LOS ANGELES—”Treyarch has never shied away from breaking away from convention.” With those words, studio chairman Mark Lamia kicked off a Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 reveal event full of noisy videos and noisier boasts, but the studio didn’t have a ton to show for its ambitious words.
The speech failed to reveal any revolutionary or paradigm-shifting content—like real-gameplay proof of advances in the series’ “Zombies” mode or any footage of how its upcoming battle royale twists will “spin [the genre] on its head.” (The event also, if you missed it, confirmed a Call of Duty first: no single-player campaign.)
For now, the most optimism we can muster about Black Ops 4 comes from an hour-long team-combat session that followed the presser. The short takeaway from our world-premiere hands-on is that Activision has gotten some Overwatch in its CoD—and the results feel smoother (and, honestly, more conventional) in action than you might think.
Heroes never die
I went hands-on with three team-combat modes on PlayStation 4 that are expected to ship in the final version: Domination, Control, and Hardpoint. Each five-on-five match took place on a different, new map and allowed players to flex the series’ new-feature muscles.
All three modes revolved around point-capture mechanics. Domination (capture and maintain three points) returns from prior entries in the series, while Hardpoint mixes that idea up with a single capture point that’s constantly moving around the map. With Control, Treyarch and Activision liberally borrow from Overwatch‘s mode of the same name. In BLOPS4‘s version, teams alternate between capturing or defending two pre-defined points on the map, though teams can also lose a round by running out of limited respawns. The first team to three rounds wins a Control match.
Before getting into any combat, however, I had to pick a “class,” as shown in the above cardboard card. (These abilities are subject to change before the final game launches.) Though this choice determines how your soldier looks in action, it otherwise only fills in two slots of your soldier’s loadout: a grenade-button ability (which takes a decent amount of time to recharge depending on its power) and an “ultimate” power (which takes so long to recharge that you’ll likely only use it twice per standard match).
Yes, this seems Overwatch-y as heck, but it’s really not that heavy a change. Basically, the new set-up adds two more choices to your standard “loadout” of perks, bonuses, weapon attachments, and “kill streak” options. Like in older CoD games, the non-class portions of your loadout fill up 10 “card” slots on your “custom soldier” page, so you can opt to fill a single weapon with tons of perks or leave a weapon less modified in order to equip more boosts to elements like armor or radar. The class-specific ultimate abilities, honestly, find the right balance between feeling enthrallingly charged-up and still somehow military-appropriate.
One class can slam down a high-tech shield to plant yourself in front of a control objective; another can pull out a limited-time grenade launcher with five cluster-explosion rounds; and still another can send a healing wave to nearby allies. Think of these as kill-streak-caliber abilities that even your worst teammates (the ones who never rack up enough enough UAV-enabling points) can eventually access in the heat of battle. They’re infrequent, they spice up beat-by-beat gunplay, and they don’t otherwise interrupt the tight, close-corridors combat that CoD has refined for so many years.
Those class-specific “grenade” abilities vary widely, as well, and they open up combat possibilities that resemble some of Lawbreakers‘ most creative twists. One class gets a grappling-hook ability, which can grab onto distant walls and speed you all the way down a giant hallway (which I found was awesome to use while assaulting the back half of a control point). Another lays down a barbed-wire trap that feels inefficient at first but ultimately proved useful in both attack and defend modes, once I got the hang of a particular map. You can latch onto more traditional grenade-and-blasting classes, obviously, but hats off to Treyarch for splitting its classes between traditional and strategic flavors.
And a new stimpack—is it enough?
An arguably bigger mechanical change comes from a new, dedicated button, assigned to L1/LB on console gamepads: a stimpack. The run-away-and-heal archetype established so many years ago by Halo is now toast. In its place is the ability to fully recover your health whenever you want, with two exceptions. First, you have to get through a stimpack-injection animation, which means you cannot shoot or reload a gun while recovering (and you can also get shot to death before sticking the needle in). Second, once you’ve used the stimpack, you have to wait for your next dose to regenerate before you can heal again.
I loved the beat-by-beat choices the stimpack system forced me to make inside of precarious map choke points. It’s a pretty loud example of how the Black Ops fork can shine by weaving a mix of familiar, accurate, and unrealistic elements into each successive entry. (I also liked what seemed like a slight boost to health per respawn, but with only four matches under my belt, making a call about that kind of in-game math is hard to do.)
This praise comes with a big catch: we’ve more-or-less played this Call of Duty before. Five-on-five combat. Flat, cramped maps with a twisting, snaky slew of run-and-turn options. An immediate range of solid, math-balanced guns that let virtual soldiers find their favorite balance of accurate, quick-shooting, and ammo-eating firepower. Hero classes, health-system tweaks, and even a new fun “shoot a gun while swimming” option are a welcome coat of frosting on top of BLOPS4‘s cupcakes.
But if you’ll forgive my continuing this metaphor, I went hands-on with conventional gameplay cupcakes—the kinds you might find at a grocery store. I didn’t really doubt that BLOPS4 could nail five-on-five combat once more. But it’s curious that this big reveal event included zero gameplay from this sequel’s zombies or battle royale modes. Since BLOPS4 has chosen to punt any scripted single-player content (and since Treyarch representatives are now describing zombies as the sequel’s primary “narrative” experience), those other modes’ depth and variety will need to pick up the slack to convince fans to spend no less than $60 (or likely more, depending on whatever season pass or microtransaction plans are eventually announced).