The fourth installment of Treyarch’s Black Ops series might be the first Call of Duty to forgo a single-player campaign. But after a spate of less-than-fully-satisfying entries in the once-reliable series, putting the full force of its efforts behind the multiplayer has paid off: Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 finds the perfect middle ground between classic COD and the “jetpack” era, reviving the franchise’s fun in many ways.

I’d honestly be more upset about Black Ops 4's lack of a campaign if it had had the same rocky online launch as last year’s Call of Duty: WWII. But the online content has released feeling both polished and plentiful from the first minute. No freezing, long load times, or server issues—assuming you’re playing on console, that is. The PC side has experienced some launch-day struggles, but this is still Call of Duty’s smoothest launch in years.

Black Ops 4 has made a much-ballyhooed return to what Activision calls “boots-on-the-ground” combat, but that doesn’t mean it’s entirely reality-based. There are still grappling guns and a soldier more robot than man. It’s not Infinite Warfare fast, but neither is it WWII slow. Black Ops 4 feels exactly where the franchise needs to be in terms of the gameplay pace and the degree of Specialist abilities.

The Specialists, Ruin, Battery, Prophet, Seraph, and Nomad return from Black Ops 3, both returning characters and new talents. Each Specialist comes paired with a unique weapon and special equipment, giving you options depending on whether you want to play offensively or defensively. For example, in 5v5 Search and Destroy, I like to play as Crash the medic to provide extra ammo and a health boost for my team. But on small objective-based maps, I use Torque for his razor wire to block off a doorway or protect a bomb site. You can switch up your Specialist mid-match, but there are limits to how many of each type can be on the field: one of each Specialist during a game of 5v5, or two of each in 6v6 Chaos modes.

Another big change to the series: Health no longer auto-regenerates. You’ll just have to be a responsible teammate and manually heal yourself. Yes, it’s a change for the franchise, but the health stim shots aren’t a terrible inconvenience. The stim shot is unlimited use with a short cooldown timer. You can even see your teammates’ health bars, so you can give friendlies a reminder to jab themselves. The action really does become habitual after a handful of matches.

One of my biggest complaints about WWII was the lack of maps and variety at launch. I don’t feel that way about Black Ops 4. There are 4 remastered throwback maps for the old-school Black Ops fans, and 10 new maps with a pretty wide variety of size and locale. For example, Icebreaker is a small, arctic submarine map, where you can actually freeze if you’re in the water too long. Morocco is a village with tons of doorways and rooftop locations where you can ambush (or get ambushed by) enemies.

The staple Call of Duty game modes have returned, but the traditional 6v6 Team Deathmatch modes will now be found under the Featured playlist as “Chaos TDM.” This is because the objective game modes have been cut back to 5v5 players, which is more in line with standard competitive multiplayer games.

Two new objective modes have been introduced, called Heist and Control. I enjoy the tactical nature of both. Heist is a 5v5 mode that requires your team to steal a bag of cash before your opposition does, then reach an extraction point. You can also choose to ignore the objective, because you’ll also win if you kill the whole opposing team. As a no-respawn, round-based, tactical challenge that uses a money and purchase system for your normal in-game loadout, Heist clearly takes its cues from Counter-Strike. Instead of standard Call of Duty weapon classes, everyone starts out with a pistol and $500. That small allowance doesn’t get you far, so you earn cash each round to buy better guns, attachments, perks, equipment, or scorestreaks. You really have to be tactical, communicate, and spend wisely, and that’s what I really love about Heist. The mode was really fun in the beta, and I’m glad to see Treyarch made some improvements for the release: You’re no longer forced to grab the cash and go through the process of extraction if the opposing team is wiped out, or vice versa. This cuts unnecessary time out, allowing you to hop into the next round much faster.

Control is Black Ops 4’s hybrid of classic Call of Duty modes. The map has A and B points, which are highlighted zones that look like the objectives seen in previous games’ Hardpoint modes. But these locations do not move, and your team must capture or defend the points in a fashion more like previous games’ Domination modes.

While Control starts off as a respawn mode, each team has a limited pool of thirty lives between them, which can make it feel like a no-respawn Search and Destroy match by the end. You can win the rounds by either holding the capture points or slaughtering the enemy team until they are out of lives. At first, I wasn’t sure what to think of Control, but I’ve really come to enjoy it. A shared pool of lives can disappear pretty fast when you’re trying to capture or defend two points, and the chaotic action at the start of the match can quickly devolve into a tense no-respawn game.

Overall, I think Treyarch made a smart decision by limiting the number of duplicate Specialists that can participate in each match. I wasn’t really a fan of Specialists in the past, but they feel way less annoying when you aren’t faced with an entire enemy team hitting you with the same Specialist weapon. I’m learning to enjoy the different abilities and test out new strategies for the various game modes. It’s also a lot less chaotic and more enjoyable to experience the Specialists in a slower-paced, more grounded gameplay setting. Map variety, great gun selection, and classic perks make Black Ops 4 feel great.

Blackout

A huge factor in Call of Duty’s success this fall was riding on the quality of the franchise’s first foray into the battle royale genre, and Black Ops 4 really delivers the perfect experience. Blackout sticks with Call of Duty’s first-person view instead of the typical third-person, but otherwise feels like your typical non-Fortnite battle royale game. Far from a hacked-together afterthought, Blackout is super polished with excellent vehicle mechanics, smooth character movement, and lots of popular Black Ops map locations.

Blackout loads quick and smooth for solo, duo, and quad matches, with the cap of 100 players working well with the map size. Whether you drop down into a more popular location or somewhere off the grid, there’s always action close by.

The diversity of the item drops feels a bit more balanced than it did in the beta, and I’m able to see and pick up items slightly faster than before. The only item that feels in short supply are the weapon attachments. There’s still no option to just run over and pick up all the ammo, and looting dead bodies still takes a few more seconds of rummaging around in the fallen soldier’s backpack, as opposed to the quick glance of dropped items from an eliminated opponent in Fortnite.

The vehicle handling really does make a difference. After making perfect turns on an ATV to escape shots from a distant sniper, I think it would be hard to go back and drive around in H1Z1, where one tiny pebble can send your vehicle doing wacky flips off the side of a cliff. I have experienced some motion sickness when riding in the back of the cargo truck or as a passenger on the ATV, but the feeling lessens if I hog the driver duties for my squad.

Character movements feel wonderfully fluid, like when I’m sliding into the shadows to avoid a helicopter full of enemies overhead, or vaulting over walls to assist a teammate. I also love that I can heal myself while running from the storm of nova gas that shrinks the playing field.

One of the biggest differences that Call of Duty players will notice in Blackout is the addition of the bullet drop mechanic, something common to other battle royale games but not yet seen in Call of Duty. Yes, gravity will now pull your bullets to the ground, so you’ll have to get better at math. At close to medium range, this won’t be a factor for players, but long-distance shots will be impacted. Travel speed and bullet drop will need to be factored in when sniping or taking any long-distance shots. It’ll take some practice with long-range gunfights before you can appropriately judge and compensate for the distance.

There isn’t a lot of major change from the beta version of Blackout, but Treyarch listened to feedback, and the armor issues have been improved. The level 3 armor spawns way less, and level 2 armor was nerfed and doesn’t feel too frustrating to destroy.

The designated zombie locations on the map have attracted a good bit of attention from players. despite the randomly spawning undead. They seem to be willing to risk an attack from randomly-spawning undead for the chance to get in there and find special loot, in particular the raygun and special Zombies light machinegun.

Blackout provides the over-the-top Call of Duty action fans expect, yet still remains true to the battle royale genre. I love the feeling of dropping down to some of my favorite Black Ops locations, while feeling like I’m playing a better and more polished version of PUBG.

Zombies

On the one hand, I really love how much content Treyarch has made available for its signature Zombies mode on day one. On the other hand, I found the initial dive into Black Ops 4's Zombies menu to be overwhelming. This year’s installment seems focused on letting you play Zombies however you want. Tailoring your own experience is cool, but navigating the menus feels harrowing when you’re just trying to play a simple match.

There are three launch maps available for everyone, and a fourth Classified map is available if you purchased the Black Ops pass. The new maps follow a brand-new narrative dubbed the Chaos Story, which is split into two parts. IX takes place in a gladiator arena in ancient Rome, and Voyage of Despair on the Titanic. Chaos features four new characters, while the third map, Blood of the Dead, is a Black Ops 2 remake that follows the Aether Story, featuring the original four characters from Treyarch’s classic Zombie storyline.

Included in the plethora of menus and modes is a very simple tutorial for new players that takes place on a portion of Voyage of Despair. This is accompanied by amusing commentary that walks you step by step through the basics of killing zombies and navigating the map, but it doesn’t have the replay or depth of WWII’s Groesten Haus tutorial.

Treyarch’s “play any way you want” mantra means you can select from Classic Zombies play, the all-new Rush mode, or just tweaking your own custom Zombies ruleset. Classic gameplay also lets you choose between four different levels of difficulty: Casual, Normal, Hardcore, or Realistic.

There’s also a create-a-class option that lets you make lots of choices. You can choose to equip any four of the game’s 30+ elixirs, which are temporary perks that work like Black Ops 3’s Gobblegum. Instead of buying them from gumball machines on the map, you’ll already have your chosen four elixirs equipped to your loadout. You can also choose one special weapon that has a cooldown similar to the Specialists’ in multiplayer. However, the most shocking change is that you can now choose which perks you want to spawn on the map, and even assign their locations.

The classic Juggernog and Double-Tap perks are gone, but you can still get extra speed with Stamin-Up or revive faster with Quick Revive. There are also new perks, such as Death Perception, which lets you see enemies behind walls or receive indicators of enemies that would be close but out of view.

Black Ops 4’s enemies felt really savage at release, especially without the aid of the Juggernog health boost. But Treyarch has already introduced a post-launch balancing patch. Players now have fifty extra health points, so now it takes one additional slap from a zombie to go into the knocked state. So, for example, health in classic Zombies mode has been upgraded from 150 points to 200 points per player. The extra slap makes all the difference with life or death in Zombies.

Rush is a new fast-paced Zombies experience, one in which you earn score multipliers and slay your way through the undead to unlock parts of the map through progression. You don’t have to pay for guns or to unlock doors, you just have to stay alive and follow the Rush markers to defend designated zones. I really enjoy this addictive, arcadey twist on Zombies, and this will probably serve as my preferred mode when I’m limited on time.

Overall, I really like that there are options here for beginners or casual players without interrupting the experience for the die-hard fans looking for Easter eggs or going for high rounds. However, too many choices are thrown in your face at once. I wish the menus at least felt less daunting to navigate, but I’m happy to say that Treyarch delivers solid and plentiful content once you’ve sifted through all the options to figure out what you want.

And The Rest

While most of the lore of Black Ops 4 has been offloaded to free online comics, there is still a wee bit of story here in the mini-missions found in the Specialist Headquarters. Fan favorite Frank Woods from the Black Ops series becomes your instructor for tedious challenges against AI bots that you must endure before you can unlock each piece of the story.

This portion of the game also serves as a tutorial section for those wanting to learn each Specialist ability and game mode, but I hate that chunks of story are locked behind these requirements. I had to play a tutorial-guided match of Team Deathmatch with a team of bots just to unlock one tiny piece of story.

Once unlocked, they can all be rewatched and add up to about 10 minutes of cinematics that show little pieces of the characters’ lives. The bits of cutscenes are really well done, but playing boring AI matches was not how I wanted to spend my time in Black Ops 4.

Theater mode has also returned, allowing you to free roam and capture recent gameplay moments in multiplayer, Zombies, and Blackout. Whether you’re looking to relive your rageworthy fails or epic snipes, gameplay types are stored in the Theater section for easy viewing. You can go full-on director by setting camera points, and using other advanced features, but I typically use the basic editor for getting quick clips and thumbnails. I did find the Theater could go a bit wonky and stop responding properly if the clip showed a player emoting, tagging, or even spraying heavy gunfire action. A few saved games caused my PlayStation 4 to blue-screen crash every time I tried to get a screenshot.

And yes, I did say “emoting” and “tagging.” Bringing some silly fun to Black Ops 4 are these Fortnite-style features, which can be utilized in the multiplayer and Blackout game types. Emoting and tagging won’t have any direct effect on the match, other than sucking up precious time and leaving you vulnerable, but I usually let my character do the “Unstoppable” cheat pounding gesture to bring some extra hype. Although players are currently abusing the gestures to peek around cover in Blackout (since doing an emote shifts the player’s view into third-person), Treyarch is currently working on a fix.

Black Ops 4 gets everything right that last year’s Call of Duty got wrong. There are some who will criticize Black Ops 4 for adding battle royale or being influenced by other popular shooters, but I think this is a fun, polished Call of Duty game adapted for modern times, and Blackout is better than any other “realistic” battle royale game I’ve played. I don’t even miss the campaign.