After two hours of hands-on time with the new Call of Duty - the inevitable Black Ops 4 from developer Treyarch - I think there's a lot to love about the game, even if it's all overshadowed by the promise of Blackout, the battle royale mode.
First up, what I like. I like the uniqueness of the specialists, such as Ruin, a "rusher" character who can zip across the battlefield with his grapple gun, and Ajax, a "breacher" character who can summon a defensive shield with a built in machine pistol. I like how devastating their super abilities can be. Recon's Vision Pulse reveals enemies in the surrounding area not just for the player controlling Recon, but everyone on the team. Crash can heal, boost max health and remove wounds for the player and up to four targeted allies. It even works through walls.
I like the new mode, Control, which is a combination of the superb Hardpoint and Search and Destroy modes from past Call of Duty games, with limited lives spread across each team. Here, teamplay is perhaps more important than in other modes, and the specialists' powers really come into play. While defending one of the two control points, I was able to contribute greatly to my team's success by popping my ultimate - sorry, my special ability - to fend off attackers. Ajax's Ballistic Shield really comes in handy here, as does Torque's Barricade. Conversely, while pushing a control point, popping something like Firebreak's Purifier, which gives him a devastating flamethrower, can make the difference. On one occasion, one of my teammates, playing as tactician Seraph, used her Tac-Deploy to secure our victory. She threw out a beacon that meant we were able to re-deploy pretty much right on top of the control point, rather than farther away. It meant we could keep pushing, relentlessly, for the win. Certainly, Black Ops 4 is a more tactical game than Black Ops 3 - perhaps, even, than any Call of Duty game.
I like the return to the Pick 10 system for Black Ops 4's create a class. This simple to understand, fun to tinker with feature effortlessly balances the loadout experience of Call of Duty. It is a remarkably elegant system that just works, and I am surprised it is not the first name on the teamsheet for each iteration.
I like the commitment to "boots on the ground" for Black Ops 4. There's no wallrun nor a thrust jump, which for me is very much a good thing. Black Ops 4 feels weighty, punchy and meaningful. It's more of a level playing field - quite literally this time, well, except for Ruin - than previous Black Ops games, and as someone who enjoyed the competitive multiplayer of WW2, Black Ops 4 offers a seamless transition. (Burnt by the unanimous rejection of Infinite Warfare's trip to space, Activision, I suspect, will take some time before it considers boots off of the ground again.)
This is not to say Call of Duty has all of a sudden lost its edge. It feels faster than WW2, with infinite sprint, a generous slide and, of course, a tricksy jump. Aiming down sights is sprightly and the time to kill suitably lethal. Treyarch has dared to give Call of Duty a healing button, but it has, wisely, left Call of Duty's wonderful, still sizzling core combat loop well alone. This is a game built around rinse and repeat, built around killing and dying and killing and dying, around ADS and a flick of the trigger, turn, ADS, another flick of the trigger, disengage, heal, get back stuck in. It is a game of reactions, prediction and map knowledge. It is fast and furious the shooter, and I love it for it.
And I like - no, that's not doing it justice, I love - the way Black Ops 4 feels to play. Even at this stage the game runs at a blistering 60 frames per second. The weapons fire with an impressive sense of recoil, and, crucially, the weapons on offer in the build I played felt very different from each other. Treyarch insists the game's weapons are the true characters in Black Ops 4. I don't entirely buy that, given just how "hero shooter" the game feels now with the various specialists available to play. But what I can't deny is that Treyarch knows how to make a fantastic video game gun. They really do pop off.
Let's be honest, though, these tweaks and changes are for the Call of Duty core, the competitive multiplayers, the time to kill work outers, the weapon spray analysers. With each announced change this way or that came another whoop and a holler from the crowd of Call of Duty fanatics who filled the Los Angeles aircraft hangar Activision had booked out to reveal Black Ops 4. But for most, I suspect, Black Ops 4 is indistinguishable from Black Ops 3, its colour palette and future warfare tech all very much as it was before.
And so, all eyes turn to battle royale, which is where Black Ops 4 gets truly interesting. Unfortunately we just don't have much to go on right now (frustratingly, Treyarch co-studio head wouldn't budge on the number of players it'll have in our big Black Ops 4 interview). That means we're left filling in the blanks, doing that hopeful speculation thing that inevitably ends up in crushed dreams.
But I will plant my flag in the ground here and say I am super excited by the prospect of a Call of Duty battle royale mode. I am not of the mind that Call of Duty jumping on the battle royale bandwagon is an inherently bad thing. Sure, the whole thing stinks of cold, business-minded cynicism, something Activision will have to accept given it's the first big publisher to shoehorn gaming's latest phenomenon into one of its titles. But that doesn't mean the developers at Treyarch aren't able to do something interesting with it. For me, the idea of Call of Duty's incredible gunplay and combat feel played out across a giant map sets off all sorts of excitement. PUBG for me remains a somewhat janky experience, and I've never thought much of the shooting in Fortnite. Here, Call of Duty is taking on both with a first-person shooter with great shooting. That alone, for me, justifies the jumping on the bandwagon.
Ah, Black Ops 4's battle royale map. What a curious denomination of size Activision has come up with to describe it. Desperate, it seems, not to give the game away, Treyarch said Blackout will be 1500 times the size of Nuketown. From now on, I will describe the size of things in relationship to Nuketown. Stamford Bridge is 100 Nuketowns. Croydon is 100,000 Nuketowns. My garden is a quarter Nuketown. How silly!
And yet, Treyarch's promise of filling the map with hotspots inspired by famous moments from maps in previous Treyarch-developed Call of Duty games is a cool idea indeed. But how will the weapons work? Will players create a class before being dropped into the 1500 times the size of Nuketown map? Are the weapons scavenged, as they are in PUBG and Fortnite, or brought in via a loadout? And how the hell will Treyarch balance the vehicles, such as the helicopter? In imagining how all this will work, I refuse to be cynical. I prefer to be excited.
In truth, battle royale is the star of the show here, and in a way, by announcing it during the Black Ops 4 reveal, Treyarch has killed much of the interest in other parts of the game. Black Ops 4 is five months away from launch, and standard competitive multiplayer already feels like a case of after the lord mayor's show. Zombies is expanded with an impressive three experiences available at launch - surely to compensate for the lack of a traditional campaign - but based on the reveal, Zombies has become an almost impenetrably confusing proposition for all except those who play Zombies. Call of Duty has been crying out for something truly different for years, now - I think since Zombies became one of the most popular modes in the series. Treyarch nicked battle royale from PUBG and Fortnite, but its addition will do more to tackle Call of Duty fatigue than anything else the developers might have come up with this year.
Everyone who played Call of Duty in 2017 noticed a drop off in interest as battle royale kicked into gear. Call of Duty YouTubers and streamers left for the golden ticket that was Fortnite and PUBG, and few returned even as Call of Duty WW2 got very, very good indeed. Remember how Modern Warfare changed video games forever? Remember how Call of Duty fleshed out Zombies mode into one of the most popular video games in its own right in the world? I am pumped for Call of Duty battle royale, but its addition in Black Ops 4 sees the roles reversed. Where once Call of Duty was the trendsetter, the game others copied and followed, now it is playing catch-up, now it is taking influence from Overwatch, Rainbow Six, Fortnite and PUBG. Activision may not care if the people flock to Black Ops 4. Blackout, then, is crucial. If it is successful, we may see it become Call of Duty's main mode for the next few years at least. Would Activision dare to release Call of Duty battle royale as a free, standalone game, supported by its own take on the battlepass? In the post Fortnite world, anything is possible.
And then we come to the campaign, or in Black Ops 4's case the lack thereof. I go back and forth on how I feel about this. I must have put a couple hundred hours into WW2 competitive multiplayer but haven't even finished the first level of its campaign - and I understand it's one of the better ones. So, I probably wouldn't have played Black Ops 4's campaign even if it did find its way onto the disc. But then I lament the lack of a campaign in Black Ops 4 because a campaign would have helped ground the game in a setting. It would have given it a time and place (Black Ops 4 is set between Black Ops 2 and 3, apparently, but you'd never know looking at it). A campaign would have given Black Ops 4 an angle, a message, a hook - even if the vast majority - particularly in Black Ops' case, it turns out - would have passed it by. A campaign would have tied everything together. As it stands, Black Ops 4 feels like a loose collection of change, rattling around in your pocket.
I get the decision. With battle royale forced into the game after the genre exploded early 2017, something had to give, and Black Ops 4's campaign - or co-op missions, as I heard Treyarch was building - were the easiest darlings to murder. But there's something deeply sad about Black Ops 4's lack of story. I will mourn its loss while fussing over my kill / death ratio in competitive multiplayer and playing yet another match of Blackout.