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Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 review in progress

(Source: pcgamer.com)

Call of Duty: Black Ops 4’s take on battle royale, Blackout, feels like an unintentional commentary on the series as a whole. It’s a nakedly sales-driven version of one of the most popular trends in gaming right now, expertly-tuned to the whims of a capricious gaming community. Like every Call of Duty since Modern Warfare set new standards for online shooters, Blackout is a competent rendition of ideas forged by bolder games. But with its usual array of compulsive multiplayer modes and the most instantly-thrilling battle royale mode to date—which saw me lose all the members of my squad, commandeer a helicopter, and then immediately crash into another firefight within 30 seconds of deploying—Black Ops 4 may have what it takes to re-excite the PC audience.

Note the lack of singleplayer in that description. For those of you that haven’t heard, Treyarch has finally jettisoned the usual glossy eight-hour corridor campaign from this year’s game. While I doubt many have spilled tears over its loss, it leaves the singleplayer relatively meager this time around, limited to solo zombie-stomping with bots or lone missions that star the game’s cast of multiplayer ‘Specialists.’ Black Ops 4 is a game about shooting your friends or shooting with your friends, so if you aren’t into that, this isn’t the CoD for you.

For battle royale devotees, there’s nothing revolutionary or even surprising about Treyarch’s CoD-ified take on last-player-standing deathmatch. That said, it does have a few nuances of its own, which I was able to suss out out at an Activision-run review event (our full review will come after time playing the live game in a regular setting). Black Ops 4’s militarized photorealism initially recalls the Soviet drabness of PUBG. After a few hours of play, however, I’d say that Blackout hews far closer to Fortnite, albeit without its signature building mechanic. 

The whip-sharp precision and reactivity of Blackout’s shooting easily outclasses the slightly-clunky gunplay of PUBG, while the smaller map and the generous distribution of quality loot produce a much faster, more thrilling game. The ten-minute lulls and tense nail-biting of a 45-minute PUBG match are mostly absent here, which marks a welcome contrast that suits COD’s more pick-up-and-play style. Matches are quick and dirty, leaving only a little room for tactical maneuvering. 

Though Blackout rewards jaunts to high-spec loot zones with the expected array of superweapons and god-tier armor, Treyarch raises the usual floor for gear, which deflates much of the frustration that can accompany a bad run of matches. I rarely found myself without a pistol or rifle to defend myself with, even in the tense opening seconds of a match. I loved that I always felt like I had a fighting chance, but the repetitive hazard of quick zombies running up to swipe at me in certain areas of the map wore on me, especially since it made my preferred stealthy playstyle less viable.

Blackout offers more of the messy gunfights and clutch finishes that make me want to jump back in often, and that’s ultimately the metric that matters the most to me.

One particularly memorable match saw me edge-crawl my way into the top twenty while only encountering a handful of other soldiers, a rare feat in Blackout. One in particular didn’t even have a weapon, so he ran away as fast as he could. When I rolled into one of the final circles, I took down two other players who were blasting each other. As I stepped forward to loot their bodies, I was sniped at 50 yards by the same grunt who had managed to escape me earlier, locking me out of a cheap top 10 finish. I guess he managed to find a gun, after all.

My attempts at piloting the vehicles in Blackout mostly led to disaster, but the snappy ATV is by far my favorite, handling best with a controller, if you’re able to switch away from keyboard and mouse momentarily. It’s an easy way to zip up to an unsuspecting player without making yourself too much of a target, which is always a concern with battle royale vehicles. While it can be tough to tell when you’re packing a new weapon every game, the recoil patterns on the various rifles seem far more consistent than in previous games, which makes it easier to precisely blast down foes at mid-range. This left me relying on the slow-firing Rampart and a whatever shotgun I could find, rather than my CoD standby of the SMG-and-sniper combo. My trusty combo feels a bit ill-suited for the unpredictable open-field nature of most Blackout battles.

Compared its contemporaries, Black Ops 4 might be a refinement rather than a revolution, but it still offers more of the messy gunfights and clutch finishes that made me want to jump back in often, and that’s ultimately the metric that matters the most to me.

That sense of familiarity extends to Black Ops 4’s traditional multiplayer modes. Treyarch has ditched the divisive Titanfall-esque wall-running and double-jumping of Black Ops 3 for a more grounded approach. While there’s a place for extensive movement options in first-person shooters, I find that the simplified movement better suits Call of Duty’s no-gristle take on the genre. Rather than throwing it all the way back to Black Ops 2, however, this new entry has doubled-down on the ‘Specialist’ system introduced in its third installment, which layers character-specific abilities over the series’ enduring class system. Though comparisons to the flashy ultimates of Overwatch seem inevitable, these Specialists lean closer to the classes of Destiny’s Crucible, where your loadout matters just as much as the boots you inhabit, if not more. 

I eventually found success as Prophet, a deep-voiced grunt who deploys a rolling drone that automatically seeks out targets and immobilizes them with a piercing shock. One particular highlight saw me clear a point of the entire enemy team with just his ultimate ability, a far-reaching shock rifle that paralyzes targets with a single shot. Though it felt great in the moment to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat with just a handful of mouse clicks, something about it just struck me as slightly off. 

Since I devoured Modern Warfare as a teen in 2007, Call of Duty has always denoted something akin to a ‘pure’ shooting experience in my mind, untainted by RPG-like abilities and cooldowns. Perks and killstreaks are one thing, sure, but area-of-effect flashbangs, Widowmaker-style wallhacks, and deployable accessories that redirect where your teammates respawn are a strange and clumsy direction for the series. Rather than the race of reflexes that bought the series to the dance, Black Ops 4 has lumbered into an uncomfortable middle ground between a pure twitch shooter and a game of tactical teamwork, shedding some of the series’ irresistible simplicity in the process.

Treyarch applies the series’ stellar shooting to a more careful and exacting playstyle, and the result is my favorite mode since Modern Warfare’s Domination.

Perhaps that’s why I so enjoyed the game’s new mode, Heist, which shunts the character abilities aside entirely in favor of a Counter-Strike-style buy-menu. After gearing up, two teams compete to locate a mound of cash and bring it to an exfil site all while grappling with each other.  And there’s no respawns to blunt any mistakes. Rather than the popular Team Deathmatch, where you can endlessly spawn with the same gear without a thought for strategy, Heist makes you consider the advantages and disadvantages of Black Ops 4’s considerable armory from round to round. 

When the enemy team were rushing us down with well-timed flashbangs and close-range SMG bursts, I saved my money to purchase a semi-automatic rifle and some helpful perks to engage them at range to turn the tide in the following rounds. They responded a few rounds later by counter-sniping me, so I switched to a mid-range rifle to try to cover both bases. It’s not exactly the Art of War, but it brings a welcome measure of tit-for-tat tactical depth to a game that feels mindless at times. While it certainly owes several debts of gratitude to its obvious inspiration (much like Blackout), Treyarch applies the series’ stellar shooting to a more careful and exacting playstyle. The result is my favorite mode since Modern Warfare’s Domination.

The final leg of Black Ops 4’s three-pronged approach is its Zombies mode, one of the unique selling points of the Black Ops sub-series. Though I’m sure fans will go wild for the three maps I sampled, scouring every inch of their cramped hallways and rich environments for clues about the next events in the ongoing sagas, I personally find the mode to pale in comparison to fresher four-player co-op shooters on the PC.

I admire the complex, obscure subsystems and subgoals that you have to master in order to achieve a 50-round run on the new IX map, but they’re layered over a foundation that boils down to a very pretty but very static shooting gallery occasionally broken up by bullet-sponge super-zombies with little in the way of personality. The lack of clear linear progression or an objective besides “shoot the zombies” makes the mode rather opaque to newcomers. While that was fun enough in short bursts, I eventually got sick of dying on wave 11.

The only other option is to strive for mastery through trial and error, figuring out the complexities of the bonus-bestowing Pack-a-Punch machine or the ideal build to synergize with your teammates.I just didn’t have much of a drive to continue down that road. Even when it comes to the rote zombie-blasting, the ever-ballooning health of the basic undead makes it hard to judge priority targets, or the efficacy of your arsenal.

It’s exactly what it says on the box, and sometimes, that’s good enough.

There’s an absolute ton of undead to slaughter in Black Ops 4, including two brand-new maps and a remake of Black Ops 2’s Mob of the Dead, along with a remake of the original Black Ops’ Five that comes with the optional season pass. But after over five hours of headshotting hordes of the undead, I felt a deep urge to play through Left 4 Dead 2 again. Zombies lacks that series’ clarity of direction and randomized replayability, as well as the diversity of specialized super-undead. 

Overall, no matter the mode, there’s very little surprise in Black Ops 4. But maybe that’s for the best. The original Modern Warfare delivered a level-tiered shooting experience so forward-thinking that I didn’t even know I wanted it. But Infinite Warfare and Black Ops 3 changed so much that even die-hard fans like me didn’t really want them. Now with Black Ops 4, Treyarch is giving us exactly what they think the legion of fans want. Though that’s not quite as refreshing as a truly innovative game, that’s not what I come to Call of Duty for. It’s exactly what it says on the box, and sometimes, that’s good enough.

We’ll have a final review of Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 once I’ve spent more time with the game in a live environment and have poured more hours into Blackout to see how the full playerbase changes my experience. I also plan to put more time into the new Zombie maps to give the mode a better chance to click with me in an organic setting.

More Info: pcgamer.com

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