Once upon a time, Call of Duty wasn’t the chart-topping, triple-A behemoth it is now. Instead, it was a WW2-set shooter that made the surprise switch to a modern setting with Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare - and just so happened to transform the very nature of first-person shooters forever. But over a decade on and what was once fresh and innovative is now rote and predictable.
So enter Call of Duty: Black Ops 4, an attempt by long-serving developer Treyarch to give the series a much-needed shot of adrenaline. Sadly, it’s not doing so by setting trends in the way the franchise once did. If anything, it’s just copying the genres that are the most in vogue right now - namely the hero shooter antics of Overwatch and the Battle Royale obsession of Fortnite - but for all its blatant emulation, it manages to do so with its own familiar mechanics mixed in for good measure.
Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 review: Multiplayer
Multiplayer - the long-term time-sink the series has built its name on over the years - still feels just like the shooter you know with on-point gun mechanics, scenery mantling and all the loadout items and perks you could ask for. The big changes include a lack of boost jumping (it might look a lot like Black Ops 3, but Black Ops 4 is the second in Activision’s ‘boots on the ground’ ethos that started with last year’s Call of Duty: WW2) and a greater emphasis on teamwork.
Specialists (the game’s take on classes) now have special abilities and gear mostly aimed at supporting or enhancing your team as a whole. Recon’s Sensor Dart will reveal enemy players over a given distance, while Torque’s Barricade can block a corridor and force the opposing team into an ambush. It’s certainly not as strict or restrictive as Overwatch’s loadouts - you can still pick your favourite gun, etc - but it does do a decent job of urging you to play to the objective rather than just chasing kills.
Health has also been adjusted, with the regeneration system that’s been a core part of the series - and online FPS titles in general - has been dropped in favour of a new Stim Shot mechanic. Now you’ll need to press ‘L1’/’LB’ when you’re close to death in order to replenish your lifeblood rather than simply taking cover and waiting for it to refill automatically.
It certainly takes a while to get used to - such is the prevalence of this mechanic across the shooter genre - but after a few games you realise it’s part of the series’ move towards a more tactical feel, with the need to juggle reloading your weapon, using your unique abilities AND managing your health.
Performance in Multiplayer is nice and stable, although there does seem to be lots of texture pop-in on character models in the pre-game lobby. It’s not a major issue, and is something Treyarch will likely patch out soon enough, but it’s an odd blemish for a game with so much polish overall.
Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 review: Blackout
Blackout is the newest addition to Call of Duty, which replaces the traditional solo campaign in favour of a 100-player-strong Battle Royale mode. While it’s sad to the classic story mode dropped (although there are a handful of brief tutorials for each Specialist that showcase their backstory), it’s indicative of how audiences are playing CoD in 2018. Fewer and fewer people are playing or even finishing these campaigns, while everyone is talking about the likes of Fortnite and PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds (PUGB). It’s a no-brainer.
In practice, Blackout runs like a much slicker version of what PUGB has long striven to be, with barely any technical issues or mechanic problems (although we did encounter some slowdown when playing in the game’s new splitscreen mode). With a map that’s 1,500 times bigger than the popular NukeTown map (that makes it roughly twice the size of Fortnite’s map), you’ll drop into a huge sandbox full of locales serving as callbacks to missions from Black Ops’ eight-year history.
This being a mode in a CoD game, there are all manner of unusual weapons to find - ranging from a slingshot that sets tripwires to a retro ray gun - as well as Perks to collect and special gear to utilise. Of course, this being a Battle Royale game where everyone skydives into the map with no gear whatsoever, you’ll need to seek these items out rather than building a traditional loudout. Considering the size of the map, it makes for a considerably higher learning curve than the likes of Fortnite on PUGB on mobile.
Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 review: Zombies
Zombies, the undead-slaying co-op mode that’s been a staple of the series since World at War, rises from its grave once again, but this time it’s packing more content from the off than ever before. There are now two modes to choose from - the Aether storyline that’s been running for years now, and the new Chaos one that takes its four new protagonists on a time-travelling adventure drops you in a monster-filled arena in Ancient Rome and a zombie-infested Titanic.
While the Aether storyline is starting to feel a little worn out by now, the new Chaos mode mixes things up with more expansive levels (the set aboard the Titanic is huge) with a greater focus on mixing up the action. It certainly lives up to its chaotic name, with everything from exploding tigers to axe-swinging gladiators coming at you plus altars that will arm you with a random weapon such as a deadly slot machine. It’s easy to get lost in its labyrinthine levels, but it’s also part of the fun as survive more and more waves.
Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 review: verdict
For all its changes, this is very much the Call of Duty you know and love/hate. The fast movement and forgiving gunplay are just as it's always been, only now health systems have been adjusted to move away from high kill counts and more towards deeper team play. As a result, Multiplayer offers something a little more dynamic and it’s better as a result. Even Zombies, with its extra content and a bigger focus on unpredictable and systemic encounters, walks a confident line between the familiar and the new.
The new approach to season passes - which locks a lot of the game’s incoming content behind one big price wall - does feel rather reductive, especially considering how CoD’s audience is often split across its modes, but the base game itself offers enough new changes to help stave off the series’ impending irrelevance. And while Blackout might be a shameless emulation of PUBG and the like, it does it so smoothly it’s impossible to not enjoy its action-packed addition to the genre.