In many ways, the Call of Duty series was built on the idea of “Anything you can do, we can do better.” The first Call of Duty game, which was released in 2003, was developed by many of the people who worked on the revolutionary WWII game, Medal of Honor: Allied Assault. These developers knew that they had to find a way to definitively surpass what they had achieved just one year before, and they accomplished that goal by finding little ways to improve nearly everything that made Allied Assault great.
In recent years, though, the Call of Duty franchise has lost its identity as the series that forces everyone else to up their game. With few exceptions, it has settled into a kind of creative rut where the goal isn’t to be better than every other game but to find ways to make little improvements over what made the previous Call of Duty game good. It’s a pattern of complacency that has been frustrating but lucrative. As such, many had given up hope that the CoD teams would ever be so bold as to break from the beaten path and challenge other industry leaders at their own game.
That’s just part of the reason why Call of Duty: Black Ops 4‘s new Blackout mode is such a shocking addition to the franchise.
The premise of Blackout is so familiar that it borders on insulting. Blackout is a battle royale game that sees 80 players inhabit a designated field of play that gradually gets smaller as a deadly electric field shrinks the arena. It’s your job to scrounge for weapons, armor, and supplies as you fight to be the last player standing. Yes, Blackout belongs to the genre that you’re either sick of hearing about or can’t get enough of…and are probably already experiencing elsewhere via Fortnite, PUBG, Realm Royale, or one of the other smaller titles battling for their share of the battle royale pie.
Black Ops 4‘s inclusion of a battle royale mode was already something of a meme before the mode was ever even officially confirmed. In the grand tradition of recent CoD games, it was widely believed that such a mode would be little more than the least developer Treyarch could do. Fortunately, that’s not the case.
Yes, Blackout is instantly familiar, but in a world where we’re ready to open our hearts to yet another Metroidvania game or an Arkham-like superhero experience, we’re not convinced that familiarity is inherently a bad thing. Instead, it really comes down to whether or not Blackout is able to offer anything that its competitors don’t or can’t offer.
It’s when you begin to look at Blackout from that perspective that you see how special this new mode really is. Essentially, Blackout aspires to combine the best of Fortnite and PUBG. That probably sounds like the line you’d expect from a major new entry in this genre, but what keeps that line from being more than an empty promise is the practical way that Treyarch has determined what makes those titles the industry leaders.
That said, there’s a lot more of PUBG in Blackout than Fortnite. The game favors a slightly more tactical approach to combat that forces you to listen for enemies at least as often as you try to spot them. This means that you must remain aware of your surroundings at all times and can’t just run into battle. At the same time, you must be conscious of what ammo you currently need, what weapon and armor enhancements are better than what you’ve currently got, and where nearby vehicles that could help you escape a firefight are located. Come to think of it, it’s actually surprising how closely Blackout resembles PUBG.
What keeps you from noticing the flattery in the heat of the moment is the way that Blackout utilizes elements of Fortnite as well as some recent CoD games. That is to say that this mode isn’t afraid to get wacky and emphasize a fast-paced kind of gameplay once the action really gets heated. Gunfights usually occur within relatively close distance of your opponents (due mostly to the somewhat small size of the mode’s map) and there are few spots on the map that serve as a sniper’s playground. The PUBG elements make those intense firefights feel more intimate than the somewhat floaty fights of Fortnite, but you also rarely feel like you’ve entered a losing situation because you’re in the wrong position or because you’re straight up outgunned.
Besides, Blackout allows you to have too much fun to ever take the mode too seriously. From zombies that patrol the mode’s CoD-themed areas to the use of RC Car bombs and the infamous Monkey Bombs that were introduced in Call of Duty: World at War, Blackout’s developers are clearly not worried about compromising the tactical nature of the game’s gunfights. Instead, the mode acts as a reminder that most people who play battle royale titles want to drop in, have fun, and repeat rather than try to make the pro circuit.
That isn’t to say that Blackout doesn’t have some wrinkles to work out. The game’s “perk” system, which lets you pick up perks like you would any other item, feels a little underdeveloped, item management can be cumbersome if you’re trying to properly manage attachments for multiple weapons, and resources are perhaps a bit too bountiful. Blackout isn’t perfect.
What Blackout is, though is the best thing to happen to Call of Duty since the series made the leap to the era of Modern Warfare. That doesn’t mean that everyone who has abandoned the game since Modern Warfare is going to swoon for Black Ops 4. It also doesn’t mean that we’re predicting that Black Ops IV is going to be nearly as great as Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare (it doesn’t even feature a single-player campaign). Truth be told, we can’t even promise that every battle royale fan that currently plays Fortnite and PUBG will love Blackout.
What it means is that Blackout is the one thing we’ve seen from a Call of Duty game in the last 11 years that reminds us why we started playing Call of Duty games in the first place and why the franchise remains an industry leader all these years later. The moment you start playing Blackout, you get the feeling that it was made not by a team of developers who were ordered to capitalize on the next big thing, but by a studio that recognized what makes battle royale games great and what they can do to improve the genre while staying true to the beloved series.
More than its excellent use of vehicles, absurd weapons, tactical combat, item drops, and an incredible grappling hook, it’s that genuine passion that shines through Blackout and blinds you to the fact that we’re supposed to be tired of the battle royale genre. We don’t know whether or not you’ll be inspired to care about the CoD franchise after its various developers spent years preaching to the franchise choir, but we can tell you that Blackout represents the spirit of why you still bother to check in on whether or not the next Call of Duty game is worth your time.
Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 is out on Oct. 12 for PS4, XBO, and PC.
Matthew Byrd is a staff writer for Den of Geek. He spends most of his days trying to pitch deep-dive analytical pieces about Killer Klowns From Outer Space to an increasingly perturbed series of editors. You can read more of his work here or find him on Twitter at @SilverTuna014.