I’ve played every Call of Duty game since Modern Warfare, and Black Ops 4 still feels remarkably different from what’s come before.
One of Call of Duty’s greatest strengths was that it didn’t matter if an individual game uses a historical, modern, or futuristic setting – the gameplay was streamlined to allow for a generally familiar experience. Yes, Infinite Warfare had wall-running while WW2 was strictly “boots on the ground”. Yet on the whole, players could pick up any sequel and expect the same core shooting experience. For long-time fans, it helped the series feel comfortable, reliable, and familiar.
Black Ops 4 is not really into that.
If you took last weekend’s Black Ops 4 beta, stripped it of any familiar logos and returning characters, and handed it to me with a different title? I probably would have accepted it was a completely different series. Individual matches feel more tactical. Specialists characters are emphasized over classes. Special abilities are more visible than traditional scorestreaks.
The current beta only covers multiplayer, so it’s possible other gameplay modes will feel more like classic Call of Duty. The battle royale “Blackout” mode arrives in September. Zombies could also resemble the standard Call of Duty features, but with all the story and gameplay changes I doubt it.
“The end result – at least in its beta state – is a game that feels more in competition with Rainbow Six: Siege, Overwatch, or Fortnite than what came before”
Treyarch is pushing the limits of what it typically does within the Call of Duty brand. The end result – at least in its beta state – is a game that feels more in competition with Rainbow Six: Siege, Overwatch, or Fortnite than what came before.
Whether that will ultimately succeed is anyone’s guess. But for now, it is different, and it is fun.
Black Ops 4’s most notable change is to the Specialist system, which was technically introduced in Black Ops 3 but has been completely reworked here. When each match begins, you select an in-game character with unique special abilities. Some Specialist abilities enhance their combat skills by using an equipped special weapon. Others have defensive roles, dropping protective walls that allies can shoot over. There are even support characters who reveal enemy positions or create new respawn points.
To be clear, the best Specialist is Nomad. He spawns a K-9 cyborg unit that watches your back, patrols the surrounding area, and one-hit kills enemies with a single bite. Nomad’s dog is a very good boy. These are objective facts.
Unlike scorestreaks, each ability has a cooldown meter that doesn’t reset when you’ve been killed. That means in a typical match, you can probably activate your main ability once and a secondary ability several times.
All Specialists also have a healing injection ability that replaces Call of Duty’s regenerating health system. It refreshes almost immediately, so at first glance it might not seem that different. You’ll charge after a few bullets knock you to 30 hit points, and you’re scrambling for cover while spamming the L1 button. Simply putting healing back in the player’s hands is enough to make combat more intense and visceral.
Speaking of visceral, let’s talk about Black Ops 4’s primary game mode: Control. In each match, your team takes turns capturing key objectives from your opponents. Alternatively, you can win by reducing a shared respawn pool with each enemy kill.
In other words, if you play Control like a standard Call of Duty Deathmatch, you will lose insanely quickly. Players need to think tactically and work together, not run carelessly into rooms while draining precious respawns. After a few rounds, everyone starts watching doorways a little more carefully, and rounds corners a touch more cautiously. Control will also make you more aware of team compositions, as balancing Specialists and weapon loadouts will be key to victory.
If that’s not your thing, Treyarch has included some classic Call of Duty multiplayer modes that take advantage of new mechanics. Domination challenges players to capture three points across the map, earning points for each held objective. Hardpoint gives you a single capture point that changes positions every minute, forcing players to keep moving or take defensive positions on the fly. And of course there’s your standard Team Deathmatch, renamed Chaos TDM.
Even within these familiar modes, Black Ops 4’s mechanics help them feel fresh. New players who can’t get the hang of scorestreak bonuses still have Specialist abilities to enjoy. All the tactical considerations of Control still apply in standard multiplayer modes, even if death isn’t penalized quite as heavily. And there’s still the thrill of holding off enemies while keeping a careful eye on your health meter.
From a technical perspective, Black Ops 4 runs quite smoothly on my standard PS4, and Pro players will probably notice additional enhancements. Load times are impressively fast compared to Call of Duty WW2 and Infinite Warfare, which suggests that Treyarch put quite a bit of effort into optimization. That’s quite promising for a game in its beta state, although how it carries over into Blackout and Zombies remains to be seen.
It’s still not clear whether these changes to Call of Duty will benefit the series in the long-run. Yet this blend of classic gameplay and new mechanics has potential, and certainly was fun to play. It certainly helps that Treyarch seems committed to making this Black Ops iteration the best it can be.
Whatever happens, at least Black Ops 4 lets you summon a loyal cyborg doggo who assists you in the battlefield. That guarantees I’ll be playing when it launches in October.