At long last, fans have a chance today to hear more about the not-so-secret secret game in the works at Activision’s Treyarch game studio — Call of Duty: Black Ops III.
Activision teased the upcoming game a couple of times as part of the beginning of a massive marketing campaign to ensure that Call of Duty remains one of the most popular video games in the world. Activision has sold more than $10 billion worth of Call of Duty games to date, and it should add another billion or so when Black Ops III debuts Nov. 6. The two prior Black Ops games themselves have been played by nearly 100 million people, with 9 million active monthly players a month today.
This Call of Duty focuses on the futuristic capability to fuse machines and humans together to create cybernetic weapons. A new breed of Black Ops (or black operations) soldier emerges, blurring the lines between our own humanity and the cutting-edge military robotics of future combat. The moral question it asks: How far are you willing to go?
I traveled to Treyarch’s headquarters in Santa Monica, Calif, and got a deep download on the the single-player campaign and multiplayer features from the studio’s leaders. This team will have an unprecedented three years to make this game once it ships in the fall. And I even got to play a bunch of rounds of multiplayer against other press, ahead of the sessions that will happen at the Electronic Entertainment Expo in Los Angeles in June.
(Check out the links for stories on Black Ops III, including our Treyarch leadership interview, e-sports style multiplayer changes, hands-on multiplayer, the single-player campaign, and Treyarch’s multiplayer history).
I only saw a little of this year’s Call of Duty, but fans of the previous Black Ops (2010) and Black Ops II (2012) games should like what Activision showed me. The Black Ops series has shown that even Call of Duty’s subbrands have an identity and loyal fan base of their own. This game is still a bargain, being a three-in-one deal: a single-player campaign (which four players can now take on together), multiplayer combat, and a co-op zombie shooting fest.
“We’re so excited about what we are doing,” said Treyarch head Mark Lamia in a presentation. “We worked on this Black Ops franchise for six years now. This is Treyarch’s sixth Call of Duty, and many on the team have worked on more than that” at the other studios.
The new Black Ops is like a blank canvas, since the single-player campaign is set in the year 2060. This gives the series an epic scope, starting from the secret missions of the 1960s, through the drone war of 2025 from Black Ops II, and now a time period that goes beyond last year’s Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare from Activision’s Sledgehammer Games studio.
Black Ops’s universe is Treyarch’s, as the Call of Duty games that Sledgehammer and Infinity Ward created are set in similar but different continuities, with nothing shared except the style of first-person gameplay. Each company develops its own game engine, weaponry, characters, and storyline. Last year’s Advanced Warfare featured House of Cards‘ Kevin Spacey, but Treyarch hasn’t revealed its actors or even its script writers yet. But they’re all going to be different.
By taking the series into the far future, about 45 years from now, the storyline takes on a lot of sci-fi elements. You have cybernetic-enhanced soldiers who can blend computer, robotic, and human capabilities into lethal fighting forces. Players can now “thrust jump” to the tops of buildings and run on walls. But the weapons remain familiar, and they all have some link to today’s military technology, said Dan Bunting, one of the directors of multiplayer combat at Treyarch.
You still can choose from weapons such as sniper rifles, assault guns, light machine guns, or submachine guns. Air power has been suppressed in the fiction thanks to the creation of an air defense system (Directed Energy Air Defense, or DEAD Systems) in reaction to the hijacking of drones in the previous game. The world of Black Ops III still has problems, and it is dealing with the challenges of artificial intelligence, climate change, and resource scarcity.
“That returned the focus back to boots on the ground,” said Jason Blundell, the head of the single-player campaign and senior executive producer at Treyarch.
The single-player campaign
The events of the single-player campaign take place in just a single week, compared to the span of decades in Black Ops II. We saw one mission set in Cairo, where the Egyptian military was hard-pressed to survive an assault from a group called the Common Defense Pact (CDP). This is akin to the old Soviet Union-led Warsaw Pact of Eastern Europe, and it was deploying an army of robots and drones to press its attack for a fourth day in the war-torn city. The CDP, protective of its own resources, squares off against the Winslow Accord (WA), which you can think of as like today’s North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).
Blundell said the core pillars of the single-player campaign are: soldier customization, cinematic intensity, epic action, gritty narrative, off-the-rails play, replayability, and open area battles.
The Black Operations teams still fight in secrecy with prototype weapons in missions that give governments and politicians “full deniability.” In this scenario, a CIA squad goes missing in Singapore, and then the biggest leak of military secrets in history occurs, hearkening to the real world politics in the wake of the contemporary Wikileaks controversy.
These futuristic warriors have digital tech fused into their retinas and nervous systems, so they can react with split-second speed to threats that appear on their heads-up displays. That makes the extreme speed of the gameplay — 1080p at 60 frames per second on consoles and up to 4K resolution at 60 frames per second on 64-bit Windows PCs — plausible in this fiction.
Another big military conflagration ensues, and the fighting takes us to Egypt, where the Black Ops soldiers can use tactics such as hijacking remote-controlled drones and turning them on robotic armies.
Treyarch’s Blundell says that each map is larger and more open, allowing you to play through the mission in multiple ways. You can also play through the entire single-player campaign with four players via online cooperative play.
Each player may now have a different campaign experience, as you can customize your weaponry and use different abilities from battle to battle. Hacking a drone is “level agnostic,” meaning you can do that in any level of the game. You can return to a safe house in between missions and catch up on the back story or change your gear.
Treyarch created a new game engine for Black Ops III. The graphics are beautiful, much like last year’s Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, which was the first game to debut on the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One.
The faces and body motions look realistic thanks to modern “performance capture” tools that allow artists to capture the actions of live actors and turn them into digital animations. The facial muscles and lip-sync are top-notch, and the body movements are also true to life.
The combat scenes are epic, and they feature a ton of moving objects on the screen at once. You see giant explosions and hear bullets whizzing by as you take on tons of robots, vehicles, and drones swarming across a battlefield.
On the PC, the game requires a hefty system, including one of the following operating systems: Windows 7 64-bit, Windows 8 64-bit, or Windows 8.1 64-bit. (And let’s face it, it’s going to run on Windows 10, too). You need an Intel Core i3-530 processor at 2.93 GHz, or an AMD Phenom II X4 810 at 2.6 gigahertz. It requires main memory of 6GB, a broadband connection, a DirectX compatible sound card, and an Nvidia GeForce GTX 470 graphics card with a 1GB of video memory or an ATI Radeon HD 6970 with 1GB of video memory.
You’ll also be able to play at 4K resolution, or four times as many pixels as the 1080p resolution for the consoles.