As someone who plays single-player games primarily, picking up Black Ops 4 felt like some sort of treason. With no campaign to help justify a purchase it was at some risk that I braved the unimpressed frowns of my other single player friends to give it a try. I blame Black Ops 3 really; for all its faults I enjoyed the multiplayer quite a bit and with a more straightforward movement system promised in 2018’s Call of Duty I would appreciate not being shot in the back by a somersaulting cyber-soldier or having to watch every wall and roof for my next unseen assailant.
So the thrust of the marketing guff this time around is about grounded and tactical gameplay which simply means they took out the jump packs and wall running. It largely plays like the Modern Warfare games only with the Black Ops 3 specialist system wherein you pick a character with specific abilities and gear that whilst touching upon future tech doesn’t go so far as to tip into straight up science fiction. Despite questions over balance the setup does a pretty good job at toeing a line between the core gunplay and its hero-shooter aspirations. Anyone possessing classic Call of Duty skills won’t have any problems in settling in and running rampant but it does allow for some degree of variety in gameplay style without feeling as though the soul of the series has been compromised. The Create-a-class system returns and is one aspect I have a good deal of respect for. There are lots of useful perks, equipment and attachments but with limited slots you have to actually consider what makes the most sense in the situation and what works best for your particular style of play. I very much enjoyed coming up with new loadouts and testing them on the battlefield, especially when they introduce me to a weapon I might otherwise have never considered. It’s one aspect of the multiplayer that had me actively engaged and excited to mess around with as the number of potential permutations are agreeably generous.
Having only recently played Black Ops 3 I can state with clarity of mind that the customisation options this time around are not only more stingy, but a great deal more scummy in how things unlock. Many of those interested in the game will already be aware of ‘Contraband’ tier system but for the uninitiated it is essentially a separate XP bar where each level is instead a tier, unlocking one fixed or random item be it a new gesture, tag, outfit or weapon skin. Each unlock is pulled from a universal pool so there is no specialist-specific unlock path as there was in 3. Additionally the tiers are part of a timed event, whereby unless to get to the relevant unlock within the event time frame you lose the chance to get it until it shows up again. You can also buy your way up these tiers, certainly Activision’s preference here, but to do so would only encourage more of this rancid design. Even the nature of the unlocks is disappointing; the introduction of various tags and gestures smack of a rather limp attempt to flood the game with ‘stuff’ as opposed to anything you might find appealing, and if you happen to be a fan of a particular specialist then whether you can unlock anything cool for them without a ridiculous amount of grinding is purely down to how the tiers are arranged. Admittedly a daily tier skip has been introduced for winning a multiplayer match but one wonders why they didn’t employ a system whereby you could choose from a set of items at each tier rather than an arbitrary and strictly linear series. If such things matter little to you then of course there is little to be bothered by here but speaking for myself I lament the decline of cool cosmetics being a reward for gameplay milestones or finding secrets, and how more and more paywalls are being erected which rob you of the fun which used to come from discovering something neat.
Black Ops 4 has no campaign, nor any real story of which to speak. It claims to have one but anyone who genuinely cares about stories in games ought to be insulted by its feeble efforts. It also doesn’t help that the characters involved are decidedly uninteresting and have more nuance and detail to their combat gear than their personalities. What little narrative there is comes via the game’s Specialist HQ which is just another word for tutorial mode. It runs you through everyone’s abilities and the various multiplayer modes to make sure you’re good to go when you decide to jump into it, although anyone with any history with the series will have little reason to spend any degree of time with it aside from comedy value. I never played the first two Black Ops games so have no knowledge of this Frank Woods character, but he oversees and narrates the tutorials and is surely (?) supposed to be some sort of joke. His hilarious over the top machismo is so overt and straight faced that I am forced to assume that this is some hidden piss-take at the expense of the more self-serious Call of Duty players. If it isn’t then God help us all.
In place of a campaign there is a Battle Royale mode called Blackout. Given Fortnite’s popularity I feel it a little pointless to have to explain how it works but will at least say that it takes the essential gameplay from it, PUBG et al. but with the benefit of Call of Duty’s superior gameplay and production. New names are given for things and it adds temporary perks to the mix but otherwise is the same game. Fans of the genre should enjoy it immensely as there are few, certainly few console first person shooters that feel as good as Call of Duty, which elevates the experience above its contemporaries. The only major downside is that unless you get into the top 15 or score a kill you don’t gain anything and with a pretty undernourished set of unlocks for the mode it doesn’t do much to reward time invested into it. I must also admit that I’m not a fan of the genre and so find little to enjoy here but for those that have longed for something more robust and well made than Player Unknown’s Battlegrounds it offers a much needed upgrade in quality.
The Zombies mode returns ever more elaborate and bloated but nonetheless fun for a time. For all the bells and whistles it has in relation to its classes, items and upgrades the actual gameplay is straightforward; you fight zombies to get points, use the points to open areas, get weapons and items and then use said weapons and items to fight more zombies, with each wave of the undead getting ever more challenging. You level up and gain access to new gear and items to help you fight zombies and it’s all played out in a fairly comedic tone with its four walking clichés. To be fair they have some good lines and are certainly the most charismatic of anyone present in the entire game but such an achievement is gained more by a lack of competition than anything else. There is a good mix of environments and with the ability to play solo or with friends, randoms or bots it's easy to get some mileage out of it whatever your situation, although the nature of the gameplay means that repetition will likely set in long before you’ve exhausted all it has to offer.
In terms of its production values it falls into the clichéd bag of mixed experiences. On the plus side it has lots of gloriously cheesy metal riffs to accompany the multiplayer and the blackout modes and the game runs as smooth as we’ve come to expect. On the other hand the menus are bafflingly inelegant and the texture work seems to be something of a downgrade from previous games. The reusing of maps is also a concern but having only come to the series relatively recently they are essentially new in my case.
In some other dimension, where Mammon is not the only deity worshipped by games publishers, Black Ops 4 could be quite special. The multiplayer gameplay is excellent, the blackout mode offers high quality Battle Royale action and Zombies add some more relaxed co-operative fun, but the overall package is tainted by the unmistakeable whiff of exploitative greed. The degree of psychological manipulation is clear with how rewards for playing now all sit within the grind engine, close enough to aim for but always far enough away to consider buying your way there. What is good about Black Ops 4 was good in the games before it and came from a time and place long before these objectionable practices became so ubiquitous. The notion that ‘cosmetic-only’ microtransactions could be held up as a good thing just makes me feel old and disappointed.