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Call of Duty Blackout abandons battle royale’s roots as a survival game

A completely different pace and a unique style of play

Charlie Hall is Polygon’s tabletop editor. In 10-plus years as a journalist & photographer, he has covered simulation, strategy, and spacefaring games, as well as public policy.

Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 launched last night without a traditional single-player campaign. In its place there’s a new mode called Blackout, a battle royale-style game based loosely on hit titles such as PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds and Fortnite. Many expected the mode, a collaboration between Treyarch and Raven Software, to be a quick cut-and-paste job. After spending a few hours with the final product, it’s clear that’s not the case.

Not only is Blackout a rock-solid online experience, the game has its own unique style of play. It deviates from the traditional model of the battle royale genre, all but abandoning its roots as a survival game.

The first true battle royale games, H1Z1 and PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, were effectively designed by the same person: Brendan “PlayerUnknown” Greene. He’s explained many times, including in our interview from a few years back, that his designs were inspired in part by his love of DayZ, the groundbreaking multiplayer survival game.

PUBG and DayZ are completely different games, to be sure, but they share the same basic conceit by dropping a bucket full of players on to a map and encouraging them to shoot at each other. They also have completely different paces. You could spend hours inside the 225 square kilometers of DayZ’s Chernarus+ map and never even see another player. Meanwhile, in PUBG, engagements are much more frequent. Commonly, chicken dinner winners will get five or more kills on their way to victory.

In Black Ops’ Blackout, expect to do a hell of a lot more shooting. Unlike other battle royale games, players are pressed together almost immediately. I have no idea if the map is bigger or smaller than the ones in PUBG or Fortnite. The fact is that it doesn’t matter.

To start with, players drop into the map from a much lower altitude. They’re also incredibly maneuverable in the air with an elaborate wingsuit, which easily allows you to fly from one edge of the map to the other. This gives players a very small window of opportunity to spot the location of enemies as they fall to the ground.

Players are effectively freed from the hassle of oversized maps that can often feel more like walking simulators than multiplayer shooters. As a side effect, it feels like you’re always just a few short seconds away from finding another player.

The audio in the game enhances that effect. Once you come near another player, you begin to notice that footsteps are incredibly loud. Using a good pair of headphones, it’s pretty easy to locate enemies within 50 meters or so. Once someone opens up with an unsuppressed weapon they’re even easier to locate at range.

All of this has the effect of drawing players closer and closer together. But Blackout also spawns a ridiculous amount of loot. Grab something off the ground, turn your back for a moment, and there’s another item in its place. Once you cut away your parachute players are mere seconds from picking up a long gun, giving them lethality at range. Since helmets are exceptionally rare (they’re only available with tier-three armor sets) that makes everyone in the game a potential killing machine the moment that they hit the ground.

Essentially, Black Ops 4’s Blackout mode removes the notion of scavenging from the battle royale genre. The chance of being stuck with a short-range shotgun or a measly 9 mm pistol is exceedingly small. That, coupled with the excellent implementation of online play, means more matches in a shorter period of time.

Even when you’re losing, even when you’re getting no-scoped by some bunny-hopper who comes loping around the corner behind you, you’re learning. That makes it more fun by far than many other games in the battle royale genre. If past is any indication, that level of engagement is going to give Blackout an impressively long shelf life.

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