Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 Review

Played on Windows.
Also available on Xbox One and PlayStation 4.
Disclosure.

The yearly Call of Duty came out in October of last year and Activision finally changed up the formula in a shocking new way. Black Ops 4 stands out from the Call of Duty Franchise because of how different it is to what people have come to expect from the franchise. However, different in this case may be the problem.

Black Ops 4 changes the formula that Call of Duty has set up for the past 14 iterations of the main series of titles. The focus previously was on a solid campaign and having an addictive multiplayer alongside that. Singleplayer fans get a full experience, multiplayer fans got highly engaging and desirable multiplayer modes over an array of maps, and people seemed to accept this.

With Black Ops 4 there has been a major shift. The campaign has been removed and instead, Black Ops 4 is focused fully on multiplayer. It’s not the first time the Black Ops line of Call of Duty games made a major change. Call of Duty: Black Ops 3 pushed a campaign that was designed for a multiplayer experience but this is the first Call of Duty game in the main series without even an attempt at singleplayer.

I will attempt to talk about each mode in the game, as there are four unique modes. While the experience is similar in each of them, I think they’re diverse enough to warrant their own discussion. But first, let’s talk about the graphics.

Graphics

I will admit I struggle with the graphics of Call of Duty: Black Ops 4. They’re not bad, but my computer struggles to keep up with Black Ops 4. That’s not to say my computer is amazing by any means, it’s aged quite a bit, but while it is keeping up with most games, and low graphics settings usually still look acceptable, Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 seems to almost give up when players lower the settings to what they see as a substandard level.

That doesn’t mean it’s unplayable, but graphically a lot of the game looks weak depending on the graphics cards. If you have the recommended specs, you will probably be fine. But if you’re looking at this for the Humble Monthly Bundle because you’re a budget gamer or your hardware is more than a couple of years old, it may be a rough experience.


Even on low settings the maps look good in multiplayer and zombies.

Most maps look acceptable but closer inspection of the textures and models make everything feel stretched. It will work, but you’ll notice the quality if you stare at any of the textures for more than a glance.

On the other hand, Call of Duty: Black Ops 4’s new mode Blackout seems to struggle to provide a compelling experience for low-end cards. I saw a number of graphical glitches, low polygon models in the staging area, and overall a lacking visual experience.

Some glitches are distracting like poor quality objects, but others affect the game. I was able to see into a building as it loaded in once, and sometimes objects on the ground don’t load in. If a gun doesn’t load in, or a scope mod on it, you won’t be able to see with it. and you can use iron sights aiming and not have any assistance because the gun model is not appearing. Each of these glitches becomes frustrating in different ways.

Part of this can be due to other programs in the background, but the fact that pieces of the game become invisible due to this makes it easy to imagine ways to cause walls to not load in and wonder if players are doing this maliciously.

This might be important for most players on PC. They’ll lower the visuals to get a higher framerate, but going too low can make the experience unpleasant. What’s strange to me is that the new Blackout mode seems to take a huge step back at least with weaker graphics cards whereas the rest of Black Ops 4 tries to provide a weaker but acceptable experience when the graphics settings are lowered.

Part of this is what the Blackout mode tries to offer in its gameplay. It wants to have a large expansive map to have a Battle Royale experience in, and it does succeed at creating a visually interesting map with a lot to see and do.

But at the same time, that’s is done at the expense of the graphics. Part of this is due to the trend of Call of Duty pushing the highest visual quality with their games. They want to look the best, and that’s understandable, but what is necessary from a battle royale map is a consistent experience and a reasonable look. Fortnite has been able to do well with cartoony graphics, but Call of Duty seems to try to hit the very high visual bar while maintaining a large open space and not accepting that a tradeoff is necessary there. While this might work better on higher end cards, it seems that Blackout feels noticeably weaker than the rest of the game without the benefit of it being a “stylized” choice.


Most of my glitches were in Blackout, but when it goes wrong, it goes VERY wrong.

Now, if you do have a top tier graphics card, none of this will probably matter. Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 is an extremely beautiful game and looks great on the newest hardware, but because I review games for PC and it’s currently being offered on Humble Bundle, I feel wrong about just talking about the hottest graphics that a good majority of players may not be able to experience.

Still, with a number of other problems, this doesn’t factor that much in my score but is a concern for those still considering this game on a budget.

Specialist HQ and Story

Black Ops 4 doesn’t have a campaign mode but instead, there is an all-new Specialist HQ which at first glance appears to be just a tutorial mode for specialists. However, this is where the “Story” exists for Black Ops 4. Though it can be debatable how much story there is in Black Ops 4.

Black Ops 4’s multiplayer revolves around specialists. Think of them as superclasses, as they give each character a special ability and a special skill. One character might be able to pull out a large shield and barricade, while another can heal friendlies and drop ammo packs, and a third has a nuclear bomb to radiate enemies and a flame thrower. Each specialist is unique in their abilities.

Black Ops 4 uses the specialist HQ as a way to teach these new characters to the player. It starts with a woman named Savannah and Frank Woods. Savannah leads a new corporation, and Frank Woods is just the voice who talks to you through the game.


There’s a story here, but it’s unrelated to the gameplay.

These tutorials are quite unique in that Woods does a full voice over for each of them explaining the weapons and the missions. But he does it in such an over the top manner that I can’t stand it. This isn’t just aggressive, Woods goes on to swear, talk foul and basically live up to every stereotype of the 13-year-old playing Call of Duty. It’s been a joke in the past of how people talk while playing this game. Black Ops 4 just goes all in on this trope and makes it part of the lore and it’s cringe-worthy.

Each mission teaches how the specialist’s abilities should be used, and after completing a ten minute training course teaching the unique skill and ability of a character, Black Ops 4 gives a special character cutscene to give you some back story to this character, usually a story about their history or how they became this way. For instance, the flamethrower burnt a stepfather to death for hitting his sister… Yeah, they’re not exactly happy stories.

Then each character is given a skirmish to play through and if they win that skirmish on one of the three difficulties, they get a story cutscene.

With 10 characters there are 10 cutscenes, and they start to form a narrative. Savannah is working to try to revive the dead, and in the past Savannah lost her sister on a mission and is tortured by it.

Many of these cutscenes are really well done, but they don’t really form a good story. Also, some cutscenes are just voices while a character tosses and turns in a bed for about 30 seconds. Compared with longer cutscenes the pacing is all over the place. But having each cutscene come almost 20 minutes apart and feeling that you’re just doing random things to get them makes for a weak experience. It doesn’t help that what the player is doing feels heavily disconnected from the story.

After you have the full story, which fans of the Black Ops series might enjoy due to certain characters, players can chase “intel” which comes in the form of mini-challenges. But these amount to audio logs and while they fill in more of the story, this isn’t a story I would recommend. The story tends to be the domain of the campaign, and this feels like an attempt to say “there’s still a story” without the heavy investment into a single player experience.

It’s true there is a story still, but it doesn’t make for a good experience, and the fact it’s tied into rather long and unrelated tutorial missions which will take anywhere from 4 hours to 8 to play through, doesn’t forgive that the fundamental changes in the game itself.

Multiplayer

While the entire game is multiplayer, the Multiplayer mode is the standard that players have come to know from Call of Duty. Multiplayer offers mode-based gameplay and many of these modes are back from previous games, along with a weekly featured mode.

Players can always jump into an objective based game or focus on pure deathmatch, but they also can do a weekly event. As I started writing this the newest weekly feature was “Prop hunt” where one team is a series of props and the other team tries to find them by shooting any object they see. It’s an interesting and unique mode.


Prop hunt is actually a fun hide and seek.

I have to be honest, I like Call of Duty’s multiplayer, it’s rewarding in just the right ways, and while I’m not excellent at it, I always feel like I can earn some points and get better. I’m more a fan of the objectives or the unique experiences (like Prop Hunt), but the overall experience is fun.

However, I feel that some of the changes make it a weaker experience. Black Ops 4 revolves around the specialists. Each specialist is unique per team, so you’ll have to choose different specialists. This is, in addition, the “Class” of the player, which is their favorite gun and loadout.

It’s a similar idea to Overwatch where each class gets special abilities, though unlike Overwatch, each character is functionally the same except for the special ability and attack. It’s a small change to the formula but not one that will really change the game overall. It’s really just another form of a killstreak bonus.

With that said, the experience of the Multiplayer is as streamlined as ever and is still extremely fun and competitive. The challenge is still high as other players will be highly skilled with the game, and talking about it after six months means many casual players are no longer playing. It’s common for a top level player to be placed in a match with new players and have him run the match multiple times.


Shooting people is fun in either Specialist HQ or Mutliplayer

Still, If you enjoy Call of Duty’s multiplayer and want the newest list of maps and modes, that’s absolutely what is available in Black Ops 4, though I would also say I think playing the previous version of the game works almost the same for this mode.

Blackout

Welcome to the newest mode in Call of Duty. BlackOut is Call of Duty’s version of the popular Battle Royale games. For what it is, it nails the idea. Players are dropped into a very large map and are forced to try to survive until only one remains.

Blackout plays relatively safe with the Battle Royale Formula. Blackout has Single, Duos, and Quads modes for single players, two-person teams, and four-person teams, with the whole goal being to survive the longest and earning “merits”, the mode’s version of XP from the final rank, or kills made.


There is actually a lot of great locations in the map, but the graphics here are definitely pushed to the limit.

Though you aren’t always able to choose single and duo, as they appear on a rotation. The featured list showed Solo while writing this but as I finalize this, it’s back to only offering duos.

Blackout retains the fast-paced Call of Duty gameplay as well. Players will zip around the map picking up ammo and watching in the distance for any moving objects. There’s an inventory system though it’s of limited necessity in this mode, and there are all the famous weapons of Call of Duty with sniper rifles, shotguns, knives, assault rifles, and submachine guns all being plentiful.

The experience of Blackout is what you expect. You are dropped in a map and must survive. There are occasionally interesting little twists such as Zombies appearing during Blackout but for the most part, it’s a simple battle royale like most of them.

There are also a number of character models that you can earn. To do this you have to fulfill their “Character” mission, which usually starts by finding their mission from a random crate in Blackout. Then you have to perform some action, such as killing someone with a Bowie Knife or to have 15 health packs at the end of the game and maybe reach a certain rank/position in the game.


At the end of the day though it’s just ranking that you earn from this and Merits are the experience of the mode.

Once you do that you’ll unlock that character and can now play as them. It’s a minor change, but it’s a form of customization and something for players to chase. This is in addition to most of the challenges of the Blackout mode, that the game includes which range from distance traveled in a wingsuit to equipping armor or backpacks a certain number of times.

As mentioned, the mode does have some issues with low graphics but as a battle royale mode, it’s sufficient. If you’re a heavy fan of Call of Duty’s multiplayer, Blackout will probably be your favorite Battle Royale version.

Similar to Multiplayer there are featured “playlists” which are quite popular, the two I’ve experienced was a respawn enable version of Alcatraz, and a Spectre mode where players can find a special blade that allows them to almost become a ninja with stealth takedowns and more.

However, both of these don’t change as much as you would expect and ultimately Blackout becomes the same experience most battle royales have. There is a concern, but I’ll discuss that when I talk about the player counts after one more mode.

Zombies

NOTE: if you buy the battle edition mode, or the version available in the Humble Monthly Bundle, Zombies is not included. If you buy the full edition of the game or upgrade (for 20 dollars), you can play this mode.

Zombies have returned, the mode that Treyarch has made popular returns as well in Blackout with 3 maps by default, each a unique experience. The first being an Alcatraz style prison, the second a Titanic inspired boat ride, and the third a roman colosseum style fight.

Each map feels different, but Zombies as a mode leaves me puzzled. I’m unsure what the goal of the mode is. It’s really easy to look at zombies and see the point being to just rack up a high score of killing zombies with friends, and that makes a lot of sense, and I think that’s what the experience boils down to.


Zombies has great opening cutscenes. A shame the “Ending” is hidden behind a lot of easter eggs.

However, doing so ignores the story that the Zombies modes have set up. Each map has its own opening cutscene, so the question becomes, is there an end, and the answer is that there kind of is one. I hesitate because the way you unlock the ending cutscene isn’t what you would expect.

Zombies don’t have a direct story mode or a purpose. The player just fights through waves of zombies, but in the Voyage of the Damned, there’s a particular artifact. If you eventually reach it and pick it up, portals open up on the ship. This changes the map somewhat and allows players to zip around the ship. But it’s the first step of the “easter egg”.

From there, the game doesn’t really give a hint of what’s required, but the player is supposed to unlock the pack-a-punch machine in four different locations, then get times, symbols from over the ship, kill specific types of zombies in specific places, align planets… It’s a huge production and what’s amazing is there are no clues to these steps that I saw.

The game doesn’t tell the player how to access this easter egg, and then it finishes with a massively hard boss fight. If you beat that, you get the ending cutscene, or you can just watch it on youtube, but I find it hard to really call this a major part of Zombies. This isn’t the stated gameplay, and most of this is a true easter egg.


Zombies can look absolutely awesome in action, but it’s very fast paced.

I will admit I’m astonished both by the level of the easter egg and the ability for players to find all these pieces and put them together, but it’s very hard to recommend the Zombie mode on this, as most players will have to refer to very complex guides to complete these methods. So to me, Zombies is just an endless horde mode with a very cool and complex easter egg hidden inside. It doesn’t help that the “Story” of the mode is hidden by the eggs as well.

Still, Zombies is one of the only modes in Black Ops 4 that can be played alone (The other being Specialist HQ which is the tutorial mode), and there are bots so as long as the servers are up, it’ll be playable. And it is fun to kill Zombies but after a few hours, it’s questionable what the goals of the mode are.

Player Counts

Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 has a serious problem. With two out of three main modes of Black Ops 4 heavily focused on multiplayer, Black Ops 4 really will live and die on its server, community, and player counts. Zombies can be played solo or with three other players, so it’s able to be accessed any way you want. However, without enough players multiplayer will continue to look for more players rather than entering the mode with too few. If you’re not playing a popular mode, you’ll be stuck searching for a match.

There are no player counts per playlist visible on PC, but sitting around for 10 minutes trying to find a match is really not a fun experience, and playing anytime out of peak hours (from about 2 pm to about 8 pm on the West Coast) or having to play on European servers during their peak hours and incur more latency for that, makes the game even more frustrating.

I’m a fan of playing solo Blackout, or solo Battle Royale in most games, however, it takes exceedingly long to find the match at all, and while the match is stated to be 100 players, the game will start when the total hits 80, or after a long wait if it’s unable to hit even those numbers.

It’s hard to really judge the number of players playing Black Ops. Unfortunately, BattleNet doesn’t show the number of players, and Steam Spy doesn’t work for BattleNet games, but from my experience, there only seems to be a handful of matches active at one time. There are usually long waits to get into games, and often games would start with less than full rooms which are problematic especially for large games which are intended for 80-100 people for Battle Royale. Even if the limit has been reduced to 80 without changing the tooltips, games often start with only 50 players.

Even on the newer featured playlist, most new playlists are aiming for around 60, which seem to support the theory of problematic player counts. While I can seem to always find a match for the feature list, that limits players to only certain types of game, and if it’s not something you enjoy (I can only play a few matches of prop hunt) players are forced to seek other modes and hope they can find a popular mode, and without a active player count listed in those lists it becomes trial and error.

Monetizations

Call of Duty has monetizations, this should be well known by this point, but it’s none-the-less problematic. Call of duty has also jumped on the idea of battle royale style battle passes, as well as selling character skins.

Black Ops 4’s battle pass is called the Contraband Tiers, and it’s almost the same as every other battle royale. A number of tiers with new pieces to earn as you go up for the season that lasts about 30 days. Each day you can skip a level by earning points in Blackout or winning a multiplayer match. In the past, these tiers have reached between 100-200 tiers according to reports, but the current tier is a 30 day, 50 tier limit from what I see.


Hello lootboxes… and yes you can get duplicates.

Players are able to earn 1 tier skip through winning a match or earning some experience in Blackout, or by completing a minor task in Zombies, so if players are dedicated they can earn this with play time, but that ultimately means players have to turn Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 into almost a job. These are also the tiers after the initial backlash against the grinding that came out at launch. Of course, if you wish you can buy tiers with currency.

There is no end to the number of tricks that Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 employs to get players to spend points and money. It’s important to know you can’t directly buy anything, you have to convert your money into “Call of Duty Points” and then use that to buy items. And it’s hard to buy the exact number of points you want to buy. Points don’t seem to be able to be earned in game, but if they are, they are rare.

Besides buying tiers from the contraband tiers which cost about 1 dollar per tier, you can also go to “BlackJack’s Shop” Which allow you to buy cosmetics directly (for points). This sounds better but each offering is given a timed exclusivity as well as random “Rarity” marks, you can get a Rare dance bundle, Legendary Weapon Camo, Epic Ninja Outfit, or the Venom Cocktail Bundle.

But after a limited time (most appear to be weekly) these deals are gone and new deals will appear that effectively pushes the idea that you can miss out on them.

Similarly, there are Special Orders An “Ultra” Misty is available for me at the time of writing. This will unlock 5 new contraband tiers where you can earn a new character for the price of about 8 dollars. So rather than buying a new character, you’re now buying a list of work to do to earn a new character?

There’s even a “my deal” which I’m unsure exactly what makes it special but…. It’s just another limited time order (12 hours) to buy before it’s gone forever.


8 dollars, and you then have to earn the tiers to finally earn a customization? WTF?

Most of this should be annoying but of course, that’s not all. There are reserve crates with one that is given away from the multiplayer/blackout tier skips. These give you a random item from the blackjack reserves, so if you prefer randomized items, Black Ops 4 will gladly set you up with those, and even throws a few to get you started. Apparently, these weren’t even in the game at launch, and while some are given away for free, it’s a scummy practice.

There’s a huge problem for me here. I know many games do all of this and get away with it. I can understand why battle passes are sold in Fortnite, or even the ability to buy specific dances. When you’re playing a free to play game, there needs to be a way to fund the development, but this is a full price 60 dollar game that seems obsessed with finding ways to get even more money out of the players while delivering an experience missing pieces of what came for 60 dollars last year (mainly the campaign).

As if this wasn’t enough the term “battle pass” isn’t used for the contraband tiers, because that’s the name of the season pass with more zombie maps, an extra character for black ops (Cosmetic at least), additional maps, and more. That battle pass costs 50 dollars…. Yeah, which means we’ll talk about…

Price considerations

There are two ways to buy Black Ops 4 currently. Players can pay for Battle Edition for 40 dollars, and the full edition of Black Ops 4 with Zombies for 60 dollars. But then there is a battle pass for the full contents of the game for 50 dollars more. Then there are numerous additional pieces of content to buy for more money.

I know some people out there will try to claim that the concerns about the cost of the missing campaign mode are dismissed by Battle Royale, and that might be a case around the time of 2017 when Player Unknown: Battlegrounds first released. However, it seems that every three months there is another Battle Royale game being released and a majority of them are free.

Companies realize players aren’t likely to buy a Battle Royale game on their own, but also realize they need a larger player base to make the Battle Royale game work. Requiring 100 players is a different problem than requiring 16 players for a match.

Black Ops 4, instead, chose to charge full price for a Call of Duty game and substitute a substantial part of the experience with what normally is a free game. That’s not a problem for people who just want to buy the multiplayer and are ok with paying a full 60 or 110 dollars for the experience. But it’s not a good value proposition and it’s problematic.

It doesn’t help that the Blackout Battle Royale mode is being treated like a Free to Play game that’s trying to get more money in a number of shady ways. This isn’t a good look for the game.

Conclusion

Overall Call of Duty Black Ops 4 is problematic for so many reasons. While I’m sure people will defend a great deal of its experience. I’m sure Blackout has their fans as a Call of Duty Battle Royale does combine the experience of the game into a Battle Royale. The Multiplayer is still as good as it has always been, and the specialist is a great idea. But the problem is Call of Duty is demanding the full price for this experience.

This might have been acceptable at some level, but once the game starts throwing advertising for its purchases, and teasing players to buy more items and loot from the game, I find myself disappointed in this entry. The lacking player counters also can’t be ignored. Call of Duty is normally one of the few games I’ll play the multiplayer on, but this one I’m glad to leave behind.

I give Call of Duty Black Ops 4 a

2/5

The battle edition would earn a lower score in my book as Zombies is one of the few places that work with the dwindling player counts. I believe Activision and Treyarch really messed this game up by chasing the Battle Royale trend.

Final Thoughts: An abysmally weak entry in the Call of Duty Franchise. Where the Campaign would be playable at worse, the absence here ruins the experience. Coupled with low player counts ruins this.

Stats: I played for at least 30 hours, however, there is no time or achievement count for BattleNet so I’m unsure.

Disclosure: I bought this game initially as part of an interview I had with Activision’s High Moon Studios in November of 2018. That position disappeared for unknown reasons and while we were scheduled to get in touch in the first half of 2019. However, it was an understandable change and I don’t harbor any ill will. I feel however that since I was in a negotiation to work at a studio (and potentially supporting this game) it’s important to disclose it.

I, however, am proceeding to leave the video game industry and as such no longer actively pursuing that position. They have not contacted me in the last six months so I believe that is a mutual move.

I doubt this review will change that status. But I don’t believe the interview process has affected my review, in fact, much of the complaints about server population were there in November, however, the current state has exasperated it.

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