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What Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 learned from more competitive games

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Treyarch is looking to some of the most popular and hardcore PC games for their multiplayer inspiration

Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 - Battery firing a grenade launcher Treyarch/Activision

Call of Duty found its success by bridging the gap between casual console shooters and ultra-competitive PC shooters. It didn’t require the careful precision of Counter-Strike, but wasn’t nearly as arcade-y as Halo. You had to master your reflexes and perfect your aim to succeed, but doing so didn’t feel impossible.

But the series also gained a reputation as being unfriendly to beginners.

A lot of this comes down to how players felt when they were losing. Each entry in the Call of Duty series to date has been competitive; a player’s individual skill has always been what determined whether or not they succeeded. There was also a chance you could get shot in the back with no way to respond, and that situation could repeat over and over as you were starting out.

But modern shooters have moved on, and so has their audience. Elements of PC-specific games that were once considered too complex for the mainstream, like extensive knowledge of weapons or additional character abilities, have become accepted as important skills in some of the world’s most popular games. But with Black Ops 4, Treyarch is taking some cues from its competition and raising the skill ceiling on Call of Duty as a whole.

Call of Duty has always been a game where your reaction time and aim are rewarded. It’s a combination of skills that rewards players for twitch reflexes which makes some see the game as only for the hardcore, while others view it as a casual shooter, since so much of the game simply relied on aim rather than more complex mechanics.

But a strange thing happened with PC shooters. Mechanics like listening for your opponents’ reload or following the footsteps of someone sneaking up on you became commonplace last August, when PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds grabbed the attention PC shooter fans. Now that Fortnite has taken over PCs and consoles — and basically the rest of the world too — we know that players are fine with learning how to aim quickly and accurately while also managing the environment through the building mechanic. The best Fortnite players don’t just walk and chew gum; they do so while juggling and making a pizza.

Counter-Strike: Global Offensive has remained popular since its 2012 release, constantly hovering between second and third place in Steam’s concurrent player charts. Every weapon in CS:GO has a specific recoil pattern, which allows dedicated players to improve their shooting and memorize the behavior of each gun, because they know exactly where each bullet will go.

Each of those games has, in its own way, become monumentally popular despite their complex and demanding mechanics. It turns out that people want to be challenged by their multiplayer games, and raising the skill ceiling is possible even on the most mainstream titles. These games are more about giving players tools to out-skill their opponents than they are about keeping the action fast. And that seems like exactly the direction Black Ops 4 is moving in.

During Thursday’s reveal event for the game, developers Treyarch and Beenox announced a few key systems they were adding to the game, most of which cater exactly to those players that want more challenge from their games. And these are features that may seem familiar to modern PC gamers.

First of all, developers David Bunting and David Vonderhaar said during Black Ops 4’s live community reveal event that one of the game’s key tenets is “situational awareness.” Situational awareness in Black Ops 4 is everything that helps players understand the game around them. Things like sounds of players moving, unique gun noises and more detailed tracer rounds and bullet impacts seem directly tied to this idea, and relate to how Treyarch’s developers want information to be communicated to players. This focus, and the tools that players can use to learn about what’s going on around them, feels inspired by the constant flow of information coming at the player in battle royale games, even if these systems are also put in place in other modes.

Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 - Firebreak aiming a gun Image: Treyarch/Activision

Adding to the importance of information is the new fog of war system, which obscures the mini-map beyond a small circle around the player and their allies. It’s a system that forces communication and makes aspects like enemy positions one of the game’s most valuable commodities.

It’s also pulled directly out of popular games like League of Legends or Dota 2, which belong to one of the most competitive, and complicated, genres that PC gaming has to offer. Also borrowed from the MOBA genre — and MOBA-like “hero shooters” such as Overwatch — are Black Ops 4’s greater emphasis on Specialist powers and new unique gun attachments that let players give each gun it’s own custom modifications. Both of these systems raise the level of game knowledge that players will need to compete on the highest level.

Black Ops 4 is also the first game in Call of Duty history to use a predictive recoil pattern system. “This allows you to constantly make micro-adjustments while aiming and shooting,” Bunting explained during the live event. “This means that the gameplay of each weapon is learnable.”

This system is extremely similar to the way weapons fire in Counter-Strike: Global Offensive. Mastering each weapon’s recoil pattern is CS:GO is what can separate a top player from an average one. Based on what we saw in the reveal event, Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 is reward players in a similar way.

All these changes are also probably going to make Black Ops 4 play differently from other games in the series, and they could make the game quite a bit slower. If Treyarch lives up to its promises, players will have to take into consideration the weapons and attachments of their opponents and whether or not their Specialist ability is on cooldown, and approach each different situation accordingly. But that’s good, because Call of Duty needed a change: something to break up the pace of a series that only gotten faster and more chaotic since Modern Warfare came out 11 years ago.

By making players work harder for information, like the location of enemies — and turning everything from shooting to equipping your loadout into a skill to be mastered — Treyarch seems to be updating Call of Duty to fit into the modern era of gaming.