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Black Ops 3: The future of Call of Duty multiplayer

Michael McWhertor is a journalist with more than 17 years of experience covering video games, technology, movies, TV, and entertainment.

The number of people who have played developer Treyarch's Call of Duty games online is staggering.

The company's last two titles, Black Ops and Black Ops 2, are some of the most played online games of the last generation, Treyarch studio head Mark Lamia said during a recent preview event. Almost 100 million players have experienced that game online. Even today, more than 9 million unique players go online with those games each month, he said.

Call of Duty: Black Ops 3 is Treyarch's sixth Call of Duty game, Lamia reminded us during a preview event, and the studio's goal is to — somehow — make the next game feel fresh.

But it will also feel comfortably familiar in ways. Black Ops 3 will build upon the multiplayer combat foundation that Treyarch has laid down over the past 10 years. It will capitalize on Treyarch's experiments and innovations: player classes, player customization, "Pick 10" loadouts, scorestreaks. As it has for the past decade, Treyarch says it wants to focus on "fun, fast, very lethal" combat while rewarding team play.

Treyarch wants to "revolutionize" Call of Duty multiplayer, said Dan Bunting, multiplayer director on Black Ops 3.

"We want to open the lid to all the shit we've worked on," Bunting said. "All the lessons have come together. We want this to feel like the best of Treyarch."


Easily the biggest change coming to Black Ops 3's competitive multiplayer mode is the addition of what Treyarch calls Specialists. Rather than a nameless blank slate of an avatar, Black Ops 3 will let players choose one of nine named characters, each with their own unique weapon, special ability and personality.

That's a design idea that's been going around lately, in in-development competitive games like Blizzard's Overwatch, Bethesda's BattleCry and Gearbox Software's Battleborn. No more faceless, nameless grunts; now you're playing with a character ... with character.

Treyarch's approach is to give each Specialist an ability and weapon that's specific to them, Bunting explained, a decision that will change the way competitive Call of Duty multiplayer is played.

Specialists, Bunting explained, give players who may not have the skill to earn scorestreaks a "sense of power." Each Specialist has their own ability that's part of a charged time mechanic. As you play, it fills up, and accelerates as players score points. When it's charged, players can unleash it by pressing a pair of shoulder buttons on a gamepad.

Treyarch has revealed four of the nine playable specialists, each of which can be leveled up in a separate Specialist progression system.

Call of Duty: Black Ops 3 screenshots

Ruin, pictured above, is the callsign of brawler Donnie Walsh, who was described as headstrong and fearless. He's armed with a pair of gravity spikes, which, when charged, can be slammed into the ground, creating an area-of-effect attack that kills nearby enemies. Ruin's special ability is Overdrive, which gives him a temporary boost of speed. Bunting described him as "a rusher."

Seraph is the nickname of Zhen Zhen, the adopted daughter of a high-ranking military official in the game's fiction. She wields a high-caliber handgun called the Annihilator that Bunting said is "about evaporating people." Her special ability is called Combat Focus, and it accelerates her scorestreak earning potential.

Allesandra Castillo, a member of Brazil's special forces, goes by the callsign Outrider. Her unique weapon is a compound bow and arrow called the Sparrow, which fires explosive bolts. Her special ability is Vision Pulse, a ping that reveals the location of nearby enemies.

Finally, there's Reaper, a combat robot designed by the game's Coalescence Corporation. This advanced military robot can transform its arm into a minigun called the Scythe. Its special ability, Glitch, lets players "flashback" to a previous position — sort of a time travel/teleportation move, and similar to another hero-based shooter character, Overwatch's Tracer.

When players choose their Specialist before a match, they have to choose whether they want access to their special ability or their unique weapon; they don't get access to both. And unlike loadouts, which players can change on the fly, choosing your Specialist and their special ability or weapon is more of a commitment. Like scorestreaks, players can't swap them out until the next match.

Bunting said that Specialist abilities will charge up every four minutes or so, even if the player isn't making kills or completing objectives. The average player, he said, will get access to those special abilities every two minutes, and skilled players may get them in less time.

He cautioned, however, that that information was all based on "pre-pre-alpha" tuning.


There are other big tweaks coming to multiplayer. David Vonderhaar, who also works as multiplayer director on Black Ops 3, said that Treyarch has paid a great deal of attention to improving traversal in the game. Players will have unlimited sprint in the game's multiplayer, and mantling over objects and up ledges is faster, more forgiving than ever. There's no pause in the action, Vonderhaar said, and players can still aim and fire while mantling.

"Whenever we can get rid of barriers to fluidity," Vonderhaar said, "we do that."

Treyarch is also adding thrust jumps, which Vonderhaar described as an "assistance" to movement, and not quite like what players of Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare experienced with that game's Exo jumps. Players can double-tap the jump button to boost, pumping it to stay in the air.

Players can also power-slide, with a combination of sprint and crouch. They can wall-run. They can even swim in Black Ops 3 multiplayer, fighting underwater and using the new ability for tactical purposes. Vonderhaar said they've seen some players hide underwater, then thrust-jump out of the water to surprise their opponents.

Not every multiplayer map will include swimming, Vonderhaar said, but he indicated that the option to do so is something Treyarch has wanted to do for a long time.

Players won't be able to "dolphin-dive" (or jump to a prone position), however. Vonderhaar said that movement mechanic won't be returning in Black Ops 3.

Some of the new movement options — much of which will feel pretty familiar to players of rival shooter Titanfall — is governed by Black Ops 3's version of a stamina meter. Thrust-jumping, power-sliding and wall-running is limited, to a degree. But based on what we played of Black Ops 3's multiplayer, those limitations aren't very strict. Movement through the game's multiplayer maps feels incredibly graceful, fluid. Black Ops 3's multiplayer maps are all being built with all those traversal abilities in mind, Treyarch said.

According to Bunting, the developer is aiming for persistent "guns up" weapon control throughout movement; no matter what you're doing, your character is always ready and able to fire their gun at another player.


Zombies are back in Black Ops 3. Treyarch's signature game mode is returning in the studio's next Call of Duty, but with a "totally different setting," studio head Mark Lamia confirmed.

"One of the reasons [Zombies] has been so popular is that it's really accessible," Lamia said, "but one thing we wanted to do was bring more replayability and depth to it."

Treyarch is adding a "full player XP progression system," to Black Ops 3's Zombies mode, but not at the expense of sacrificing simplicity for current fans of the mode, Lamia said. Treyarch didn't have too much to say about the game's Zombies mode, other than that its campaign would be "totally separate" from the single-player campaign and competitive multiplayer modes. The mode does have a tagline, though: "Only the cursed survive."


Treyarch is adding another layer of personalization to Black Ops 3's multiplayer with a new component called the Gunsmith. Vonderhaar referred to it as the "next level" of weapon personalization.

With the Gunsmith, players can create visual variants of existing weapons, outfitting their favorite guns with their choice of optics, up to five attachments, custom paint jobs and camo skins. Players can swap in and out their choice of barrel, clip, stock and suppressor, customizing each weapon to their personal aesthetic taste.

The Gunsmith section of the game lets players deck out their gun with custom paint jobs, similar to how Treyarch let players create custom emblems in Black Ops 2. Using some stock shapes and simple tools, players will be able to decorate their weapons with custom-built imagery. Treyarch promises precision editing controls and up to 64 layers per side. It's a perk that will let players design the look of their guns, whether they want them to be sleek and sharp, or look a little DIY.

Treyarch says it's holding on to more details about how its Pick 10 Create-A-Class system and scorestreaks are changing, but we got a look at some of the early scorestreaks during a multiplayer session. Returning are the UAV detection drone and a futuristic version of the RC-XD remote explosive — it's now called the HC-XD, or hover-capable explosive device. Players will also be able to call in air support in the form of the Wraith, which appears to be Black Ops 3's version of a Hunter Killer drone, and the Mothership, an aircraft that three players can control. Players can also summon the RAPS, or robotic anti-personnel sentry, a cluster of small rolling explosive robots, and the GI Unit, an automated mechanized soldier that can either patrol a location or guard the player.

Treyarch aims to get Black Ops 3 multiplayer into the hands of players earlier than ever. It will be playable at this year's E3 in June, and it will be playable as part of a beta available to those who pre-order the game before it hits this November.