Yesterday, Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 received a substantial update to all platforms, the latest season started on the PlayStation 4 version, and Activision released the game's first premium DLC after it leaked the day before.
I've been playing Black Ops 4 with all of this enabled, and it's a superb update. The patch makes meaningful balance changes, and the new season, dubbed Operation Absolute Zero, makes the previously soul-destroying grind through the Black Market progression tiers more achievable and gives it better rewards.
But, problems remain. I'm still scratching my head over Activision's decision to continue to split Call of Duty's audience down the middle, the haves and the have nots on either side of a seemingly impenetrable publisher-drawn line. Multiplayer Map Pack 1, which is a part of the premium Black Ops Pass, came out yesterday in something of a stealth launch after an early version was pushed live in Australia the day before. It adds two new multiplayer maps and a new zombies experience starring Kiefer Sutherland, Charles Dance, Helena Bonham Carter and Brian Blessed. Brian Blessed! These maps and the new zombies experience are all really good - any Black Ops 4 player would want to play them. It's a shame then that Activision is charging for them at a time when most publishers and developers offer new multiplayer maps for free. Oh, and while adding Black Ops 3's popular robot Reaper to Blackout is great fan-service, locking him behind the Black Ops Pass is disappointing.
The fact cool new signature weapons are locked to a Battle Pass-style special orders, which you have to buy with real-world money for the opportunity to play to unlock them, remains a sticking point. These signature weapons are, essentially, flashy weapon skins, and so do not affect gameplay other than looking cool. But it's a bit of a kick in the teeth to have to fork out real money for their special orders when you've already paid full price for the game.
Elsewhere, though, it's hard to fault Black Ops 4 right now. The title update makes welcome balance changes (take that, Titan!) and, as I mentioned, progression through the Contraband tiers is a much better experience. Last season, there were 200 tiers to work through. I don't know about you, but I was never going to get through them and in the end so it proved. Operation Absolute Zero, however, has 100 tiers. Working your way through them all - unlocking the two new weapons (a brand-new Assault Rifle and fast-firing SMG) along the way - within the 70 day time-limit is much more achievable. Yes, you can still pay to rush through these tiers, but the daily tier skip should mean most players won't feel the pressure to spend. This is very much a good thing for time-starved players such as myself.
And the rewards for progression are a lot better, too. Prior to this update, Black Ops 4 got a lot of stick for its awful-looking outfits. The outfits added to the game with Operation Absolute Zero are a lot better. Just look at this skin for Firebreak.
Operation Absolute Zero also adds a new specialist to the game, Zero. She's pretty cool to use, but the best thing about her is she's unique. Her EMP grenade - the only one in the game - can render any enemy equipment useless, which is very powerful. And her Icepick ability lets her hack into enemy scorestreaks, which is also very powerful. It's not hard to unlock Zero, either (hit tier one in the Black Market), so pretty much everyone has Zero to play with from the start.
And then there's Blackout, Black Ops 4's slick battle royale. Absolute Zero adds Hijacked, the luxury yacht map from Black Ops 2, just off the coast in the northwestern part of the map, and as you'd expect it's absolute carnage there. Things will settle down, of course, but for now, the first meaningful change to the Blackout map has caught everyone's eye.
Armour is once again in the firing line. This week's update completely revamps the armour system in battle royale. The problem had been, according to Treyarch, that it wouldn't feel great to have your armour in ruins following an engagement you emerged victorious from. So, the developers added armour plates to the map, which are used to repair a segment of damaged armour.
This is already a controversial design decision. Armour mitigates the same amount of damage as before, but you end up seeing more players with full armour more often, because armour can be repaired. And the armour plates aren't exactly rare, either. I've found the stuff is plentiful. Some players have wondered why Treyarch tinkered with the armour system in the first place. I can see what the developer was going for, but it's perhaps overshot the solution. As Treyarch design chief David Vonderhaar has said, the studio has acknowledged this initial feedback and will continue to tweak the armour system.
Overall, Blackout remains an excellent battle royale. It's polished and slick and sits snugly in the sweet spot between Fortnite's uber fun and PUBG's survival fun. I would like to see Treyarch make more meaningful changes to the Blackout map more frequently. Epic has led the charge here, tearing up Fortnite's map on a seasonal basis and replacing it with new and interesting things for players to explore. Treyarch has said Christmas is coming to Blackout with special event tiers and seasonal items to unlock, and there are thematic map decorations and even throwable snowballs on their way. It doesn't sound like Kevin the Cube level stuff, but it all helps.
Still, Black Ops 4 is in a pretty good place right now, a couple of months after it came out. Don't get me wrong - issues remain! - but I'm enjoying the game and I get the impression Call of Duty's hard-to-please community is on-side. Thumbs up, Treyarch.