Call of Duty is the first big shooter franchise to wade into the thickening fray of the battle royale genre and attempt to dethrone its current kings: Fortnite and PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds. The new Blackout battle royale mode in Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 makes a strong case for the franchise’s ascendance in this genre, too. Blackout takes a lot of things that have become signature elements of battle royale, like last-player-standing matches, huge maps, randomized weapons, and careful gameplay, and tightens up the formula with the solid mechanics and polish for which the franchise has become famous.
That doesn’t mean that Blackout has won the battle royale melee just for showing up, though. Yes, developer Treyarch has made a lot of great improvements to things players are used to seeing in PUBG, Fortnite, H1Z1, and others, but it’s by no means perfect. Blackout relies heavily on players’ existing knowledge of other battle royale games, for instance. It introduces a lot of new systems without giving much explanation about how they work, like other battle royale games, without acknowledging that with its huge audience, it’s probably introducing many players to the genre for the first time. And it’s still following the lead of the games that have come before it.
Blackout is a fun mode with a lot to love. The question is, can it last, especially as more and more developers chase the battle royale trend? Here are five ways that Treyarch could improve Blackout to help it become the last battle royale game standing.
Make It Easier For New Players To Learn The Game
The great thing about Call of Duty games, and one of the things that’s helped make the franchise so enduring and popular, is that they’re generally very easy to pick up and play. Hopping into a standard Deathmatch game in any Call of Duty doesn’t require too much background knowledge for reasonably seasoned players. You don’t need to know the pros and cons of every gun, for example, to be a solid fighter, because the game provides you with loadouts that make it easy to get a sense of what works for you and what doesn’t.
By its very nature, the battle royale genre upends this thinking. It’s inherently a more complex concept. Spending time trying out new equipment comes at the high price, since matches are longer and more involved. In any given game, you need to know where to deploy or try to deploy; what equipment you actually need to survive and to fight; what “circle collapses” are and how they work; and how to actually engage enemies. Yet Blackout gives very little information or explanation to new players about the mode and how it works. Call of Duty has the power to bring a huge number of people to the battle royale genre yet squanders it by chasing the audience of players who already play those kinds of games. It’s a huge missed opportunity.
Make Blackout More Accessible For The Less Hardcore
Continuing the last point, the folks at Treyarch could stand to try to make Blackout clearer and more accessible beyond the first couple of matches. Most of the games in the battle royale genre can already be tough to break into and understand. Not only are there things new players have to learn basically with zero assistance when they start these games, but these games are full of intricate systems and mechanics whose uses and benefits aren’t very clear, even when you’ve built up some experience in the game.
Blackout is already a little better than most games at getting you acclimated. Hovering the cursor over weapons and equipment on the inventory screen gives players some (very brief) insights into their types, uses, strengths, and weaknesses. But you’ll learn little or nothing about things like just how useful adding grips to your gun can be, or what differences to expect between 5.56 and .45 ammo. Some players and streamers even take to Reddit and YouTube to figure out all the little details about how guns, armor, and equipment in these games work–and that level of dedication inherently leaves more casual players, who don’t have the time to research bullet drop or recoil reduction, on the outs. Blackout has the opportunity to make a more inviting battle royale game that’s easier to understand, no matter whether you play one match a week or 50.
Audio Needs An Overhaul
A key part of battle royale is sound, especially when playing solo. Players are alone on the a vast island in Blackout, with only their wits and whatever they can scavanage, and often they can rely only on their senses to locate other players and protect themselves. In most battle royale games, sound is more important than just about anything else, because hearing other players walking, driving vehicles, or fighting one another is often the only information you can get about where they are and whether you’re in danger.
Blackout currently seems to have two problems with audio. First, the sound in Blackout can be frustrating when you’re relying on it. Your own footsteps and actions are very loud, while sounds from other players can be excruciating to hear and pin down. This does make the Awareness perk, which boosts your ability to hear sounds from other players, a lot more valuable, but it shouldn’t be quite so hard to hear who’s sneaking up on you in the first place.
On top of that, other players have complained about issues in which sound doesn’t always work correctly in Blackout, or comes out of the wrong speaker or headphone channel; a player might be approaching you from the left, but you’re hearing it coming from the right, for instance. That’s an element that needs to be fixed in Blackout if it’s going to have longevity. Even without focusing on a major problem like that, though, audio could use some work in the future to make it more viable for players to use their senses to survive.
Blackout sets itself apart from the rest of the battle royale genre with a lot of little Call of Duty-type elements–like the addition of undead enemies carried over from the Zombies mode. In certain areas, your sneaking and looting can be halted by zombies popping up and trying to murder you. Right now, though, you could play several matches of Blackout and never come across a zombie. Even if you did, you’d likely never really have a need to be afraid of them, since they’re easily avoided and not especially dangerous. Zombies in Blackout are little more than a novelty, but they could be a lot more.
Just simply putting zombies in more locations would instantly create a totally different battle royale dynamic, creating a middle ground between existing battle royale and Call of Duty’s Zombies mode. We saw something in this vein with the Blackout beta, in which Treyarch included a zombie boss character players could encounter, and take down, during matches. Treyarch could get even more creative with zombies; the developer could add them to popular locations that see the most players at the start of every match, while smaller, more hidden locations could be safer, changing up players’ incentives when they first start a match. Or the number of zombies filling the map could be more reactive to where players die. Zombie populations could climb as the circle closes, or they could pick up speed and strength as it tightens, making being caught outside the circle even more harrowing than it already is.
There are a lot of possibilities to make zombies a bigger part of the Blackout experience, even if those possibilities are relegated to additional game type options separate from the standard Blackout competition.
Lead, Don’t Follow
Blackout does a great job of taking the existing battle royale formula and improving upon it. Perks, weapon selection, improved mechanics, zombies, and streamlined gameplay are all great additions that make playing Blackout familiar yet different. But they all also feel like somewhat superfluous renovations to someone else’s building. Blackout is very similar to the current top battle royale titles, and because of that, it feels like it’s chasing the current leaders, rather than searching for a path of its own.
Blackout has identified some of the problems of other battle royale titles and fixed them, while also putting a bit of a Call of Duty spin on the whole idea. Going forward, however, Call of Duty needs to do more than just turn out a Call of Duty version of PUBG. What exact shape that might take is tough to guess at, but in a field that’s quickly filling up with battle royale options, as well as copycats and knockoffs, it’s going to take more than polish and improvements for Blackout to keep players invested long-term.