I have a long history with Call of Duty. I played the very first one on the original Xbox – I was a big fan of Medal of Honor and its sequel Medal of Honor: Underground on the old Playstation, and progressed from them to the bigger, badder, more brutal playgrounds that Call of Duty came to offer. I fought WW2 numerous times, then like everyone else made the leap to Modern Warfare with the release of Call of Duty 4. However, I seemed to grow tired of it long before anyone else did, and by the time Modern Warfare 2 came around, my relationship with the series had slipped into an almost hatred of the obnoxious little cretins that could be heard in the lobby between matches – all of them seemingly engaged in toxic behaviour of one form or other, either spewing racist/sexist language or playing awful ‘music’ down their mics. I couldn’t tolerate them, so I couldn’t tolerate the game.
For many years, I became a campaign player. Each year a new game would come out – at which point I’d pick up the one from the previous year for next to nothing, play through the campaign at pace, and then trade it back in for something else. I always quite enjoyed the CoD campaigns – as a consumer you knew what you were going to get; a slicker-than-snot shooter with all the depth of plot of a Michael Bay blockbuster. You could fire it up, switch off your brain, finish it, switch your brain back on and then get on with life – there was no need to go back for a second time, because there was nothing really that required that level of attention. Their quality was pretty much assured, even if their content and concepts became more and more laughable. What began as a seemingly legitimate attempt to show off what fighting a modern war felt like (within reason, obviously) seemed to lampoon itself further each year. By the time Advanced Warfare was released, I’d completely lost interest in it, preferring to invest my time in Halo and Destiny.
I also don’t like Battle Royale games. I’ve made my feelings on them clear on this site before, and I’ve been vocally disparaging of them to anyone I know who brings them up in conversation. I tolerate my son playing Fortnite but hope against hope that it’s just a phase that he’ll grow out of – although nearly three months into his BR career, this is seeming increasingly unlikely. I’ve engaged in heated debates both online and offline with people who appreciate them and can’t seem to wrap their heads around someone disagreeing with them – but for me BR’s have always been a moment of excitement followed by a moment of disappointment, bookended by loading screens.
And yet here I am, in late November, finding myself playing a game I never expected to play – and even more surprisingly, really enjoying it. How did I end up here, I can almost hear myself asking. Well, it involves getting a 'free' copy of CoD (I bought an Xbox One S for my kids, it came with it), and finding myself becoming bored with the relentless grind of Destiny 2. I'd been told by several people that it was worth picking up - and critically, several of them aren't historically big fans of CoD or of BR's. After several conversations with them over the course of several weeks, I found myself biting the bullet and installing Black Ops 4. I'll be honest: I intended to play it, hate it, and then revel in explaining to all of them in minute detail how wrong they were to think I'd enjoy it. I mean, it's CoD. I'm a discerning gamer. CoD's too damn... popular... for someone like me to like. Right?
Within five minutes of launching into my first solo Blackout game (sorry, the BR mode in CoDBlops4 is called 'Blackout' - I maybe should have mentioned that earlier), I found myself armed to the teeth and hiding in a toilet, with my shotgun pointed at the door. I could hear someone running around outside - heavy footsteps and sporadic gunfire. Eventually he opened the door - it didn't end well for him. I chuckled - quietly. In spite of not having a mic on, I didn't want anyone to hear me.
In the ten days since, I've played a lot more - both Blackout and the standard multiplayer - and I admit to having fallen in love a little bit. So the questions that beg to be asked are:
What is it about this CoD game that makes me enjoy it, where I've found the multiplayer intolerable in the others?
Why do I enjoy Blackout when I've hated every other battle royale mode I've tried?
Well, let's go with the top one first. I don't think that this CoD is really doing anything that different - I think I'm just far more accustomed to playing online games now that I was back in the days of Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. As soon as I heard a voice in the lobby, I dived across to options and muted everyone. The loadouts and perks are something I'm slowly becoming accustomed to, experimenting with them (and different weapons) as I go. The main difference that I'm feeling is the speed (60fps will have that effect on a Destiny player) and the time to kill - which is incredibly small. It's taking some getting used to - but I'm having a lot of fun playing something that does something so similar to what I'm accustomed to, but in a way that feels so incredibly different to me. Whether or not I'll stick with it for the long term is a fair question, and one that I can't answer for the moment - but for the first time in a long time, I understand why people will buy this game year in, year out, and play it constantly.
When it comes to Blackout, I think there's a really simple answer - and that's that Blackout plays and feels exactly how I always thought a battle royale mode should feel after I read about PUBG for the first time, and that no other battle royale mode that I've tried has managed to capture. It's come closer to the game I imagined a battle royale should be than any of the other present contenders. Fortnite always felt too cartoonish for my tastes - a seriously competitive game dressed in a clown suit. I could never get the hang of building in it, the power ups/items baffled me, and I didn't have the patience or inclination to see it through and get good at it. PUBG was a horribly realised excellent concept - hopelessly clunky and glitchy, with weapons never seeming to be anywhere near where I landed. Every game of PUBG I played was an exercise in underpowered frustration - of either dying in moments or running, unarmed, toward a circle which would contract the moment I set foot in it leaving me to continue running, still unarmed, until one of the other hundred players blew my brains out - usually putting me out of my misery.
However, Blackout seems to do these things properly. Of the games that I've played, the best I've placed is 8th, the lowest was somewhere in the 80's (on that occasion, myself and another player raced for the same shotgun. I lost.). Critically though, every game I've lost I've been able to look at what I did wrong and actually see the mistakes - most commonly involving me picking a fight using the wrong weapon for the distance, or my cover not being anywhere near as good as I thought it was. I've landed in plenty of spots all over the map and ALWAYS found equipment and weapons. The draw distance is impressive - through the right sniper scope, you can see enemy players an incredible distance away. The game runs smoothly from what I've seen - I'm yet to lose a game to someone who popped into existence mere feet away from me - which was a common running theme in PUBG. Looking back at earlier comments I made on PUBG, my single biggest issue with it was the apparent randomness of it all. A lucky landing would see you capable of defense and offense, while an unlucky one pretty much consigned you to being a meaningless statistic.
So there you have it. If you'd told me at the beginning of the year that I'd be singing the praises of Call of Duty by the end of it, I'd have laughed at you - but here we are. I can admit when I'm wrong - and all of my preconceptions of this one were utterly incorrect. And overall, I'd recommend you give it a whirl - especially if you're a BR sceptic or a CoD hater. Swallow your pride - you might find some fun in a place you didn't expect it.