‘Call of Duty: Black Ops 4’ hands-on preview

'Black Ops 4' learns a few new tricks, but it's Call of Duty to the core

Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 tries to freshen up the franchise, but the core gunplay hasn’t changed.
Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 tries to freshen up the franchise, but the core gunplay hasn’t changed.
Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 tries to freshen up the franchise, but the core gunplay hasn’t changed.

Highs

  • Tried and true CoD gameplay
  • New, more interesting “specialist” classes
  • More nuanced gun customization
  • More tactical if you want it to be

Lows

  • Specialist abilities are easy to ignore
  • Core run-shoot-run gameplay is a bit stale

Call of Duty is changing.

The newest game in the series, Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 — or Blops 4, for short — will ditch the narrative-driven single-player campaign in favor of the trendy multiplayer mode, battle royale, where a large number of players (Treyarch designers still haven’t decided how many) hunt each other across a large map to become the last person standing.

Adding battle royale feels like a natural progression for the franchise, as its massive popularity has always stemmed from multiplayer. Still, it’s a big change. Battle royale in, the campaign is out, which means Call of Duty is now an exclusively multi-player experience (not counting tutorial levels, of course).

That may leave superfans wondering if Black Ops 4 will still feel like Call of Duty. After spending some time playing the series’ core competitive modes, including Hardpoint, Control, and Domination, we can confirm this is still the game fans have returned to year after year. Black Ops 4 shows a renewed commitment to class- and team-based skills, imbued by Overwatch-style hero character-classes, and some other new bells and whistles. Yet the core, run-and-gun, quickdraw loop remains the game’s heart.

Doubling down on tactics

Most of the tweaks to Black Ops 4 feel like a natural evolution from some of the last few Call of Duty games, particularly Black Ops 3 and World War II. The class-based “specialist” system from Black Ops 3 returns, only this time each of the eight specialists not only carries a specific set of special skills, but a name and face. Each has a unique pair of special abilities geared towards playing a role. Torque, a red mutton-chop-sporting defense expert, can create a “barricade” shield to create cover on the fly, or lay down razor wire, which damages enemies and slows them down. When you team up with other players and use these abilities in tandem, you can create distinctive strategies for clearing out a building or keeping your team alive.

The most interesting addition is an emphasis on support characters and abilities, rather than pure offense and cover-based options. Firebreak, who wears what looks like an armored hazmat suit, can set up a device that does damage to anyone that enters its gaseous radioactive radius, preventing players from lingering in sniper’s nests or capturing zones. There’s even a healer, Crash, who can heal other characters or “boost” their health. There’s no role that leans so heavily in a non-combat direction that you could succeed without good aim and quick reflexes, but the classes push players to become more creative and think tactically. Which is the point – the developers said as much on stage during the Black Ops 4 reveal event.

You still need to see them before they see you.

Of course, that’s assuming you decide to use them. Black Ops 4 matches retain their same basic shape. Each of the three levels we played featured the classic, maze-like Call of Duty map layout. No special skill is so powerful that it can prevent a speedy player who’s quick on the trigger from turning a corner and popping you in the head before you have time to think.

In fact, Black Ops 4 takes new steps to make sure that being quick on the draw in always rewarded. Unlike in past games, you can now fire your gun even while throwing grenades, mantling over cover, or performing other mechanics that would normally suspend your ability to shoot for a second or two. This makes you less likely to get caught unable to defend yourself, but you still need to see them before they see you.

What else is new?

From there, the tweaks and changes become more technical. For the second year in a row, healing has changed dramatically…relative to Call of Duty, at least. Instead of regenerating health when out of combat, each player can heal themselves every 10 seconds (or so) using a health pack. As with the new specialist classes, forcing players to think about when and why they heal seems to encourage a little more situational awareness. Our limited time with the game wasn’t enough to decide if we like this system better, but it’s clearly designed to encourage more aggressive play. You’re no longer rewarded for hiding behind a crate after a firefight.

call of duty black ops 4 mask

Black Ops 4 sees the return of the series’ “pick 10” system, which lets you set your guns, grenades, and other equipment however you choose. Every gun has a unique range of attachments. The attachments themselves are standard fare — armor-piercing bullets, fast-reloading magazines, suppressors that reduce the amount of noise your gun makes — but that doesn’t make them any less important. When combined with character classes, there’s an incentive to think about how your gun affects the strategy that you (and your team) will use to accomplish your objective. It’s also serious gun porn which, if you’re into that sort of thing, you’re going to salivate over. There’s a lot to customize here.

Everything you love (or hate) is still intact.

Still, none these changes are so immense that they alter the fundamental DNA of Call of Duty. Everything you love (or hate) is still intact. The tactics imbued by specialist classes and more nuanced loadouts will only affect players who choose to engage with them.  For players who don’t ­— and after playing Call of Duty online with random players for years, we imagine most won’t — Black Ops 4 multiplayer is business as usual. It’s fast, frantic, and unforgiving.

We’ll have to wait until Treyarch shows off Blackout, Black Ops 4’s battle royale mode, and the new overhauled “zombies” mode, which Treyarch seems intent on positioning as a stand-in for the narrative elements of the campaign, to see just how different Call of Duty can be. Neither mode was ready to show.

Activision and Treyarch say they’ll show more of the game’s new modes over the summer. At the very latest, we’ll see it all for ourselves when Black Ops 4 comes to PS4, Xbox One, and PC (via Battle.net) on October 12, 2018.