LOS ANGELES — After seven weeks without news, Call of Duty fans have a chance today to hear more about the big game at Activision’s Treyarch game studio — Call of Duty: Black Ops III.
Normally, Activision would unveil the big military first-person shooter game at Microsoft’s press event and note that Xbox Live players would get downloadable content (DLC) such as new map packs a month ahead of Sony users.
But PlayStation 4 has been outselling Microsoft’s Xbox One in the $55 billion annual console market, and so now the tables have turned. Sony showed the game at the Electronic Entertainment Expo in Los Angeles on its stage for the first time, and it now has the DLC 30-day exclusive. That’s a big deal, since 30 million people play Call of Duty every month, and they want their map packs as soon as they can get them. 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.
“For the first time ever making its worldwide debut, here’s Call of Duty Black Ops III,” said Andrew House, head of Sony’s gaming business.
Mark Lamia, head of Treyarch, came out on stage to introduce the latest trailer for the game. He had four players on an “off the books mission” in Egypt. The demo showed just how destructive the battlefield of the future could be with imagined but realistic weaponry for taking out both humans and robots. Treyarch also showed an example of multiplayer combat, and that PlayStation players will be the first to see downloadable map packs in the future.
Back in April, 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. Now Activision is revealing even more at the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) game-industry tradeshow in Los Angeles.
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 (short for 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?
Fans of the previous Black Ops (2010) and Black Ops II (2012) games should like where Activision is going with the third. The 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 3-in-1 deal: a single-player campaign (which four players can now take on together), multiplayer combat, and a co-op zombie shooting fest.
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 to 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 a lesser role in the fiction thanks to the creation of a 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 one 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.
Zombies are back
Black Ops III has a Zombies co-op mode, where up to four players can splatter hordes of undead in increasingly difficult rounds of combat. Treyarch didn’t show off any of the Zombies gameplay, but you’ll be able to access the same set of futuristic weapons and boost jumps in this mode. That means you’ll be far more lethal than you were in Black Ops II.
For the first time, you’ll be able to rank up in a ladder, similar to the statistics-obsessed multiplayer mode. Zombies will have its own full player XP progression system that will add a lot more replayability, Lamia said.
Treyarch added a Zombies mode to its Call of Duty: World at War game in 2008 as an Easter egg, and it has been adding this ever since because it’s fun. It has nothing to do with the fiction of Call of Duty, but fans love it, Lamia said, and now the team can’t make a game without it.
“It has become part of a signature brand,” he said. “We’ll have mind-fuckery, and a unique storytelling system in Zombies,” he said.
Hands-on multiplayer experience
Treyarch and Activision will show off multiplayer combat at E3. That is one of the benefits of having a three-year cycle for the design.
It 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.
But 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 the Outrider carries a bow with explosive-tipped arrows.
Treyarch has now introduced a “guns up” movement system that allows you to fire while doing all sorts of movement tricks like thrust-jumping, running on walls, power-sliding, and even swimming underwater. I found it easy to pick up these moves, and I felt like I could do a lot better in combat than in Advanced Warfare or the Modern Warfare series.
You can chain these motions together and do some tricky maneuvers. And to keep it all fluid, Treyarch has paid careful attention to the link between combat, movement, and map design, Bunting said. You still pick 10 different customizations, but now you can have five attachments per gun instead of three.
The gameplay is fast, but it’s also slower in respects compared to the Modern Warfare series, and it still favors “scorestreaks” for actions that benefit a whole team, rather than just “killstreaks.” You’ll also have a “gunsmith” editor where you’ll be able to create your own emblems and show them off. You can layer on 64 different layers on an emblem and paint three sides of a gun.
It’s all designed to allow players to make “moment to moment” decisions in combat, said David Vonderhaar, the director of design at Treyarch.
I found it easy to stay alive and shoot from the abundant cover in maps to rack up the kills. But I also saw the value in constantly moving and chaining together movement tricks.
With Black Ops III, Treyarch demonstrates once again that it can provide a different experience from Infinity Ward, which is working on its new Ghosts franchise; and Sledgehammer, which is at work on the next Advanced Warfare game. The three-year cycle is just what players needed to get more variety in the series, and it offers the best chance Activision has to keep Call of Duty sales from sagging.
I’m looking forward to hearing more about Black Ops III, including details such as its ship date, platform support, Zombies fiction, the single-player plot, the main characters, and the multiplayer progression system.
But Treyarch has already told us more information and given more hands-on play than we’ve ever had this early on. It’s clear that it’s a lot different from other games in the series, and that gives me confidence that this is going to be an outstanding game.