Black Ops III and the Call of Duty Problem

In thirty to forty-five minute bursts, Call of Duty: Black Ops III is an absolute blast. All of the new moves in its movement system feel like real improvements to Advanced Warfare and there’s something to be said for engaging underwater firefights and battles that occur when two players are running on a wall. Its brand new game mode, Safeguard, in which players are tasked with escorting a robot from Point A to Point B, embodies the frantic chaos and insane firefights that make the Call of Duty franchise a bucket of dumb fun. Yes, Call of Duty takes a step forward, something that a franchise now in its twelve major installment definitely needs, but I can’t help but wonder if a leap is actually what’s necessary. The problem with Black Ops III is that it’s still loaded with the moments that, while core to the franchise, feel a bit antiquated due to sheer repetition.

The issue with newer games in the franchise, notably Advanced Warfare and now Black Ops III, is that, while their momentum gimmicks are exciting and change the formula, these feel added onto the core Call of Duty experience rather than features of their respective titles themselves. Granted, Call of Duty games are supposed to feel like Call of Duty games, but for this franchise to escape the sales plateau it finds itself on, there have to be some major changes. The thing is, these major changes are starting to be made, but it’s taking way too long. There’s a certain level of evolution that comes from tweaking the class system, adding double jumps and inserting wall-running, but these tweaks are coming over multiple titles. It almost feels like Activision and the three development teams that rotate year over year want to make a game that feels novel but are too scared to do so.

The biggest problem with Call of Duty is that we’ve played so much of it over the years, that it doesn’t take long for the standard ground-based gameplay to feel bland. Sure, this is a franchise that arguably sports the strongest core shooting mechanics in the entire industry, but there is something to be said for fatigue. Black Ops III is super exciting when you’re jumping around the map, shooting guys while in mid air, and using certain wall-running points to quickly gain a positional advantage, but these moments aren’t as frequent as you would hope. The Beta’s included maps feel like they’ve been designed to allow players to wall-run occasionally, but there isn’t the momentum-focused level design that made Titanfall so fun last March. Of course, there is a massive amount of content for players to enjoy, which certainly makes this a more exciting offering than Respawn’s debut title, but Black Ops III‘s highs aren’t nearly as high. There is still ample opportunity for camping, slow-paced firefights and stationary play, which makes this iteration of Call of Duty feel one step away from greatness.

With that said, there are still some interesting additions that make Call of Duty: Black Ops III unique. The MOBA-esque idea of playable Specialists is downright brilliant, as the countdown-based special ability that each character has (which feels like an idea that’s directly inspired by Titanfall‘s Titan countdown) allow every player to get a taste of what a scorestreak can feel like, regardless of skill. Of course, there are a select few Specialists who feel particularly overpowered, most notably Nomad who can have the ability to instantly respawn in place after dying (constant reloaders beware). In general, there’s a sense of experimentation and excitement that comes from cycling through different Specialists, and the cost of entry for trying out a new one is merely one Unlock Token, which is earned through leveling up a single time. It does remain to be seen whether or not Activision will exploit this awesome idea for profit with Specialist DLC purchases, as this market seems ripe for overpriced microtransactions.

Black Ops 3_Specialist Battery
The good news for longtime Call of Duty fans is that the Black Ops III Beta feels novel enough to last the community for the next year, but those who have fallen away from the franchise won’t necessarily find the brand new idea to hook them back in. Whether or not cooperative campaign gameplay will be exciting enough to create a lasting community on that end remains to be seen, though my suspicion is that this will be incredibly popular at first and downright barren by the end of its life cycle. The hope here is that its technical issues (there is a fair bit of lag that has made certain games downright unplayable) will be ironed out when the full game releases on November 6 and there will be more maps that emphasize momentum over camping. As it stands now, Black Ops III feels like a game that is trying to prevent people from leaving rather than one aiming to hook a new generation of diehards.