Call of Duty: Black Ops 4's new health system is a welcome change

It’s a dim chance the word 'unconventional' will grace any Black Ops 4 review, and I’m thinking Treyarch likes it that way. You’ll find a full spread of recognizable modes such as Team Deathmatch, Search & Destroy, and Hardpoint—though a new mode, Heist, sharply dips into tactical play, and there's a battle royale mode, because of course there is. Weapons are similarly routine, presenting varieties of assault rifles, submachine guns, sniper rifles, and other typical stock. Map layouts follow the same three-lane structure we've known for years, cheerfully funneling flankers to side passages and lemmings to central moshpits.

But after an era fat with extravagance—drop shots weren’t quite the same when jetpack wallruns became a thing—a simpler approach has become CoD’s new frontier. And while my time with Black Ops 4's weekend beta was hardly a trip back to the early 2000s, it did feel like the return of an old friend, with a few distinct changes that have rekindled the pull of 'just one more match'.

The end of auto-regen

BO4's biggest change is its new health system. Treyarch upped health bars to 150 but entirely removed auto-regen, banishing an entrenched design pillar 15 years old. You now have a dedicated key to begin healing, jabbing yourself with a med shot that takes a few seconds to recharge (or even shorter if you add a stim boost to your loadout). Otherwise, your health stays where it is after you take a hit. And although it’s a bit silly seeing a grizzled operator stabbing himself 40 times with a seemingly endless supply of life juice, it’s a concise and clear visual cue.

I quickly became a big fan after a few practice rounds. I love how a manual heal naturally fits into the move-shoot-recovery loop, giving me agency to back off and heal or stay aggressive as needed with my own cadence. Minimizing downtime feels like the primary goal here, and having the capability to nab a kill, duck behind cover, slap in a stim, and engage the next target at full health is a snappy but fragile sequence. Actively leveling the field after taking damage is empowering, as opposed to passively waiting to regen or entering a showdown at a disadvantage.

It was a rush to survive sudden surprises without instantly melting (except against snipers, who still can one-hit KO from the chest up), and increased health and manual healing pairs nicely with CoD's constant, aggressive mobility. You’ll deal with slight frustrations as a result, though: I had to constantly restrain myself from charging into certain death after dumping most of my magazine into someone’s back only for them to flee around a corner and needle up. It takes getting used to.

The changes bring another plus, as the deeper health pool and slightly slower time-to-kill are pushing players into working more closely together. As a nice touch, kills provide equal scoreboard credit to everyone who dealt damage to the target, a welcome encouragement for assists in an arena where hogging frags for killstreaks has been the tired norm for too long. 

Abilities and ultimates

Specialists, which have returned from Black Ops 3, encourage teamplay as well. They're CoD-ified takes on character-based classes influenced by popular hero shooters such as Overwatch and Rainbow Six: Siege. Each brings a single unique ability on a somewhat lengthy cooldown and an ultimate, the latter bound to Q by default in polite respect of your muscle memory. I appreciate the straightforwardness of each Specialist’s talents. Battery closes off flanks with explosives, Ruin is oriented for close-quarters power, and so on. Choosing how you’ll shape your playstyle takes only a few moments on the Specialist select screen. 

Some of my best matches were from using Recon and Crash, two support-oriented Specialists emphasizing BO4’s renewed focus on teamplay. Recon’s sensor dart lights up enemy blips on the minimap in a roomy radius. His vision pulse ultimate gives the team Widowmaker-style enemy silhouettes through walls for a precious few seconds, and I loved saving it for a sneaky push behind clusters of enemies or for setting up an ambush when defending a control point. Crash drops ammo packs for his team that award bonus score per kill, shortcutting access to critical scorestreaks to snowball momentum. His ultimate boosts the health of his teammates, delivering a gratifying rush in clutch holdouts.

For the most part, firing off abilities provides instant results, but I liked how they respectfully share space with CoD's usual gunplay. Treyarch has carefully introduced a mix of offensive, defensive, and support abilities, dancing away from an overabundance of pace-shattering powers that stun or debilitate—and those that do, such as Torque’s razor wire or Ajax’s nine-bang flash grenade, temper their annoyance factor with extended recharge times. 

I’m fairly confident you could contribute and even succeed in a match without using abilities whatsoever, ensuring the immortality of no-scope montages forevermore. BO4’s pick-10 loadout system—10 points to customize a kit with attachments, perks, and gadgets—allows you to swap out your Specialist’s ability entirely (the ultimate stays) for a different piece of kit such as a grenade or throwing axe. Still, abilities are effective enough that they’ll likely never leave their slot for most of your loadouts.

One of the benefits to the steep cost of trading key pieces of Specialist equipment for a grenade is that in my experience it vastly quieted the spammy boom-fests of previous games, reducing the number of people chucking explosives across the map at each respawn.

I’m concerned, however, that some Specialists will fade away into obscurity when the inescapable meta forms, especially when coordinated squads face up against public queuers. Stomps are nothing new to CoD—I once got airstriked, napalmed, and shot by an attack chopper three respawns in a row—but I worry for the pick-up nature of ‘Duty once players figure out the best Specialists and guns for every map. The abilities don't follow the hard-counter principle from other games, so I can foresee a lot of frustrating jabs at the 'leave match' button if Treyarch lets the pendulum swing wild.

Still, BO4's beta left me hopeful. Call of Duty has long wrestled with stagnation, and I’m glad Treyarch has figured out a happy medium between old and new—though we won't see the extent of the team’s ambition until we can test the battle royale Blackout mode come September. So far, though, Treyarch is off to an exciting start. It just remains to be seen if it can balance its Specialists and signature style of shooting into something that finds more than a fleeting home on PC, especially with so much competition from Rainbow Six Siege, Overwatch, CS:GO, PUBG, and all the others.