By now, we emphatically know that first-person shooters can work on Nintendo Switch. The console’s positioning as a semi-handheld platform – and the realistic limitations of its hardware – simply aren’t an issue when an FPS is developed in the right way. Heck, even PS Vita got a great shooter in the form of Killzone: Mercenary. DOOM, Wolfenstein II and Paladins have all proved beyond any doubt that the genre can be pulled off on Nintendo hardware, but with Call of Duty – arguably the world's most popular FPS – still conspicuous by its absence, it falls to Gameloft's Modern Combat Blackout to try and fill that gap, a series that began life on smartphones and has a solid reputation thanks to its high production values and generally exciting gameplay.
And the results are, well, not brilliant. It’s simply a reminder that while mobile shooters have come a long way in the last decade – and they really have, from the graphics right down to the implementation of multiplayer leagues and ranked play – they’re still built to run on less powerful hardware and made with short bursts of play in mind. Put it this way; despite the visual similarities, this is no Call of Duty: Black Ops 4. It’s more of a PS2-style affair where accuracy and skill tend to defer to blind luck and the old mantra of ‘spray and pray’.
Blackout includes its own single-player campaign (have that, BLOPS 4) and support for both local private matches and ranked online play. The solo missions are predictably corny, featuring a main character called Cayden Phoenix (yes, that’s his actual name), lots of faceless terrorists and a story that takes you from the canals of Venice to the neon streets of Tokyo. It’s silly, it’s dumb, but its bite-sized missions (which can be completed in a matter of minutes each) are full of enough set-pieces to keep you smiling throughout.
The controls, however, might see the grin turn to a grimace. Since this is a port of touchscreen-focused title, the control scheme is really stiff – even if you whack up the horizontal and vertical sensitivity. Black Ops II and Ghosts on Wii U were a little awkward when played with the GamePad, but they had that classic CoD quality seal to fall back on. Blackout does not, so you’ll really need a Pro Controller to have any chance of growing accustomed to the sluggish speed with which you move and aim.
Enemy AI won’t pose much of a challenge, and you’ll soon sense Blackout has more in common with on-rails light-gun classics such as Virtua Cop than it does with modern shooters. Nevertheless, there’s still a lot of content to sink your teeth into. Integrating solo missions, Spec Ops – tiny missions with specific objectives (kill every enemy, breach multiple times, provide overwatch from a sniper’s nest, etc) – and small multiplayer matches together into one hub for each level is a really nice touch, and one that makes the most of one level’s map layout.
The decision to unify progression across all of its modes is actually a really smart move, so if you decided to burn through the story mode and Spec Ops before heading online, you’ll have already unlocked attachments for certain weapons, gained access to new ordinance and opened up a decent number of new guns. It’s also a good idea to follow this route, since online play doesn’t have any form of constructive matchmaking, so you’re likely to end up playing with high-level players with much far more versatile hardware at their disposal.
The main multiplayer is a bit of a mess, mainly because playing against other players really shows how barebones Blackout’s mechanics really are. In the relative safety of its offline modes, the game can hide its paper-thin shooter DNA with silly set-pieces, but those sluggish aiming speeds take a long while to adjust to when facing human-controlled opponents in 12-player matches.
The nine included maps included aren’t particularly well designed and feature too many dead-ends and spawn points that often respawn you facing a wall in the far corner of a map or – rather handily – right next to an enemy player. It’s so easy to spawn trap an enemy team it’s almost unreal. Performance can also be very choppy, making an already difficulty aiming model even harder to wield.
There’s currently only support for two game modes – Free-For-All and Team Battle – but at least you can progress through to different ranks (much like Rainbow Six: Siege’s ranked leagues), but with no real matchmaking infrastructure it functions more like a long-form prestige system than a proper means of quantifying your current skill level. If you really want a multiplayer FPS and you’ve rung DOOM, Paladins and Payday 2 dry for all their worth, then there’s some fun to be had here, but its mediocre gunplay and some consistent issues with performance online means it’s as much a throwaway as it is a throwback.
Modern Combat Blackout is a decent step forward for the series on mobile, but in the presence of DOOM, Wolfenstein II, Paladins and even Payday 2, it simply doesn’t stack up. There’s plenty to appreciate here – the integration of single-player missions, Spec Ops challenges and multiplayer matches into one hub is a really great feature, but the mediocre gameplay and mobile-centric quality levels really water those positives down. Modern Combat could be a great series on Switch, but only if it’s built for the system from the ground up, and not clumsily ported from mobile.