Republished on Wednesday 30th June 2021: We're bringing this review back from the archives following the announcement of July's PlayStation Plus lineup. The original text follows.
Call of Duty had to do something in order to remain relevant. After a slew of yearly releases that failed to really move the needle, Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 takes the franchise’s biggest risk yet by doubling down on its online multiplayer experience and ditching the single player campaign. Has it paid off? In a word, absolutely. This year’s entry is the biggest, best, and most important instalment of the generation.
Before we dive in and discuss what Treyarch’s latest has to offer, let’s address the elephant in the room and focus on what it doesn’t. Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 lacks the traditional single player campaign you would find in every other entry in the series. Now, that’s not to say there isn’t any content at hand for those who prefer to play alone at all, but what there is to experience lacks any sort of cohesive narrative or real drive to press forward. A series of missions introduces you to each of the 10 Specialist classes you’ll be playing as in the multiplayer, explaining how each of their abilities work as well as what sort of effect their special attacks have. You’re then ushered into different types of matches against bots where you can put that training into practise.
It’s nothing more than a number of tutorials and offline bouts against the AI, and it’s a complete waste of time. The matches are long and boring, while the cutscenes in-between try to catch your interest by relating back to previous Black Ops titles. However, only the most devoted of fans are really going to draw anything meaningful from its vague references. We don’t think this was meant to be any sort of replacement for a full single player campaign, but nevertheless, it’s not something you should bother engaging with.
Once you head online though, it’s a whole different story. Traditional multiplayer has been a pillar of the Call of Duty titles for 15 years now, and it doesn’t get much better than what Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 brings to the table. A huge assortment of modes feel at home across 14 different maps, but it’s the newest additions that really begin to impress. Specialist classes were introduced in 2015’s Call of Duty: Black Ops III, and six of those have returned to be accompanied by four brand new ones to help form a multiplayer offering that feels wholly unique, while still keeping its boots firmly on the ground.
And there’s no place those 10 classes shine brighter in than this year’s two new modes: Control and Heist. The former has you attacking and defending two points on a map simultaneously with limited respawns and a timer, while the latter is a round-based mode where you must locate and extract a pool of cash. The twist here, though, is that every player begins the match with a pistol, and you must accrue better gear and weapons by purchasing them in-between rounds via the money you earn from kills. Both modes work great in practise, with each playing to the strengths of certain Specialists. For example, Torque feels tailor-made for Control thanks to the defensive capabilities he possesses of barbed wire to block off entrances and a barrier for players to hide behind.
One change made for this year’s iteration sees the game veer itself away from regenerative health in favour of manual healing, applied via a stim shot mapped to the L1 button. It may seem like a minor tweak, but this fundamentally changes the way you tackle combat. Instead of running and gunning and letting your health catch up with you, you now need to take a second and heal yourself back up before re-joining the fight. It’s more of a tactical approach that we think really works when compared to the screens of red jelly you’d have to put up with in previous titles when low on health.
On the whole, Call of Duty: Black Ops 4’s multiplayer offering is simply sublime. Established modes return to bolster the newer additions to ensure there’s something for everyone, while a large arsenal of guns allow you to experiment with tried and true assault rifles or push the boat out with sniper rifles and shotguns. It’s fast, fun, and addictive action that we will be sticking with long past the launch period.
Next up is Blackout, the franchise’s first attempt at a Battle Royale mode. And to cut to the chase: it’s incredible. Modelling itself after the more realistic PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds rather than Fortnite, 88 players can duke it out for first place in Solo play or Duos, while 100 users can team up in Quads in an attempt to win. Rounds typically take up even less time than a match in Epic Games’ powerhouse does, but it’s Treyarch’s commitment to doing the genre the Black Ops way that really sets the mode apart from anything else on the market.
Perhaps its biggest differentiator is the presence of zombies at certain locations on the map. You’ll find some of the best loot in their presence, but in order to get your hands on it you’ll need to slim their numbers down and reveal your position to enemies in the vicinity. It’s a risk that could pay off in the form of a flashy new gun, but if another player wanders by, they’ll know your exact location.
Elsewhere, air vehicles come to the genre for the first time with pilotable helicopters to cover ground quickly, while trucks and quad bikes can be taken advantage of by those with a fear of heights. Perks also make their way into Blackout, providing temporary boosts that could quieten your footsteps, quicken the rate at which you revive a teammate, or highlight large loot drops on the map. These can all be equipped thanks to an intuitive user-interface that makes selecting weapons and dealing with attachments a complete breeze. Furthermore, a quick equip menu mapped to the d-pad means you may never even need to access the more detailed menu at all. There’s also a separate levelling system to progress through, as well as new characters to unlock by completing missions out in the field.
Treyarch has absolutely succeeded in creating a Battle Royale mode that is of an incredibly high quality as well as feeling unique. A solid framerate keeps the experience ticking at a fast pace, weapon variety makes sure whatever you scavenge will be worthy of your inventory, and the efforts to differentiate the mode from PUBG while still emulating the basic experience will go a long way to retaining a player base for the months to come. This is the greatest and most polished Battle Royale mode we’ve ever played.
Rounding out the package is Zombies, a mode that continues to astonish us thanks to the sheer amount of mechanics and features in play. Three different scenarios ship with the base game: IX takes you to ancient Rome to battle it out in the Colosseum with the gladiators of the undead, Voyage of Despair tasks you with escaping the Titanic as it crashes into the infamous iceberg, and Blood of the Dead has you rummaging through the depths of an abandoned infirmary. Each one features a sprawling map full of doors to unlock, Easter eggs to uncover, and new routes to take, but that’s not even the half of it. There’s another levelling up system to work your way through, an entirely separate class system, weapons to upgrade, selectable perks, and talismans and elixirs that provide further boosts. It really is quite unbelievable just how much content gets packed into this mode year after year.
One new mode making its way into Zombies this year is titled Rush, where players must compete against each other in order to achieve the highest score. The act of purchasing weapons and opening doors is stripped in favour of an approach that promotes as much carnage as possible. It’s fast, frantic, and an absolute ton of fun if you’re looking for a quick hit instead of the more drawn-out traditional mode.
There will always be those that lament it for the lack of a single player campaign, but what Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 does for its multiplayer experience is nothing less than phenomenal. Traditional multiplayer has never been better thanks to a few tweaks and additions here and there that elevate the action to a whole new level, while the all new Blackout mode does Battle Royale better than anyone else. And on top of that, Zombies continues to impress us with a plethora of mechanics to engage with and scenarios to complete. As a package, you’re going to struggle to find much better than Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 in the multiplayer market this year.