After I heard the big download on Call of Duty: Black Ops III, Activision’s Treyarch studio surprised me when it said it was ready to show a hands-on preview of the multiplayer combat.

Traditionally, multiplayer isn’t ready at this point for a game launching Nov. 6, 2015. But Treyarch will have an unprecedented three years to work on Black Ops III thanks to the addition of Sledgehammer Games (maker of last year’s Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare) to the franchise’s development rotation, which also includes the Infinity Ward studio.

I believe that series fans will enjoy the changes in this year’s installment of Call of Duty multiplayer — which will be ready for a beta test at the Electronic Entertainment Expo in Los Angeles in June.

The combat was familiar to me in a lot of ways, and I picked it up fairly quickly. In my first round, I died 20 times and killed 14 enemies. But in the second round, I had 32 kills and 20 deaths. I figured out that I needed to quit playing around with the new abilities and focus on shooting accurately. So the combat is familiar, but it has a lot of changes that pick up the pace of action and affect the tactics you’ll use.

(Check out the links for stories on the Black Ops III overview, Treyarch leadership interview, multiplayer changes, the single-player campaign, and Treyarch’s multiplayer history).

 

Better integration of movement, combat, and maps

The Treyarch team designed the Black Ops III for more fluid movement, and that has an impact on the combat and map design, said multiplayer director Dan Bunting in a presentation.

The focus on the idea of “guns up,” or always having your gun available to shoot, is pervasive. When you are “mantling,” or hopping over a wall while on the run, you no longer lose your aim. In fact, you can fire while you are mantling or doing a “thrust jump.” You now have thrusters that give you superhuman leaping abilities. You can jump to a second floor and forget about climbing ladders.

The thrust jumping has a timer, so you can’t do it indefinitely. But you can double-thrust jump in order to make it through a window on a second floor. You can also shoot and change direction in midair without losing your aim while thrust jumping.

And like in Titanfall from rival Respawn Entertainment, you can run on walls simply by jumping  at them at an angle. A timer shows up, telling you how long you can run on the wall. But you can also chain movements together, like jumping on a wall and then leaping to another before the clock runs out. You can also do a power slide, where you can run and move into a slide, all the while shooting.

The maps I played had plenty of walls to jump on and higher levels to jump to. I found it easy to learn and was able to chain together movements. But if you try to get too fancy while moving, someone else will likely get a shot at you.

“We wanted ‘guns up’ all the time so you could be in control of the combat from moment to moment,” said David Vonderhaar, director of design at Treyarch.

It was easy to pick up these moves, and I felt like I could do a lot better in multiplayer than in Advanced Warfare or the Modern Warfare series. We had some good laughs playing in one room, with Vonderhaar coaching one team and Bunting the other. They watched over us and narrated the event, like ‘casters at an e-sports tournament.

Specialists made for e-sports

Specialist Ruin in Call of Duty: Black Ops III

Above: Specialist Ruin from Call of Duty: Black Ops III’s multiplayer.

Image Credit: Activision

I can tell you that it felt far different from the Black Ops II combat of 2012. One of the biggest differences is you can play as one of four different specialists. Seraph is a stealthy character who has a giant pistol; Ruin is a brute who can kill a bunch of players by smashing “gravity spikes” into the ground; Reaper is a robot with a deadly minigun; and Outrider carries a bow with explosive-tipped arrows.

With the specialists, you play for a while with your own custom weapons. Once a yellow meter fills up on the lower right hand side, you can switch to the specialist’s main weapon. Playing with these characters made multiplayer feel even more like it was designed for competitive e-sports.

At the outset, I chose to play as an Outrider, who can use a bow with arrows that have explosive-tipped grenades, in a match of Kill Confirmed mode.

Each match is like a sports contest, with a halftime in between two rounds. With Kill Confirmed, a familiar mode from years past, you must pick up your foes’ dog tags in order to confirm your kills. I did well enough shooting enemies, but I had to stop running too far into the action. Once I started hanging back and let the enemy come to me, I fared better.

I expected that my favorite would be the Outrider, a female character that had one of my favorite weapons from the original Black Ops. The bow with explosive arrows are deadly to clustered enemies, and they can take out foes before they realize they’re being targeted, even if they expose themselves only for a split second. But in fact, I thoroughly enjoyed playing the Reaper, whose minigun spins up like a Gatling gun and takes out multiple enemies quickly.

I found that Seraph required too much precision, with one deadly shot, as it was hard to line up that shot against enemies that were moving so fast. And Ruin seemed to make the most sense only in maps where enemies clustered together, such as Hardpoint maps where teams continually contest the same piece of ground. When Ruin’s gravity spikes hit the ground, he can kill multiple clustered enemies.

Rewards for your skills

Street battle in Call of Duty: Black Ops III

Above: A street battle in Call of Duty: Black Ops III.

Image Credit: Activision

As you level up, you get more access to special gear. You still pick 10 different customizations, but now you can have as many as five attachments per gun instead of three.

The gameplay is fast, but in some respects it’s also slower compared to the Modern Warfare series. It still favors “scorestreaks” for actions that benefit a whole team, rather than just “killstreaks.”

It’s still pretty easy to get a recon drone as an early scorestreak. And you can also get the equivalent of an RC grenade car, which was the controversial streak item in the original Black Ops. With that car, you were almost guaranteed a kill by driving a remote toy around until you spotted an enemy and then triggered the explosion. You can still do that with the RC-XD drone hover car in Black Ops III, but now you only get maybe a quarter of the points for it. That still makes it fun to use the scorestreak, but it isn’t too easy now. One of the cool things is you can get the RC-XD to run on the walls.

The scorestreaks are still critical to shift the tide of battle in your team’s favor.

A variety of maps

Ramses Station Quad Tank in Call of Duty: Black Ops III

Above: Ramses Station’s Quad Tank in Call of Duty: Black Ops III

Image Credit: Activision

Treyarch has revealed only a few maps among the larger set of multiplayer combat locations.

The first we played was Stronghold. It was set in a high-tech Swiss château in the frozen, mountainous Alps, Stronghold has an asymmetrical design with a mix of exposed sight lines and tight, close quarters.

This small map has a couple of big research buildings and an open space in the middle. It features about three lanes to move down, and each had plenty of walls you could run on.

Bunting said the map is one of those designed for head-to-head play, where you show your skill by being quicker at the draw than an enemy coming straight at you.

In Call of Duty games, Bunting said that the research shows that players hate it when they’re picked off from behind or the side. But they see the contest as a game of skill when they have to confront an enemy head on. Combine was set up for this kind of confrontation. I ran along the walls until the timer ran out, and then I jumped to the next wall. I fell to my death a couple of times as I ran out of thrust ability at the wrong time. But I felt pretty mobile, jumping from place to place. It was good to have the “guns up” mode during this map because I had to quick draw so many times.

They’re calling another map Hunted. This map featured a big game hunting lodge beneath a waterfall in the lush mountains of Ethiopia, where rugged terrain opens up to long sight lines and a stealthy underwater pathway. That means it’s good for snipers, but fortunately, there weren’t any of those during the battles I fought with an assault gun.

In this map, I experienced underwater combat near the waterfall. I jumped in the water and found I could swim laterally quite easily — and still fire my gun. You can only hold your breath for so long before you have to thrust jump to the surface.

During a Hardpoint battle, where one team had to control a spot, another squad could ambush its rival by sending a bunch of soldiers into the water. This feature made the map much more interesting and full of close-combat surprises.

A third map is called Combine, set in the remote Egyptian Sahara. The place is a vertical farming and sustainability research facility with tight interiors, an open middle, and a dangerous flank path.

Playing around in the shop

A character named Hendricks in Call of Duty: Black Ops III

Above: A character named Hendricks in Call of Duty: Black Ops III

Image Credit: Activision

With the Gunsmith feature, you can now customize your gear and gun more than ever. You can use the editor to create your own decal and modify it with as many as 64 layers. Then you can slap it on up to three sides of your gun.

And with the Pick 10 system, you can still customize your kit with 10 different items. You can now add up to five attachments and an optical sight. Together with Gunsmith, Pick 10 gives you an infinite number of user-generated content options.

A more social game

Multiplayer combat is satisfying. Domination is still my favorite kind of map, since you have to hold down three flags and outwit the enemy, rather than just rack up kills. It’s fun for mediocre players like me, and I saw one talented journalist come up with the top score almost every time. That means that skilled players can carry their mastery to even higher levels.

One of the surprising things is that it felt like I was shooting at fellow teammates a lot. These soldiers don’t look all that different on either side. It’s not really hard to tell the difference, but I almost wish it had a different kind of enemy, like poorly outfitted guerrillas, who could change the mix more. In that respect, the specialists added some variety, and they were quite visibly different on the battlefield.

I’m looking forward to learning more about the progression ladder, like how long it takes you to reach the top level, or Prestige, and how fast it takes to unlock various weaponry and abilities. It’s definitely becoming a more social game, fun to play with a whole group of folks in one room. That bodes well for its popularity in e-sports.