Most Triple-A developers weren’t ready for battle royale when Fortnite and PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds snuck up on the gaming world and took it by storm.
But studios are finally catching up – both Battlefield and Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 will introduce new gameplay modes featuring massive maps, limited weapons, and harsh permadeath mechanics.
The Black Ops 4 version – Blackout – will be the first example of a major, pre-existing franchise experimenting with battle royale when it launches next month. If you pre-ordered however, players can take advantage of this week’s private beta for an early glimpse of what’s to come.
If you’ve played a match of Fortnite Battle Royale or PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds over the past year, Blackout will feel instantly familiar. After designing an avatar – or picking a character from previous Black Ops games – you and 79 other players are air-dropped into a massive map and ordered to kill each other. All weapons, armor, equipment, and item upgrades must be procured by exploring the island, and you’ll need to watch your back even when you’re fully equipped.
On the other hand, even if you’re familiar with the fast-paced tempo of a Call of Duty match, Blackout will feel like a completely new experience. Say goodbye to respawns and regenerating health, and say hello to long stretches of quiet tension, occasionally broken by sudden gunfire. When you see an entire enemy squad travelling together, avoid them entirely. If you hear a vehicle approach, hide and hold your breath until it passes by. Make sure you have cover before starting a gunfight, preferably from a window where you can escape inside if needed.
That’s not to say everything about Call of Duty has been lost in translation. In fact, squad-based combat and military tactics are an impressive fit for battle royale. Two and four-player team options are available, which is the best way to experience Blackout. Travelling across the map with a squad, watching each other’s backs, and slowly clearing buildings together brings back a kind of multiplayer experience the series hasn’t seen since Modern Warfare 3’s Spec Ops mode. Actual teamwork in a Call of Duty game!
The slower pace of combat is a nice change of pace, although it can be frustrating when you’re learning the ropes and still being killed by veteran players. Unlike standard multiplayer, death is permanent and you can’t respawn back into the action – but if a teammate is nearby, they can revive you. It would have been nice to have a mode where you can get the lay of this massive new land without fear of death.
Blackout’s map is quite obviously the largest in Call of Duty history, and features a variety of new locations and remixed settings from past Black Ops games. An island off the mainland is based on the popular Nuketown map, while the asylum to the east is pulled from a classic Zombies level. A familiar Battle Royale energy field surrounds the map, and closes in every few minutes to discourage players from camping in one spot. But Treyarch still has a few gameplay Easter Eggs to help Blackout stand apart – as you’ll discover if you linger in that asylum for long.
Even with 80 players, the map features lots of open space players can explore without worrying about enemy ambush. Vehicles such as ATVs or small helicopters are scattered around the map as fast travel options, but make it far easier for everyone else to hear you traveling. In fact, sound is an increasingly important gameplay feature at matches of this scale – even without a squad, you’ll be listening closely to enemy gunfire to determine where it’s coming from.
During the last Black Ops 4 beta, the multiplayer mode seemed to have undergone mechanical changes that made it feel less like a traditional Call of Duty game. Those changes do start to feel natural in Blackout’s Battle Royale context. Your larger health pool gives you a better chance of escaping to heal. The body armor system makes perfect sense when you’re hunting for loot in buildings.
That said, Blackout still has some minor mechanical quirks I’d love to see adjusted for launch. Sniper rifle zooming still feels balanced for small contained maps, instead of the massive scope of this large setting. While long-distance combat doesn’t have to go completely in the direction of the Battlefield series, it could go beyond the current scope upgrades.
More importantly, picking up items or using equipment opens a mandatory “hold to complete action” meter that slows down the game to a frustrating degree. If you’re trying to grab a gun while running as a match begins, it’s easy to miss it, forcing you to backtrack and try again. It kills the pacing, and really isn’t necessary on console systems at least. One button press should be enough, even if healing actions themselves take a few seconds.
On the whole, however, Blackout is a promising addition to the Black Ops series. While it certainly needs tweaks, and could use additional features to help it stand out from the competition, it delivers a fresh experience to Call of Duty. Most importantly, it remains engaging even if you lose a match – which is going to happen when fighting 79 players.
During one match, I became separated from my squad while under heavy fire from a well-hidden opponent. Low on health, I rushed around a building hoping to get my bearings, and spotted a helicopter. Praising my good fortune, I ran towards it, started it up, and flew to safety. I let out a sigh of relief.
A single sniper round smashed through the cockpit and killed my character instantly. As I dropped, the helicopter spun out of control and smashed into a hill. It exploded on impact.
It doesn’t matter if I hadn’t made a single kill. After that incredible display, how could I not try again? For information on the Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 Blackout beta, see our dedicated guide to times and more.