Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 is the most significant release in the wildly successful first-person shooter franchise in over a decade. Maybe there’s something about fourths, because it was Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare that changed what the series was and could be in 2007. The critically acclaimed single-player campaign made a splash, but the waves that its multiplayer version left behind are still being felt all these years later. Ever since, the online modes have been many players’ real draw to the games.
Players experience each of the three main modes in the latest Call of Duty—[Generic] Multiplayer, Zombies, and Blackout—online. The sole exception, “Specialist HQ” describes itself as a way to “master abilities and equipment before jumping into Multiplayer.” Even that is in service of getting you online, whether on a team of folks screaming into headsets or on a field with nearly a hundred trying to be the last person standing.
It’s the latter, though, that is most important. Because what Call of Duty has done is pit itself against gaming’s newest juggernaut: Epic Games’s Fortnite.
Fortnite is a battle royale game, where one hundred people fly into a huge but constantly shrinking map and shoot each other until literally everyone else is dead. It took an experience popularized first by the game Player Unknowns Battlegrounds (aka PUBG) and added a ton of polish, a zero-dollar price tag, and availability on every gaming platform under the sun. PUBG remains popular as a slower, more methodical alternative—its matches last upwards of 30 minutes versus Fortnite’s rigidly timed 10-minute bouts—but there’s no question which one has had the bigger cultural impact.
A good way to understand the success of Fortnite is to Google “Ninja” and realize that none of the first-page hits are for Japanese mercenaries and all of them are for Tyler Blevins, a Fortnite game streamer whose online handle is Ninja. The game’s presence on YouTube and Twitch dominates, having effectively usurped Minecraft as The Game to Watch Other People Play.
And watching very good people play Fortnite can be exhilarating. The game’s unique building mechanic, which has players putting up barriers amidst the hail of bullets, adds some flashiness that a typical shooter lacks. As for actually playing it... your mileage may vary.
As a result of this incredible success, every other shooter on the market has rushed to incorporate a battle royale mode. Where Modern Warfare set the multiplayer standard, Black Ops 4 jumps on the bandwagon.
Black Ops 4 costs $60. Or $100, if you click the first link in the PlayStation Network store. Or $130, if you are really dedicated. When compared to Fortnite’s “Free,” the prices seem almost disqualifying.
But it also has “Call of Duty” in the name. And so it will be a success.
To its credit, Black Ops 4 does not feel like Fortnite. Nor does it look like Fortnite, but that’s really to say that Fortnite has a unique aesthetic distinct from gritty, realistic military shooters like Call of Duty. Black Ops 4 is technically impressive, but it’s certainly less eye-catching than its colorful competition.
Still, the visual style works for Black Ops 4 because that gritty realism is a nice complement for the stand-out feature: a first-person perspective. Fortnite is a third-person shooter, so you see your character on screen at all times as well as a little bit of buffer around the world. You can see if someone is sneaking up on you or peer around corners without an immediate concern of taking a bullet. It makes you feel a little safer when you enter a building, as you don’t have to whip around quite so violently to make sure you’re alone.
In Call of Duty, you’re locked into the eyes of your avatar, and that adds a type of tension a third-person game simply can’t match. You are constantly aware that at any moment you could be surrounded by people hidden from your field of view, and you know that if you can see someone, they can see you. Where this tension matters is during the downtime. In an early squad match, my team and I went a full seven minutes before running into any other players. The running death count showed that others were engaged, but we had landed alone and remained that way for a while. We moved slowly from house to house, hearing the occasional gunshots in the distance—from the north, then the southwest, then silence—while stocking up for when we would need to attack.
It’s on the knife’s edge between simmering excitement and straight-up boredom. During minutes of nothing, you need to feel engaged, to believe that because you don’t hear anything, it might just mean you’re being stalked by a professional. And for the most part, you do believe that, right up until the firefight that is inevitably over in seconds. All that time spent preparing and stressing, and then it’s over. And maybe the tension ratchets up again, because the map is quickly shrinking and you’ll be up against someone else sooner than later. Or maybe you were on the losing end, and it’s time to try again. The experience is, ideally, invigorating enough that you’d want to do that. Sometimes I did.
But will it endure? Not in a “Will people still be playing Black Ops 4 in a year?” kind of way; they will. Between Blackout, the more traditional multiplayer, and the Treyarch-standard Zombies, there is plenty to keep dedicated players interested and invested.
No, I mean: Will this new form of Call of Duty endure in future iterations? Because I don’t see how. The prospect of a true PUBG 2 or Fortnite 2 is laughable, and both properties have been around longer than Activision’s typical release cycle would allow for Black Ops 4. Thus, the company has put its flagship franchise into an odd position this year by making it a multiplayer-only game that now has multiplayer-only expectations. Chief among those is long-term support. And that’s not something this franchise has done so well in the past.
Battle royale matches are about the long game. You can’t just jump into the fray; you have to be patient, tactical. By looking and feeling distinct from Fortnite, Black Ops 4 comes out strong. It can be a harder, harsher complement to Epic’s game with a name recognition that could make it even more popular than the much-more-similar PUBG. (Maybe.) To do so, Black Ops 4 needs to do something even more significant than end the single-player campaign: it must end the annual cycle of Call of Duty releases. If next October comes and a new $60 game with a new $60 battle royale mode hits shelves, then the potential on display now will have been squandered.
But if Black Ops 4, or the Blackout mode specifically, is still being supported then and afterward, maybe it will have been a game-changer after all.