There is something powerfully familiar about Call of Duty: Black Ops 3. No, I’m not talking about the formula that the franchise has been refining since it struck gold last generation with Modern Warfare. I’m talking about how aware Black Ops 3 feels of the landscape that first person shooters exist on, and how much it draws inspiration from those emerging flavors to craft an experience that feels both comfortable and exciting at the same time. It isn’t without issues, many of which are beasts of a nature Call of Duty hasn’t wrestled with before, but after a weekend with the Black Ops 3 beta on PlayStation 4, I walked away feeling cautiously optimistic about Call of Duty’s future, which is more than I have felt in a good long while.
In many ways, Black Ops 3 is a natural progression in the direction that last year’s Advanced Warfare started. Now, I’ll admit this right off the bat: I jumped off the Call of Duty train back at Modern Warfare 2. At that point, I was spooked by Call of Duty’s persistence on producing a new game on a yearly cycle. And even though I enjoyed Modern Warfare 2 immensely, I quickly soured on the concept of buying a new one every year. Stuffed with my helpings of Call of Duty’s brand of frantic arcade action, I was now in the market for more thoughtful and realistic shooters.
In that way, Black Ops 3 hasn’t changed in the slightest: It is still the frantic twitch-based gunplay that has remained at the root of the series since it shed its World War 2 skin to embrace the modern era. If you’re a fan of the opposite end of the shooter spectrum, occupied by the likes of EA’s Battlefield games and lesser known but equally amazing games like Insurgency and Arma, Black Ops 3 is not making any strides to try and win you over. Instead, this version of Call of Duty feels like a doubling down—an “all in” approach to the frenetic gunplay and combat blitz that bombards your senses like a drone strike.
Where Advanced Warfare took Call of Duty to a future not so far away, Black Ops 3 pushes the setting even deeper into the realm of military science fiction. Characters range from foul-mouthed, cigar-chomping women to good old fashioned androids (or some form of robot). While guns are future-analogues of contemporary weaponry, the soldiers wielding them are one red cape away from being superheroes.
Perhaps the biggest change to the series, and where Black Ops 3 immediately betrays its vision of borrowing what other shooters do well, is the inclusion of Specialists. Instead of playing as generic gun-toting soldiers, Black Ops 3 has you adopt the skin of one of almost a dozen different characters, each with their own special abilities and personality. If you’ve played Destiny, you’re already going to be familiar with how Black Ops 3 multiplayer works. Unlike Destiny, however, you aren’t locked into one class. You’re free to switch around between each specialist and their abilities between matches.
Each specialist isn’t defined by their eye-rolling lines of dialogue, but in their special abilities—of which each hero possesses two that they can choose between. When enough points are earned during the course of a multiplayer match, you’ll be able to trigger this ability which should, in theory, give you an edge over your enemies. These abilities can range from Outrider’s ability to emit a pulse which reveals enemy locations within her vicinity to Battery, our resident cigar-chomper, who can activate armor that deflects bullets for a short time (but still leaves her open to pesky headshots). The era of playing Call of Duty as a random lackey is over—teams now consist of combinations of these specific characters.
But while this departure might seem too grand for Call of Duty purists, it also adds an immense layer of complexity over multiplayer matches. With each specialist packing one of their two abilities, you can never be fully assured that your foe doesn’t have a trump card up their sleeve. That said, I have some serious doubts about how these abilities will stack up to one another once Black Ops 3 is out in the wild this fall. While I applaud the developer, Treyarch, abandoning the weight of balance that has been dragging the series down for so many years, I won’t be surprised to see players largely gravitate to only a handful of specialists and abilities. Outrider’s ability to see through a wall, for example, seems far superior to Prophet’s Tempest, which gives him a gun that fires arcs of electricity that can chain to opponents, both paling in comparison to Nomad who can trigger what basically amounts to a full revive. Of course, this could all be chalked up to how you prefer to play the game, and in that regard, Black Ops 3 should be praised for giving players more choices to approach combat in a method that suits them best.
But these abilities also feed into a much larger issue that I have with Black Ops 3: When everyone is a super soldier, it feels like no one is. With Black Ops 3 taking Call of Duty farther into the future than ever before, it would seem appropriate that Treyarch crammed the game with as much flashy technology as they could imagine. Like all Call of Duty’s, Black Ops 3 maintains the tradition of rewarding players with bonuses for scoring several kills before dying. Doing so offers you a killstreak reward which accents your string of carnage by further eviscerating your foes. Old staples like the UAV drone that reveals enemy positions are back, but they’re also accompanied by a plethora of gadgets designed to kill foes in ever more creative ways. Guided missiles, controlled hover droves packed with explosives, and even autonomous mech soldiers can all be wielded with killer results against enemy players.
While these sound awesome, and using them effectively is certainly a rush, it also feeds into a strong sense of dissatisfaction I have with Black Ops 3. Simply put, with so many effective tools for everyone to kill each other with, Black Ops 3 doesn’t feel like a game that rewards skill at all. During the heat of battle, I was constantly being killed by specialist abilities and killstreaks that I had no control over and no way to defend against. Missiles would rain from overhead, drones would target me with extreme efficiency, and I began to feel that Black Ops 3 was no different that standing in line at butcher shop: Grab a number and wait in line for my time to die.
This itch was further irritated by Black Ops 3’s approach to map design. Now, this is also an area that might largely be accounted for based on taste alone, but I found the four maps showed off during the beta to each be terribly lacking in any sort of discernible flow. In my opinion, a great multiplayer map funnels players towards combat while offering a small handful of alternatives for flanking and gaining an edge. However, my time spent in the Black Ops 3’s maps made me feel that each was nothing more than an endless combination of vulnerable angles. It felt like Treyarch, pursuing some impossible ideal of balance, created each map to have so many interconnecting paths that creating anything close to a meaningful conflict was next to impossible. Instead, fighting was spread out and haphazard, leading to situations where I constantly was getting killed from behind because the lines of battle had shifted imperceptibly during my seven seconds of life. Even in objective-based modes, there was rarely ever a sense of cohesion to the conflict. When you and an opponent both enter the same room, success isn’t determined by which one had the superior positioning or fire pattern. You merely hope that the enemy comes through one of the four different entrances that you happen to be looking at. Guess the wrong door and you’re dead.
Call of Duty often feels like a game where you are constantly in pursuit of some sort of spiritual murderous rhythm. When you are playing well, your string of casualties begins to feel akin to an intricate and tactile musical solo of carnage. But every player can attest to how frustrating Call of Duty feels when you can’t find that rhythm and instead spend the majority of the match watching the replays of your multitude of deaths. It feels like, no matter how hard you try, you just can’t find the beat to play along with, and it is tortuous. My fear is that Black Ops 3, by equipping every player with a series of trump cards that will be in constant play on maps where superior positioning and tactics are thwarted by pure luck and chaos, players will rarely ever find that rhythm. For some, this might not be an issue, but for those who find the siren’s call of perfection in Call of Duty to be a constant motivator, I have to wonder if Black Ops 3 will eventually push them away in search of an easier to obtain sense of satisfaction.
It’s a question that, as much as I hate to say it, won’t ever have a clear answer—not yet anyway. Black Ops 3 injects Call of Duty with new life, building upon the vision established in last year’s Advanced Warfare while infusing it with ideas from other top-notch shooters. But in the process, I worry that all Call of Duty is doing with this new vision for a future-war is trading one set of problems for another. For now, Black Ops 3 has a lot to be excited about, but when it comes to the multiplayer, I can’t help but think that it’s better to face the devil you know than the one you don’t.Related: Activision, Beta, Call of Duty: Black Ops III, Playstation 4, Preview, Shooter