Black Ops 4’s impressive Blackout mode gives a thick coat of gloss to PUBG’s battle royale format

Still hard as nails, though

Crawling through the long grass, a bead of sweat trickles down my temple. Sweat, or blood? It’s hard to tell the difference on an island such as this one. I’d bought my ticket to ride and now I was on the journey, stamped “paid in full” on a receipt handed to me by The Grim Reaper.

A distant sound of rattling fire heralds the loss of another poor soul, now on his or her way to meet the grinning joker who put us all here. Perhaps they were one of the lucky ones? All I know is that my trembling trigger finger was matched only by the flickering pupil staring down my rifle-scope; a deadly camera lens capturing the plight of 88 fools gone mad… a distant explosion makes that 75.

This arena was shrinking in scale moment to moment, but I had held fast thus far and I intend to still. The ballroom of death is preparing for the last dance of the evening, and I would be taking home the winner’s trophy; in this case the reverberating screams of the men and women who had fallen on their own road to Damascus.

But then three screaming 14-year-olds drove over my head in a dune buggy. Assholes.

I’ve spent the several days locked in mortal combat with a mass of sharpshooting Call of Duty players, engaged in the beta of Activision’s Black Ops 4. More specifically, its all-new Battle Royale mode Blackout. Blackout is one of the major new features in this latest entry of the gazillion-dollar shooter series, which is foregoing its single-player campaign mode to deliver three multiplayer modes. It’s a risky gamble, but given the power of CoD multiplayer, the draw of Zombies and the current fad of battle royale titles, it’s probably a risk worth taking.

Blackout follows the traditional battle royale concept triggered by then-indie phenomenon PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds and popularised the world over by Epic Games’ Fortnite – though the Black Ops version is far closer to the former than the latter. Up to 88 players leap from a helicopter and, using wingsuits and parachutes, deposit themselves somewhere on a sprawling map, armed with little more than a crappy one-two punch.

Upon landing, it’s simply every man or woman for themselves, with all weapons and gear gathered through on-site procurement. As the minutes pass, the squad of trigger-happy psychos are forced closer together by a shrinking boundary wall (surprisingly similar to the barrier from 2018 sci-fi movie Annihilation) until standing atop this mass carnage remains a sole survivor. One winner. 87 losers. (Although you can also choose to play in teams of two or four, should you prefer the backup.)

What Blackout brings to the genre over its closest rival is a sackful of cash and the excellent Call of Duty engine, which has been finally tuned over 14 years of releases. This combination of Treyarch’s expertise and ready financial funding creates a tighter, better-looking and slicker experience, with a more stable online engine, more detailed models and, most importantly, sharper combat. Every technical issue that befalls titles such as PUBG has been eradicated simply by throwing money and experience at it, refining the military-based battle royale concept into a sleeker and more polished experience.

Most of the Call of Duty multiplayer tropes have been brought to Blackout. A huge array of weaponry, from handguns to shotguns to semi-auto and sniper rifles litter the map, along with attachments such as grips, extended barrels, scopes and laser-sights, all lurking within abandoned buildings and barns. Throwables from concussion grenades to molotovs can be procured, as can a selection of vehicles, some of which allow for multiple passengers, even if they do all handle like it’s Mario Kart. There are also the appearance of tools such as microwave shields, grapple guns (and my personal Black Ops fave) the RC-XD remote control car.

Player avatars consist of the typical Black Ops 4 team (Yay, Seraph!) but will also grow to include many famous faces from previous Black Ops and Zombies campaigns. The map itself is nicely varied, if a bit anachronistic, featuring a lighthouse, a rendering plant, abandoned villages, farmland and even a creepy Addams Family-looking asylum. Plenty of heavy undergrowth and nosebleed verticality is available for all you cowardly snipers.

Also in effect is Black Ops 4‘s new Time To Kill mechanic, which sees players able to take more damage than in previous CoD titles before biting the big one. Joining the fun – for those very lucky enough to stumble across it – is the game’s controversial body armour, which has already caused a storm in previous betas. Wingsuit into the right spot, and you could find yourself kitted out like Arnie at the end of Commando. Choose poorly, and you’ll be lucky to walk out with a single throwing axe. Maybe that’s all you need.

That, in itself, is the battle royale appeal, and Blackout gets that. The new mode brings little to this party that you haven’t seen in other BR titles, it just does it with a polish that other studios don’t have the team or (more likely) the money to match. Visual/audio aesthetics are not the be all and end all of any video game, of course not, but when your base concept is as simple as “Go into this map and kill everyone” then they count for a lot, and Blackout has it in spades.

Black Ops 4’s Blackout mode doesn’t reinvent this currently-popular take on the shooter genre. It brings very little new to the table in the way of gimmicks, ideas or concept. It just takes what has been done by other titles and presents it without the holes, looking and sounding better, playing with more stability, creating a more believable world and laying it all on top of a tried-and-true FPS engine.

It’s early days, and there is still a lot that can be tweaked, reversed, changed, fixed and even broken. But there’s an unavoidable realisation here: Fortnite features elements that are specific to itself – base-building, cartoony characters, punk-rock mentality, wacky colourful customisation, mobile play – which will ensure it retains its own dedicated audience. But in regards to the more “reality” or “military”-based battle royale games, Blackout is a legitimate threat, already showing the potential to become the last game standing in that particular demographic.

Oh, and one time some zombies exploded out of the ground at a gas station, so there’s that too.

Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 launches on PS4, Xbox One and PC October 12.

Chris Moyse
Senior Editor - Chris has been playing video games since the 1980s and writing about them since the 1880s. Graduated from Galaxy High with honors. Twitter: @ChrisxMoyse