Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 is a game that, despite its pizzazz, the usual Activision production values, and smart marketing, seems troubled. The lack of a campaign is only the beginning. Not only was that a big clue that the game had a troubling development cycle, but the entire conceit and assortment of game modes looks troublesome. Black Ops 4 feels like a game that’s having an identity crisis during a period of great disruption in the games industry, particularly in the shooter genre. It feels like, over the course of the game’s development, multiple gaming trends have come and gone. Meanwhile, the team at Treyarch tried to chase all of them. You can’t blame them, as things are weird in games right now, but I find myself wondering how Black Ops 4 will land and if the usual Call of Duty audience will embrace it.
First, let’s talk about the campaign. It’s weird that there isn’t one, considering there are just as many Call of Duty fans who play that and never touch the multiplayer as there are who only play the multiplayer. That’s the whole point of Call of Duty. It’s the summer blockbuster that has something that appeals to everyone and was manufactured so. It’s not even like not having the campaign was the plan all along, either. Plenty of rumors have floated around saying that the campaign simply fell into development troubles and was scrapped since it wouldn't make the release date deadline. I can’t say that’s a fact, but it’s not surprising in the least if it is true. And then there’s the multiplayer.
Call of Duty multiplayer is all over the place lately. The series has spent years now experimenting with mobility and space control, only to swing hard back to “boots on the ground” style with the well-received Call of Duty: WWII. But Black Ops 4 is going in another direction entirely, and that’s straight towards Overwatch. The game has what looks like a class system, with different abilities across different character types, and it looks a hell of a lot like a hero shooter. Guess who has room for more hero shooters? That’s right, nobody. There’s Overwatch, there’s Paladins, and there’s… nothing else. Other projects have come and gone, and there’s just no more space. Service games are choking the life out of gamers, and there’s no more bandwidth for that style.
Speaking of bandwidth, we have to move on to Blackout. If we believe the rumors about the campaign, we must then go to the rumors that suggest Blackout is a reaction to the campaign troubles. This would be why, during the big reveal event, there wasn’t any gameplay footage available. Again, take that with grain of salt there, but even if Blackout was planned from the beginning and is progressing well, we still have to look at the whole battle royale thing. We have PUBG, Fortnite. H1Z1, and Realm Royale. Also there’s The Culling, maybe. There’s no space left. Even PUBG is slowing down, and Fortnite is actively sucking up revenue from other games. Unfortunately, in the time it took for AAA to get to battle royale, it may already be too late for anything new.
Finally, there’s Zombies. People love their Zombies, to be fair. It looks like this year, the mode is expanding and there will be several more scenarios available. But Zombies isn’t really a substantial mode. It’s an arcade-like, survival-slash-horde mode. It’s silly and a fun distraction from the real meat and potatoes, but it’s being given more of a platform than it can structurally support, in my estimation.
More than in previous years, Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 feels like a scattershot approach to a Call of Duty game in a world where the shooter market is at its most uncertain point. You can’t just do the normal Call of Duty thing anymore, but you can’t not make one. You can’t take a year off. So what then? It seems like Activision and Treyarch are opting to try to play catch up with a bunch of ships that may have already sailed. I’m really curious about how this works out. Perhaps there are aspects of all of these points of concern that will make them all stand out, compared to the competition, and at least one breakout feature will cement Black Ops 4 as a good game to play. Or perhaps that won’t happen, and fans will reject Black Ops 4 like they did Infinite Warfare.