Call of Duty Black Ops 4 Hands-on: Fresh But Familiar

LOS ANGELES – Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 may not have a traditional single-player mode, but that doesn’t seem like it’s going to stop developer Treyarch from filling the game with narrative and lore.

From multiplayer training modes, to the coveted new installment in Zombies, to the kitchen-sink battle royale option, Black Ops 4 (due Oct. 12 for PS4, Xbox One and PC) is taking a deep dive into what fans enjoy about the Call of Duty franchise, from both gameplay and continuity standpoints.

I attended a keynote for Black Ops 4 (or IIII, if you, like the developers, hate Roman numerals and everything they stand for), then got an extended hands-on with the game. My primary takeaway — hold onto your hats, here — is that Call of Duty is still Call of Duty. The game is still pretty much about you and your team shooting at the other team, using a variety of weapons, gadgets and perks, until one side dominates the battlefield. But this time around, a storyline that’s baked right into the multiplayer modes might be enough to keep the competitive scene fresh and interesting for months and months after launch.

Old modes, new modes

My time with Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 involved three different multiplayer matches: two traditional, and one that will make its debut in this title. They all felt fun and fluid, although they’re all refinements rather than reworkings of a decade-old formula.

Black Ops 4's battery class.

Black Ops 4's battery class.

The first mode was a traditional deathmatch, in which teams of five competed to earn 100 kills. If you’ve played a Call of Duty game since Modern Warfare, you already know how the mechanics work. You and four other players run across a vast map, doing battle with foes as you go, until one side racks up the requisite kill count.

What makes the game interesting is not how the match plays out, but rather, how you outfit your character beforehand. You can customize your class from one of five different templates, including a versatile guerilla, a durable frontliner, a sneaky tactician or a long-range marksman. You can choose which weapons you carry, which armor you wear, which perks you enjoy and which even which special weapons you’d like to call down after a killstreak. After all that, you still have to choose a specialist: a distinct character with a unique look and abilities. Ruin, for example, can glide into foes with a grapple gun; Battery can control an area with cluster grenades.

You can customize your class from one of five different templates, including a versatile guerilla, a durable frontliner, a sneaky tactician or a long-range marksman.

We also played Hardpoint on Payload, in which the two teams competed to capture changing points on the map, all while racking up kills against the other team. The constantly shifting target kept the pace of the game fast and frantic, although occasionally, the two teams would still be engaged in a cataclysmic firefight after the target had shifted. It’s not crystal clear unless you’re watching the minimap.

Credit: Marshall Honorof/Tom's Guide

(Image credit: Marshall Honorof/Tom's Guide)

The new game mode, Control, was easily the most interesting of the three, as well as the tensest. Players vie for control over three fixed points on the map, with a limited number of shared lives across the team. Lose all your lives — or lose control of all three areas — and you’ve lost the match (but you’ll need to win three matches out of five overall). Our teams were more or less evenly matched, and we went down to the wire on all five rounds. If Black Ops 4 wants to court an esports crowd (and it probably does), this seems to be the mode where the magic will happen.

Blackout and Zombies

Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 is getting a battle royale mode called Blackout. By itself, that’s probably not so exciting; after PUBG and Fortnite, every multiplayer shooter and its brother is getting a battle royale mode.

But Black Ops 4 doesn’t seem content to just toss 100 players on a battlefield and call it a day. Instead, the developers promise to throw everything from the Call of Duty franchise — characters, weapons, gadgets, vehicles and even parts of maps — into the mix. We didn’t get too much information beyond that, nor did we get to go hands-on with it (yet).

The Zombies mode in Black Ops 4, on the other hand, may be the most ambitious interpretation of the formula yet. Rather than simply pit players against zombies in a big location to see how long the heroes last, Black Ops 4 will tell a complete alternate-history story, where four protagonists unearth an ages-old conspiracy.

Four characters — a big bruiser, a sophisticated gentleman, a suave conman and a leading lady — inhale a mysterious vapor that allows them to explore different periods in history, following an artifact that turns ordinary humans into monstrous undead. In addition to a modern-day component, the Zombies mode will take players through a gladiator arena in the ancient world, a shootout in the Pacific Theater of World War II and even on an ill-fated heist aboard the RMS Titanic.

MORE: Call of Duty Black Ops 4: What We Know So Far

Unfortunately, Zombies wasn’t ready for a hands-on just yet, either. We did get some good news, though: If you’ve always wanted to try out Call of Duty’s strangest mode, but could never round up three friends to do it, you can now go solo with help from the computer. Players in Black Ops 4 will be able to call upon AI bots to round out their party, letting them experience what promises to be an interesting — if bizarre — storyline, all by their lonesomes.

Black Ops 4 will be out on Oct. 12 for PS4, Xbox One and PC, and will probably cost around $60, with all manner of deluxe and collector’s editions that will drive the price higher, if that’s your thing. The game's PC port will be available on Blizzard's service, which follows in the footsteps of last year's Destiny 2 and is a first for the series.

Hopefully, we’ll get some hands-on time with both Blackout and Zombies within the next few months.

Credit: Activision

Marshall Honorof

Marshall Honorof is a senior editor for Tom's Guide, overseeing the site's coverage of gaming hardware and software. He comes from a science writing background, having studied paleomammalogy, biological anthropology, and the history of science and technology. After hours, you can find him practicing taekwondo or doing deep dives on classic sci-fi.