Black Ops 4 is introducing some significant changes to the Call of Duty multiplayer formula. Blackout, a brand new battle royale mode, makes its debut, and the popular League Play system, which has been missing since Black Ops 2, is returning. With Black Ops 4’s release date just four months away, EW caught up with Treyarch co-studio head Dan Bunting at E3 to discuss the design philosophy behind some major gameplay and storytelling shifts coming to the franchise.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: With Black Ops 4’s battle royale mode, Blackout, what are you bringing to the table that other battle royale games won’t have?
DAN BUNTING: Battle royale really took the industry by storm over the last year, and I think, just like everybody, we were paying very close attention. Of course we wouldn’t venture into anything new like this that’s this massive unless we could do it in a way that’s uniquely ours, that delivers on what people know and love about Black Ops as a series. First and foremost, it’s about those core gun and movement systems that make players really feel like the game is responsive, that it’s fluid, that it’s something that they can master. So if you start from that place, it is going to be a unique experience that only Black Ops can deliver. On top of that, we have brought together all of the legacy of our series, bringing together some of the things our players love: multiplayer map locations, Zombies map locations, weapons, vehicles. We really want to cover the gamut from land, sea, and air to give players a lot of breadth and variety to their gameplay.
How does Call of Duty combat translate to a much larger map for Blackout?
It’s orders of magnitude larger than anything we’ve ever done. We’ve said that it’s roughly 1500 times the size of a Nuketown, but that doesn’t really even do it justice to describe what this battle space is like. We started this game, very early on, developing a tool set to expand what we can build and give our developers the tools to really unlock their imaginations, to make something as big as they possibly can without being constrained by memory and things like that. When people think of those really tight, frenetic experiences that happen in Call of Duty multiplayer, they think about gunplay that’s happening within short and medium range. When you open a space up like the map that we’re going to be delivering with Blackout, you have to think about how that gunplay scales to something of that size. If you can look out across a large, wide open field and engage in combat with somebody, you have to introduce new challenges, because you can’t just have a traditional hitscan system, which is going to just instantly, as soon as you pull the trigger, hit that person over there. That’s going to put you at a disadvantage if you’re the guy on the other side. So we have introduced ballistics into our guns, which means bullets are going to travel over time and distance, and they’re going to drop eventually. It’s a whole new layer of tuning to the core gunplay of Call of Duty that we’ve never had before.
Is bullet drop going to be a feature that will carry over from Blackout to other multiplayer modes?
It’s something that we are still developing and making the decision about whether we want to bring it into core multiplayer or not. But it is a brand new feature that allows us a whole new range of tunables. You could bring it into multiplayer, and in those core close combat experiences, it could be exactly like it was before, but if you get into those long-range battles, it could totally transform that gameplay experience.
Let’s talk about another big change to multiplayer. Why did you decide to switch to manual, tactical healing instead of the automatic healing fans are familiar with?
The philosophy behind multiplayer this time is that we wanted to build a more tactical experience for players where you have time to think and interact with your friends and strategize. Our games, historically, have been very, very fast-paced, and we don’t really want to slow players down, because that’s a big part of what they know and love about Call of Duty multiplayer. However, we do want to extend the experiences they have so they have a little bit more time to breathe. What manual healing allows us to do is it actually creates some tension in combat. Really, what that does as a net effect is it puts players into the core of our game experience that they know and love the most, the core combat, and keeps them there longer. It extends that tactical gameplay experience and gives players a decision point. Do I want to stop and heal, do I want to pull back, do I want to run away? If I’m on the other end of it, do I want to rush somebody because I know they’re going to have to wait to heal behind cover? We don’t want players to feel just like it’s a constant grind of spawning, dying, respawning, and doing it all over again. We want it to feel like players can evade, that there’s maneuverability. If you’re a player who does master that tactical gameplay, maneuverability becomes a core part of your loop. You think about how you’re going to engage in combat and how you might disengage from combat, when typically players don’t think about disengaging from combat in our games.
League Play is making its return in Black Ops 4. Will that work similarly to how it did in Black Ops 2?
When Black Ops 2 came out, we introduced League Play for the first time to give the competitive community something to feel like they were heightening their competition. It had a lot of things that were great, and it had a lot of things that didn’t work very well. The reason that we made the change in Black Ops 3 to an arena style was because we were trying to dial out some of the negative experiences with League Play in Black Ops 2. This time around, we are bringing League Play back in a different way that really brings the things that people loved about ranking ladders and being able to play for a short period of time to compete against people within a smaller subset of their skill range. League Play is coming back in that way, but it’s going to be something completely different than what people are expecting. Our competitive feature set is going to be bigger and broader than just League Play.
Why was the decision made to launch this game without a single-player campaign?
It kind of comes back to the philosophy of what we wanted to do with this game, where our primary focus is on social experiences. With that as our foundation, we had to think about how we can kind of weave narrative throughout the game in ways that can engage players without getting in the way of that social connectivity and that social gameplay experience. You think about how we’ve treated Zombies, for example, over the years, and it’s had layers and layers of narrative built into it. At its heart, it is a cooperative gameplay experience where you’re just trying to survive against the massive hordes of zombies, but if you go deeper than that, it’s actually much more than that. There’s a lot of story built into it that, from the early days, we actually built with our fans, going back and forth and kind of feeding some of their conspiracy theories and the things they keyed into. So we took that same sort of approach and said, “How can we build narrative into the game without making the narrative the first and foremost important thing?” We want the gameplay to be the most important thing.
Is Zombies the top way Black Ops 4 delivers narrative? How will other modes incorporate story?
I wouldn’t say it’s the top. It’s certainly going to be deeper than any Zombies experience we’ve done before. We also have more Zombies experiences that we’re delivering at launch with this game than we’ve ever done. We certainly have a— pardon the pun— ravenous fanbase of that mode, so we want to keep giving them what they love. In addition, we also have our multiplayer game, which we’ve never really gone too deep into the narrative on before. With Black Ops 3, we really first started just kind of hitting the tip of the iceberg with how we delivered our specialists and their backstories — very, very thin backstories about each of those characters. We wanted to take that and grow it and go bigger with it this time. So, with multiplayer, we’re also going to support players in playing solo missions where they learn a little bit more about the backstory of each character. They learn a little bit more about the universe they’re in, why they’re here, who they’re working for, and how they’re connected to one another.
Can you go into any detail about the three Zombies experiences that are shipping with the game?
The first map we have talked about is “Voyage of Despair,” which sets the stage for a new storyline with brand new characters and a brand new character arc. It’s set on the Titanic, and of course everyone knows the fate of the Titanic. It might give a little bit of an alternate take on history. Beyond that, we have another map called “IX,” which is set in this ancient Roman coliseum sort of style, where it’s going to take a little bit of a twist from what you see from the Titanic setting. However, it’s going to have the same cast of characters, and you’re going to learn a little bit more about their journey. And then, of course, we have “Blood of the Dead,” which is a remake of a massive fan-favorite “Mob of the Dead.”
How important will melee combat be in the ancient Rome set “IX?”
I know there was a lot of confusion about that when we did the reveal. There, of course, is melee combat in the game, but it is not going to be primarily focused on melee combat. There’s going to be weapons just like everyone would know and expect from a Zombies experience, but it is going to be a little bit of a different twist.