When you purchase through links on our site, we may earn an affiliate commission. Here’s how it works

Home / Reviews / Apps and Games / Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 hands-on review

Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 hands-on review

Does Activision’s annual FPS juggernaut freshen up its familiar formula?

The rumors were true. Call of Duty‘s latest entry is ditching the story-driven campaign, but adding a Battle Royale mode.

Big, but not especially surprising, these announcements dominated the recent community reveal event for Activision’s and developer Treyarch’s next installment in the fan-favorite Black Ops franchise.

Black Ops 4 might be shelving the narrative-fueled cinematic campaign, but its creators are promising to inject more story and character-building personality into its new Battle Royale mode, dubbed “Blackout”, as well as its returning—and much beefier— Zombies mode.

For now though, we’ll have to take their word for it, as neither of those experiences were ready for prime time at the game’s unveiling. We were, however, able to get our hands on the gamepad and boots on the ground for some of the sequel’s multiplayer content.

And while the other announcements soaked up most of the spotlight, some of the changes coming to the competitive online space should be equally exciting for longtime fans of the multiplayer fragger.



Having spent nearly an hour capturing and holding points, fragging friends, and generally trying to dominate the map, we can safely say Call of Duty remains a fast, fluid affair that doesn’t drastically depart from its tried-and-true template.

That said, Black Ops 4 definitely places more emphasis on teamwork and tactics than lone-wolf heroics. Deeper create-a-class customization, the return of the “Pick 10” system, and Specialists (more on them in a sec) encourage players to build the badass they want. More than that though, it allows teams to assemble a varied roster of soldiers whose unique skills and abilities complement each other on the battlefield.

When creatively combined, these layered loadouts—packed with primary and secondary weapons, armor, gear, perks, and special abilities—can mean the difference between putting together an average team and one that regularly comes out on top by leveraging cooperative tactics.



A big part of this teamwork dynamic is driven by Specialists, hero shooter-like characters that bring table-turning skills and plenty of personality to the battlefield. While these specialized soldiers appeared in Black Ops 3, they’re playing a larger, more fleshed-out role in the follow-up.

During our demo, there were eight such characters—some new, some returning—available to select, giving us a decent peek at their distinct skills and map-clearing abilities. Favorites included Firebreak, who can incinerate a roomful of threats by planting a nuclear reactor core on the floor, and Recon, who uses a grapple gun that’d make Batman jealous to zip across the map or directly before enemies for up-close attacks. The former can also fry foes extra crispy from behind a flamethrower, while the latter can unleash a ground-pound attack that makes a Hulk smash look like a love tap.

Fueling the teamwork dynamic further is a number of Specialists that also fill out specific support and defense roles. Crash, for example, can drop ammo and heal-up teammates, while Ajax lays down a massive ballistic shield to protect friends and slow down opponents. Only one of each Specialist type can join a team, so picking those that best complement each other can mean the difference between seeing a victory or defeat screen.



Black Ops 4 is forgoing the wall-running, boost-jumping, and other acrobatic antics of its predecessor in favor of a literally more grounded experience. The result is matches that immediately feel more strategic, balanced, and less unpredictable, further driving the game’s focus on tactics and teamwork.

Excising these over-the-top elements has not come at the cost of the series’ signature lightning-quick pacing, however. On the contrary, Call of Duty‘s action is still capable of blowing right past you if you take a second to blink. Sprinting and sliding still ensure even the bulkiest of characters can move with speed and style to spare, but even the default run propels you at a pretty good clip.

Complementing the moment-to-moment play’s speed and smoothness is the fact players no longer need to lower their weapons to perform certain actions. Whether they’re tossing an explosive payload or simply mantling over cover, fans can continue firing without missing a beat in Black Ops 4.



Seemingly minor tweaks, such as the aforementioned ability to keep your weapon locked and loaded while scurrying over a crate, combine to impact Black Ops 4‘s gameplay in a number of welcome ways.

One of the smaller, but no less significant changes comes to the health regeneration system. Unlike past games, where a player’s life would magically refill if they took a breather behind cover, Black Ops 4 requires them to jab a health-fueling injection into their arm. The result is essentially a regen system that gives the player more control over when it happens.

During our demo, we discovered this change can also lead to some tense risk-reward scenarios, such as deciding whether to retreat and heal or go for the finishing blow following an especially bloody one-on-one encounter; taking the former approach could result in being killed as we heal, while adopting the latter strategy might see us underpowered in a duel to the death.

Another such nuanced change is Black Ops 4 ‘s deeper weapon customization. Each gun will now sport its own unique range of attachments and accessories, adding yet another layer to the game’s emphasis on tactical teamwork. We didn’t have a ton of time to fiddle with this feature, but based on what we saw, firearms enthusiasts have plenty to look forward to.



While we’re no doubt disappointed in the annual series dropping its signature campaign mode, we’re excited to see how the bigger focus on Zombies might fill the narrative gap. We’re also anxious to find out what Blackout will bring to the genre currently dominated by Fortnite.

Based on what we played though, our interest has also been renewed in the series’ online competitive modes. By retaining the core online combat formula—while also refining it with a number of tweaks and a fresh emphasis on teamwork—Black Ops 4 may pull us back to the frontlines when it lands on Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and PC October 12th.

Profile image of Matt Cabral Matt Cabral Contributor


Matt is a freelance games journalist, and contributor to Stuff magazine and Stuff.tv