Call of Duty Black Ops 4 is still fun, but it feels like a dying free-to-play title

By James O'Connor
29 July 2019 08:49 GMT

Nine months after release, Black Ops 4 is still an enjoyable game, moment by moment – but it’s also a game that lacks a firm sense of identity and place.

I was always iffy on Call of Duty dropping its campaign in favour of a battle royale mode. While the explosion of PUBG and Fortnite made the inclusion of this mode a near-inevitability, I’ve always had a soft spot for CoD campaigns, and after Black Ops 3’s fun, legitimately bonkers adventure (which was an unhinged mess that I appreciated for how weird it allowed itself to be), I was keen to see where else Treyarch could take things.

Instead, we got a game focused entirely on multiplayer modes, and at launch people loved it. The Blackout map felt fresh in its enormity, and the way it felt like several distinct multiplayer maps merged together, complete with vehicles and the RNG grind that battle royale players loved. It married the longer-form, tense experience of a PUBG match with Call of Duty’s snappier combat, and it went over well.

Then, of course, Apex Legends came along, with its shorter matches, tighter map, its ping system, its varied characters with their unique characters, and the shooter expertise that Respawn brings to the table.

That’s not all that happened – the game also aggressively embraced transactions, micro or otherwise. The mood inside Black Ops 4’s Reddit is bleak, focusing on how expensive everything is, and a general sense that Treyarch has abandoned the game. The newly added Black Market, which is the game’s equivalent of a Battle Pass, would cost you over $1800 if you wanted everything in it.

I returned to Black Ops 4 this week for the first time this year – on PS4, without a season pass – expecting it to feel stale. Truthfully, I had a great time playing it again – the Call of Duty gameplay loop is still the satisfying little endorphin rush it’s (almost) always been. But boy, is it tacky.

There’s little indication across the Black Ops 4 experience that you’re playing a game that you paid full price for. The menus are a mess of microtransactions, stores, notifications about Twitch Prime bonuses, links to purchase Modern Warfare, and reminders that your options are limited because you haven’t bought this year’s very expensive season pass. The rotating list of playlists is small, and each one reminds me that I’d have a better time if I bought more maps. Everything feels geared towards me spending more of my money on the game.

If you release a game at full price without a campaign, and get regular Call of Duty sale numbers – and Black Ops 4 has sold very well indeed – but it’s still not enough, then something is going very wrong with your business model. When you’re in the menus, Black Ops 4 feels desperate.

This might be why so many of the playlists now take much longer to get matches in. I found nothing in ‘Barebones Team Deathmatch’ across two attempts, and when I jumped into zombies mode only one player joined in to help me fight through a zombie-infested Titanic (which was, by the way, my favourite zombie map I’ve ever played in any of these games – I usually don’t take to them).

When I actually get into a match, the game is tremendous fun still. As much as I miss some of the more sci-fi elements from Black Ops 3 – 4 is pointedly a more ‘boots on ground’ experience, without any wall-running or anything like that – I enjoy the new healing system, and the way character-specific powers are such a big focus. The guns are ugly as sin, since every player seems to have coated them in obnoxious glowing skins, but the feel of them – and the sound design, indicating your hits – has never stopped being satisfying. Domination is still a lot of fun, and a mode where you can have a real impact even if you’re not the best shot, just by sneaking into an enemy point and nabbing it.

Honestly, I never feel particularly disadvantaged when I’m in a game by the fact that my only outlay was for the disc itself (in theory, anyway – I’m playing a review copy). The starter weapons are more than capable of doing some major damage, and I believe you could play through the game’s multiplayer the regular way – by leveling up and unlocking weapons as you go – without issue.

But a lot of this has always been true of Call of Duty, and without a campaign, Blackout is BLOPS 4’s big, new thing, the element that really separates it. Anecdotally, I’ve seen people complain about Blackout being all but abandoned on PC, but on PS4 finding a game and waiting for it to populate took, at most, two minutes.

I’m aware that the map has changed a bit since I last played, even if it’s so big that I never really knew the full scope of it to begin with. The sea is blood red now, which I assume is the result of some sort of End of Evangelion style purge (or it has something to do with zombies, I don’t know).

Blackout is still a good time, even if I’m not as good as the players who have spent the past nine months mastering it. It’s an excellent map and managing to build yourself up to a point where you can actually survive firefights is still a fun and interesting challenge.

But it also feels a bit stodgy after a week focused on Apex Legends. It feels antiquated to die and not be back in a game, properly playing again, until quite a few minutes later. Only having one main map means that players who have been coming back from day one are bound to be getting a little sick of it now, even though elements of the map are changing. While Fortnite has the same issue, it’s also completely free to play, and treated by many players more as a hang-out space than a serious competitive experience. Nothing about Call of Duty’s grimy aesthetic screams ‘hang out’.

By far the most fun I had was in a new, temporarily available mode called Alcatraz Portals Horde. The Alcatraz map has appeared in the game before, but now it’s infested with the undead, and that’s a neat twist. This is a smaller, more focused, squad-based experience for forty players, as you battle for supremacy and enjoy a respawn system that gives you five lives. My understanding is that this map tends to appear and then disappeared again, which is exactly the sort of thing you’d expect, say, a major free-to-play title to do.

Last week, I discussed how Apex Legends is the result of what appears to be (and if anyone working there would like to anonymously dispute this please get in contact) an ethical game development pipeline, where crunch is avoided. Black Ops 4, we now know, was made under far more trying conditions. Black Ops 5, which Treyarch is developing next year after a shake-up between the various CoD studios, likely will be as well.

This is not the sort of behaviour that should be supported, and it’s something that you can see spilling over into the game. Playing the game, knowing about the conditions it was made under, sours the experience. But even if we didn’t have this insider information, Black Ops 4 doesn’t feel like a labour of love, no matter how fun it is when you’re in the middle of a good match. It feels like a symptom of a sick industry.

A big multiplayer reveal is coming this week for Modern Warfare, the first game in a decade or so to finally ditch the season pass model and give every player all new maps for free – a move that feels very overdue. It’s hard to say where Black Ops 4 will end up sitting in the pantheon of the series, but judging by the fan reactions – and how just being in the menus makes me want to take a shower, even if the game is still fun – odds are that it’ll go down as a misfire, and a sign that Call of Duty was in trouble.

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