There are at least four variants of melee attack in Black Ops 3. One, a Halo-esque swing of a rifle's backside. Two, a guileless yet honest straight jab to the face. Three, an electrified open-palm strike to the heart. Four, a Mortal Kombat-inspired plunge into a robot's chest (whereupon the player rips out the android's core, then uses it as a grenade).
It would not be surprising to discover a fifth and sixth. In place of the profound innovation that the series is now screaming for, Black Ops 3 developer Treyarch has doubled down on player choice and customisation. The newest golden hatchling to roll out of Activision's Call of Duty battery farm once again attempts the delicate task of making the same egg look different.
Hence the many optional alternatives to melee attacks. And the freedom to play any part of any campaign level alone or with up to three friends. And the choice to customise your character by wearing alternate headgear. Then there are the immensely intricate weapon loadouts, offering preferences on gun attachments, optics, grenades, perks, wild cards and so on.
In Black Ops 3, all campaign levels are unlocked from the outset.
Even narrative chronology has been sacrificed in the name of player choice. In Black Ops 3, all campaign levels are unlocked from the outset. So if you want to go Tarantino on the story's timeline, you can select the final level as your first mission. The reason for this, according to producer Jason Blundell, is to remove level-select restrictions from online co-op. The byproduct is that you can outright ignore missions and certain points in the story if you wish.
This is what has become of Call of Duty. More than half a decade since Activision first faced the innovator's dilemma with this important and polarising series, the corporation continues to huff and puff to ensure it still seems fresh and modern, without taking that daring gamble on the kind of reinvention that could save it from franchise fatigue.
Activision's announcement in early 2014, when it revealed that Call of Duty would switch to a three-studio development model where each was given three-year deadlines instead of two, generated positive rumblings. The hope was that the likes of Treyarch and Infinity Ward would be given a break from their development conveyor belts, and finally have time to think bigger. But on the evidence of Black Ops 3, the extra 12 months is merely being used to add more content, not more thought.
Black Ops 3 replaces things with things. Instead of tossing back a grenade, you can now use an air gun that can fire them back. Instead of observing how many foes are aiming at you, you now have a lavish graphical interface that calculates it. Instead of loading screens, it has loading screens with "True Detective"-inspired vignettes. Instead of just firing bullets, players can now shoot audio waves that make enemies vomit. They can point at foes' holstered grenades and set them off. They can possess robots to turn them on one another.
But the way you think will not be any different. You still aim a cross hair at a non-American and pull the trigger. Again and again you will do this, amid a miasma of testosterone and commotion, as vistas unfold and plans predictably go south at the eleventh hour. Based on the hands-on preview event I attended in London on Friday, you'll have fun if you can still tolerate that old routine. But if you simply can't stand that same rigmarole any longer, well, there's little here for you.
In Treyarch's defence, if this is somehow your first Call of Duty then it's likely going to blow your mind. The core mechanics have been refined to perfection, with anything that slows the flow and tempo deemed immaterial. Players can now point and fire even as they clamber over short walls. They can shoot underwater as though they were on dry land. They can endlessly sprint, they can perform Titanfall-like diagonal dashes across walls. They can powerslide several metres, and double and triple and quadruple-jump across skylines. Should this obsessive refinement continue unopposed, in a few years you'll basically be playing the campaign as Neo.
That is, of course, if campaign modes in FPSes don't become obsolete before then. Modern entries in the genre, from Rainbow Six: Siege to Evolve, are clearly prioritising multiplayer, while the likes of Titanfall to Battlefront have ditched solo campaigns entirely. Further doubt was cast over the future of campaign modes when, in September, Activision announced that the last-gen versions of Black Ops 3 would be the first entries in the series to be multiplayer-only. Blundell insists, however, that campaign remains a vital part of Call of Duty going forward.
"My job is to push the current-gen consoles as far as I can. When I heard that an old-gen version was going to be made outside of Treyarch, and found out the things that would have to be cut in order for it to work, I was fully behind Activision's decision to remove it," he says.
"You say that fewer people are playing campaigns these days, but our metrics say different. This was an active topic at Treyarch, until our numbers showed us that, regardless of what you read on forums, players spend a good amount of time in all modes. I'll say this, and this is my personal view, the death of storytelling and the death of campaign is the death of society. As a medium, we have to tell stories. For Black Ops, it's absolutely essential to continue the art of storytelling."
Stories so important that you can immediately skip to the last chapter, then. But perhaps that's a tad cruel to say of a series that, at the very least, remains fully committed to single-player when so many other games are stepping away from it. Which is ironic, because if Call of Duty continues to throw out the same old game every November while the rest of the industry shifts to multiplayer, it might eventually become unique again.