BLOPS4 Review: Call of Duty: Franchise at War

Call of Duty: Franchise at War

I want to like this game very badly, but it is lacking so much content and balance that I simply cannot recommend it over last year’s WW2. Get it if you have to, especially if you’re a Battle Royale fan. Otherwise, wait for a few content packs to release and get it at a discount.

This is Call of Duty.1 This means a few things. Primarily, clean and clear graphics running pretty much at 60FPS. I’m playing on an Xbox One X, so I’m getting the best experience, to be sure, but the game looks fine when you’re tearing through it trying to not get shot to death.

The maps offer some solid variety, but due, I suspect, to there being no campaign, they don’t offer much cohesion thematically. It feels like a huge map pack. Worse, and contributing to the map-pack vibe, a number of the maps in the base game are re-skins2 that have been present in some form in a number of CODBLOPS games. This would be less of a big deal, but we’ll continue this theme of ‘less’ when we get to gameplay.

PUBG, err, Blackout looks kind of bland outside of some historic COD setpieces, but it’s a huge area for the game engine to render, with tons of players, and it handles it well. It feels much more ‘real’ in that the environments feel very predictable in how your character interacts while moving through them.

My chief complaint isn’t about the quality of visuals- it’s the contrast between teams. Both teams on a map are going to be running lots of the same specialists, and, as of yet, there isn’t very much customization. Further, many of the in-level items, such as deployed barbed wire and sensor mines highlight in the same color as your teammates. Because of this, it can occasionally be difficult to pick out an enemy because that equipment highlight color can give them a bit of same-team camo.3

It’s COD. If you like COD, there is fun to be had here. Alas, while it’s certainly a diferent flavor than WW2, it’s not necessarily a year better. The game moves significantly faster, but the gunfights themselves play out a little slower. Speaking of gunfights, they’re only fights if you use one of 3-4 weapons, or level a couple others up all the way and equip their ultimate attachment, known as ‘Operator Mods’.

For the most part, you can currently throw away all of the SMG’s in the game. Even at point-blank range, the assault rifles will basically always have a faster ‘Time to Kill’, and it’s not really close. When you add in that most maps don’t have sight lines that extend beyond AR damage ranges, you also can exclude most ‘Tactical Rifles’ and any non-1-shot-kill shotguns and sniper rifles.4

The lack of balance extends throughout the entire game: Equipment perks (Stim Pack is the only competitive option), the Specialists (Torque and Nomad being far and away the most devastating), and Scorestreaks (the attack chopper and mobile gunships basically end matches when they’re used, and have no ready counter on maps with congested verticality).

I get it- things need to be strong to feel good. The problem is, there is very little counter-play possible. The only real option is to play the same things as everyone else, but slightly better. Here’s to hoping these issues get ironed out quickly.5

It’s a damn shame what’s going on with balance in the game right now, because there are some very nice additions / updates to the COD formula present. The biggest change by far is the health system. We’re now given a numerical indicator of current health, as well as a stim pack to rapidly re-gain health in a predictable manner. One other thing that has been hugely beneficial to my fun factor is the relative absence of grenade spam. One Specialist has access to an earned cluster grenade, and the grenade lethal isn’t available until well into the leveling process.

Content / Systems
Let’s rip the bandaid off here: There is no campaign. There are some training missions, and they have several cut scenes scattered throughout them. I’m guessing that these are remnants of what would have been a campaign, but things are disjointed, and they would have been better off holding this content out and building it into a set of scenarios that released over the course of the DLC packs. For several of you, the campaign not being there will be a huge blow, but, honestly, COD hasn’t really been about the campaign since COD 2, probably.

The direct replacement for the old campaign is the new ‘Blackout’ mode, which is essentially PUBG as designed by professionals. As the originators of the Zombies mode, Treyarch has come back with a larger Zombies mode. It’s not my bag, generally, but people seem pretty happy with it so far.

The ‘content’ of this game comes in 2 flavors: Maps and guns. And, alas, this is where BLOPS4 starts to fall down. There’s a solid number of maps, but as noted before, too many of them are re-used, and few of them have enough size to give the longer guns room to breath. A good few are so small that, if you try to flank, the spawns will be flipped by rushers before you get to the other side. Spawns are flipping constantly throughout the game. With fewer explosives, and no base-kit claymores and the like, there are very few tools to create lane control, so it can be difficult to maintain any sort of orientation regarding enemy spawns.

There are plenty of guns to start, but most of them just aren’t any good. When it’s time to start customizing your weapons, you’ll notice something else- Treyarch has gotten very lazy this time around with attachments. I don’t expect them to start from scratch when it comes to attachments, but… Two tiers of Laser Sight? FMJ? High Caliber? Surely there’s a better, more fun way to customize weapons and to reward you for leveling them up.

Moving on, perfecting your weapons loadout brings us to a problem seen throughout the game- the abandonment of best-in-class ways to manage game systems. Treyarch seems to have been so keen to create points of difference from COD WW2 that they’ve sent some great features to the scrap heap. Gone are the between-match lobbies, which were a cool start to an idea. Gone is the firing range,6 which is a truly tragic loss. Gone is the fantastic supply drop quest system.

The biggest dissappointment is that, to replace many of these features, there is just, well, nothing. The microtransaction system seemingly tries to ape Fortnight, but it boils down to just a straight ‘level up’ system based purely on time played.7 You can buy levels with COD points, but there is no way to earn bonus tiers or specific items through gameplay, at least at launch.8 OK, I lied- the biggest dissappointment is that this is the system for a game that costs $110 for the game and DLC.

The final kick in the sack is the half-built UI: Getting into a game itself is not intuitive unless you play the single specific mode they’re pimping at any given moment. Pressing ‘B’ in a lobby will kick you back to mode select with no confirmation. The menues through which you apply gun variants are terribly non-intuitive. And, when you Prestige, holy shit. You have to cycle through every character and wardrobe combination to check them off to get the little ‘New Thing Here!’ tags to go away. Every item, every character, every time.

This is simple. BLOPS4 feels great, basically from the first moment you pick up the controller. The only exceptions relate to som Specialist abilites. The 9-Bang flash grenade is pretty stupid right now- you can’t even reliably go prone when hit by it. I’m sorry, but I don’t get how I can be too blinded to fall down. Barbed wire pretty much can’t be jumped over, even by Specialists that can seemingly vault over obstacles that are 5 feet of the ground without breaking stride. These are mostly quibbles, though- the game feels exceptionally tight, and when you don’t land an action, it’s because you failed, and not the controls.

Extra Credit
Fortnight is huge. Overwatch is huge. PUBG is still here. Beyond FPS games, you have games like League of Legends, DOTA, and ~~HotS~~. These games all have something in common: The game itself as a platform. Take Fortnight or OverWatch- the game last year and the game this year is the same core game. Plenty of editions, sure, but there’s no Infinity Ward working on OverWatch: WW3. You know that if you buy that sweet Reaper skin, you’ll get to use it all this year. And next year. And the year after that.

We have no idea what Activision’s long-term err, vision, is for COD. They have created this three-headed beast that spits out games every eleven or twelve months come hell or high water. What happens to the player pool in Blackout when next year’s COD come out? Will that one even have a Battle Royale mode? Will they come out with some way to transfer your purchases / unlocks? Will they continue to fragment their audience with paid DLC, despite virtually every other game in the genre moving away from that strategy?

So far, we have nothing but question marks. Activision is accustomed to having an audience that will just throw down more cash every time a new release comes along. I can’t help but think, though, that these games-as-a-platform we’re seeing emerge is going to change our ideas on what is acceptable. Eventually even the biggest waves crash.

Call of Duty is not going anywhere. At least not this year. Despite all of the criticisms I’ve leveled here- and there are a lot of them- it is still a tremendously fun game. I just hope that they work hard to make BLOPS4 into the game it could be. Then, I hope they don’t throw that work away, and instead, continue to build on it, so that next year’s review is much shorter.

Final Call: C-.
Not the best in the series, or the genre, BLOPS4 nevertheless stakes out a potentially bold direction for the franchise, and is worth your money if you’re a COD-head, or if Battle Royale is what you’re here for.

However. If you’re just looking for a relatively grounded multiplayer military shooter, I would just stick with WW2. At least until a couple map packs are out. WW2 is just overall better, with better maps and gun balance. The BLOPS4 maps, what new ones there are, are too small and too simple, and provide very little variation.

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