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Blackout, Call of Duty: Black Ops 4’s battle royale mode, expands the genre

The latest episode of the Quality Control podcast

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Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 - soldiers behind barricade in Blackout mode Activision
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.

In this week’s Quality Control podcast, we discuss the newest edition to the Call of Duty franchise, a battle royale mode called Blackout. It’s available as part of Call of Duty: Black Ops 4. At a glance, it looks like many other battle royale games on the market. But, in motion, there’s a lot more nuance to the experience.

I sat down with our Austen Goslin. Between the two of us, we’ve spent thousands of hours inside PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds and Fortnite, but also precursor games in the Call of Duty series. You can listen to the entire conversation below or on your podcast service of choice. We’ve also highlighted a few parts of the show and broken them out in the edited transcript below.

Blackout is not like other battle royale games

Charlie Hall: I think the most important place to start is by saying that this is absolutely, 100 percent not PlayerUnknown’s Battleground and it’s not Fortnite either.

Austen Goslin: It’s definitely its own thing, which is kind of surprising because on its surface it kind of does look like PUBG. It obviously doesn’t have the building from Fortnite, but it’s a faster-paced, military-style battle royale game. However many people drop onto the map — I think in solo it’s 88 — and you fight to be the last person standing.

Charlie: When the game opens up, instead this long leisurely parachute sequence, you just plummet onto the map from a pretty low altitude. You’ve got a wingsuit and you can fly wherever you want to go. You can start literally anywhere on this map regardless of where that line of heavy lift choppers is coming in.

Austen: Sometimes, in other battle royale games, it is more limited by where the plane comes. Here you can just go wherever.

Charlie: In addition to being a convenience, it also allows you to kind of learn parts of the map rather than reacting to the environment that you find yourself in. I think in a way this abandons the survival tropes that the battle royale genre is based in.

Austen: I think that’s true, especially in the way that the loot comes out in the game which is so fast. In something like PUBG you could play for quite a while and never end up with a rifle. In Blackout, you’re going to get the type of gun you want pretty quickly. You’re bound to get it because they’re just everywhere.

Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 - Blackout map overhead view Treyarch/Activision

The map is bigger than you think

Charlie: When they first announced this mode, that’s where people started to kind of get a little concerned. The developers said, “All right, we’re going to make it huge! It’s going to be 1500 times bigger than Nuketown! It’s going to be massive!” But what they also said is, “We’re basically gonna slap all the best Call of Duty levels together and we’ll kind of arrange them on a single map for you.” A lot of folks, I think, were concerned that it wasn’t going to feel cohesive. But I think it absolutely works as a totally complete, fluid map. Transitioning between locations feels good, maneuvering feels challenging. And discrete locations on the maps do verge on the familiar.

Austen: One of the big concerns that I had was that I felt like each of these locations was interesting on its own, but that walking between them might be boring or it would just feel like they came out of nowhere and didn’t really fit the map. But I definitely agree with you. I think they did enough to change those maps that they’re not exactly what you remember, but they are familiar and, more importantly, they just make for a really exciting place to have fights rather than the drab buildings you see in other games in the genre. They’re very specifically designed locations, which I think is a lot of fun.

Charlie: You’ve been spending your time mostly in squads and solo. I’ve been playing exclusively the solo mode. How does the game change between those modes?

Austen: Squads has a way of shrinking everything, making you think about other people and what they are going to need, and also what you can do to help them. It’s definitely a big change from the solo mode

Charlie: When you’re playing squads in Blackout I feel like the instinct is to spend a lot of time looting to get the perfect perfect outfit for everybody in the squad. Everybody needs a backpack. Everybody needs tier three armor or a good long gun, a good room clearing, short range weapon. I don’t think that that’s necessary for this battle royale game. The more that I’ve played it, you can have distinct roles within your squad and that almost makes you more powerful and gets you going faster.

Austen: We were talking about how you can really land anywhere you wanted in the early game, and I think that makes you think that the map is a little bit smaller than it is. But it’s a big map and you have to spend time getting to places. So I don’t think, especially in squads, it’s too helpful to spend all your time looting. Everybody needs at least one good weapon that they’re comfortable with and maybe some armor and some medical equipment, but that’s about it really. You don’t need to spend all this time making sure that everything is ideal.

Zombies are part of the fun

Charlie: I was surprised when I first jumped into the beta about these towers of light that I saw all over the map. Austen, explain to me what these towers of light are for.

Austen: In previous Call of Duty games, in the Zombie modes, those towers of light, those blue lights that go up into the sky, show where the Mystery Box is on the map. In the original Zombies modes you could spend some of the points you’d earned to get a random weapon. When you land in these areas in Blackout there’s zombies on the map, all running around these pillars of light. You’ll get small groups of players that have to stop fighting amongst themselves and deal with the zombie threat as this timer ticks down. Then they all rush to the box. It’s like a supply drop in other battle royale games except it starts already on the map. It really does create a cool interaction when you’re fighting somebody and they’re fighting you and zombies at the same time.


It works, but it’s not perfect

Charlie: The big change, if you compare it to other games in the battle royale space, is that this thing launched and it was fully functional.

Austen: It runs really smoothly. That’s sort of always been Call of Duty’s thing. Blackout functions really well and it’s really solid, which is kind of surprising.

Charlie: Especially given all the bells and whistles. This is not to say that it’s perfect. I’ve got a few issues that I take with how they went about building the thing and one of them is the weapon design. There are so many weapons, but I don’t know what these things are when I pick them up. They all have parts and features from other weapons that I’m familiar with, but they’re just all mashed together. All the bits on the weapon models jiggle really well as I’m moving, but I turn a corner and sometimes the things just spit confetti. I don’t know what they’re going to do when I pull the trigger!

Austen: I think part of that is just the fact that they’re not exactly real weapons. Some of them have analogs to real world things you might be used to, but otherwise if you haven’t been keeping up with the Black Ops franchise or if you haven’t played the multiplayer in Black Ops 4 at all, you’re really getting a grab bag when you jump into Blackout. I definitely think playing the traditional, competitive multiplayer mode has helped a lot for me.

Charlie: Before the show started, you’d been telling me you had some qualms with the inventory system.

Austen: I think inventory is, in most battle royale games, the hardest thing to get right, but also one of the most important things. You’ve got to really be able to feel like you can grab everything you need very quickly because, obviously, every moment that you’re standing still somebody can come up behind you and kill you. I don’t think this inventory system outlines all of the items quickly. Everything has its own sort of assigned slot on the HUD. Even when you’re looting a corpse, everything has its own assigned slot, but it’s still a mish mash of small icons without a lot of text. It really takes a long time to figure out what’s what and what you need to grab. Sometimes the menu just goes away without any warning. It’s tough to deal with.

Charlie: I think that’s evidence of them evaluating the item icons and inventory system as they go. One thing that’s nice is that weapon attachments snap right on. If you have a gun that accepts that attachment and you pick up the attachment and there’s an open slot, it puts it right on your gun, and I think that is really good. Say you’ve got two guns in your inventory — a shorter range gun and in a long gun — you just switch to the gun that you want to put that attachment on. You pick the attachment up and bang, zoom, you’re off and running. Where it gets a little more tedious is after you kill somebody, you’ve got to open up their weird duffle bag. There’s a loud zipper noise and now everybody knows that you’re looting around in someone’s pockets. You’ve got to sit there with this weird menu bar along the top of the screen and, to me, it’s not actually clear enough.

Austen: I definitely think that whole system just needs some cleaning up. Have you tried to switch the mods between the weapon you’re currently carrying and another weapon in your inventory? It’s a nightmare.

Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 Blackout beta - taking damage Treyarch/Activision via Polygon

Equipment is key

Charlie: There’s also these little stunt items that you can pick up. One of them that I played with was the remote-control car. Another one was the grappling hook. What’s been your experience with some of these equipment items?

Austen: They come in from the other game modes that shipped with Call of Duty: Black Ops 4. Each specialist in the game has their own unique stunt that they can do. One has a grappling hook. Some have these cluster grenades that blow up and spawn additional, smaller grenades. Those kind of make their way into Blackout as random equipment that you can pick up in the environment. I think fighting in some of the urban areas with the grappling hook is super exciting because, if you hear somebody grappling behind you, suddenly there’s six different places they could be. That’s a really different experience from other battle royale games that may take things a little bit slower.

Charlie: Another part that I want to be sure that we talked about is the end game. I feel like I’m spending most of my time re-learning Call of Duty after some time away, but Austen, tell me about how the end game works in Blackout.

Austen: It’s got some similarity in that you’re going to have a final zone where there’s no safe spot to be in. It’s just going to close in on a center point and, eventually, you’re just standing out in the open. From what I’ve played, those encounters tend to be more aggressive than something like PUBG. In that game people tend to be a little more stationary, a little bit more scared of fighting. But, in Blackout, people will want to go for it and they’re aggressive about it. That makes it exciting.

Charlie: One really interesting end game that I witnessed during the beta was watching the last two or three players duke it out in the final circle. One of the folks that was left busted out the RC car and he’s just driving that car all around the final circle. No one noticed, and he knew where everybody was.

Austen: There’s the sensor dart as well. You shoot this little dart out and it can stick to a wall and it gives a little radar ping every few seconds that shows you where people are. That kind of stuff is really interesting because it gives you a lot more information than I’ve been used to working with in a game like this. It’s really cool and it really does reward that aggressive play.

Email: qualitycontrol at polygon dot com

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