It’s easy to forget, but Call of Duty (COD) was once the only shooter that mattered. Turning heads thanks to its high production values and innovative XP-based player progression system, 2007’s Modern Warfare single-handedly laid the groundwork for all of today’s competitive online shooters.
For more than five years, a COD launch was a genuine event. Millions of excited gamers once braved midnight launches in order to get their hands on what would undoubtedly be the best multiplayer game of that year. For a long time, it looked like the rest of the games industry was playing catch-up to Activision, taking notes and borrowing COD’s innovations. But now, more than 10 years after Modern Warfare came along and rewrote the rulebook — Call of Duty is starting to lag behind.
With the last few Call of Duty titles stubbornly sticking to the series’ increasingly well-worn formula, shooter fans slowly drifted towards exciting new takes on the FPS like Battlefield, Overwatch, and Rainbow Six Siege. Now, after last year’s fun, (if familiar) return to World War II, Call of Duty has been forced to adapt if it wants to survive.
A Beta Call of Duty?
First things first, after spending some time with the beta, it’s clear that Black Ops 4 isn’t just more of the same — and depending on what you want from COD, it’s a move that’s both for better and for worse. Right from its jarringly alien-looking menu screen down to the new class-based character picks, from the offset it feels like developer Treyarch wants players to know that this isn’t your daddy’s Call of Duty.
While shiny new menus are all well and good, the first time Black Ops 4 feels REALLY fresh is when you dive into its brand new 5v5 mode — Heist. Taking its cues from Counter-Strike, this objective-based game type sees two teams scrambling to find a bag of cash and then deliver the spoils to an extraction point.
Its biggest strength is that it feels a bit like a greatest hits mish-mash of multiple shooter modes. Like in the aforementioned FPS king, Counter-Strike, in Heist each player begins the round with a dwindling bank balance, giving them a precious few seconds to purchase their own loadout. With only 1,000 bucks at their disposal, initial spending decisions are crucial to shaping the round. Do you go for the light armour and a grenade? Or is it better to take a risk and blow it all on a semi-automatic?
A Duty to Your Team
In a nice touch, the cash you steal isn’t just a random choice of McGuffin. As you may expect, the cash actually affects your team’s spending power, with the team who nabs the spoils ultimately having more money to spend on shiny loadouts in the next round.
With Heist lasting up to 7 rounds, your team will need to make 4 decisive bag grabs in order to win the game. And when we say “your team,” we don’t just mean a collection of players clumped together. Unlike the COD of yesteryear, the one-man army approach to gameplay isn’t going to cut it here — teamplay is essential.
With each map’s cash bags hidden in plain sight, if you want to get that quick cash injection and win the round, you’ll need cover from your teammates to make it out alive. Health and bullets are precious resources here, too, and you’ll have to stock up on ammo caches and health packs alike if you want to emerge from these intense skirmishes victorious.
These are the first hints at Treyarch’s decision to make Black Ops 4 feel like a far more tactical experience than what’s come before. Normally though, these kinds of core gameplay tweaks are saved for the shiny new mode. What surprised us most about Black Ops 4, however, is that this newfound emphasis on tactical play isn’t just confined to Heist mode.
No matter what game type you choose, each player’s health has been upped from 100 to 150 — meaning that both you and your opponents can take a lot more lead-based punishment than COD veterans will be used too. If that wasn’t enough to make rounds feel more intense, health packs are actually a part of the rest of the game too. With rounds lasting longer and firefights being less lethal, we found ourselves blindly charging into battle less and roaming COD’s normally chaotic maps far more carefully.
Speaking of movement, boy does Black Ops 4 feel fast. Call of Duty has always prided itself on having slick-feeling 60 frames-per-second combat, but thanks to a brilliantly satisfying slide ability and games taking place on tighter knit maps, firefights feel especially scrappy here.
While most maps felt pretty COD by numbers, a few stages offered up some genuinely surprising pieces of level design. For our money, the Normandy-esque Contraband was by far the standout map. As well as the ladders and pillboxes you’d expect from a fortified beachfront, a nice touch sees players forced to swim across open areas and through flooded tunnels in order to flank their opponents. It still felt suitably near-future and close quarters enough to fit the Black Ops aesthetic, but seeing Treyarch use a map’s surroundings to introduce new gameplay mechanics was a pleasant surprise.
For lapsed players, the new and improved class-based “specialist system” looked like one of Black Ops 4‘s most headline-worthy innovations. But after a few rounds, it actually felt like one of the least interesting changes. Clearly inspired by the likes of Overwatch and Rainbow Six Siege, instead of making their own class, players start each round choosing from one of 10 different characters. As you’d expect, each character has their own unique abilities, ranging from ballistic shields to the tide-turning War Machine grenade launcher.
How’s Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 Shaping Up?
From our time with them so far, these classes all feel fairly well balanced, with Treyarch even offering a medic-meets-support character for those who may not be the best sharpshooters. But despite the specialist system sounding like a radical departure on paper, in reality, these new loadouts don’t really do much to change the core COD experience.
If we’re honest, that’s a sentiment that can be used to sum up all of our experience with the Black Ops 4 beta. Treyarch has certainly made some welcome changes to Activision’s 15-year-old shooter series, keeping its upcoming entry feeling suitably chaotic but injecting it with a welcome tactical edge. But ultimately, that might not be enough to make Black Ops 4 a mega-hit. If you were bored of the COD experience five years ago, these changes probably won’t be enough to bring you running back. Still, a lot of these core gameplay changes feel geared towards a mode that no one but Treyarch has seen.
Yes, that mode. With many gamers dropping FPSes for the likes of Fortnite and PUBG, the world is patiently waiting to hear more about Black Ops 4‘s most surprising new addition — the first Call of Duty Battle Royale mode. You’ll have to be patient a little longer though, as that mode won’t be trialled until next month. Until then, Black Ops 4 is looking to be a fun new take on what is unmistakably still Call of Duty.