With Black Ops 4, Call of Duty Takes Aim at a Fortnite World
Blackout, Call of Duty: Black Ops 4's new game mode, begins the same way all battle-royale sequences do. You fly over a remote warscape—this time, in a series-appropriate attack helicopter—and drop in, bristling with fear and aggression. What follows is by now a familiar sequence, popularized by battle-royale phenomena like PlayerUnknown's Battleground and Fortnite: scramble to get gear, seek out a fortifiable location, then grit your teeth as the game ratchets toward a chaotic endgame of all-out omnidirectional combat. Then again, you probably won't survive that long; when the only objective is survival at another's expense, most people don't.
The addition of a battle royale mode in the newest Call of Duty serves two masters with a single ploy: filling the telltale gap left by the series' absentee single-player campaign, while chasing one of gaming's biggest trends. It also happens to be the most interesting part of Black Ops 4, the franchise's fifteenth core title. While the rest of the game is both serviceable and familiar in a way that many serious game players have professed to grow tired of, Blackout functions both as a COD-ified take on a popular game genre and broad homage to Call of Duty and its history. The series' newest feature is its very essence, distilled into a game mode, big and loud and fast.
Call of Duty games are about a lot of things, some of which vary from sub-series to sub-series and installment to installment. Modern Warfare was, arguably, about the Iraq War. The original Black Ops was a slurry of paranoiac Cold War pulp fiction. The original game was about heroism and terror in World War 2. But increasingly, Call of Duty games have been about themselves. The campaign setpieces—when they all had campaigns—often echoed each other, especially after Modern Warfare defined the series for the contemporary gaming era. Multiplayer modes would proliferate and pollinate, old maps slipping into new games, an accreting mythos woven into the yearly helping of guns and gore.
Blackout feels like the culmination of those references. The map is stitched together out of various locations and modes from the game's history, including a setting populated with zombies and an island made out of Nuketown, one of the series' most iconic multiplayer maps. When you make landfall anywhere on the island, you'll find yourself rummaging through iconic guns, powerup perks, and pieces of equipment from the series. Most of those weapons are semi-realistic military gear, but the aesthetic is there, a consistency of mood and style that draws Blackout into the Call of Duty universe of violence and military anxiety.
It's too early to say if Black Ops 4 can compete with PUBG and Fortnite as a battle-royale title, or whether has the staying power or the depth to succeed. It's less flamboyant than Fortnite, but bears all the markings of a moneyed triple-A development, with precise physics and an elaborate set of interactions with the world. It's fun to play, though a good deal faster and more challenging than its peers due to the sheer fragility of Call of Duty's characters.
The Call of Duty franchise, viewed through its multiplayer lens, is an odd sort of blood ritual. I remember casually playing deathmatches in college, all of us hunkered around a TV in a dorm room, most of us not the sort of people who played games often, running around Nuketown, diving in and out of houses to chase each other down with knives and shotguns. There is, in these modes, a reveling in military pageantry that borders on irony, And alongside it, an increased vein of silliness that's built over the years, zombies and laser beams juxtaposed with M4 rifles and rocket-propelled grenades.
Blackout is all of that, rolled into an 88-player free-for-all—not quite the full 100 of genre convention, but hey, big games are complicated. It's Call of Duty as playground, as a mock war exercise in a world completely out of its mind, as garish theme park.
So, as the centerpiece of Call of Duty: Black Ops 4, Blackout is an incredibly appropriate bit of game design. It powerfully communicates, via reference and self-pastiche, the way the series has and hasn't changed. I was disappointed when Black Ops 4 was announced not to have a single-player campaign, and I still am. But this might be the most honest Call of Duty ever made.