Can Call of Duty mix it with the kings of the battle royale space?
Truth be told, we weren't all too enthused about the idea of playing battle royale in Call of Duty. Following on from the success of PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds and Fortnite, it seemed like everyone and their uncle was trying to ape the formula and come up with their own hit game where dozens of players would fight to the bitter end in an ever-shrinking arena.
It's played out like it did years before in the MOBA space in the wake of the huge popularity of League of Legends, with waves of imitators trying to grab their own piece of the action, except this time it's the same process on steroids because so many developers already have shooters that can be retrofitted with PUBG-like mechanics with relative ease. So yeah, Blackout, the battle royale experience set to land as part of the package in Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 (arguably in lieu of a single-player campaign) didn't strike us as much more than a quick and easy attempt to grab a slice of that sweet, sweet battle royale-flavoured pie.
That may well still be the case, but what has become clear after spending a week playing Blackout is that Treyarch's take on the battle royale genre is certainly not a quick and easy landgrab. It's quite the opposite, in fact, and facing off against 87 other players (we didn't get to try it when they bumped it up to 100 players at the very end of the beta) on a giant patchwork map has meant that we've enjoyed Call of Duty more this week than we have done in years. If you're the kind of player who prefers to play PUBG's first-person mode over any of those third-person shenanigans, then you'll probably be interested to hear that, based on our time with the beta, Blackout seems to offer the premier first-person battle royale experience.
This is an ad:
That's a bold claim indeed, so we should probably elaborate on that praise a little because no doubt a number of you are going to be as skeptical as we were before heading into the beta. For starters, the signature gameplay of Call of Duty is present and accounted for. It takes a while to adjust to the new, more open surroundings of the Blackout map, but there are enough scopes and attachments that can be easily added to the weapons that you pick up that it won't be long before you're equipped for both close quarters and mid- to long-range combat.
The essence of CoD makes the transition with relative ease, and despite the fact that we haven't played the series extensively for a number of years, we slipped right into the groove in a matter of minutes. It won't be long before you're sliding into cover, popping headshots, and jumping through windows as you run in terror from incoming gunfire. As per, the pacing of the action is fast, and that translates nicely in this case, because not only are you in the thick of the action rather quickly (unless you head for the fringes of the map at the start) but if/when you bite the proverbial bullet, it doesn't take long before you're back in the next game.
The UI has already seen some improvements over the course of the beta. The main sticking point was the slowness of the item/weapon pickups, but that time was seemingly cut down during the beta and it now feels snappier to grab gear from the ground. Upgrading your weapons on the fly is obviously a touch quicker on PC, and perhaps things could be streamlined further on console, but our impression of both the PC and PS4 versions of the UI was largely positive. It's straightforward to use, it's easy to pick up and upgrade your gear, and you won't have to spend too long staring at menus when you should be scanning the horizon for potential threats.
This is an ad:
Traversal is quick and easy, and you can move around the map at speed if you're brave enough to signpost your position by either hopping on a quad bike or piloting a chopper (which is certainly best used when playing squads and duos - though be careful of putting all your eggs in one vulnerable airborne basket). You'll certainly be forced to get a move on when the circle starts to shrink. Much like we've seen in games past, once the match is underway the circle reveals itself and those outside of its borders have to relocate. The next circle then moves within the larger one, and it shrinks down again, getting smaller and smaller as players are funneled into each others' paths. It's not revolutionary, but it gets the job done.
As you might expect given the series in question, the gunplay is snappy and responsive, and there's a decent range of tactical options potentially available to every player. Obviously, it depends what you find once you've fallen from the skies using your wingsuit+parachute combo, and not every run is a success in that regard (you'll occasionally get killed before you've even grabbed a gun), but whether you prefer close quarters or long-range combat, or even something in-between, there's an arsenal that should cater to all tastes.
There are also plenty of gadgets, ranging from armour/defences, backpacks, grenades, and scouting aids (such as a remote-controlled car which is ideal if you're defending a good position) through to a series of perks that you can equip on the fly. These advantageous upgrades offer a range of benefits, such as letting you know where all the nearby loot is or subtle audio cues that notify you when someone is nearby. Apparently, there are twelve perks to discover, so there's room to tweak your play-style as you go, giving you a limited-time boost in a certain skill or ability. They're worth picking up then, especially if you're in a squad and you can mix and match the perks for your collective benefit.
The other major feature is the health system. There's no auto-heal here, so you'll have to grab health packs and bandages as you explore, and you'll need to patch yourself up at regular intervals if you're going to see a match through to the bitter end. That one tweak is a real pace-changer and, when coupled with the fact that each player has but one life, the health system only works to distance Blackout from more traditional CoD multiplayer modes. It also puts a little distance between this and other battle royale games, as heavily-armoured opponents can take more hits than you might normally expect.
Your need for supplies, armour, and ammo will push you to keep moving, either scavenging new buildings or chasing after supply drops, as will the shrinking circle. That need to keep pushing forwards means you'll be dragged through the map's many environments. Keen Call of Duty players will recognise a few familiar locales, and Nuketown Island is a prime example of how the studio has adapted its existing collection of maps to fit the new setup. The result is a world that feels richer and more diverse than some of those you'll find in other battle royale games.
We've got this far without even mentioning the zombies that stalk certain parts of the map. Throughout the beta new modes were added to the mix (including options to have close-range weapons only, for example), and there was even a new zombified enemy thrown in for good measure. The zombies were already surprisingly hardy, but this new boss spat toxic gunk at us and proved to be an extremely dangerous adversary. Our first encounter with the undead was something of a surprise, but it turned out to be a welcome change of pace. Indeed, brave players can even seek out these additional challenges because the zombies can drop specialist weapons and even protect high-quality weapon caches. It's yet another feature that doesn't stray too far from the genre tropes while also offering enough differentiation to keep Blackout feeling like its own thing.
All in all, we left the beta pleasantly surprised by the battle royale experience that Treyarch has delivered. It could do with further polishing, certainly, but the introduction of new modes and features over the course of the week, along with the quality of life improvements that dropped mid-beta, points to a studio that has truly grasped the essence of what makes a good battle royale. It might lean on mechanics that we've seen elsewhere, but there's enough of Call of Duty's DNA present to make Blackout feel distinct, and after the last week or so the teams behind PUBG and Fortnite will no doubt be looking nervously over their collective shoulders ahead of the release of Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 on October 12.