Even before Activision held a gigantic community day in Los Angeles earlier this year to reveal the bulk of the gameplay and release announcements for Call of Duty: Black Ops 4, there was a lot of joking on the internet that the latest iteration of “Blops” (to which the sub-series is both affectionately and derisively referred) would borrow whole cloth from the various warfare developments that have become huge business since the last CoD game dropped.
FPS and competitive gaming have been absolutely dominated for the past few years by both Blizzard’s Overwatch and by the ubiquitous Battle Royale template, which has made world-beaters out of both Fortnite and PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds. At that community event in May, the Black Ops developers unashamedly stood on the stage and said to the crowd and to the online audience that they’re well aware of the games the community is playing, because the CoD team is playing them, too.
To that end, two of the three main centerpieces of Black Ops 4 follow very much in the vein of those extremely popular trends, and that’s not at all a bad thing. On the Overwatch front, this iteration of Black Ops teaches you how to control and play as one of 10 different Specialists (six returning Specialist types, as well as four new ones). All of the Specialist types have their own unique abilities and special moves, and the best parties will mix and max their Specialist types and roles for the best chance at continued success and dominance. Yes, the Specialists existed in the Black Ops universe prior to the existence of Overwatch, but the emphasis on specialized gameplay and unique backstories for the various Specialists really evokes the best of what Overwatch accomplishes, and that’s an extreme compliment.
In fact, Black Ops 4 improves on Overwatch by having a fairly in-depth tutorial and practice session and simulation for each of the Specialist types, rather than Overwatch’s one-tutorial-fits-all approach. You can spend a couple of hours playing through all of the Specialist intro missions and seeing their stories and cutscenes and getting to know the game and the player types, and it’s pretty damn rewarding.
Of course, since this is Call of Duty, there’s an emphasis on blood, guts, cussing, and ball-swinging über-machismo humor, but that’s exactly what the community expects. Overwatch succeeds at being something for everyone (if you’re an “everyone” who enjoys first-person shooters). Black Ops 4 succeeds at being Black Ops 4.
But therein lies the wrinkle: Unlike a lot of games in the now 15-games-deep Call of Duty franchise, Black Ops 4 is often just flat-out, exhilarating fun. They’ve taken the best parts of Overwatch and the Battle Royale format, and rather than just bolting it onto Call of Duty, they’ve woven it in, making a world of difference. All of the parts of this game fit into the aesthetic, and they fit in together. Plus it’s fun. I’ve played a share of Call of Duty games that are anything but pop-it-in, play-a-few-rounds fun. It’s wonderful to finally have one that is.