Call of Duty: Black Ops 4‘s Private Beta hints at a series ready to reinvent itself in little ways

Call of Duty is a franchise you either love or hate, there doesn’t seem to be much in between. There are a few reasons for this. It’s home to one of the most aggressive, toxic communities in gaming. It found its niche as a multiplayer twitch shooter years ago and hasn’t felt much need to depart from that template since. It offers plenty of team based and tactical modes, but the twitchy gameplay means even the most meticulously crafted plan can be derailed by hail of sniper flickshots. I expected all of this going into the Black Ops 4 private beta over the weekend. What I didn’t expect to find was a game trying to stretch itself in new directions in ways that won’t rile its most ardent fans.

The beta features five multiplayer modes for players to jump into. The newest mode coming to Black Ops 4 is Heist mode, which sees two teams of five competing to steal a bag of money in the centre of the map. The round begins with a short Buy phase in which each team uses a personal cash pool to build their loadout of choice. Everyone starts with a basic kit and pistol. The match then begins and the two teams sprint towards the moneybag, looking to take the head off anyone fool enough to get too close, too early. Once a team secures the moneybag, it must be moved to a specified drop zone for collection. This starts a countdown to the end of the round. If any of the opposing team have survived the battle for the bag, this will be their last chance to even the score and take the bag back. Once the timer runs out, the round ends and a point is awarded to the successful team. The match resets, everyone gets to buy upgrades or new weapons with their updated cash pool. Cash is awarded for individual performance as well as the team getting away with the moneybag. Best of five overall takes the game.

There are some of you reading this and thinking, “that sounds awfully familiar.” And it should. Heist mode appears to be modeled on the basic game loop of Valve’s long-running Counter-Strike: Global Offensive with a little Pay Day 2 sprinkled in, but with a tweak or two to the form. Where CS:GO is about one team working to plant a bomb and the other to thwart them, Black Ops 4 has both teams trying to get into a specific area of the map, collect an objective and then get out again. If you’ve never played CS:GO before, I’m sure it will be one of your favourite new modes. It’s fast, the objectives are clear and it’s white knuckled and stressful in the way that Call of Duty really likes. Counter-Strike‘s formula is still popular because it’s a very good one but for those who’ve been playing CS:GO for years, it might not feel terribly fresh. It was fun though, and that’s the crucial part. It’s why the formula has survived as long as it has.

Beyond Heist, the remaining modes on offer for the beta were the FPS genre equivalent of jazz standards — Control (a King of the Hill mode), Capture Moshpit (a series of point capture-based modes), Chaos TDM (team deathmatch modes including Kill Confirmed, which requires players retrieve the dogtags of downed friends and foes for points) and Search & Destroy (an objective based mode in which each player has only a single life).

The beta featured six complete maps for players to jump into, and they were: Seaside, Contraband, Frequency, Payload, Gridlock and Hacienda. All six are well in line with the Black Ops series’ near-future aesthetic with lots of industrial or battle ravaged sites to explore. Seaside was a personal favourite, as was Hacienda. All six levels specialise in the kind of “loop around back, ambush from behind” tactic that so many Call of Duty players favour, but there are paths you can take that allow you to gain important high ground advantage.

Heist isn’t the only area where the Black Ops 4 beta seemed to be borrowing from another game. Treyarch have obviously been watching Activision Blizzard’s stablemate Overwatch quite closely. The introduction of its Specialists — essentially hero classes that specialise in one particular facet of combat — bear more than a passing resemblance to Blizzard’s winning formula. Each Specialist has an aesthetic all their own, and a pair of skills on a cooldown — one, a health pick up, the other a semi-regular unique move. They also have what could be described as an Ultimate that builds up over time and is more quickly obtained through good in-game performance. I favoured a specialist called Crash, effectively a support character, who could drop a supply bag in a choke fight to prop his team mates up. His ultimate was a huge buff to his team — health bars refilled and fully three bars of armour added on top. It’s the kind of ultimate that doesn’t just win team fights, it wins whole games if your team knows to press their advantage the moment you pop it. There are plenty of these — characters who specialise in demolitions or stealth, particular weapons or skillsets. There’s even one specialist who can get around with a grappling hook, an addition I find ludicrously overpowered in a Call of Duty title but is certainly a lot of fun in practice.

There were a handful of downsides. Call of Duty is still the kind of game where you can be instantly torn to shreds by gunfire if you make a single mistake and the Black Ops 4 beta was no exception. The trouble with this lightning fast combat is that, quite often, dying doesn’t feel very fair. Sometimes its totally obvious to me why I died and how I put myself in a position for it to happen, but a lot of the time it isn’t clear what you could have done differently and that will frustrate some players.

There’s also a lot of players that know COD‘s various idiosyncrasies inside and out by now, which means I found myself dying to snipers who didn’t even need to fully look down the barrel of their rifles to headshot me. They could quickscope, fire the shot, cancel the animation and be on their way, all without the camera ever changing to a scoped view. Power creep, even in the beta, was still tied to XP. With levelling up the only way to unlock better gear, newer players struggle to gain any kind of advantage over ones already further along. Those who got to play in the private beta got to roll their earned XP over into the open beta that continued throughout the weekend, meaning new players were being made to grind up against players with a day or two head start on them. If that doesn’t sound terribly fair, you should know it didn’t feel that way either. COD fans are well used to this by now, but its a gripe I’ve had with the series for a long time now.

The impression I got from the Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 private beta was one of a game that wants to change things up, but is also wary of straying too far from what feels tried and true. All the new additions the beta was happy to show off are generally good ones. While the beta was a highly curated slab of content, what’s clear after only a few days of play is that Call of Duty feels like its finally ready to try something different — but it isn’t totally sure that “different” is what its community wants. We’ll have to see what, if anything, has changed when the game’s second beta period kicks off on September 11.

Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 launches on October 12, 2018 for PlayStation 4, Xbox One and Windows PC.

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.