There’s something to be said for longstanding developers, franchises, and games that have cultivated a dedicated base of players and fans. Undoubtedly, Call of Duty is one such series, and even within the franchise, people tend to have their favorite of the three developers that work cyclically on the yearly iterations. When Treyarch revealed Call of Duty: Black Ops 4, it came as an enormous shock to many people that the game wouldn’t include a campaign. To an outside spectator, it might appear that an entire third of the game was being cut off, but in practice, that’s far from the case. This might be the most full Call of Duty experience yet.
Black Ops 4 appeals to the dedicated Call of Duty players. It appeals to the dedicated Black Ops players. While Treyarch’s campaigns have typically been excellent, it was always a part of the game that seemed cordoned off from the rest. Black Ops 4 then embraces what the vast majority of players love about Call of Duty: fast-paced multiplayer gameplay, an extensive Zombies offering, and yes, there’s even a story.
Anyone who conflates “story” with “campaign” and thinks that Black Ops 4 is just a soldier murderfest clearly hasn’t been keeping up on the modern era of gaming. Games like Overwatch, Destiny 2, and others have changed the way the industry thinks about delivering a narrative that players can not only connect to, but continue to interact with. There’s a lot of story embedded within the Specialists you’ll play as, as well as the various multiplayer maps that you’ll be competing on. It may not be a traditional start-to-finish narrative, but there are plenty of cutscenes to be unlocked through Specialist missions, and other small details that connect the narrative to previous entries. Black Ops 4 earns the Black Ops title.
Call of Duty has increasingly become a multifaceted offering of gameplay, providing a little something for everyone. Despite the removal of a traditional single-player campaign, Black Ops 4 is still a massive package featuring a full and complete multiplayer, three Zombies campaigns out of the box, and for the first time in the series, the all-new battle royale mode—Blackout.
Multiplayer – Tactical Gunplay
Refinement of this series staple has been Treyarch’s main mission throughout their time developing Call of Duty games. Black Ops 4 takes numerous lessons learned and gives players some of the tightest multiplayer action. It set aside past developments that didn’t work out—such as boost jumping—and embraces that run-and-gun gameplay that the series is best known for. Black Ops III was criticized by many for going too over-the top, with too much focus on acrobatics, wall running, and boost jumping around the map. This year, Treyarch reeled that in, eliminating boost jumps and wall running, but keeping the fast and flowing competitive multiplayer gameplay that they are known for.
Specialists return from Black Ops III, this time with more clearly defined roles in the team makeup. Treyarch isn’t about to fall into the hero shooter realm though. Black Ops 4 is about gunplay first and foremost, though Specialist abilities create a fascinating new facet to explore within the gameplay. They provide an opportunity to be a lot more tactical, and open up the multiplayer experience to people who may not be so keen on just raising their kill/death ratio. There’s actually quite a bit of synergy between the abilities, leading to more opportunities for every type of player. Want to play the role of healer or support in Call of Duty? Now there’s a few effective Specialists for that. You’ll also need to manually regenerate your health when injured, leading to a lot more interesting moments on the battlefield. It takes some getting used to at first, but really lends itself well to the increased tactical design they are targeting.
Speaking of the Specialists, in order to get the most out of their unique abilities, Treyarch included a bunch of training missions. You’ll learn not only how to most effectively utilize each character’s abilities, but also how to counter them if you come up against them in the field. These Specialist missions will unlock cutscenes, dossiers, and other story points that connect Black Ops 4 to the rest of the Black Ops universe (it takes place between the events of Black Ops 2 and 3), and through that narrative, they make character selection and playing multiplayer have a bit more weight and meaning. It starts to lean more along the lines of Overwatch from a lore perspective, allowing you to connect with the characters you use in multiplayer matches.
Instead of needing to focus on a campaign, enemy AI, and building, balancing, and tuning the levels, Treyarch was able to pour a lot more into the multiplayer. As a result, its tactical design shows right down into the smallest details. This is still the Call of Duty that you love, and I would argue that it is Treyarch at their best.
Zombies – Three Times Risen
Zombies has become a Call of Duty staple in recent years, with every developer starting add their own take on the mode, but Treyarch is the studio that started it all 10 years ago. Perhaps to ease the blow of eliminating the single-player campaign, Treyarch is launching with the biggest Zombies offering that Call of Duty has ever seen. A total of three campaigns are available out of the box—IX, Voyage of the Damned, and Blood of the Dead.
Each offers a very different experience, while all somehow feeling cohesive and like they belong under that same Zombies umbrella. IX (Roman numeral “Nine”) and Voyage of Despair are new stories featuring four characters—Scarlett Rhodes, Diego Necalli, Bruno Delacroix, and Stanton Shaw—that haven’t been present within Zombies campaigns before. Their banter and dialogue is somewhat more humorous and macabre, more along the lines of the Shadows of Evil from Black Ops III. IX takes these heroes through time to a gladiatorial arena. There they will do combat against zombie hordes, mutated champions, and even undead tigers, oh my. Voyage of Despair puts these same characters on the Titanic just as it hits the iceberg. They must search for a mysterious artifact before the doomed ship’s rotting passengers devour them.
Blood of the Dead is a remake of Mob of the Dead, a classic Zombies map from Black Ops II. Instead of the original map’s characters, Blood of the Dead continues the Aether storyline with the fan favorite characters that started it all. Blood of the Dead feels much more like a throwback, with a classic design and feel that calls back to those early days of Call of Duty Zombies. It’s genuinely creepy, with some terrifying and tense moments and a great dark story that unfolds as players explore Alcatraz island.
If it’s not enough to get three whole Zombies campaigns, Black Ops 4 also features entirely new ways to play Zombies. Players can customize the games to their liking, tweaking nearly any setting to create fun custom matches. You can set anything from round and kill caps, to full customization of weapons, enemies, and player characteristics. You can set it so that kills grant health. You can turn on or off friendly fire. You can set point parameters and customize wall buys and last stand mechanics and nearly everything you could want to customize for a Zombies match. If you want to play Zombies your way, now you can.
Of course, there’s also still the deep mysteries that permeate each Zombies map, the kinds of stories and mysteries that a vast majority of us will never see. If there’s one criticism with Zombies, it’s that even the most basic story paths can feel too ambiguous and mysterious. For a lot of players, Zombies will simply be fighting hordes of undead in Ancient Rome, on the Titanic, or on Alcatraz island. I know the hardcore players like their deep mystery and difficulty, but I do wish that Treyarch had added the same “casual” path that Sledgehammer did with Nazi Zombies last year. It was still plenty difficult (and an expert path also existed, for even more story), and allowed more players to experience the depth beneath the Zombies horde mode.
Blackout – Last Man Standing
Two years ago, who knew that the world would be enamored with battle royale experiences? Named after the 2000 film of the same name (which itself is based on a book of the same name), the idea of a large group pitted against one another until a final victor remains was popularized by The Hunger Games books and films. Video games just picked up the concept as a mainstream idea within the last couple of years.
I’ve never been the biggest fan of battle royale game modes, mostly because I’m not very good at them. I like a strong sense of progression, and chasing the top spot only to rinse and repeat again and again has never appealed to me. The idea of a game mode where you can most often get further by hiding and skulking about instead of really playing it isn’t exactly how I want to spend my time. That said, Blackout is a strong addition to the Black Ops 4 package that actually cracked my shell a little. I had fun with Blackout. There, I said it. And I might even boot it up again. Shout out to the Lady Lions, my four man (well, three man, one woman) squad during the review event that helped show me how much fun Blackout can be with a group of like-minded friends.
Compared to other battle royale experiences that I have played (minus Fortnite, which is in a category all its own), Blackout feels the most complete and finished. My experience with these military-style last-man-standing game types has typically been with games that feel like they are still in beta. Granted, most of them are free-to-play—and a good number of them actually are still in beta—but nearly ever single one has obviously cut corners in order to make the massive maps filled with 100 players actually work. Blackout bucks that trend with a wholly solid experience that bears the seal of Call of Duty quality. Visually, it might be a little more simple than the traditional multiplayer, but Treyarch did a much better job at scaling the experience and masking what concessions they had to make in order for Blackout to work.
Most importantly though, Blackout still feels like a Call of Duty game. It might be an enormous map filled with references and callbacks to previous Black Ops environments, but when you are engaging in those firefights with enemies, it’s entirely Call of Duty. While it’s impossible to review Treyarch’s responsiveness over time right now, the quick changes they were able to make in the beta (and then for the launch of the game) leave hopes high that Blackout will always be tailored to the players.
What Blackout doesn’t currently have is any kind of meaningful progression system to hook players like other battle royale games. While I wouldn’t put it past Treyarch to continue to iterate on the battle royale idea and make it their own, at launch it is a “what you see is what you get” offering without a chase of any kind. I’d like to see the map change and evolve in some of the same ways that Fortnite does. I’d like to see some kind of battle pass or similar functionality, giving players challenges, objectives, and rewards to be earned. If you give them something to chase, they’ll come running. Blackout is easily the best battle royale game of its particular style, but it needs something to incentivize players to stick around long term.
There are plenty of Treyarch-level secrets for players to discover though, including unlocking a ton of fan favorite characters to play as and Zombies scattered around specific areas of the map as an extra challenge to those locations. Blackout is basically a “Greatest Hits of Call of Duty: Black Ops” smashed into one huge mode, and if Treyarch can keep supporting it past the novelty, it has a real opportunity to be the dominating force within the battle royale genre.
Heed the Call
Once you accept that the campaign is gone, you’ll realize that Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 is a game made specifically for the fans. Leaving a traditional single-player campaign behind has allowed Treyarch to refocus their efforts on an even better multiplayer experience, a more extensive Zombies offering, and a whole new game mode for Call of Duty fans to enjoy. It takes exactly what people love about the series and continues to fine tune the things it does best. This is the Call of Duty that Treyarch is known for. The story is still there, intertwined with lore about the multiplayer Specialists, but this drastic shift for the series has allowed Treyarch to pour far more resources into the parts of their game that keep fans coming back. Black Ops 4 might be missing a campaign, but it still feels like the most robust the series has ever been.
Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 review copy provided by publisher. Version 1.02 reviewed on a standard PS4. Reviewer also attended a Black Ops 4 review event with travel and accommodations provided by Activision. Event used a PS4 Pro for the review. For more information on scoring, please read our Review Policy.