In the increasingly confused numbering system used for Call of Duty, Black Ops is the first series to hit a fourth instalment since the original (Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare spun off into its own sub-series, lasting three games – there was no Call of Duty 5). While the Call of Duty games developed by Infinity Ward and Sledgehammer Games essentially reboot with every new release, Treyarch’s Black Ops series is still going strong. It’s now generally considered the ‘main’ Call of Duty series because Treyarch really knows how to put together a good multiplayer shooter experience.
The first, closed beta for Black Ops 4 (referred to as ‘BLOPS 4’ by the gaming community) was populated by huge fans who pre-ordered the game early and hapless journalists like myself who like Call of Duty but tend to put them down after a few months, and now find themselves barely able to move without taking a sniper’s bullet to the face. Couple this with a smaller player pool and the general bugs and issues that come with betas, and the result can be mismatched, lag-plagued games for us poor saps in Australia and a multiplayer experience that can be frequently frustrating. Yet I struggled to tear myself away from the game. I’d frequently stay in a lobby of the new ‘Control’ mode (two teams of five, alternate attacking and defending two points, each team limited to 30 respawns) for another game – notwithstanding the roving gang of 14-year-old Americans repeatedly no-scoping me from halfway across the map.
These abilities matter, but the game certainly isn’t transitioning into an Overwatch-style ‘hero’ shooter, even if it has pulled in some influences from games of that ilk.
Movement is less zany than previous iterations of BLOPS, with BLOPS 4 taking a more ‘boots on the ground’ approach to getting around the map. The ‘double jump’ and ‘wall-running’ that you could do in BLOPS 3 are gone, and though you can still expect to be killed a lot by players sprinting into a slide across the ground, in general, manoeuvring your character is more realistic. There are 10 operators (or ‘classes’), all of whom come with slightly different load-outs and abilities that you choose from at the start of the match. Only one has an ability that makes them more manoeuvrable in the form of a Batman-esque grappling gun, with the others having a mix of grenades, tripwires, respawn points and other abilities that feel like toned-down killstreak perks, complete with heavy cooldown periods. These abilities matter, but the game certainly isn’t transitioning into an Overwatch-style ‘hero’ shooter, even if it has pulled in some influences from games of that ilk.
BLOPS 4 feels pared back in other ways – there are fewer explosions, a shorter list of perks, and you now need to manually heal after a fight by pressing L1 to inject a stim-pack. Whether or not all of this is a good thing will depend on preference – I loved how wild Black Ops 3 got, but some fans have been asking for a toned-down experience, which 4 delivers on. This means that the ‘play of the match’ videos that play after every round are often just a video of a dude turning a corner and shooting another dude, but, hey – it is what it is.
There were four maps available in the first beta, and they were all strong in the way Black Ops maps always are. There are vantage points everywhere and multiple points of entry into every building; cluster points where action tends to congregate; corners to back into but no true places to hide. They’re great. They always are. The little noise the game makes when a bullet hits it is still perversely satisfying.
The inherent struggle Black Ops faces at this point is that it’s hard to find new ways to make these games good, especially since this entry is ditching the single-player campaign entirely. In its place BLOPS 4 offers ‘Blackout’ – the game’s battle royale mode – and we’ll have to wait another month for the beta test to find out whether the trade-off is worth it.