Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 was always going to be the black sheep of the family. It's the first game in the franchise not to feature a single-player campaign, the first to sell its downloadable content exclusively via season pass, and the first to feature a battle royale mode. Activision and Treyarch recently hosted an open beta for that mode, Blackout, and I spent much of the weekend playing it on PC to see how it stacks up.
Everyone is going to approach Blackout differently, but most will probably expect it to be the same old Call of Duty in a battle royale shell, hastily constructed from the game development equivalent of papier-mâché. The open beta quickly puts those concerns to rest. While I experienced several bugs, and there are serious questions about how Blackout is balanced, the mode feels nothing like an opportunistic cash-grab.
Let's get this out of the way at the start: I started playing Call of Duty in middle school when Call of Duty 2 debuted alongside the Xbox 360. I played several of the games on the PlayStation 3, and the last entry in the series I played was Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare on the PS4. Recently I've been far more interested in playing Overwatch, Fortnite, and League of Legends than Call of Duty. But I'm a sucker for battle royale games, so Blackout immediately piqued my interest--as did the Firestorm mode in Battlefield V. So, what does a big-budget battle royale look like?
Well, to be honest, it looks a lot like someone cleaned up PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds. Blackout will probably feel more familiar to people who played a lot of PUBG than to those who played Fortnite--or even Call of Duty. The guns shoot projectiles, rather than the hitscan "what you click on is what you hit" weapons in the latter two games, and there's a similar emphasis on picking up the right weapon modifications and gear.
I immediately noticed that Blackout felt different from every Call of Duty game I'd played before. (And not just because this time I had to shoot without aim assist.) Going to a ballistics system from a hitscan-based one is a jarring change, but given the size of Blackout's map, it makes sense. Hitscan weapons can feel overpowered when you get sniped from who-knows-how-far away; projectiles require more thoughtful shooting.
Blackout separates itself from PUBG with its many quality of life changes. Movement's as slick as Call of Duty players remember--it's easy to sprint across a clearing, slide behind cover, climb a ladder, and vault through a window. Healing items can also be used while you're moving, which is a refreshing change from other battle royale titles, most of which make you stay almost perfectly still every time you need to heal.
But that brings us to my first problem with Blackout: Healing and armor make gunfights entirely unpredictable. Armor's effectiveness is determined by its level--Level 1 offers 40% damage reduction, Level 2 offers 50% damage reduction, and Level 3 offers both 55% damage reduction and protection from headshots. There's also a Trauma Kit that replenishes all health and raises the max from 150 to 200 hit points.
Don that armor and down that medicine and you have a nigh-unkillable bullet sponge that you have to pump shots into until the armor breaks--assuming they don't just duck behind cover first. If you engage someone with Level 3 armor and you don't have the same, protection you're almost guaranteed to lose. Running around without armor is practically asking to be sent back to the game's lobby by someone who is.
Yet it's not hard to guess why Treyarch made armor so powerful. Whoever sees the other person first has a significant advantage; armor gives you a chance to respond to being hit instead of just keeling over. Without it, the time-to-kill (TTK) in Blackout is laughably low, to a point where it feels like you're playing the world's most dangerous game of hide-and-seek.
The result all but forces you into using a handful of weapons. Pistols feel almost useless, SMGs are more likely to hit a wall than a target, and even assault rifles can pale in comparison to shotguns (close quarters) and sniper rifles (long distances). That isn't to say these guns aren't usable, but someone prepared to deal maximum damage with a single shot at distances near and far is best off. Mid-range is a guessing game.
None of that makes Blackout less fun. It's exhilarating when you find your favorite gun, inject a quick Trauma Kit, don some Level 3 armor, and wait for your prey to appear. The vehicle options are also interesting, as is the inclusion of a grappling hook. Despite the limited options, there's already many different ways to play Blackout, and bringing things more in balance ought to open up even more opportunities for differentiation.
Of course, this being a beta, there were some technical issues. Games were capped at 88 players--up from the 80 players when the beta opened--and the game was locked at 90 frames per second. The full game could remove the first limitation and will definitely remove the second. Bugs also reared their ugly head: I was often forced to leave a match by closing the game entirely, and some PC players couldn't play at all.
I was all to happy to deal with those problems, however, because I was having so much fun with Blackout. Everything from the movement to the gun play felt good, and being able to explore areas even I recognized (Nuketown Island) was a trip, as was dealing with zombies at certain spots on the map. I did avoid one particularly big zombie patrolling a graveyard like I was a mouse and he was a saber-toothed tiger.
There's still a lot we don't know about Blackout. Will it be available separately from Black Ops 4 proper or will you have to buy the entire game? How long do Treyarch and Activision plan to support the mode, especially as Call of Duty receives new installments on a yearly basis? Will the answers to those questions be determined at least in part by what EA plans for Firestorm in Battlefield V? We don't know the answers yet.
Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 is set to debut on October 12, though, so we shouldn't have to wait too long for at least some of those answers.