It’s time to see what Call of Duty has in store for us this year. Last week PlayStation 4 players got a chance to try out Black Ops 4 with a closed multiplayer beta, and this week things open up to Xbox One and PC players with a code. It’s a big deal for the franchise: these multiplayer modes are always the beating heart of the franchise, but perhaps even more so this year, because developer Treyarch is foregoing the traditional single-player campaign in favor of a game that revolves around multiplayer, zombies, and the new battle royale-style Blackout mode. This weekend it’s all about the core multiplayer, and I talked a bit with game designer Tony Flame about what to expect when you jump in.
“We’ve been working pretty hard to bring multiplayer to everyone earlier than ever before. This is the biggest beta offering that call of duty has ever had,” says Flame. “For a lot of the people, it’s going to be their first time getting their hands on the new specialists.”
Black Ops 4 features an expanded specialist system from what Treyarch used in Black Ops 3. The concept of the specialist sounds a little like the Overwatch-led hero and class-based shooters, but as Paul Tassi noted last week, it’s really not. Specialists have personality and aesthetic flavor, but the opportunities for customization mean that they’re a lot closer to a traditional Call of Duty loadout system than you might think.
“You’re choosing your playstyle by selecting what gear you’re going to pick,” says Flame.
The key, however, is what your specialist selection says to everyone else you’re playing with. The specialists are as much about how you’re signalling your role to your team as anything else: picking a certain specialist tells your teammates how you’re going to be playing in the coming match.
“The specialists are more of an augmentation to how you communicate with your team,” Flame says. “We call them positions: it’s almost more like you’ve got a quarterback or a linebacker. And with that respect, it’s about how do you play with your team? How do you turn the tide of combat with well-laced timing?”
It’s a handy notion for matchmade games without intensive communication because it can be tough to encourage team play if people aren’t talking to each other. Here it is a little like in Overwatch: nobody needs a headset to know that Reinhardt is there to defend other characters. He’s got a giant blue shield. Like in Overwatch, pre-recorded and ability-tied barks make sure your specialist tells your teammates what’s going on even if you’re not.
Flame is particularly excited about Prophet, which he says the team was working on in the immediate run-up to the beta. He’s got an ability that disables enemies and leaves the door open for all sorts humiliation, and Call of Duty has never been short on that.
“They’re going to be forced down on your hands and knees and try to escape,” he says. “Can’t wait to see how people react to that.”
There are elements of a move like that that are almost as much about the audience as the player, and Black Ops 4 is designed with watchability in mind. New elements like the health bar are a part of that: it lets spectators build a narrative out of what they can see on a stream, which is an important part of any game’s success here in 2018.
Reactions to the first weekend seem to have been positive, so we’ll see how things continue on into week 2. We’ll have to wait until September to get our hands on the new Blackout mode, which comes with its own beta.