The second Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 beta is underway—that is, if you pre-ordered or watched Ninja's livestream—and we've spent a good part of the day playing the Blackout battle royale mode on offer in the test. No surprise: it's quite a bit like other battle royale modes you may have played. But it has its own CoD flavor (fishy), it runs well, and if the $60 price tag doesn't turn out to be too big a barrier when Blops 4 releases, it could well eat into PUBG's share of players. Here's how Tyler, James, and Chris felt about their first day of royally battling.
The map, movement, and gadgets
Tyler: I like that Blackout starts faster than PUBG, if only because it differentiates it. You lose a bit of that tension in the air, where you're just hanging and watching everyone else drift toward the ground, but getting on my feet quick, grabbing an assault rifle, driving an ATV, and then crashing a helicopter within two minutes of starting at least made a failed match fun. That hasn't always been my experience, but it feels snappier in general.
James: I spent the first five minutes hiding in a shed and the next couple minutes hiding in a bathroom. Fourth place with a few kills. It’s certainly faster when it comes to movement and gunplay, but it slows down to PUBG-pace between circles. That said, it runs like a dream and it’s something of a relief controlling an agile character over PUBG’s clumsier, intentionally more realistic bodies.
Chris: The movement feels great and the map is a fun one. It is a really smooth experience (seems smoother in solo than in squads, though), which is so damn nice after the last bunch of Early Access BR games I've played. I've gotten used to games splashing down way before they're ready, but this already feels slick and polished and ready for players. Thank god. No doubt there are improvements needed but it feels like a great start.
Tyler: I like how colorful it is. It feels weird to lug oversized rifles around by the lovely beach, with all the wildflowers blooming. Some nice details, too: in a public restroom on that beach, I noticed a roll of toilet paper waving in the breeze. Didn't know I needed toilet paper physics. So that puts it between PUBG and Fortnite as far as looks go—it's more cheerful than PUBG, but still far more grim than Fortnite. It also falls somewhere in between them when it comes to silliness. There are gadgets!
James: I found the grappling gun a few times, but I’m still figuring out the best use cases for it. Turns out it’s not the best tool in the wide open. I’ve seen a few streamers use it around the named locations to zip up to the second or third floor of a building, or to hop down without taking fall damage. It’s a neat tool for pulling closing the distance or resetting a fight, something all battle royale games need.
Chris: I like the little RC car! I don't know how useful it is, but it feels like a fun way to annoy and distract other players. I was cornered in a house while someone was shooting at me, so I sent it out to speed around the streets outside. I couldn't spot the guy but at least my little car drew some gunfire, so I made him waste a few bullets.
Pacing and the circle
Tyler: What do you think needs to improve in the immediate future? For me, the lobby where everyone shoots at each other, doing no damage, doesn't seem novel anymore after PUBG. Please just spawn 80 ATVs and give us ramps, or something. I realize this is a very minor complaint, but you guys probably have better thoughts—I've spent most of my rounds either recklessly driving around and dying, or hiding in a bathroom (and then dying).
Chris: The lobby is weird right now because solo matches fill up so quickly that I'm only in the lobby for a few seconds before the match begins, which makes the lobby feel like a pointless exercise. It's more fun in squad but yeah, more ramps please. Also let me run people over.
I'm also wondering if the zombies around airdrops are a bit pointless? Are they necessary? I camped an airdrop and no one bothered to even raid it. I feel like there are enough guns to be found elsewhere that it makes the airdrops a little redundant and so the zombies are kind of silly.
James: The circles have to shrink much faster. Camping in bathrooms once you have a decent kit shouldn’t be as viable as it is, and waiting around to see where the next circle lands feels at odds with Call of Duty’s typically fast pace. The inventory UI and managing weapon attachments is pretty hard to parse, too.
Chris: It does drag after the first circle or two. I don't know if it needs less loot (there is so much loot) to make players relocate more, or if it needs faster circles, or more players, or just ultimately a smaller map. Or maybe I just need to accept that BR will always have those lulls. But in the solo matches I've played (and spectated after dying), it really grinds to a halt when there are about 15 players left and still half of the island is inside the circle. Something needs to speed up the mid-game a bit.
Tyler: In my best solo match, I landed by the coast, and there weren't any other players in the immediate vicinity. I looted a few buildings and got a pretty good gun, I think—I can hardly tell them apart after just a few matches. And then I hung out. I went for a swim. I looked at that toilet paper I mentioned. And then later someone snuck up on me in the grass and shot me, because I'd wandered too far after getting bored. If I'd stayed in the bathrooms watching that toilet paper flap in the breeze, I probably would've been in the top 10. So I still find it pretty boring solo, at least when I'm trying to win (otherwise I'd just be driving an ATV around, not giving a shit). We did jump in as a squad for a few rounds though, and some matches were frustrating but there was no shortage of shooting. Or being shot at. We got a helicopter, too.
Chris: In squads the map almost feels too small. I don't think we landed once without another squad right landing near us, but I think everyone is targeting the same few areas to drop into. I guess that's probably good: it gets combat started quickly and some squads eliminated early. We were just typically the ones who were eliminated early. But then we were all crammed into a helicopter together, except for James. Not really the best way to keep a low profile and we basically self-wiped our squad. Except for James, who was wiped while trying to un-wipe us.
James: Let's take a moment to blame Steven, here.
Chris: Steven was our pilot. He needs to work on his landings.
What we hope for
James: I’m holding out hope that Treyarch injects a bit more of the absurd into Blackout over time. The inclusion of strange gadgets like the cymbal monkey throwable that attracts zombies before exploding, a strange pulsing laser gun, and gadgets that allow for creative, wild movement all point to a more surprising, wacky battle royale game than what’s there now. I’m hoping Treyarch is sitting on a long term update plan that’ll introduce even stranger tools into the mix.
PUBG is still fun, but its dedication to realism means you’re not going to get updates every week that completely change the meta, like Fortnite’s snowglobes that teleport you into the sky or sniper rifle that disintegrate walls. I think Blackout has to be willing to go there, to change the variables radically and often. Keeping up is half the fun, and seeing the best players adapt week after week makes for a fascinating competitive scene.
Chris: Gadgets are fun but they won't give it longevity, I think. When I watch top PUBG streamers they're not doing motorcycle backflips or bonking people with frying pans. They probably did at some point, but now they're just trying to win. Ultimately BR tests player skill and that usually doesn't involve who can pull off the goofiest, flashiest kills. I think crazy, silly stuff is good for attracting people in the beginning, but it boils down to a stable experience where skills are tested and the most-skilled players are rewarded.
Tyler: I want to not be bad at it, like I am with all battle royale games (I do have one chicken dinner, but that's hardly enough to sustain a person).