Black Ops 4's Blackout mode is battle royale as you know it

Call of Duty: Black Ops 4’s Blackout mode is Treyarch’s take on the monstrously popular battle royale genre. It might seem strange that Activision is willing to let Treyarch change their flagship series’ formula up so much, but Activision has always been flexible with Treyarch, letting them experiment with zombies mode and nonlinear campaigns for years. Does it work for Black Ops 4? We'll take a closer look after early access to the PC beta begins on Friday, but for now, here are our impressions of the PS4-exclusive beta period.

Battle Royale modes owe a lot to the novel of the same name: a large group, sometimes made up of hundreds of players, are let loose on an island, tasked with killing each other off until only one player or team remains standing. To keep players from camping the entire match, a deadly circle of poison envelops the map, shrinking  until there’s almost no room left and a winner is determined. Battle Royale games also lure players around the map with crate drops that promise more powerful weapons and items.

If you were hoping Blackout would meaningfully differentiate itself from this basic formula—it doesn't. This is a battle royale mode. At least Fortnite managed to set itself apart by repurposing the singleplayer game’s unique building system, but Blackout plays it a little safer. Players will still find themselves parachuting onto the map, wandering from house to house looking for weapons and supplies, finding a safe spot, and waiting for the circle to shrink before repositioning. Skilled players are more likely to spend time ganking enemy squads.

Blackout lacks the personality of games like Fortnite or Radical Heights, but a battle royale game needs more than personality to survive, as Radical Heights proved earlier this year. The random item spawns that can determine how long you survive a match still aren’t that fun. As enjoyable as it can be to scavenge, finding better loot the longer you play, it’s still not fun to nail an unsuspecting player with carefully-placed shot from your bolt action rifle, the only decent gun you found, only for him to spin around and eliminate you in a wild spray from his assault rifle.

Players who dislike battle royale games are unlikely to find anything in Black Ops 4 to change their mind. Blackout has some major bugs, too: we experienced disconnections, were removed from parties after every match, or were unable to keep our character selection, but compared to a game like PUBG we experienced comparatively little lag or performance hiccups. Treyarch is clearly doing its best to release a game with the the technical quality of their previous titles, and while Black Ops 4 isn’t there yet, it’s well on its way.

Old and new

Where Treyarch attempts to differentiate its battle royale mode from the others is with the addition of numerous minor elements. Players can find standard Call of Duty weapons, but also locate and equip perks to increase their survivability, as well as items like a grappling hook, a basketball, and a raygun.

Zombies can be located across the map, protecting good loot. Unfortunately, the zombies are so aggressive that players have to shoot them, potentially alerting nearby competitors to their presence. This system is a nice twist on the risk-reward system of airdrops, but it still fails to disrupt the flow of the game in any significant way. We played several matches where everyone avoided the zombies entirely.

Though it's similar to other battle royal modes, Blackout is a major diversion for Call of Duty. Rather than the constant, always-alert run and gun pacing that defines a traditional Call of Duty match, Blackout provides a slower, more contemplative experience. The quiet tension found in battle royale modes is completely unlike a traditional Call of Duty experience, and Blackout might prove to be a wonderful change for series die-hards.

Black Ops 4 is a strange experiment as the first multiplayer-only Call of Duty, and Blackout is the single biggest addition to Call of Duty since Zombies, but whether it'll succeed is unclear. For battle royale fans, the changes might not be significant enough to entice them away from the competition, but once the bugs are worked out, the core game looks to be just as fun as any other battle royale game out there right now. 

The picture will become clearer when we can see how the beta performs on PC, how well the interface works with a mouse and keyboard, and how the weapons fare sans analog sticks. We'll be trying that out this weekend.

Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 releases October 12th on