Black Ops 4’s Progression System and Season Pass Are Dated

Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare’s impact on the first-person shooter genre can still be felt today, especially in the online realm. RPG-ifying the hell out of every aspect gave players something to addict themselves to as the many hours ticked away. Unlocking new guns and scopes became a staple for the series as did its increasingly expensive map packs. Both were standard for Call of Duty. But the standards from a decade ago don’t work as well today and make Call of Duty Black Ops 4’s progression system and season pass incredibly dated as a result.

Curiosity fueled my excitement to crack Black Ops 4 open. Casting aside the campaign and dolphin diving fully into multiplayer was something I just had to see for myself. If this was going to be the online revolution for Call of Duty, this was probably going to be it.

However, it is still very much a Call of Duty game: it’s got smooth, fantastic shooting, a plethora of teammates and opponents named BonerLord420, and a seemingly endless amount of unlocks. Great gunplay and edgy names are good and fine but the game’s obsession with unlocks is a problem. It holds a ton of its content ransom behind hours upon hours of play and works against in a few ways.

Progression Regression

call of duty black ops 4 Black Ops 4's Progression System and Season Pass Are Dated

The game starts you off with a weak submachine gun that shoots soft dog turds while your foes, who are probably a higher level than you at this point, are decked out with scopes, grips, and enough firepower to blow up a T-1000. You’ll die instantly over and over while your weak, scopeless pea shooters barely chip the paint on their armor. This approach front-loads the worst part of the game and makes it incredibly easy to bounce right off and withdraw back to the confines of Overwatch.

Overwatch has no intense labyrinth of non-cosmetic unlocks. Every McCree has the potential to be as good as every other McCree. One may not be as sharply dressed as the other but he has every chance to be as sharp a shooter. Blizzard does not hide McCree’s better Combat Roll or Deadeye behind a level barrier. It’s all there the moment the installation finishes.

Black Ops 4 still walls off the better guns and equipment behind leveling, which is archaic and requires busywork to get exactly what you want. Annualization has greatly tempered the endorphin rush that was the key behind unlocking gear and is now just an unnecessary barrier that keeps you from truly creating your own class. Frag grenades — regular ass frag grenades — require that you get to level 42 first before you can equip them. It’s emblematic of the issue since it bars something so simple behind hours upon hours of play.

But even when you finally get the weapon you’ve been eyeing, it’s hard to switch because you’re essentially starting from scratch with a weaker gun. Your new firearm will have a smaller magazine, no scope, and slower ADS speed, which severely dissuades you from moving away from your old faithful and further points out how gimped lower-level equipment is. It parallels the issue newcomers have: your gun is weak because you haven’t gotten the proper gear to give it some kick.

Ancient Warfare

call of duty black ops 4 Black Ops 4's Progression System and Season Pass Are Dated overwatch

Many popular multiplayer games like Rocket League, Rainbow Six Siege, and Overwatch have moved away from this system without abandoning progression. All three games have experience bars but also have cosmetic items that give players something to work towards without holding gameplay options hostage. Skins have no bearing on mechanics and, thus, make collecting them a fair overarching metagame. Microtransactions usually play a role in these cosmetic unlocks but the best examples are as distant from the gameplay mechanics as possible.

And this brings Black Ops 4’s season pass and monetization into question. Black Ops 4 is reverting to old shooter standards by charging for multiplayer maps. Many popular online titles have strayed away from this ancient practice because it splits the userbase that competitive games need to survive. Titanfall 2, Overwatch, Star Wars Battlefront 2, and Rainbow Six Siege all have free maps, as will the upcoming Battlefield 5.

It’s a consumer-friendly PR move that some executive can proudly tout on-stage, but it also gives players a reason to revisit these games over dozens of other multiplayer titles vying for their time. And once you have those players coming back to see the new free DLC, they’re more likely to buy costumes and battle passes. Hopping back into Overwatch and knowing that my friends and I will all have the same characters, maps, and modes and maybe some new content keeps the game alive and accurately represents what most people expect in modern multiplayer games.

Missing the (COD) Points

call of duty black ops 4 Black Ops 4's Progression System and Season Pass Are Dated

Premium cosmetic DLC subsidizes the free gameplay content in those aforementioned games, but Black Ops 4 wants that part of the pie in addition to its expensive $50 season pass. While not live yet, Black Ops 4 once again has “Call of Duty Points,” the game’s microtransaction currency. Past titles have used these points for multiplayer supply drops and items for Zombies and Black Ops 4 is likely to follow that pattern — or something like it — once again. It might even funnel into the game’s rumored battle pass-like “Supply Stream.”

Although Activision might require it, Black Ops 4 is trying to play both sides by charging for maps and cosmetic items (which is what the Call of Duty Points are probably for in some way). However, Treyarch has at least committed to giving out free DLC this time around in the form of the fan-favorite map Nuketown, more Specialists, timed events, and Blackout updates. It is a welcome gesture even if Treyarch is vague on the details.

Those details would be nice, but wouldn’t undo the premium maps in the all-or-nothing season pass that will bisect community. Black Ops 4’s playerbase might be robust enough to support two pools of people but aiming to capture the season pass crowd and microtransaction crowd is an audacious move that reeks of greed.

Call of Duty was once a market leader that led all multiplayer shooters. But now it’s a follower in some respects and fossil in others. Charging for map packs and locking gameplay progression behind leveling are two aspects that many successful online games have moved away from. And yet here we have Black Ops 4, the next evolution in Call of Duty’s multiplayer, still trying to entice us by dangling the same ol’ carrots over our heads and charging us for a few more carrots down the line. But now it’s even selling ranch dressing on the side and losing sight of what other carrot makers game developers are doing now. And compared to Black Ops 4, those other developers are, ironically, going beyond the call of duty.