The first thing that strikes you about Blackout, Call of Duty's take on the phenomenally popular battle royale genre, is how smooth it all feels.
There's a polish to the experience that's leagues above Blackout's most direct rival in the battle royale space, PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds. On PlayStation 4, the only platform Blackout is currently live on, Blackout runs at an impressive framerate. It doesn't feel like it maintains the 60 frames per second target the Call of Duty series is known for, but when it dips, it's not far off.
Movement is as silky smooth as you'd expect for a Call of Duty game. I love the way you seamlessly crash through windows with the vault button, for example, and how you can slide this way and that, your gun still facing forward, whenever you need to make yourself hard to hit.
The shooting is superb, with weighty weapons that pack a real punch. Aiming down sights feels slick - as it should, since this is Call of Duty shooting we're talking about. I love the sound of Call of Duty's weapons, the crack of a sniper rifle, the thud of a shotgun or the rattle of an SMG. I'm used to these sounds splitting my ears in the traditional Call of Duty's competitive multiplayer experience, with its confined spaces and close quarters running and gunning. Here though, on a massive map big enough to comfortably fit loads of Call of Duty maps inside itself and have fields and fields and fields left to play with, you get closer to the each gun's truth. In Blackout, on a massive, battle royale map, Black Ops 4's sniper rifles crack and then that sound keeps on going, over the hills and far away, and, potentially, into the ears of now-alerted enemy players who turn their threatening gaze towards your location.
I'm surprised by Blackout's map. It is very PUBG - to the point where a casual observer might have trouble distinguishing between the two games if they were to look at screenshots of each side by side. There are hills, rocky mounds, rivers and buildings with doors and windows, fields of green, the odd bush, and plenty of trees. Blackout looks like what would happen if the The Duke of Edinburgh's Award decided to spice things up a bit by dumping 80 teenagers off the M1 somewhere between junction 13 and 16.
This is doing the Blackout map something of a disservice. While it's a particularly dour place to look at, it's a particularly fun place to battle royale in. There's a huge amount to it - and it's much bigger than I ever thought a Call of Duty map could be. There's an asylum with annoying zombies to contend with, and a rivertown to storm. In between are more Call of Duty maps transposed into the battle royale, with pockets of buildings dotted around here and there. There's a train station, a beach, a dam to jump off, a firing range and a cool estates area if you fancy somewhere a but more old-school COD to shoot up. Speaking of old-school COD, Nuketown, now an island to the west, is an early favourite for early game death-seekers, Blackout's version of Tilted Towers. And everything's impressively vertical, which means there's plenty of scope to wingsuit away - or to - danger (I'm looking at you, construction site).
In fact, Blackout's map may be a tad too big for its own good. This, or Blackout could benefit from a player count bump. 80 players is a huge number for Call of Duty, and I appreciate the priority here must be in-game performance, but the pace of an average match - particularly when played in solo mode - can suffer from lulls where you don't experience combat for a while, particularly during the mid-game. I wouldn't call these lulls boring, just a bit slow as you sprint across yet another field. And while ransacking entire areas in glorious isolation is feasible, you're always on edge. Gunfire cracks with a reassuring regularity and the sound of ATVs never far away. Still, I think 100 players would be a wonderful sweet-spot for this game. (Treyarch has recently upped the player count to 88, which suggests we'll see a higher cap for launch.)
Perhaps associated with the technical challenges Treyarch faces, Blackout is no looker. In fact, some of it looks downright ugly. The grass is an eyesore, and some of the textures look last-gen. This is the result, I suspect, of Treyarch's commitment to retaining the pillars of the Call of Duty experience as it makes the move to battle royale. A high frame-rate and silky smooth controls and gunplay are the priorities here. If the graphics and the detail take the hit, so be it. I agree with the decision, even as I wince at the front of vending machines, the ground I lay prone on and the bushes I hide in.
Coming at Blackout as a Call of Duty competitive multiplayer fan is a weird experience, and there's a lot to unlearn. Blackout is perhaps the least lethal Call of Duty experience I've ever played. Players start with 150 health, can pick up medkits, can heal with a press and hold of a shoulder button, and, on top of all that, there are three levels of armour to soak up bullets. This means enemies can feel a bit bullet spongy, but this also means you have to play smarter. Tactics are as important as your reflexes and coordination with squadmates is as crucial as your ability to shoot straight. Blackout is the most tactical Call of Duty has ever been, and while there is an inevitable period of adaptation if you're coming in hot from the blistering respawn-fest that is traditional Call of Duty multiplayer, Blackout is a refreshing take on the series.
Indeed, tactical decisions permeate the game. You can only carry two weapons, so weapon knowledge is key. Attachments play a hugely important role in your success. You'll want something good at distance (at these unprecedented distances for Call of Duty, scopes are king), and something decent up close. You're limited to around 200 rounds of each ammo type. You can only equip one armour item and one health item. You can equip tactical and lethal grenades or common equipment like Trophy systems. There are interesting choices to be made all over the inventory management shop. And then there's your battle royale smarts - when to hide, when to engage, how to move across the map in as smart a way as possible.
Blackout, like most battle royale games, is more fun with friends. In duos or quads I'm more likely to seek out one of Blackout's vehicles and thus increase the likelihood of a good time. The ATV is a nice zippy ride. The cargo truck is a good shout if you need to storm an area late game with a squad. The tactical raft is limited to the map's river, but is a surprisingly flexible beast. But my favourite vehicle in the beta is the chopper - one person driving, three in the back shooting at enemy players below. This is about as far-removed from the traditional Call of Duty experience as you could expect - and it's a lot of fun.
Duos and quads is where Blackout excels, for me. In one match, a truck carrying a squad of players stormed the building me and my duo friend were holed up in, and we peppered the lot of them from the first floor windows even as they chucked explosives through the doors. When Blackout's like this, it feels like wicked street to street fighting.
Blackout also does well when it remembers it's a Call of Duty game. The ray gun from zombies mode is available, although you'll be lucky to find it. The brilliant monkey bomb is in there, too (in one match I died to a player who chucked the monkey bomb at my downed character before leaving the zombies it attracted to munch on my slithering soldier). Specialist-based equipment and items, which are rare, help add variety to the combat. The barricade is really useful late game. The razor wire helps cover your six. And the grapple hook is great for getting into a flanking position for a quick kill.
Blackout has some noticeable niggles at this stage, but given we're playing a beta, hopefully they can be ironed out at launch. Picking up items is pretty fiddly, although Treyarch has already made it quicker. Armour is a sticking point - it's perhaps a tad overpowered at this stage, and Treyarch will no doubt nerf it in some way. The quick equip menu is designed to make managing your items intuitive but currently it's a bit of a mess. And there's occasional lag, which can make opening doors and shooting accurately troublesome.
My deeper concern with Blackout is whether the mode has legs. At this beta stage, I'm enjoying the Call of Duty polish applied to the often janky battle royale genre - and I say this with a genuine enthusiasm and respect for what Treyarch has achieved. But Blackout is, essentially, Call of Duty mashed with PUBG. It is a triumph of execution over creativity.
For now, though, and for Call of Duty's army of fans, Blackout is revolution enough. Roll on 12th October.
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