The final day of the Call of Duty Black Ops III beta had caused me to place rather careful consideration on how far the series has come and where the latest installment fits in with that. Is Black Ops III here to revolutionize the franchise? Within moments of hands-on time with the game, the clear answer to that is no. Black Ops III doesn’t seek to reinvent what we’ve come to know Call of Duty as, by the end of the first match it’s very evident that the game intends to offer a very similar experience to what fans have come to expect, but as it turns out, that’s alright.
Everything is liable to feel pretty much as you remember it. The controls are incredibly responsive, and your player character sort of bounces around the map as if some super-commando, capable of running and gunning down just about anyone unlucky enough to be caught off guard. At a basic level it’s simple, accessible and enjoyable, yet with very apparent room for strategy and depth for those that like to take their game to the next level.
The exo suit abilities from Advanced Warfare are still present, however these take a different form allowing you to extend your jump height, or traverse the maps more dynamically with wall running, and these replace the rather erratic dashing mechanic that featured in Advanced Warfare. This simple shift in design leads to marginally less twitch-orientated gameplay, affording an increased focus on tactics and precision. It’s a positive change for the franchise and a return to the more grounded gameplay that fans of earlier installments will find very welcoming.
For some the lack of innovation may be off putting, but it’s easy to see why many will take comfort that the Call of Duty experience they’re fond of, still exists in the latest installments of the game. Sure, Black Ops III offers a number of new features such as the ability to select a specialist, each with their own, unique ability, however these are gimmicks that offer very minor modification of the games core mechanics. For instance, instead of a killstreak featuring dogs that hunt and attack your opponents, you can get a army of explosive robots that roll around and kill whatever comes in their proximity. Comically however, these robots are slower and less efficient than the dogs were, but in either case they serve as a good example of how developer Treyarch have focused on offering a gameplay experience that veterans will find immediately familiar.
A smarter Call of Duty
While many features see only minor revisions or alternatives rather than necessarily objective improvements, it should be noted that Black Ops does make a number of changes that can be considered to objectively improve the experience. A switch from peer to peer connectivity to dedicated servers on the the console versions of the game has a significant effect on the how the game handles while online, and specifically how consistent the game feels when engaging in gunfights with other players. During my time with the Black Ops 3 beta I had far less instances of ‘how the hell did that happen’, with gunplay feeling more legitimately skill influenced rather than the result of connection quality. This is a big step in the right direction for anyone that likes to take their first person shooters seriously, as it drastically improves the validity of competitive gameplay when playing Black Ops 3 online.
Additionally, my experience indicated that Treyarch had taken a considerably better approach to map design than featured in Call of Duty’s recent installments. While the flow and pacing of an individual match is far from predictable, I found it much easier to be able to pinpoint likely chokepoints and enemy locations due to more consistent spawning, and spawn displacement. Within just a small number of games I was able to predict where enemies would spawn based on my team mates current locations and this increased the frequency of head to head gunfights, reducing the number of instances where enemies would spawn on my flank, or directly behind me. This felt like a definite improvement over Advanced Warfare, as matches felt fairer, and as a result much more enjoyable to participate in.
Despite noting all of this these improvements and similarities noted, very little of Call of Duty’s design matters at this stage. Without offering an especially horrendous gameplay experience this and the next Call of Duty game will fly off the shelves until the series sees more substantial competition. Consumers globally have expressed a very evident desire to to invest time and money into a military focused first person shooter, and aside from the less frequent installments in the Battlefield series, gamers have very limited choices when attempting to satisfy that need. The Call of Duty franchise is one of the few intellectual properties able to capitalize on this target demographic, and that popularity can be argued to stem more from its history and position in the market, than quality when viewed independently. It’s fortunate then, that Activation and Treyarch have chosen not to abuse this position as they have in previous years (Call of Duty Ghosts), and are instead attempting to push out a product that shows notable improvements on its predecessors. Black Ops III still looks and feels like almost every other installment in the franchise, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing considering the progressive nature of the changes featured. Black Ops III is still Call of Duty, but it’s trying to be a better Call of Duty and that’s worthy of some recognition.