The Call of Duty campaign is a strange thing. What began as straight-laced boots on the ground morphed into wing-suited soldiers in greebled body armour, scything through cityscapes and gunning down foes to the musical accompaniment of a wah-wah pedal hooked up to a Marshall stack. But I’ll make a terrible confession to you: as rackety and raving as they are, I adore them. They hurtle on oiled rails, all emotion blown out the airlock, and they present the sort of carnage best paired with buttered popcorn. It’s a great shame, then, that Black Ops 4 doesn’t have one, and I stand on the dock, tearfully waving a hanky, sad to see it shipped off. The focus here is on the multiplayer suite, the zombies episodes, and the new battle royale mode, Blackout.
The good news here is what’s here is good. As fashion demands, the thing to do is to jump into a match as soon as you can. Doing so is akin to embracing the threshing blades of a blender, but it’s the best way to improve. The KillCam remains gaming’s equivalent of a classroom rap on the knuckles – its lessons abrupt, painful, and oblique. But after a time, the rhyme and rhythm – if not the reason – begin to take hold. You may not be able to explain the compulsion to whirl round and train your scope on a doorway, but when you kill a would-be killer before they get the drop on you, there’ll be no need.
But there will be a need to acclimatise yourself to the game’s specialists. Depending on your taste, the series has either tilted or wilted toward Titanfall. Ever since a cabal of Infinity Ward developers defected and formed Respawn Entertainment and made the futuristic mech-shooter, Call of Duty has glowed an envious green. It was Advanced Warfare that arrived – as if fresh from a heist – bearing jetpacks, and Black Ops III that spliced wall-running into the mix. These Titanfall traits no longer remain. Your gadget-powered traversal is limited to the modest Grappling Hook – which still makes Rocksteady’s Batman look like a lethargic oaf.
Elsewhere, there is a stash of equipment and abilities to play with, each specialist geared for a different approach. There’s Ruin, who possesses the mighty Grav Slam, which makes short work of his foes, blowing their legs off at the knees. There’s Ajax, who bludgeons people with a ballistic shield; Nomad, who summons his slobbering best friend, the K-9 unit, to fetch cheeky kills; Crash, who uses an iPad to heal his team members (look out for that in the next Apple Keynote); and plenty more besides.
On top of their motley skills, this bunch looks brash and bizarre: mohawked mercenaries buried under tattoos, rainbow-hued armour and robotic limbs. One looks like a bush-bearded Eddie Marsan on amphetamines – in fairness, that would be a highly effective Shock and Awe tactic. But a hero shooter this ain’t. It feels like an attempt to slacken the starch from Call of Duty’s collar. It looks to the queasy candy-colours of Fortnite, and the pick-and-mix supercharge of Overwatch, but it isn't fooling anyone. Your assault rifle, as ever, will do.
But this isn’t to say that added spice is unwelcome; on the contrary, these abilities help loosen the grip of the Killstreak, whose rewards – UAVs, helicopter support, hellfire missiles – have reigned over Call of Duty’s multiplayer for years. Take a mode like Control, where your team must hold designated positions of the map: it lends itself to a Specialist like Firebreak – whose Reactor Core irradiates a ring of harm around his person.
The suite of modes is propped up with proven pillars, like Search and Destroy and Hardpoint, and expanded with newcomers like Heist. This has you lugging duffel bags of pelf to an extraction point, but – firing into its own foot – you can also win by wiping out the opposing team. You can teach an old dog new tricks, it seems, but taking away its favourite toy is out of the question.
Equally out the question is trying to work out the plot. Diehard devourers of Black Ops lore will no doubt attempt the challenge issued on the Specialists HQ menu sceen: ‘Piece together Black Ops 4’s story’, it dares. It’s a training mode bookended with short vignettes that warp the tone of past games beyond recognition. Black Ops had the knack of infusing the dour with daydreams: dropping us amidst the anxious palms of Vietnam while cribbing from Fight Club and conjuring imaginary soldiers. Its world was crosshatched by conspiracy and given just the right dash of daft.
I have no idea what this is. At one point, my training tour guide informed me that I had ‘just earned the basic degree in badass.’ After I rebounded a grenade off a wall, he said, ‘that bounce was lit af.’ Whatever teen-speak transgressions Dontnod’s dialogue is guilty of, it reads like Roth next to this. It’s as if, sitting in the cinema, you are informed the film has been cancelled and, by way of compensation, you will be given your money’s worth of beefed-up, psychedelic trailers.
Among which shuffles the game’s Zombies modes. The classic horde challenge is served up in differently flavoured bites – hors d’oeuvres, you might say. There’s IX, which spirits you to Gladiatorial Rome – don't ask. There’s Blood of the Dead, in which you're marooned in Alcatraz prison. And there’s Voyage of Despair, which takes place aboard the Titanic. These settings are sublime; they all relish the romance of your assured doom. They are also the only arena where the mania of the writing finds its footing. Voyage of Despair, with its twee team of adventurers, captures the cruel wit that evaded Strange Brigade.
That the campaign has been culled isn’t to suggest that Black Ops 4 doesn’t have a main event. That would be Blackout, the series’ incursion into battle royale. Since PlayerUnknown’s BattleGrounds begot the genre, it has seen various distortions: the aforementioned Fortnite scrapped the military aesthetic for cartoon whimsy, and The Culling, like a honeymoon, went tropical and intimate, with only 16 players to each jungly map. Black Ops 4 sees the genre brought inward, focussed around a distilled core.
Blackout is closer to PUBG in its style – though its map is missing the specific spectral eeriness of Erangel – but it’s laminated with ease and speed. You’ll find a generous jumble of automatics and equipment strewn throughout; your ground slide will skid you into cover as if stealing a base; and vaulting and vehicles inject verticality into the terrain. Whereas PUBG will simmer, letting you go for long stretches without seeing a soul, Blackout favours pace, bringing matches to the boil as they collapse around you.
Like the rest of Black Ops 4, it feels whittled and winnowed. For the priggish, reared on PUBG’s eccentricities, it may seem the genre is circling the drain. Similar reactions occur in certain quarters around Twenty20 cricket. But never mind all that; Blackout is sublime. It's a tense theatre of survival and aggression, boiling over with bloodlust and tempered with the desperate need to continue breathing as the wall closes in. Whereas Call of Duty’s tics and traits strongarm the attempted nuance in multiplayer, with Blackout, they carve out a quintessential identity in a jostling genre.
The mode is a blessing and a curse. Squatting at the heart of the game, it’s sucked up my beloved campaign and scrambled the series’ spirit, but it's by far the biggest draw. After the woolly-brained fever of Zombies and the turbulence of the multiplayer modes, I was drawn to Blackout's comparative calm. But it's tough to shake the sense of a victory achieved in nuclear fashion. The remains of the campaign are scattered and radioactive, strange ghouls shambling from the blast zone. And even as I jump from the chopper for another round, I can’t help but mourn the cost.
Available on: PlayStation 4 [reviewed on], Xbox One, Microsoft Windows
Release date: October 12, 2018
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