Call of Duty isn't usually recognised as being particularly innovative, because most of its experiments take place within the strictures imposed by its spectacularly cinematic campaigns, fan expectations, and each game's short development cycle.
There have been efforts to shake things up over the years – the RTS-style Strike missions in Black Ops 2 and the exo abilities in last year’s excellent Advanced Warfare spring to mind – but there’s always the familar beats of a stealth level or two, some on-rails turret sections, and vehicle passages that never quite feel like their inclusion in completely justified.
With Black Ops 3, Treyarch appears to finally be making substantive changes to a gameplay formula that has been refined and recycled over and over since 2007’s Modern Warfare: it’s adding co-op functionality for up to four, and in the process is removing the rails from under a game that’s trundled along them for more than a decade.
Co-op necessitates larger environments, open area gameplay, and the ability to engage enemies in a manner of the players’ choosing, all three of which Treyarch says will be present in spades. The game's AI has been overhauled as well so it's more "goal orientated", and it has access to enemies with 20 different setups and behaviours, all expressed through completely new animation and lighting systems. The game’s trademark cinematic moments will still feature, but players will all see cutscenes from the point of view of one character, or from a third-person viewpoint, where for the first time they will see a character of their own creation.
This player character is male or female, and can be upgraded with a suite of 40 new cybernetic modifications. Cyber Cores provide a variety of skills from remote hacking and controlling drones to chain melee strikes, while Cyber Rigs are passive upgrades that allow for advanced movement and defensive capabilities. Players will be able to send swarms of firefly drones at enemies to set them on fire, rip out and the cores of robots and throw them at others like a grenade, and chain together melee attacks inspired by fighting games.
All abilities are level agnostic, so once earned they can be used in any level of the game without upsetting the balance, as the player is already lethal when it comes to simply shooting enemies – abilities are simply another way of getting the killing done. Black Ops 3 will also feature a tactical mode that provides co-op players with a visualized threat analysis of the battlefield. Threats in your line of sight are highlighted for your teammates to see, and so are the zones where enemy fire is potentially the most concentrated.
Cyber Cores and Cyber Rigs can be upgraded between missions at a safe house. Here, loadouts including outfits are selected, other players can join your game, and you can showcase your achievements by plastering intel on the walls and gathering medals for a cabinet. Each player has his or her own bunk, and a PC gives access to the game’s Wiki, backstory, and possibly some secrets, too.
What Treyarch is hoping for with this expanded play style is campaign replayability, so players can approach the game with a different strategy each time. “We had designers come out after a playtest going, ‘Oh this [unique event] just happened!’,” says campaign director Jason Blundell – a reaction the more heavily-scripted levels of prior games didn't elicit. These changes “redefine how Call of Duty is played”, he adds.
The plot of Black Ops 3 is a familiar blend of tech-speculation and gung-ho action that riffs on current events. After the drone strikes of 2025 that featured in Black Ops 2, politicians introduce an umbrella air defence system that moves the focus of war back to boots-on-ground might rather than air supremacy. Meanwhile, resource scarcity thanks to climate change has forced countries to co-operate, resulting in two main global factions: the Winslow Accord and the Common Defence Pact (CDP). Bipedal robots and bio-augmentation are now common in the battlefield, and prosthetic limbs allow injured soliders to return to combat and function at an even higher level than before.
Behinds the scenes, black ops soldiers operate in secret with a new high-tech technology: a device called a Direct Neural Interface that gives each direct access to his or her own physiology, allowing for the command of healing and adrenaline, as well as for a seamless wireless connection to the rest of the soldier’s squad (and any accessible machines in the area). At the game's beginning, a cybernetically-enhanced black ops unit goes off the grid while investigating a CIA black site in Singapore – an event followed by the largest information leak in military history.
The players' mission is to go behind enemy lines and figure out what happened. Treyarch is holding back on giving anything else away, but is promising a gritty story that will have players debating what really went down, as well as whether they are a hero or an anti-hero. “This campaign is one of the most twisted and disturbed narratives I’ve ever had the pleasure of being involved in,” says Blundell. There’s no multi-path narrative like that of Black Ops 2, but “if certain things were realised by a viewer, multiple playings might reveal multiple options of that narrative as well,” Blundell adds.
The Xbox One pre-alpha footage we see takes place midway through the campaign at Ramses Station in Cairo, Egypt, which we're visiting to find a prisoner who has some knowledge of the leaks. There’s some unconvincing voice acting and a lot of exposition fired our way as we walk through the outpost’s halls, when suddenly the station is attacked by a group of soldiers and robots. An NPC is gruesomely impaled on the foot-long spikes of a distinctive rolling ball-shaped robot before we pull out an ARK1 Auto and let lead fly. There’s more gore on display than is usual for a COD campaign, the delimbings and blood an attempt to further distinguish humans from humanoid robots and make the action slightly uncomfortable, says Blundell.
The player augmentations allow for large leaps across the sandy expanse, and we see drone hacking in action, along with an RPG-style weapon called a spike launcher. The gunplay is familiar, but the level has a decent amount of width and allows for a variety of approaches to be taken. The other players in the demo have each adopted a different play style, from frontal assault to sniping. Many sparking robots and exploding men later, the passage of play ends when we use an x-ray to scan under the sand to mark an objective for our allies, and what appears to be an airstrike levels some underground bunkers beneath us.
The risks Treyarch has taken with the campaign were only possible thanks to the new three-year development cycle, says studio boss Mark Lamia. However, it was a desire to innovate rather than replicate that was the real motivator. “For a team that’s had success, the only way way to get them to push it is to get them excited about making something new – to introduce some risk and doubt, make it scary,” he says. “The first year of this development? Fuck yeah we had people freaked out all over – it was awesome!"
“We’re pushing this franchise to places it hasn’t been,” Lamia adds later, and for once that feels like a fair statement rather than just marketing hype.
Call of Duty: Black Ops 3 is slated for a November 6 release on Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and Windows PC.
◆ Matt traveled to LA to see Black Ops 3 courtesy of Activision.