The future of Call of Duty is a much discussed topic. What will they do next year? How will next year's studio build on last year's effort? How will they keep the series fresh? When will players finally tire of the Call of Duty formula? These questions are asked in message boards and on discussion shows, but also inside the walls of developer Treyarch. Now in their tenth year of developing Call of Duty games, the folks at Treyarch have had a hand on the wheel of this series for some time now, and have confronted these questions again and again. This year, with Call of Duty: Black Ops III, they have an eye not just on the future of Call of Duty, but on the future of humanity itself.
In Black Ops II, Treyarch took the Cold War setting of Black Ops and paired it with a drone-dominated future, linking the two with overarching themes of enthusiasm and trepidation about the use of cutting-edge technology in military and espionage operations. This core conflict returns in Black Ops III, extrapolated years beyond Black Ops II into a future where human augmentation has replaced drone technology as the freaky tech du jour. Humanoid battle robots are now commonplace, but the real power--and threat--lies with human soldiers who boast robotic replacement parts and neural networking implants. Strong as the dickens and smart as the data they can instantly access, these soldiers have mental and physical capabilities that provide the driving force for Black Ops III's campaign.
In the pre-taped gameplay demo I saw during a recent visit to the Treyarch studios, the player character arrived in a train station in Cairo that served as a makeshift outpost for the allies he or she was there to contact. Black Ops III is the first CoD game that allows the player to choose the gender of the campaign protagonist, and while there is separate voice acting for both male and female characters, the script is roughly the same. According to Jason Blundell, the campaign director for Black Ops III, they took inspiration from the character of Commander Shepard in the Mass Effect series; a strong character can be a strong character without the world around them bending to accommodate their gender.
The train station entry scene used one of my favorite gaming tropes, the on-rails transit sequence that establishes the scene before the player can really even move. After exiting the train, the player proceeded to seek out an informant to help them get to the bottom of a massive intelligence leak that originated at a CIA facility. The echoes of Edward Snowden resounded around the room as the developers spoke about the thing that made this kind of leak even more compromising for a futuristic soldier: the direct neural interface.
The DNI is basically a computer and sensor network implanted in the soldier that allows them access to data and communications, lets them hack into computer tech, and even helps them regulate their own biological functions. Having your password leaked means a lot more when your ability to walk is on the line. In the Black Ops III campaign, the abilities associated with the DNI (and any robo-parts you might have) are called cyber cores and cyber rigs. You'll be able to choose which of these abilities to acquire, similar to Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare's exo suit modifications. It didn't seem like the upgrade tree would be a broad as in, say, Deus Ex: Human Revolution; I got the impression that you'd be able to use most of the abilities in the course of the campaign, rather than choosing specific paths. There are some limitations to your loadout, however, and these make it valuable to coordinate your cyber choices with your teammates. Your human teammates.
Yes, Black Ops III has four-player online campaign co-op throughout the entire campaign (and two-player splitscreen local co-op). During the campaign demo, we saw two skirmishes, the second of which was designed to show off the larger environments that the studio designed in order to accommodate their co-op structure. In this scene, the players sallied forth from a formidable mobile wall dropped into place by a friendly helicopter. A broad concrete area stretched out ahead of them, barely recognizable as a street thanks to enemy fortifications and ruined vehicles. The goal was to use a handheld launcher to shoot explosive charges into the columns below the street and then detonate them to collapse the whole area. Of course, the charges were also effective against softer targets.
But targeting the supports and holding off the enemy attack took a bit more than just a big gun. Using the DNI to scan the area revealed the target areas and tagged any enemies spotted by the player or the player's squad. This location data is shared passively to your allies because all your DNIs are connected. Linking the player's eyes into a (potentially corruptible) network opens wide the possibility for messing with the player's perception, and Treyarch is proud of their history of messing with players' minds. There were strong hints that what you see might not always be what is actually going on, and while there won't be branching story decisions like those in Black Ops II, they did describe the storytelling as "layered," teasing that there might be more to discover on subsequent playthroughs.
This playthrough showed off a few more abilities, including hacking a flying drone and turning its machine guns against those who deployed it. A cloaking device automatically activates when using this ability is triggered, so you can use it mid-battle without scurrying into a corner first. And then there were the terror bees, technically known as fireflies, which are a cloud of flying nano-robots that swarm enemies and, when upgraded, can set them on fire. Drone hacking and flaming terror bees join a list of about 40 upgradeable abilities that players will be able to use in the campaign.
The other campaign skirmish took place during an assault on the train station and started with a nasty new drone that looks like a metal yoga ball. In a gory scripted moment, an enemy ball rolled up to an ally of mine and deployed sharp metal blades that skewered the poor guy right in front of my face. Yes, it was gross, and yes, these balls are available as scorestreak rewards in multiplayer.
While shooting these drones and the bipedal warrior bots that marched into the shattered atrium, the player showed off some tricks of the new traversal system. I was curious to see what Treyarch would do the high-energy exo suit mobility system from Advanced Warfare, and I was glad to see they had their own take on those invigorating movement mechanics. But while Advanced Warfare was largely focused on quick, darting motions for speedy incursion and evasion, Black Ops III is more interested in fluidity, and in letting you have your gun out as much as possible.
Instead of a double jump, or a jump-and-midair-dash, Black Ops III has a thrust jump. It can boost you to a higher ledge or extend your jump distance, and it operates on an analog energy meter instead of firing at a specific burst intensity. So leap straight up and tap the jump button to hover in the air with small puffs of energy. Use the same feathering technique to extend your jump with mid-air hops, or burn the whole meter to glide in a long, floating arc. The booster is omnidirectional as well, preserving the diversity of movement offered in AW, but it doesn't function when your feet are on the ground. For ground-based mobility, there's the power slide, which is pretty much exactly what it sounds like. Activated by holding the crouch button for a moment (say goodbye to dolphin diving), this move triggers a slide in the direction you are facing. But once you're sliding, you are free to aim wherever you like, making this not only a powerful evasive maneuver, but also a potent offensive tactic. Landing your jump directly into a slide, or sliding past a door while aiming in are just a few of the effective applications we found while playing multiplayer.
Over the course of a few hours, I got to play a dozen or so rounds of Black Ops III multiplayer. Getting the hang of the traversal system didn't take very long, as recent experience with Advanced Warfare, the Halo 5: Guardians beta, and Titanfall had prepared me for more movement trickery in my first-person shooters. The latter reference applies particularly to the wall run, which is fueled by the same energy bar as the thrust jump and power slide. Like in Titanfall, you need to approach at an angle to get your wall run going, and leaping between walls resets your energy meter. Black Ops III throws in a new twist, allowing you to change directions mid-run just by turning around and tapping the jump button. Also, there are water areas on certain maps, and you can swim, with your gun pointed ahead at all times.
This is one of the core goals of Black Ops III multiplayer, allowing you to keep your gun up and be ready to fire as much as possible. A new mantling system streamlines movement by allowing you to clamber over obstacles you encounter while moving in any direction (yes, including backwards) with the tap of a button, and keeping your gun up all the while. The more your gun is up, Treyarch's thinking goes, the more likely you'll be prepared for combat when it comes and the less likely you'll feel like there was nothing you could've done to avoid being killing. And if you can have your gun up in more situations, that expands the combat possibilities in a non-trivial way.
The biggest change to multiplayer comes with the introduction of specialists. In addition to choosing a loadout you've designed in Treyarch's signature pick-ten system, you must now choose from one of nine specialist characters. These are individual soldiers with names and callsigns and back stories that are linked to the fiction of the Black Ops III universe. More crucially, each has a unique weapon and a unique ability that can be deployed during combat. You pick your specialist, you choose the weapon OR the ability (not both), and then you're ready for combat.
Maybe you'll pick Seraph, a woman from the Chinese cartels who can whip out a one-shot kill pistol called the Annihilator or boost the rate at which she earns progress towards scorestreaks for a short time. Or perhaps you'll go with Outrider, an archer from the Brazilian favelas who gibs her enemies with explosive arrows or activates a radar pulse that highlights any nearby enemies with red silhouettes. If you're playing a Capture the Flag match, an American soldier named Ruin might be your choice for his ability to trigger temporary movement acceleration, or you might just enjoy ground pounding anyone in the area to death with his leaping gravity spike attack.
And then there's Reaper, the robot who looks like a cross between a terminator and a geth. Its arm can transform into a deadly minigun, but it's its ability to warp to where it was six seconds prior that is the most disruptive of all the specialists we saw (only four out the nine). Understanding and predicting your opponents' positions is absolutely crucial in multiplayer combat, and with Glitch, Reaper can be in front of you one second and then behind or above you the next. Run into a crowded room, drop C4, and then Glitch away. Leap into pool, then Glitch back out and shoot the enemy that followed you in. The potential for psyching out opponents and gaining a positional advantage is huge.
Use of specialist weapons and abilities is limited, though, as they are controlled by an energy meter. This meter is always filling up and does not reset upon death, like scorestreaks, so specialist powers are something all players will be able to use, regardless of skill. More skilled players, however, will be able to use them more frequently, as XP-earning actions will help the meter fill faster. Speaking of XP, in addition to the traditional global XP and weapon XP, each specialist character earns XP and has a progression pathway that will unlock stuff, but what exactly that stuff is wasn't divulged at this time.
But there was a lot of information shared in this first look at Black Ops III, and we're expecting more to come at E3, where the game will be playable on the show floor. Treyarch has confirmed there will be a zombies mode, complete with a weird-as-heck story line and a full XP progression system, but they played coy about further details. They also talked about gunsmith, their new weapon customization system which boasts multiple cosmetic variants for common attachments, as well as three fully paintable surfaces on each gun. How will they keep their weapons from being plastered in butts and swear words? Only time will tell. And while PC, Xbox One, and PlayStation 4 versions of the game are confirmed, what is in store for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 players? Perhaps another studio is working on a scaled-down version of the game, or maybe this is the year CoD leaves behind the last generation.
The novelty of the specialists and the smoothness of the traversal system were the highlights for me during my play time. I'm eager to see what other specialists bring to the table, and how they mix with the abilities and weapons we've already seen. Though at first the specialist system seemed an odd addition, after a few matches they felt like just another element of a deadly battlefield. Scorestreak rewards have basically functioned as special powers for years, and having something that powerful that you can reliably use is an appreciated bonus for someone who doesn't often chain together long streaks. Adding new things while preserving the core experience is the perennial challenge for the Call of Duty franchise, one that Treyarch is taking head on in the lead up to the November 6th release of Black Ops III.