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The biggest problem with Blackout, Call of Duty’s new battle royale contender

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The Call of Duty: Blackout open beta appears to have been quite the success.

It was so popular that Activision extended the testing by several hours. They also bumped the player numbers per round up from 80 to 100, which obviously shows confidence in the product.

And do you know? It’s a decent game. In many respects, it’s everything that PUBG isn’t; user-friendly, accessible, rapid, polished. It’s so slick compared to the game it imitates. Just the movement alone – from core skills like smooth vaulting and sliding into cover, through to gadgets like grappling guns – makes Blackout feel aeons more modern than PUBG. It’s been 18 months since Brendan Greene’s game first hit Early Access and in video game terms, that is a long time.

It has its flaws, though. There are subtleties to PUBG that Blackout misses (and Fortnite, and pretty much every other imitator out there, to be fair).

It’s not an easy game to play stealthily, for starters. Because of Call of Duty’s traversal systems and the fact that nearly every gun is a high DPS automatic, it’s a battle royale game that lends itself to getting up close and personal. Running and gunning is the order of the day here, like Quake or Unreal in a shiny new coat. You could argue that’s by design and is Treyarch playing to its audience – if PUBG is chess, then Blackout is a Time Crisis arcade cabinet by comparison – but as an experienced PUBG player it’s hard to adjust to, and effectively removes all of the tension from the game.

It’s also – and I swear, this isn’t a humblebrag or telling anyone to “git gud” – relatively easy, at least, compared to PUBG. I got a couple of kills in my first round and finished fourth. Second round, I finished second. Then Mrs B and I started playing duos and we barely placed outside the top ten all night. Do you have any idea how long it took us to do anything close to that well in PUBG? Weeks. Months, even. And that’s not just a criticism of Blackout; I remember finishing second in my very first game of Fortnite, winning several of my opening night assaults on Radical Heights.

Perhaps the point here isn’t that Blackout is too easy, rather, that PUBG is somewhat obtuse. That’s a fair criticism, but I liken it to the difference between snooker and pool: a good snooker player will always be good at pool, but it’s not guaranteed if roles are reversed. By the same token pool is a far easier game to pick up and play, and far more people enjoy playing it on a regular basis than do snooker. Take away from that analogy what you will.

call of duty blackout

A mass-market appeal is clearly the key target for Activision. There is one key issue with Call of Duty: Blackout which can’t be easily overcome, however: the very fact it’s an Activision game.

To be clear, we have nothing against Activision games here. They make fine products, with outstanding production values and enviable levels of quality control; it’s their business model that might impinge on the lasting success of Call of Duty’s first battle royale mode, Blackout.

In the 18 months since we first played PUBG – had it been a Call of Duty game, produced by Activision – we’d already be playing PUBG 2, and PUBG 3 would be slated for Q1 2019. Hell, they’d probably try and squeeze it in before Christmas. Activision is a business that exists by cannibalising its previous product on a yearly basis, with annual sports game-like reliability.

Even their debut “forever” game, Destiny, ultimately suffered the same fate. This was Activision’s first direct foray into an always connected, service game, but after just three years (and a couple of costly expansions) it was replaced wholesale by Destiny 2. In order to force people onto the new game, an apocalyptic event was engineered. This effectively robbed players of all of their equipment, experience, and achievements, causing everyone to start again from scratch. It felt rough, but we all should have seen it coming.

Mark your calendars now, folks: in September 2020, possibly on the next generation of consoles, get ready for Destiny 3.

It’s odd when you consider Activision’s stablemate, Blizzard, has built its empire on games that do last forever. Hearthstone, Heroes of the Storm, Starcraft II and yes, World of Warcraft, are all games designed to last as long as they still have an active player count. Blizzard has become adept at maintaining these player counts – over, in some cases, a decade or more – with regular tweaks, expansions, and events. Even Blizzard’s first shooter, Overwatch, has set its stall out as an evolving game with a potentially enormous lifespan.

When you look at the other most popular competitive shooters – Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, Team Fortress II, and more recently, Overwatch and Rainbow Six Siege – you see evidence of longevity, of deep roots, and of a desire to go the distance. The biggest problem that Blackout faces, regardless of how great a game it may be to play, is that it will be superseded in exactly 12 months by the next Call of Duty game.

And that’s OK, by the way. Not every game needs to have a decade-long lifespan to be brilliant. But keep in mind that – before you start touting Blackout as the next big esport, the game to replace PUBG and Fortnite atop the battle royale tree – Activision will already be working on replacing it, just in time for next Christmas.

Just don’t get too attached, alright? Because of Activision’s business model, Call of Duty: Blackout will be here for a good time, not a long time.

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