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Call of Duty’s battle royale mode, Blackout, is exceptional

The most tacticool I’ve felt in years

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.

When Activision announced that Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 would have a battle royale mode, I was supremely skeptical. At best, it sounded like an attempt to jump on the bandwagon of an already popular genre; at worst, a last-minute attempt to flesh out a game without a traditional single-player campaign. But, after just a few rounds of play, it’s clear that the team is on to something special. This new take on the battle royale genre, called Blackout, is exceptional.

The private beta for Blackout kicked off today, with access available to anyone who has pre-ordered the game on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One and anyone with a account on Windows PC. It uses the same client as the previous multiplayer betas, which ran twice in August. It includes the ability to join in 80-player skirmishes either in solo mode, as a duo, or in four-player fireteams.

The action begins with all 80 players entering the battlespace at a relatively low altitude aboard a flight of helicopters. Instead of a traditional parachute, you float to the ground with the help of an elaborate wingsuit. Unlike other battle royale games, this wingsuit gives you incredible speed and range. I was able to fly clear across the map and land precisely where I wanted every time I dropped, and I got there in a hurry.

Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 - Blackout map overhead view
Blackout is effectively a greatest-hits list of some of Call of Duty’s best maps. From the air it looks massive, but on the ground it’s surprisingly intimate and fast-paced.

From there, it’s a footrace to find some decent loot. The icons are relatively small, with huge suits of body armor folded up like ready-to-wear men’s shirts and realistically-scaled weapons sitting in dark corners of abandoned rooms. Expect to have an incomplete idea of what piece of kit you’re running toward in the game’s early moments, and be ready to improvise if it’s not your preferred weapon of choice.

Once kitted out, the action is intense. Engaging with another four-person squad felt like slamming head-first into a brick wall. There is a tremendous amount of ordinance flying around in this game, and firing from a covered position is paramount if you want to stay on your feet. Once hit, you’ll be downed and able to crawl away. Go too long without being revived by a squad-mate, and it’s lights out.

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

Engagements feel extremely tactical. Players are, all of them, well-camouflaged from the start. It’s nearly impossible to tell what you’re up against from just the silhouette of your enemies. Instead, you’ll need to rely on the sound of their weapons and the rate of fire.

Surprisingly, the game’s various vehicles don’t feel overpowered. I came across a two-person ATV, a five-person helicopter and a massive armored pickup truck. In all cases, picking off the riders and/or the driver was a fairly easy task with medium- or long-range weapons. That aspect alone should give veterans of the battle royale genre pause.

Most interesting of all, however, is the mode’s playfulness. Pickups that my fireteam discovered included the Monkey Bomb from Call of Duty’s famous Nazi Zombies mode, which launched 10 years ago this year. Tossing one out like a grenade brought a handful of zombies onto the map, something that will be sure to cause havoc for players holed up inside buildings. We also found the RC-XD remote control car that fans will remember from the original Call of Duty: Black Ops, which allowed us to drive around in first-person, and a grappling hook that allowed us to zip around the map.

Finally, Blackout makes exceptional use of verticality. One particularly memorable firefight took place inside an office building with both squads flanking and counter-flanking across multiple floors. Coupled with the low starting altitude of the helicopter insertion, the verticality also gives the game an almost isometric perspective as you drop in. It creates a much more interesting landscape and enhances communication. Landmarks were immediately recognizable, making coordinating the drop zone with my squad mates a breeze.

Expect more impressions as the beta goes on. Currently, the end date is set for Monday, Sept. 17.

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