Sometimes you’ve got to just come out and say the unsayable: Black Ops is the secret best Call Of Duty series. It’s the series that gave Treyarch (previously considered a ‘B-team’ studio that dutifully filled in the gaps in Infinity Ward’s schedule) the chance to break out and make its own mark on the COD brand, and it didn’t just grasp the opportunity it dual-wielded it.
In Black Ops III, high-tech ‘bio-augmentations’ give you unparalleled control over your body in the most open and freeform Call Of Duty to date. We travel to developer Treyarch to test this bold step forward first-hand…
Indeed, you could easily make the argument that thanks to the success of the Black Ops series, Treyarch, more than any other of the studios in Activision’s stable, is the one that’s truly spearheading Call Of Duty’s future direction.


Not sure you agree? Then consider all the various features, modes and innovations that that first took a bow in Treyarch’s previous Black Ops entries the ‘Pick 10’ system, which gives players the flexibility to pick a loadout that suits them by sacrificing weapons and perk slots they don’t use and reallocating their points towards beefing up the ones that they do.  Customisable face camouflage. Theater mode, which enabled players to record their matches and then share them with an audience, long before Twitch was even a thing on consoles.

And then, of course, there’s Zombies the cult survival mode with a surreal edge, that actually first appeared in Treyarch’s COD: World At War, but was popularised in the Black Ops franchise to the extent that it now celebrates equal billing with the series’ big campaign and multiplayer modes.

Despite this, Zombies is pretty much the  only thing Treyarch isn’t willing to talk about during our hands-on session with Call Of Duty: Black Ops III at the studio’s glass palace HQ in Santa Monica, California. Except, that is, to say that it will be returning, with the intriguing tagline ‘Only The Cursed Survive’, and that it will feature an XP-led progression system, significantly expanding on the replayability of its single-player offering.

Treyarch might have boarded up the windows to its latest Zombies experience, but the doors for the other two thirds of Black Ops III’s three-punch combo campaign and multiplayer are wide open. In particular, the studio’s keen to impress that, because Activision has given the developer three years to make Black Ops III (a full year longer than either of its predecessors), the team has had the time to completely deconstruct the game down to its bare bones in order to determine what parts of Call Of Duty are essential to series’ success. And, on the flip side, which parts are simply detritus that have been rolled up into the franchise’s makeup year after year, and remained simply because it had always been that way.

“What is the secret sauce that makes Call Of Duty’s multiplayer work?” asks game director Dan Bunting. “It’s not one thing it’s lots of little things combined together. We wanted to break some of the rules we ourselves had invented.”

To do this, the team spent several painstaking months switching off every last perk, weapon and skill in turn, to determine which elements were essential and which were dead weight. Their findings informed the design in dramatic ways. In particular, how your soldier moves around the environment, and how he or she interacts with it. Treyarch’s initial wish was to make locomotion as fluid and intuitive as possible, freeing the player’s brainspace to concentrate on what really matters: the gunplay.
“Sprint may be infinite, but the rest of your abilities are Based on meters.”
To that end, players now have unlimited sprint there are no longer perks such as Marathon, so you can happily bomb around the map like Forrest Gump without ever running out of puff. You can duck in and out of interiors without losing momentum, too when approaching low-level cover, players can simply run towards it and bound over it with a well-timed jump, removing the need for awkward button prompts. The change makes it easier to transition between interiors and exteriors, and the new maps use this fact playfully.

Treyarch D’triomphe
Hunted, for example, is a big-game hunting lodge located in the rugged terrain of Ethiopia. Important chokepoints are separated by hollowed-out outposts, and the new auto-mantle system actively encourages you to nip in and out of these buildings and use them as shortcuts to out-flank your opposition. It’s intuitive, fun and proves this is the way it should have been all along.

Before we move on, another quick word on Hunted the map’s dominant feature is a lush waterfall that cascades down towards the centre of the map, creating a lake. In previous Call Of Duty games, this would have caused an impasse, but in Black Ops III, you can hop right in and resume the battle beneath the surface. (Although only for a limited time you only have so much oxygen.) Underwater, all your weapons and equipment work as normal, so as far as we can tell. Yes, it’s something of a gimmick, but it’s one which allows players to lie (well, tread water) in wait before breaching the surface and launching a surprise attack on any unwitting landlubbers passing by.

Sprint may be unlimited, but the remainder of the new special abilities are governed by individual power meters. These meters limit each skill’s duration, but not how many different skills can you string together, one after another. Like Black Ops II and Advanced Warfare before it, Black Ops III is set in the future, and this means your powers once again border on the fantastical. Cybernetic augmentations are Black Ops III’s jam and they see the COD series veer ever closer into the realm of EA’s mech shooter, Titanfall.

To match Advanced Warfare’s Exo Boost, there’s the Thrust Jump essentially, this is a double jump technique that allows you to reach the higher echelons of the maps without using laughable early 21st century tech such as ladders. In practice, however, it’s far more versatile than Advanced Warfare’s one-note double-bound. You can chain together multiple ‘flutter-jumps’ into a single leap for as long as the meter will allow, and you can change direction mid-flight like a ’90s platforming hero.

Things get more interesting still if you jump towards a flat vertical surface at an angle your soldier will wall-run across it, again for as long as its analogue meter will allow, giving rise to easy transitioning between high ground and low without breaking your stride. It’s even possible, we discover during one panicked exchange, to leap out of a wall-run, do a 180° turn in mid-air and leg it back whence we came.

Finally, there’s the power slide. We’re going to miss using Black Ops I and II’s ‘dolphin dive’ to flop all over the shop, but it was an essentially useless technique. In its place is a far more offensively-minded way to transition to a lower stance: a foot-first slide, again restricted by a power meter, which enables you to change direction mid-skid (even around 90° bends).

The main benefit to the feet-first stance is something it shares with the Thrust Jump and wall-run you keep your gun in front of you at all times, meaning you’re never defenceless. Indeed, while wall-running, you can even aim down your weapon’s sights.

It means you’ve got the tools to terrorise the opposition at all times no matter what you’re doing. And online maps play up to these new abilities, enabling you to chain them together almost indefinitely, like a Tony Hawk combo run.

Another multiplayer map we test, this one named Combine, is set on a sustainable farming complex in the Egyptian Sahara. It’s packed with futuristic solar panel designs that come in the kind of shapes and arrangements that would make Tony Hawk dribble down his Rip Curl tee. During the few hours we’re running loose inside multiplayer, we find that old conservative COD habits are hard to break but once we learn the lay of the land and begin to experiment, we discover that the new locomotion systems open up a whole new world of opportunities to rain death down on foes.

Black Ops III’s cybernetic enhancements make Advanced Warfare’s Exo abilities seem like blunt tools in comparison. Thanks to these skills, you’re in complete control of your soldier’s body at all time. What, you’d be justified in thinking, is the storyline reason behind having this degree of control? The answer lies in something the Black Ops series has relished doing since its very inception: messing with your mind.

Brainwashing, confusion and misdirection are the bedrocks on which the Black Ops trilogy’s twisting storyline is built. Remember Alex Mason? We haven’t seen someone have that much problem with ‘the numbers’ since, well, since we last tried to change our gas tariff.

And even before Black Ops III was officially announced, the signs were clear: that the three-quel would continue the series’ proud tradition of mind-screw-ery. In early April, players who logged in to Black Ops II’s multiplayer were surprised to find that the long-dormant game had received a shock update.
“The new power meters give you The tools to terrorise at all times.”
At first, it seemed like nothing had changed until eagle-eyed sleuths found the Snapchat equivalent of QR codes dotted around various maps. When scanned in, each of these codes took us to the account of a ‘Dr Salim’ and each video contained tranquil imagery overlaid with the same numbers that gave Mason the shakes back in 2010.

Cairo-Maniacs
And wouldn’t you know it? A certain ‘Dr Salim’ is a key figure in a single-player level that Treyarch walks us through. Some background, before we launch in: the plot takes place shortly after the cataclysmic events of Black Ops II. In that game, a miscreant named Raul Menendez managed to hack into the United States’ defences and turn their own, highly-robotisied army against them.

As a result, the US and her allies have invested money and time into renovating that most unhackable of weapons the troops on the ground. Elite soldiers are equipped with subdermal implants that connect directly to their spines, allowing them complete control over their body from the speed at which they heal, to their hand-to-eye co-ordination, to how they regulate their adrenaline levels. The result is that these soldiers are ultimate fighting machines and, better yet, are completely unhackable. Or are they?

“Sorry, I must have blanked out there”. Our hero’s opening line foreshadows the answer to that question someone, somewhere is interfering with his/her (we’ll get to that) implant, and thus their consciousness, it seems.

If we were a betting magazine, we’d put our pennies on a certain Dr Salim who, not co-incidentally, we have an appointment with as the level begins. We’re on the Ramses Station, a hulking, ugly defence facility that towers imposingly over the calm dunes on the edge of Cairo City, Egypt. Dr Salim is a prisoner, and we’re here to interrogate him.

But no sooner do we reach his holding cell, than our hero begins to black out again. When he or she comes to, we discover Salim has bolted, and a terrorist group has used the manufactured confusion to attempt to move in and threaten the troubled Egyptian capital.

And so the action spills out onto the streets for our first taste of the traditional Call Of Duty gunplay, Black Ops III-style. In some years, we’d be at a loss for new things to point out to you, but not this time. One of the first things you’ll notice is the things at which you’re pointing your gun aren’t necessarily human. Bipedal robots make up a healthy population of the enemy ranks, and this new foe poses challenges that are quite unique within the COD universe.

Firstly, they’re far more tenacious, being untroubled by pain or bleeding out or any of that shoot off their legs and they’ll continue to crawl towards your location, spewing laser death as they go. Secondly, their AI behaviour is quite different to the fleshy rank and file. They’re not so bothered about self-preservation, and will gladly try to rush you in suicidal phalanx formations in an attempt to overwhelm you. On the plus side, they clatter into bits in a most satisfying manner when they fall someone’s clearly been taking notes from Sega’s Binary Domain.

Once the final robot collapses in a smoldering heap of nuts and bolts, we find time to survey our surroundings and are surprised to find that the levels are around three times larger than the pokey ‘corridors’ we’ve become accustomed to in the series’ past.

COD is famed for delivering a very prescribed, very Hollywood style of combat, with carefully managed set-pieces that frame the action and make sure you’re always experiencing what the director wants you to see. Black Ops III sees the action open up into larger areas, and actively encourages ‘off-rails’ behaviour, with players identifying the path they want to take to blast on through to the next checkpoint.

The real reason Treyarch has crafted these huge, open areas, however, represents a returning feature from World At War: you can play the entire campaign in co-op with three other recruits over PSN. Gather three extra players and the balancing shifts accordingly enemy AI now understands that it has extra targets to keep track of and will start to anticipate flanking tactics, while simultaneously ramping up the hostility to counteract the greater number of humans posing a threat. (If you die, teammates have a short window to revive you. If all four human players bleed out, it’s back to the last checkpoint you go.)

Let’s revisit to those subdermal implants we mentioned earlier. Seems we undersold them slightly. They don’t just give you heightened control over your own body they enable you to directly link with your surroundings thanks to a range of cybernetic modifications that can be made between levels in an explorable hub called the Safe House. Here, you can also customise your soldier, read up on in-game fiction, or access the game’s yet-to-be-revealed social features.

You can bolt two different types of modification onto your soldier. Cyber Cores are your offensive skills. With one you can remotely hack an enemy drone and turn it against its creators. Another allows you to chain together melee strikes. A third Cyber Core enables you to go full-on Bioshock, firing a swarm of robotic fireflies that immolate anyone they can overpower, and generally cause chaos and confusion among the enemy ranks.
“You can, once again, play the campaign in four-player co-op.”
Cyber Rigs, meanwhile, are more passive upgrades, providing a range of defensive and movement upgrades to your soldier. Black Ops III is built for replayability in a way that previous Call Of Dutys were not you can replay earlier levels at any time using Cyber Cores or Rigs that weren’t available first time, opening up new pathways and possibilities. Don’t expect a repeat of Black Ops II’s branching storylines, however Treyarch is concentrating on telling just the one story this time round.

Specialist K
Before we go, we need to address that whole ‘his or her’ thing, don’t we? Well, we’re not sure what’s become of the Alex Mason gang, but the lead character in Black Ops III is… you. Or, to be more precise, your customised loadouts, weapons and costumes, built on top of one of one of nine default avatars. These nine ‘Specialists’ also return in multiplayer, and each has two special abilities one offensive and one defensive. You have to choose just one of these powers before each round, and then build your loadout around this ability.

We chronicle the four announced Specialists and their powers on the right (see Specialist Attractions), so let’s just get stuck into how the system works, and why it’s there. The Specialists feature is designed to give even the lamest COD player an opportunity to access the equivalent of a high-end scorestreak at least once per round. Your Specialist ability is accessed when a slow-filling meter in the bottom right-hand corner of the screen maxes out. Even if you don’t move, it will fill up in four minutes.

Skilful players can accelerate the meter’s growth with kills, assists and the like, meaning good performances are still rewarded. Once the meter is full, you can activate it by pressing  L1 and  R2. Sound familiar, Destiny players? Depending on the skill, the meter either depletes over time or with usage, and if you die, you’ve blown it.

It’s a great addition. The breadth of powers available (18 in total come launch) gives you further agency to customise your playing style and bolster your strengths. Rubbish players get a chance to feel useful at least once per round, and expert players can bank a formidable skill that they can save up for extra fun as a round builds to a climax.

An awful lot has changed for this year’s entry, but the key takeaway is that Black Ops III continues the FPS multiplayer sphere’s general trend of ramping up the speed, fluidity and energy of its skirmishes, while continuing to promote a playing style that favours kineticism over camping. And that Treyarch has managed to do so without compromising the ‘feel’ of Call Of Duty is plain messing with our heads. But then, that’s what Black Ops does best, isn’t it?

Carbinecraft
How the new Gunsmith mode enables you to build your dream weapon
Multiplayer loadouts still use the ‘pick 10‘ system first introduced in Black Ops II you can sacrifice, say, a grenade or your secondary weapon for an extra perk or weapon attachment, and vice versa. But amid the tinkering chaos it’s easy to lose your favourite weapon set-up as attachments fly in and out of favour in the search for the perfect set-up.

Step forward Gunsmith mode, which offers a chance to save a favourite weapon, along with your preferred optics and attachments, so you can instantly introduce it into an experimental loadout. here in Gunsmith, you can also customise three separate sides of a gun with up to 64 layers of decals per side, meaning we should see some really intricate cannabis leaves in month one… additionally,
you can tweak weapon camo and give it a name. We called ours ‘Steve’.