The launch of Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 has been strange. Usually, I dive into the campaign, finish that after 5 hours or so, then head to multiplayer in zombies. But with Black Ops 4, an official campaign is gone, reduced to a series of tiny cutscenes embedded in tutorials of multiplayer specialists, which I’ve found too tedious to get through so far, so where do I start?
Blackout, of course.
Black Ops 4’s campaign has been replaced by a mode that I have to agree is probably a more significant and important addition to the series than five more hours of a new campaign would have been. It’s the Call of Duty take on Battle Royale, one that has already seen the light of day in beta, and the full release is not all that much different.
What I’ve found so far is that Blackout is an incredibly solid, albeit somewhat unremarkable entry into the Battle Royale genre. I think it does many things well, and that it will do very well among the playerbase, but there are some caveats.
Playing a Battle Royale with Call of Duty gunplay feels great. COD has always been one of the best-feeling shooters on the market, especially for PvP play, and that translates pretty seamlessly into Blackout here.
The map is huge, larger than anything Call of Duty has ever produced by several orders of magnitude, and you can see the engine straining to keep up. I’ve encountered some pretty severe lag and texture pop-in issues, and clearly a lot has been sacrificed to make this work, as you keep wandering into buildings and rooms that are completely empty except for a collection of weapons and gear and medkits scattered on the floor.
So far, Squads (Quads) seems like the way to go, because it’s a good amount of fun to actually coordinate with your team and execute tactics to take down rival teams. This is obviously best done with friends, but I’ve had a few games where I’ve done some pretty satisfying and coordinated breach and clears with randoms.
Solo play is a lot more lonely, and a lot less forgiving. One wrong turn and you’re instantly dead, shot by an unseen enemy our outdueled by someone with 20% more armor than you. No revives, you’re gone.
As such, and even in squads to an extent, Blackout encourages really passive play, and I just cannot shake the idea that this, all of this, reminds me of a souped-up, polished version of PUBG. That’s both good, because PUBG is a fun game and sanding off its rough edges feels great. But it’s also a tiny bit…dull, given that Blackout doesn’t seem to be innovating in the space in any real way. Fortnite has its building and wacky gear (port-a-forts! rift-to-gos!), Realm Royale has its fantasy setting. Call of Duty has really polished gameplay and…that’s kind of it? The most “random” the mode gets is when it occasionally throws zombies at you, but it’s easy to play stretches of games and not see those PvE enemies at all.
It is deeply satisfying to skulk around the sprawling map and take out unsuspecting players, or win frantic duels, but the entire experience of Blackout is very, very contrary to what we have expected from Call of Duty for over a decade now, the frantic kill-die-kill-die pattern of multiplayer. This is the polar opposite of that, where you have but one life to live, and often the best tactic is that once you have enough armor and a modded-up weapon, to just hide in a safe space until the playercount drops to the point where you can mop up the last few kills. This is not a game that rewards hyper aggression unless you’re the pro of most pro players. Even then, no matter how good you are, all it takes is turning the wrong way for half a second out in the open to get lit up by a rival player, no matter their skill level. I also think it’s sort of weird to constantly be dueling enemies with zero idea how much armor they’re rocking, and by the time you figure it out, you’re dead because of the insanely fast TTK in the game. Between that and fights often being heal-offs feels, encounters can feel very un-COD at times, though perhaps par for the course in the BR space.
What also strikes me as very anti-Call of Duty is the way Blackout rewards you, or rather doesn’t reward you, in a series known for its non-stop, player-satisfying unlocks. As you move up through Blackout’s tiers, you unlock barely a handful of new characters, and you only get points if you get kills, place in the top 15 or happen to complete a challenge that game. Given that in many, many Battle Royale games, no matter what your skill level, you will often spend 10-15 minutes trying to find anyone to fight (and the Blackout map can feel very empty at times) only to die to some random sniper, that can be deeply unsatisfying.
The same goes for the inevitably quick games where you die in the first 60-100 slots. A game like Fortnite at least gives you some modest amount of experience for outlasting other players, even if you don’t land kills yourself, but Blackout does not. This is odd considering a multiplayer match will have you drowning in medals and unlocks, but it’s the polar opposite in Blackout unless you’re constantly putting up 4-5 kill games and finishing in the top tier. By definition, this will not be the experience for at least 85% of other players.
I will get into this later, but some sort of embedded Battle Pass system, free or otherwise, would work wonders here, as you rank up most of the time simply to…rank up with no actual unlocks at most levels, which feels weird. Similarly, giving out a tiny amount of points for kills and only larger amounts for placing in the top 15 feels really stingy and like it can often be hard to make progress at all if you have a run of not-great games. It’s kind of a weirdly designed system.
For me personally, I do like Blackout and think it’s a great addition to the Battle Royale genre. But it does not feel like it’s super innovative, merely polishing what’s come before, nor does it feel terribly rewarding, due to the issues I just mentioned.
I think Blackout will do well, but there’s definitely a lot of work to be done to shape this into the mode it needs to be. But it’s off to a good start.