What Tom's Played This Weekend: Call of Duty: Black Ops 4

(Image credit: Activision)

There was a time when every Call of Duty release was a cultural phenomenon. Countless people played hooky from school, called in sick to work and put off other obligations to play the latest release as soon as it reached their doorsteps (or, later, finished downloading.) Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 is the first entry in the franchise since the original Black Ops to give me that middle school feeling of genuine excitement.

Too often I've watched the reveal trailer for another Call of Duty game only to roll my eyes and go back to games like Overwatch and Fortnite. The games had grown stale, and I had started to prefer team-based shooters and battle royales over Call of Duty's run-and-gun multiplayer. Black Ops 4 changed that by introducing a battle royale mode, Blackout, as well as incorporating the usual multiplayer and Zombies game modes.

Activision hosted a public beta of Blackout in September. I came away bullish on Treyarch's take on the battle royale genre--it was fun, polished and something between the military-sim-like PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds (PUBG) and the fast-paced Fortnite. The beta was good enough to convince me to pick up Black Ops 4 at launch, and over the weekend, I sunk more hours than I ever would've expected into the latest Call of Duty.

Blackout Is a Knockout

I suspect many people bought Black Ops 4, especially on PC, specifically for Blackout. The game mode is the biggest addition to Call of Duty in years, and it's a big part of the reason why the game managed to unseat Fortnite on Twitch over launch weekend. Blackout is also the reason I got Black Ops 4 myself, and though I've spent a surprising amount of time with the game's other modes, it's also the one I'll revisit most often.

Blackout is battle royale done mostly right. Its setting is made from various Call of Duty maps forced into one cohesive whole, its guns are largely the same as the ones available in the multiplayer game modes and its performance is much improved from the beta. The first two factors make Blackout immediately seem familiar to long-time fans of the series; the last one gives the mode a clear advantage over PUBG.

Treyarch also fixed some of the problems that were present in the beta. Level 3 armor that makes its wearer less a man and more a bullet sponge is now much rarer, which leads to gunfights feeling a lot more fair than before. Everything also feels more fluid, whether it's vaulting through a window or looting equipmen. Upping the frame rate (it was 90 frames per second (fps) in beta and 120fps at launch) also helps.

That isn't to say Blackout is perfect. The use of armor, mines and other equipment also encourages people to bunker down in a safe location instead of roaming. It's frustrating to get in a few gunfights, win them at the expense of your armor and then get one-tapped by someone camping the corner of a house with a shotgun and full armor. The new ballistics system also makes it hard to tell if a kill was earned or lucky.

Still, this is what many people have been asking for in a battle royale. Blackout runs well, looks better than some of its contemporaries and features more customization than the likes of Fortnite. Queue times are a bit longer than Epic Games' wunderkind but nowhere near as long as PUBG's, though we'll have to see what happens when the post-launch hype dies and the mode has to rely on substance over novelty.

Call of Duty Multiplayer

I didn't expect to play more than a few games of the non-Blackout modes in Black Ops 4. Saying "you aren't playing Call of Duty" has become something of a pejorative among players of other games, with the implication being that you can't just run-and-gun until you win. After playing through some of the available modes, however, I found myself enjoying Black Ops 4's multiplayer mode far more than I'd thought I would.

Multiplayer mode features 14 maps--with a remastered Nuketown coming in November--and marks the return of many familiar game modes. Free-For-All and Team Deathmatch let you focus on fragging out. Control tasks you with defending or taking over a designated area. Heist, like Search and Destroy, limits players to one life as they pursue objectives, like stealing money or infiltrating a site. The list goes on.

But the mode does have some elements that are new to me that make it more attractive to someone who's largely abandoned the run-and-gun model popularized by Call of Duty. Healing is now a limited resource that must be manually activated instead of something that happens whenever you duck behind cover. Specialists also offer unique gadgets, like Battery's cluster grenade and War Machine, like in hero-based shooters.

The combination of Specialists with the create-a-class system from earlier Call of Duty games is a fine mix. Yet it also contributes to the mode's "win harder" problem: guns are unlocked as you level up, and attachments are unlocked as you use guns. Someone who's been playing a while will have better weapons than newcomers, removing the level playing field afforded by shooters like Overwatch and Rainbow Six Siege.

Yet, that's not as bad as the score streaks that call in explosive remote-controlled cars, Hellfire missiles and attack helicopters to obliterate the enemy team. Using these rewards to survive long enough is rewarding, but it's no fun being on the receiving end of Hellfire missile after Hellfire missile. By that point, the game is almost certainly already lost; playing it out means being a knowing participant in the enemy's power fantasy.

I'll probably continue to play Black Ops 4's multiplayer, especially when Treyarch introduces a ranked mode that doesn't force people with vastly disparate skills into the same lobby, but it's still not as appealing as other games have become to me. I don't think "you aren't playing Call of Duty" should continue to be an insult--there's a surprising amount of depth here--but most of the time I just won't be playing Call of Duty.

Shambling Zombies

Both times I tried to play Zombies, a mode that I used to play mostly because my brothers did, I was disconnected from the servers. I'm sure the mode will appeal to longtime Zombies fans, but I'm not going to work through 12 rounds of horde-based shooting only to be disconnected.

Nathaniel Mott
Freelance News & Features Writer

Nathaniel Mott is a freelance news and features writer for Tom's Hardware US, covering breaking news, security, and the silliest aspects of the tech industry.