The Call of Duty franchise lives and dies on its multiplayer, and Black Ops IIII has been shaping up to be something special over its various betas and limited events. From a press event to the comfort of my couch, I have had the luck of getting to figure out the bounds of what the new Call of Duty game is offering. Overall, it’s good, and this is the most interested I have been in a game in the franchise since Infinite Warfare soured me on duty in a general way. With Blackout, the new battle royale mode found in Black Ops IIII, I think I might really be sold on this game. I think it might be my preferred battle royale experience period. It’s good.
In a world dominated by PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds and Fortnite—those games that throw lots of players in a big world and ask them to whittle each other down to a single victor—why would you play the Blackout mode in a Call of Duty? As more and more established franchises make their way into the battle royale space, this is, I think, the question that is on everyone’s mind. What makes this good instead of merely a cash grab on a phenomenon?
Surprisingly, the Call of Duty way of thinking about encounter design translates really easily into the battle royale experience. Like other games, you drop into a map, scrounge for materials, and make your way into a always-tightening arena. In traditional Call of Duty map design, you have objects like buildings that provide explicit sight lines for players. Sometimes there is some verticality, one or two levels, so that a player needs to be looking in a kind of big volumetric cone in front of them. Once you lock down how to look, it’s just about identifying where to shoot and where to minimize your own risk.
In Blackout, you just jam a bunch of these pared-down levels into one massive level and let people go. In PUBG, it seems like level design is meant for something like tactical realism. If there was a mine in a location, for example, it might have a particular look about it, and PUBG is going to give you something like a simulation there, even if the giant pumping arms of the mineworks don’t have any impact on gameplay. In Fortnite, the problem is similar in nature but different in practice; you need lots of stuff around that can be smashed up for building parts.
So Black Ops IIII gets to be the game that dispenses with simulation fantasy and extra mechanics to just basically plop a bunch of Black Ops players into a composite Call of Duty level. It splits the difference between the tactical PUBG and the arcadey Fortnite to produce something that’s unique and fast to play.
Every encounter in Blackout feels like you’re playing a micro version of a previous Call of Duty map with more players than you’re supposed to be. Storming a house becomes a fast, difficult encounter with strategic slides and lots of blind firing around corners. Then another team charges in behind you, and you become the person defending the house, and the whole thing is over in thirty seconds. This just isn’t how other battle royale games work, and frankly, it’s just the right level of strategy and commitment for me. This might be the optimal way to think about battle royale games; they are not a big war, but lots of tiny battles, and creating the conditions of those battles are what designers can really excel at.
With all of that said, there are some problems with Blackout. The “normal” version of the game is way too slow when it comes to the map closing in, but one of the variants during the beta was a faster mode that I enjoyed a lot. Blackout is also not worth playing alone. The time-to-kill, meaning the time from starting shots to the end of a fight, is way too fast even at long distances in a Call of Duty game, and I found myself dying to laser-focused rifle fire from behind pretty much constantly. Maybe that could be fixed with better sound mixing or some settings on my end, but playing the game at high volumes on my decent sound setup didn’t improve my ability to hedge against assailants.
In any case, I’m going to be playing the hell out of Blackout when this game finally releases, and I think it’s probably the most exciting jump that this franchise has made in years.
Cameron Kunzelman tweets at @ckunzelman and writes about games at thiscageisworms.com. He’s the weekend editor at Kotaku and a regular writer at Waypoint. His latest game, Epanalepsis, is available on Steam.