For 11 years, Call of Duty has been a safe bet for Activision.
It’s popular, it sells by the boatload, and it changes very little year after year. It prints money, basically. But Black Ops 4, released on Oct. 12, upends that common thinking. It’s still safe — there’s a freaking battle royale mode! — but it’s not the Call of Duty many of us know.
Think back to 2007. That’s the year Call of Duty went from cinematic first-person shooter set during World War II — like so many other popular shooters at that time — to game-changer.
Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare was the first in the series to introduce a present-day battlefield. It delivered storytelling innovations. It changed the landscape for online gaming with its magically sticky player leveling and weapon/gear unlocks. And it established a framework that Activision would stick to for the next decade.
Call of Duty turned into a yearly release after that, and each new one generally arrives looking more like an iterative extension of the last release than a proper new product that needs to be reckoned with on its own terms. It’s a safe approach for a series that never seems to leave the top sales charts.
Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 is a monumental shift for a series that rarely changes.
If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, right?
Not this time. Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 is a monumental shift for a series that rarely changes. It’s not another Modern Warfare moment for Activision — this new game is more follower than leader — but, in typical Call of Duty fashion, it excels at what it does. This one just takes a chance on doing things differently.
Prior to release, the most visible change was the ditched campaign mode. It’s been rumored that the campaign’s removal was a mid-development decision — people were building it, there just wasn’t enough time to finish — but developer Treyarch has publicly stated the decision was motivated by a desire to better embrace Call of Duty’s social game.
Whatever the truth is, there’s no story mode in Black Ops 4. The closest we get is “Specialist HQ,” which is by far the weakest component in this new Call of Duty. The game’s main menu even recognizes that, giving Specialist HQ’s button a fraction of the screen space occupied by the other three modes of play.
But what is it, exactly? Black Ops 4‘s more traditional multiplayer mode features 10 “specialist” characters to choose from. You can outfit them with whatever weapons you want, but the specialist you choose dictates what kind of grenade and “super” ability you bring into combat. Specialist HQ, then, is 10 separate tutorial modes — one for each — that are ostensibly sewn together by an overarching story.
You piece that story together as you play through each specialist’s tutorial, but it’s really not worth the effort. Each of the 10 tread virtually the same path: A very directed and highly constrained capital-T Tutorial, followed by a fake online match in which you fight both alongside and against bots (computer-controlled soldiers). Better to learn these specialists in the fires of online play.
That brings us to Black Ops 4‘s traditional multiplayer mode. It’s… fine! If you’ve liked Call of Duty multiplayer before, you’re probably still going to like it here. That’s the whole point.
A bunch of maps from older games have been remastered and brought forward, for one. If you’re a longtime fan, there’s really nothing more exciting than getting to run around a Black Ops 1 map like Firing Range again. You know every corner, every hidey-hole, every path of approach. You’re playing with all these new toys, but in old, familiar, and beloved stomping grounds.
Treyarch also simplified unlocks, locking away different guns, gear, and perks (passive upgrades that change the way your soldier performs) behind level requirements. It’s another nod to Modern Warfare, where leveling up meant everything for your Create-a-Class loadouts.
You can still create loadouts of your own in Black Ops 4 — the feature unlocks early — and customize them using the point-based system that’s been more common in recent Call of Duty games. But overall, the year’s fresh spin on multiplayer feels like a Greatest Hits kind of approach. It works.
Zombies is also back. Treyarch originally introduced the cooperative Zombies survival mode as an easter egg in the studio’s 2008 Modern Warfare follow-up, Call of Duty: World at War. Since then, Zombies has expanded and evolved, adding many of the ideas that have made the competitive side of the game such a hit.
In Black Ops 4, Zombies is better than ever. The foundation is largely the same: Fight alongside up to three other players as you try to survive on limited resources through as many waves as possibly before the ever-stronger zombies finally overwhelm.
This time, we get multiple maps to choose from right at the outset: One set aboard a ghost ship version of the Titanic and another set in a mixed-pantheon arena that incorporates mythological elements of ancient Greeks, Romans, Egyptians, and vikings. There’s also another remastered map, set in Alcatraz prison.
Each one has its own story and set of puzzles to be solved, just like always. The big changes for Zombies are felt more once you start playing. There are new ways to power yourself up early in a match, and some rules have changed to keep players fighting for longer.
One major example: If you die during a wave but at least one member of your team makes it through to the next one, you keep any guns you’ve picked up. In past games, dying and respawning into the next zombie wave meant starting over with a basic, crappy pistol. It’s a minor rule change with monumental consequences; survive a wave, and everyone is still equipped to keep fighting.
In Black Ops 4, Zombies is better than ever.
You can also fill your squad out with extremely helpful bots when you don’t have full team of four handy. Friendly bots in Zombies are very good at the game; they’ll come through with clutch revives and help keep zombie numbers down. Don’t be surprised if you finish a match and see your bot(s) at the top of the rankings — it happened to me every time.
Other new elements improve on older ideas. You can equip elixirs that give you limited-time buffs; the most common ones can be reused infinitely (after a cooldown timer ticks down), but rarer elixirs — obtained from packages purchased with earned in-game cash — are limited by how many you’ve collected.
The specialist component of multiplayer even plays a role in Zombies now. Before a match begins, you can select which super weapon you’d like to carry with you. There are four at the start, and each one behaves (i.e. slaughters zombies) in different ways. Just like specialist abilities, your Zombies super weapon is managed by a cooldown timer.
On top of all that, each map just has more going on. In “IX,” the mixed-pantheon arena, you can do all the expected Zombies things, like follow the easter egg, piece together makeshift gear, and upgrade weapons at the Pack-A-Punch machine. But there are also challenges that confer more immediate benefits, such as a self-revive item or a pre-upgraded pistol.
There’s even a tutorial mode now for Zombies. Longtime fans won’t learn much from playing through it, but the tutorial lays out the basics for an element in Call of Duty that has always been kind of unapproachable (at first) and learn-as-you-go. It’s long overdue, and it goes a long way toward making Zombies feel more fully baked.
The highlight of Black Ops 4 though — by far — is Blackout. This is the much-hyped battle royale mode, Call of Duty’s own spin on the mega-popularity of games like PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds and Fortnite.
PUBG especially is a good touchstone here. Blackout has a lot in common with the Fortnite progenitor, though because it’s built on the Call of Duty foundation it instantly feels more polished and put-together as a shooter.
I really can’t understate that PUBG comparison. Blackout seems like it gives you more and better weapons, faster, but elements like marking map destinations, accounting for bullet drop, and staying inside the ever-shrinking circle are instantly familiar. Fortnite shares those elements, but the game’s building mechanics make it stand out.
It’s the polish that wins here. Blackout feels effortless. It slides right into the Call of Duty framework as if it’s always been there. PUBG is still a great game, and it’s still largely responsible for fostering widespread interest in the battle royale genre, but it suffers in any comparison to Blackout. Call of Duty’s take is just plain better.
As a whole package, Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 is a winner. It capitalizes on all the things the series does well while shaking up the 11-year-old formula. It doesn’t feel like a different game, but it does feel like a brand new one. And for Call of Duty, a series that opts for iteration over innovation, that’s a huge step forward.
UPDATED Oct. 15, 2018 An earlier version of this story incorrectly noted that Firing Range is a map from Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. It’s actually from the first Call of Duty: Black Ops.
WATCH: What do a former Victoria’s Secret model and an Indy racer have in common? — Mashable Originals