In this era of annualized mega-hits, it's not too often that a developer like Treyarch makes major changes to the formula of a tried and true series like Call of Duty. But with Black Ops 4, the team has introduced some interesting tweaks to popular modes like Multiplayer and Zombies while simultaneously severing its single player campaign and injecting a brand new battle royale mode. And while the end result is not what I would call a "completely different experience," it potentially marks a fresh start (and a new high point) for the storied franchise.

Right out of the gate, Treyarch made certain series fans knew that Call of Duty would be undergoing something of a transformation with Black Ops 4. They announced early on that there would not be a traditional campaign, with the series shifting to instead focus almost exclusively on multiplayer modes. Senior Producer Yale Miller explained that the team was working on a new type of campaign in the early days of development but, when the mode wasn't quite clicking into place, Treyarch decided to abandon it completely rather than include something they did not fully believe in.

For many FPS fans -- myself included -- that was bittersweet news. I typically play solo even when jumping into online modes, so I've always appreciated an action-packed campaign to work through and extend my mileage with any number of annual shooters. Then again, I've always felt that if a campaign isn't going to get the attention it deserves, then resources would be better spent on making other modes even better. So while Black Ops 4 does not offer a campaign, I applaud Treyarch for not churning one out just to add another bullet to the back of the game's box. And as expected, those resources indeed went into fleshing out the game's other modes, as well as adding a completely new battle royale mode into the mix.

What's really interesting about Black Ops 4 is how distinct each of its modes is. Whether you want to take down hordes of the undead with your friends, battle against the lightning-fast reflexes of competitive players or get dropped onto a massive map and have to scavenge for supplies, there's a little something for every type of shooter fan here.

While Black Ops 4 doesn't have a traditional campaign, its Specialist HQ mode at least helps give the game a sense of place. It's a glorified tutorial, but definitely something you'll want to play through before diving too far into Multiplayer. This mode walks you through the abilities of each of the game's Specialists (more on them later) while simultaneously explaining the competitive mode's various match types. You can tackle each Specialist's challenges on three difficulty settings if you want to take a breather with some bots, and each Specialist's chapter is bookended by brief scenes that explain who they are and how they fit into a very lightweight narrative. Specialist HQ works super well as an introduction to the series or refresher for vets and, again, it's nice to have even this minimal amount of connective tissue in the absence of a proper campaign.

The mode that has stolen the show for the past decade, Multiplayer, is alive and well in Black Ops 4, introducing some new or fine-tuned wrinkles to the formula. As noted above, players will get to choose from 10 Specialists at launch, which work a lot like Heroes in, say, Overwatch. That's not to imply that Multiplayer has evolved into a hero shooter, because that's certainly not the case. Instead, Specialists add a bit of extra flavor to the run-and-gun antics, allowing players to take on more ahem specialized roles while battling over control points or trying to wipe out the opposition.

Battery, for instance, has a sticky Cluster Grenade she can throw into the mix and, once she's earned enough momentum, the War Machine grenade launcher is hers to unleash. Ruin, on the other hand, can leap into the air and use his Ground Slam to obliterate nearby enemies, while his Grapple Gun is a nice perk for mobility. Abilities are clearly meant to be used in tandem, and I imagine the most dangerous teams will be those who learn to take advantage of how Specialists can work together.

The fantastic "Pick 10" system makes its triumphant return for Multiplayer's Create a Class, letting players literally pick the 10 customization options they think will help create the ultimate soldier. You can spread points across your main and sub weapons, perks and gear. If you want to roll into battle with heavily modded weapons and nothing else, you can do that. If you would prefer one decent firearm with perks that let you move faster, scavenge ammo and take more damage, that's totally fine. The more you use gear, the more upgrades become available for it, allowing players to progress in Multiplayer however they see fit rather than constantly getting attachments for weapons they never use.

As for Multiplayer modes, usual suspects like Control and Kill Confirmed are present and accounted for, with the press-your-luck Heist serving as a nice addition. In the latter, teams try to grab and bank a bundle of money while mowing down the opposing team. You can spend earned funds between rounds, meaning you can try to progress steadily or save up over a couple of rounds in the hopes of earning enough to buy more substantial gear.

All of that action is spread across 14 launch maps including some old favorites (Firing Range, Slums) and plenty of new locations that feel right at home in this not-too-distant future. In this first week of play, the maps feel decently varied and carefully crafted, though spawn trapping has been a real issue in the early goings. I expect Treyarch to continue tweaking things in the months ahead, though, so it's hard to hold much against them at this point.

On the complete opposite end of the spectrum is the brand new Zombies mode. Black Ops 4 launched with three maps compared to the usual one, which I'd wager was meant as an attempt to help counterbalance the fact that the single player campaign has been removed.

As a result, there are two main stories to play through including Aether and Chaos. Aether currently includes "Blood of the Dead," a retelling of classic Zombies stories set in an alternate World War II timeline. Chaos, on the other hand, is a time-hopping affair that boasts "Voyage of Despair" and "IX." The former sees you battling zombies on a sinking Titanic while the latter drops players into a decidedly more mystical version of an ancient gladiatorial arena.

The Zombies mode offers a completely separate tutorial, which is appropriate considering how utterly different the game mode is from your typical competitive fare. And on top of the collection of varied locales, Treyarch went the extra mile to beef things up with a new "Rush" mode that lets team members battle for the most points, and they even threw in a surprisingly deep "Lab" mode that lets you customize everything from starting gear and ability unlocks to zombie hordes and even their speed. If you manage to grow weary of the multiple difficulty settings for the standard maps, I imagine any group of undead-slaying fiends will find plenty of extra fun to be had by tweaking this horde mode to their heart's content.

Heck, there's even an easy mode available for folks who want to spend more time figuring out the maps and puzzles than worrying about the overwhelming swarm of undead, and you can also play solo with some pretty decent bots watching your back. All in all, this is probably the best Zombies has ever been, which is only amplified by the sheer number of ways players are now able to tackle the mode.

Finally, there's Blackout, Black Ops 4's answer to the red-hot genre of the moment, battle royale. Up to 88 players get dropped onto a massive map which is made up of locations pulled straight out of previous games such as the Cargo Docks, Asylum, Estates and Rivertown.

Once you hit the ground it's time to hunt for gear, including everything from weapons and attachments to armor, backpacks for extra storage, grenades, specialized gear and even perks that, when activated, let you do things like see items on the map, easily locate vehicles or even thrive in the map's steadily growing danger zone or under water. There's a ton of gear to find, making the mad dash to equip yourself as quickly as possible a heck of a lot of fun.

To help you get around more quickly are vehicles like ATVs, trucks and choppers, and the map is even littered with zones that are crawling with zombies that drop specialized gear. You might even get lucky enough to find special items that unlock quests to gain access to additional skins, which is the mode's only weak point as far as I'm concerned. Don't get me wrong, I love the in-map missions, but the fact that progression is almost exclusively tied to these chance discoveries is a little bit of a bummer. You currently only gain a handful of skins by doing a hellacious amount of leveling up, which seems like a real missed opportunity to give players something more to work toward than earning the occasional top finish.

Otherwise, the best way I can describe Blackout is to say that it's exactly the battle royale mode I've always wanted. I love the aesthetics in Fortnite, but something about the game's building just doesn't sit right with me (or, more likely, my skill level). Games like PUBG are nice and all, but I could never get over the jank or shooting mechanics that aren't super dialed in. Blackout offers a super solid experience right out of the gate and, unlike the fast-as-hell Multiplayer mode, it's more akin to something like a draft in Magic: The Gathering. All players drop into a match on a level playing field and your ability to survive is based on what you find on the map, your basic shooting skills and, yes, a bit of luck. Losing under those circumstances feels far less punishing and only encourages me to drop back in for "just one more round."

All told, Black Ops 4 is a complete package and, despite the lack of a campaign, early play has me convinced it will evolve into a new high water mark for the series. I'm not the kind of guy who sticks with most shooters for more than a month or two, but I'm confident I'm going to be getting plenty of mileage out of Treyarch's latest offering in the weeks ahead. And while I'm likely to eventually move on from Multiplayer and Zombies, there's zero doubt in my mind that I'll still be playing Blackout for a long, long time to come.

This review based on a PlayStation 4 download provided by the publisher.

8 / 10 stars
Rating: movie reviewed rating
 

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