Call of Duty: Black Ops 3 Hands-On Preview – Revolutionizing the Brand

If you know me, you know that I’m not traditionally a Call of Duty fan. I respect the brand, but I’m not sold on the name alone. The campaigns have been entertaining, but I’ve never fallen into the deep obsession with online multiplayer that many associate with the Call of Duty franchise. As a yearly iteration, it’s easy to write each one off as “just another CoD” game, but it’s also easy to forget that there are three developers, each working on distinctly different games within the Call of Duty brand. This year, it’s Treyarch.

Before I jump into talking about the game, I think it’s vital to talk about the creators. Treyarch is a team of incredibly passionate people, and the opportunity to hear about Black Ops III directly from the team behind it was an awesome experience. Treyarch released Black Ops II in 2012 and have been hard at work on Black Ops III in the two and a half years since. It’s important to remember that this year’s Call of Duty is not a yearly iteration evolving off of 2014’s release of Advanced Warfare. It’s a game that’s been being lovingly incubated by the team at Treyarch as the deepest and richest Call of Duty game we’ve ever seen, and from my time at the studio, it’s obvious that they plan to deliver on that promise.

Three Games in One

Between the campaign, multiplayer, and zombies, and the level of work and detail being put into each one, Black Ops III could be seen as three games shipping in one package.There’s a little something here for everyone, and Treyarch Studio Head Mark Lamia said that the ability to easily transition from one mode to another is a top priority, creating a sort of “Black Ops III OS” and social system that houses the three modes. While at Treyarch, I got a hands-off preview of one mode, hands-on with another one, and nothing more than a tease for the third.

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Campaign Gameplay Preview

The future is a grim place, where tech augments are commonplace, and soldiers who have lost limbs tend to be more effective on the battlefield with their robotic replacements. DNI stands for Direct Neural Interface, and allows access to a soldiers brain to offer control over computer systems, robotic implementations, as well as precision coordination with their team. Following a the biggest information leak in history, a Black Ops team goes dark, and you are sent in to find out what happened. Details beyond this are being kept closely guarded, but if you played the first two games, you know that Treyarch is more capable of a very twisted narrative that breaks from the expectations of a traditional shooter game. The wry smile on Campaign Director Jason Blundell’s face each time he hinted at narrative elements is enough to have me eager to see what’s in store. 

The campaign preview was hands off, though they gave us a very good feel for how they are working to completely shake up the traditional Call of Duty campaign and give players something less on-rails, with more open areas and a disturbing narrative, as expected from a Black Ops title. The most surprising part? The campaign features four player online co-op. 

Black Ops III is being designed from the ground up to accommodate four players. Environments are more open and far less linear than we’ve seen in previous Call of Duty games to account for the possibility of four people in any area. In addition, a new AI system analyzes players’ positions, other enemies’ positions, and the environment to provide unique combat based on the positioning of every piece on the board. Instead of being scripted encounters that are the same time and again, the emergent AI will adjust based on these factors, offering new challenges and allowing you to adopt new strategies each time you play. We got to see this in action in a level called Ramses Station. The action appeared natural for all four players, and the area was more than big enough to oblige each one.

Black Ops 3_Ramses Station_Quad Tank

Black Ops III will have a full and robust customization system, allowing you to make your player uniquely yours, which is important when you have three other people with you. Cyber Cores and Cyber Rigs are new additions to Black Ops III, with the former giving you abilities such as hacking robotics or a swarm of robots known as “fireflies,” and the latter providing passive upgrades for movement and defense. There are over 40 abilities, all of which are able to be upgraded, and can give a huge diversity to groups of players.

And speaking of diversity, at the roundtable interview with the team, we discovered that your player character can be either male or female, and they did a full capture of the game for each character model, as well as narratively addressing both the different genders and the ability to play with up to four players, again, all hinted at with a smile that indicated there was so much more to this disturbing narrative that they could not reveal right now.

Damn you and your cryptic smile, Jason Blundell! 

One of our big problems with Advanced Warfare was that all of the cool advanced tech that you could use was limited to specific levels or events, really highlighting how linear and on-rails the game was. Treyarch has said that the upgrades and progression in Black Ops III will be level agnostic, meaning that you can use any ability at any point in the game, even if you join a friend who is at an earlier place in the campaign. The progression system when mixed with the fully four player co-op campaign means that there is more replayability here than Call of Duty has had in its campaign modes before. I can’t help but think of this campaign as Call of Duty influenced by Borderlands, and yes, before you ask, there is split screen for all modes in the game, and you can take your split screen online. 

In between each stage there is a safehouse. This is a social space where you can customize your bunk, display your accomplishments, and check out the game’s wiki to discover more information about the world and story in Black Ops III, including information all the way back to the original Black Ops game. Mark Lamia indicated that more information on social spaces will be revealed later this year. 

Hands-On Multiplayer Preview

Before setting us loose on the array of PlayStation 4s running a pre-alpha build of the multiplayer, Game Director Dan Bunting and Studio Design Director David Vonderhaar gave us an overview of how this year’s Call of Duty multiplayer has changed. Instead of seeking to simply improve on what they did with Black Ops II (which is the most played Call of Duty game ever), they sought to reexamine every system in the game at its core and revolutionize the multiplayer mechanics to achieve their philosophy of “guns up” as well as maintaining a momentum within all of the systems at play. 

Traversal of the environment has been improved with unlimited sprint. It may sound like a basic thing, but it really changes the way the the matches flow when you get your hands on the game. In addition to this, mantles over objects are now automatic and multidirectional, meaning that you can mantle forward, backward, or to either side while strafing, and you don’t have to stop to press a button to do so. During the mantle, your gun won’t go down either. You retain full control of your weapon as you vault objects and ledges. Keep this in mind. You’ll notice a trend. 

Black Ops III features a thrust jump. Don’t get this confused with the Exo jump from lat year’s outing. Thrust is governed by a meter and a small thrust pack on your back, which allows for more analog control and directionality than Advanced Warfare’s Exo jump mechanic. This can be chained with the auto-mantle, so if you hit a ledge, you will climb it, all while maintaining your momentum and all with your gun up. 

Previous Black Ops I and II players will remember the ability to dive to prone, or Dolphin Dive, as many called it. With Black Ops III, they have changed this to a forward power slide, using the thrust pack on your back. Once again, this allows you to have full control of your gun while in the slide, and the ability to change directions  mid-slide.

As if that’s not enough, there’s also a wall run that is able to be chained to other wall runs, and still allows full control of your weapon. Oh, and swimming. Yup, there’s swimming, which, once again, allows full control of your gun and a whole new play space in multiplayer combat. 

All of these systems can be chained together to maintain momentum, and man, does it feel good. Treyarch have really outdone themselves with keeping the everything flowing. You can thrust jump out of water. You can land a jump into a power slide. You can wall run into a jump, into another wall run and then jump into the water to either escape or surprise the opposing team.

The levels are built with these movement systems in mind. Walls and water are added to the traditional ground based paths, and in traditional Call of Duty fashion, Black Ops III is looking to have some awesome and fun multiplayer map design. The three that I played offered a great mix of walls to run on, water to swim in, objects to mantle, and great paths that always promoted head-to-head engagement between players, rather than allowing people to get sideswiped or shot in the back. Balance is the key in PvP modes, and even in its pre-alpha state, Black Ops III seems to be in a great place. 

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The movement system isn’t all that’s new. New to Call of Duty with Black Ops III are the Specialists. At the start of each match,players now pick from nine Black Ops soldiers, each one having their own look, personality, weapon, and ability. You then must select either the weapon or ability use during that match, and it charges up for use, much like special abilities in Borderlands or Destiny. Death does not reset this charge. This adds a level of play in between traditional weapon combat and scorestreaks, opening up the multiplayer for those players that may not be hardcore enough players to consistently land scorestreaks and allowing them to feel a surge of power. 

Though we’ve only seen four of the nine Specialists (Ruin, Seraph, Outrider, and Reaper), the variety of special weapons and abilities that are offered do a lot to change the pacing of traditional gunplay. Ruin’s Gravity Spikes give him a ground pound sort of shockwave attack, killing any enemies in its proximity, where his overdrive ability will offer a significant burst of speed that is great in capture the flag modes. Outrider uses Sparrow, a compound bow with explosive bolts. Reaper is a robot with the glitch ability, which sends him back to the position he was in approximately six seconds earlier. It’s important to choose the right Specialist and ability before the match starts, because you are locked with your selection until the next match. I had a ton of fun with Ruin’s Gravity Spikes, especially when coupled with a leap into a crowd from a wall run. 

Then there’s the customization. In addition to global and weapon XP, players can customize the appearance and upgrade each Specialist, and there’s a deeper weapon customization system called the Gunsmith. The Gunsmith allows players to personalize and change to different variant aesthetics for every gun attachment, as well as camos and a custom 64 layer Paintshop for each side and the back of every gun. Black Ops III takes the ability to personalize each aspect of the multiplayer to a level never seen before in Call of Duty

Black Ops 3_Ramses Station_Street Battle

The multiplayer is something that you really just have to get your hands on to understand how much fun it can be, so Treyarch is offering a beta to anyone who pre-orders that game. It will also be playable on the show floor at E3 this year, so I’m sure we’ll have a flood of hands-on accounts coming in from players in a couple of months. 

The Zombies Tease

Mark Lamia’s favorite term to use when bringing up Black Ops III’s Zombies mode is “mind-fuckery.” We weren’t given much information, but in addition to a cryptic image of a zombie holding what appears to be a burning tarot card, we were told that this year’s Zombies will feature a full story of its own as well as a full XP progression system. We’ll just have to stay tuned to see what sort of mind-fuckery Mark is talking about, but it seems like we’re going to be in for quite a treat. 

Call of Duty: Black Ops III

Color me very impressed, Treyarch. You’ve taken somebody who is not traditionally a fan of the Call of Duty games and caused me to be eagerly anticipating the release of Black Ops III. Fans of Call of Duty will definitely want to keep their eyes on this game as we get more info over the next six months. If you have a something against the Call of Duty name, put your dislike for the brand aside for a moment, and you just might see something you really like in Black Ops III, as it seeks to not just improve on what’s come before, but completely revolutionize the way we think about Call of Duty

A huge thank you to Treyarch and Activision for their hospitality and allowing me an early look at their coming project. If you have any questions about my time with Black Ops 3, please let me know in the comments below. I will do my best to address all questions that I can. 

Preview reveal event for Call of Duty: Black Ops III held at the Treyarch offices and with travel provided by Activision.