Games Review: Call of Duty: Black Ops 4‘s pivot to multiplayer-only is just what the field medic ordered

I’m going to open this review with a comparison that may lose some of you right away. Sometimes, in order to learn and grow in a meaningful way, we have to cut a significant part of ourselves off. It may take us a while to work up the courage to make that change, it may not seem like the most obvious solution to our ongoing problems. However, having cut that part of ourselves off and having grown as a result, we will one day look back and wonder why it took so long to do it. Call of Duty has needed to lop off its single player campaign mode for years now. Few people ever played them, and the ones that did rarely had anything nice to say about them. The campaigns pulled focus from what the audience made clear was the game’s real draw — the multiplayer.

Thus, the leap to multiplayer-only has been one the franchise has been longing to make for a while now. Various COD developers have said that the percentage of players who jumped into the single player campaign was dwarfed by those who went straight to multiplayer. Call of Duty was already a multiplayer shooter at heart. It just needed to make things official.

Black Ops 4 has its influences, and it wears them rather proudly on its sleeve — its new Blackout mode is Treyarch’s fun take on the Battle Royale genre that continues to take the games industry by storm (and more on that in a minute). It’s new hero-based loadout system, complete with ultimate abilities, owes a debt to Activision Blizzard stablemate Overwatch, and the way it introduces each character and the wider story through a series of pitched, solo training modules is reminiscent of Titanfall.

I actually think Titanfall has had a more significant influence on Black Ops 4 than it might appear at first blush. Put the two games side-by-side and you’ll find Black Ops 4 follows the multiplayer-only blueprint Titanfall laid out four years ago almost to the letter. Factor in that Titanfall was created by a swath of former Infinity Ward creatives, the team that created the Call of Duty franchise in the first place, and Black Ops 4 inadvertently closes out an odd little recursive loop within the industry.

The core of Black Ops 4 is comprised of multiplayer modes new and old. Some, like your standard Deathmatch, Team DM, 3CP and KotH, are well represented and every map is crafted with an eye for these modes. Each map is a near-future warren of pathways, lanes and flanks that allow players to run in unpredictable loops, putting them squarely behind the enemy when they expect it least. It’s a time-honoured Call of Duty strat and the map design will allow returning players to feel right at home.

The ever-popular Zombies mode is also back, this time full of portals and eldtrich weaponry. You and three friends have your backs against the wall in a 1920’s-themed undead invasion. The only thing between you and total annhilation appear to be The Old Gods, who will spit out upgraded versions of your weapons in exchange for currency, which is collected by taking out zombies. Treyarch are to be credited for always managing to finding something new to throw at the Zombies mode. It would be easy to coast on the already fairly strong horde mode loop that was its basis, but Treyarch seem happy to get a bit weird and I’m happy to let them.

The standout offering is the much talked-about battle royale mode called Blackout. Blackout follows the battle royale format almost to the letter, borrowing elements from genre titans like Fortnite and PUBG while adding a few surprises of its own. Certain areas, like the Asylum, are packed with swarms of zombies that will come for you if provoked. Vehicles, from ATV’s to attack helicopters, are scattered throughout the level and must be (but rarely are) carefully leveraged in a way that reminds me of Battlefield. The wingsuit you use to drop into the game can be redeployed once you leap from a great height making traversal an interesting experience. Beyond this, its battle royale more or less as you know it. Long periods of quiet followed by a few seconds of frenetic gunplay. It finds a kind of sweet spot in the genre — its less cartoony than Fortnite and features a greater level of complexity, but it isn’t as convoluted as PUBG either. I can see this game capturing a lot of new players, especially in four-stack squads.

The other new mode we talked about in our Beta preview from a few months ago. It’s called Heist and is very much a riff on the enduringly popular Counter-Strike: Global Offensive. It involves two teams scrambling to claim and then evac a huge bag of money in the centre of the map, the spoils of which are used to purchase new weapons and upgrade gear for the next round. It’s a genuinely fun mode, and one that makes sense for Call of Duty to co-opt. CS:GO is COD‘s biggest rival on the esports stage and so to find Activision looking for ways to close that gap shouldn’t come as a huge surprise. Blackout’s going to get all the attention up front, but look for Heist to be the game’s sleeper hit.

In finding the courage to drop the traditional single player mode and give its undivided attention to multiplayer, Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 becomes one of the most engaging entries in the series in years. It’s a honed multiplayer experience, free of the bloat that has pervaded the franchise over the last five years or so.

I still wonder how long it will take Activision to pivot COD to the games-as-a-service model or an event-driven, ongoing multiplayer experience similar to Overwatch. Time’s gonna tell on that one. For now, this is a big step in a very positive direction and one I hope continues.

FOUR STARS OUT OF FIVE

Highlights: Great maps; great modes; commits to multiplayer only
Lowlights: Love it or hate it, that multiplayer unlock grind still firmly in place
Developer: Treyarch
Publisher: Activision
Platforms: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Windows PC
Available: Now

Review conducted on PlayStation 4 using a retail code provided by the publisher.

David Smith

David Smith is the games and technology editor at The AU Review. He has previously worked as a freelance games journalist and critic, appearing on PC World Australia. He tweets at @RhunWords and plays the odd game at twitch.tv/RhunWords when the internet works.