I'd have gotten as far as I did had it not been for a group leader who knew what he was doing. There's a tutorial, but it merely scratches the surface of the mode's basics.

But therein also lies the fun in zombies. Overcoming the uncertainty and figuring things out as you go is a lost art in gaming, and it can be the catalyst for the sort of cooperative play that's often missing in today's games. For the first time in a match of zombies, communication and teamwork were more important. There was no room for the times where my squad likes to run around and do their own thing because being trapped in a corner during the later rounds can doom even the sharpest of shooters.

Rounds are often capped off chaotically, with your team eventually succumbing to the never-ending sea of undead who seemingly rush in through all crevices. There was nothing more hilarious than seeing my comrades fall one by one until eventually, we all perished. And nothing was singularly funnier than when a lone surviving friend of mine narrowly escaped the clutches of three mini-bosses only to be yanked right back into the mauling. It provided the kind of laugh that feels healing, and those are the moments you look for in game modes like this.

Verdict on Call of Duty: Black Ops 4

I'd be doing a disservice by failing to mention that Activision had completely lost me at one point. I felt betrayed by the Call of Duty series after the abominations that were Ghost and Advanced Warfare, so much so that I never even gave Black Ops 3 a chance, nor did I spend much time on WW2.

I say all of that to say this: Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 is the ticket. It's the winner. It's the home run. It's everything it needed to be for Activision to win back some of the souls like me who had all but written the series off as staleness or wackiness took hold.

Sacrifices had to be made, but the gamble of chopping off a short single player campaign to focus on multiplayer modes that will offer many more hours of fun has paid off. Multiplayer and Zombies are much better off because of it, and newcomer Blackout sets Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 up as the most well-rounded multiplayer shooter of the year.

Quentyn Kennemer