Call of Duty: Black Ops 3 reaches further into the future than ever before.
The narrative backdrop for Black Ops 3's campaign, the year 2065, is a world altered by the events of the previous game and its devastating drone strikes. It's a world ravaged by climate change and resource scarcity, where military superiority is based on the strength of boots-on-the-ground infantry. Wars between newly formed alliances are fought by cybernetically enhanced black ops soldiers and advanced robotics.
Treyarch's third Black Ops game moves the franchise forward beyond time and technology. The developer is focusing its efforts on current-gen consoles, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, and PC. And the game's campaign now supports up to four players in online co-op — local co-op for two players is supported in split-screen — and players can, for the first time, choose to play as a male or female protagonist.
Black Ops 3's future war is powered by some astonishing sci-fi tech. The game's soldiers are biologically augmented and cybernetically enhanced to perform superhuman feats: They can mind-control enemy drones and launch a swarm of nanomachines — the future military equivalent of releasing mechanical bees that set enemies on fire. They also fight alongside mechanized soldiers, large mechs and packs of flying drones.
One of science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke's three laws of prediction states that "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." In the far-flung future setting of Black Ops 3, that widely cited assertion rings true: The biotech and cybernetics that power the first-person shooter look a lot more like magic than in previous Call of Duty games, including last year's Advanced Warfare.
Jason Blundell, director of Black Ops 3's campaign, said that one piece of technology central to the game's setting is a direct neural interface, or DNI, that connects to each black ops soldier's brain. DNI offers both complete control over the soldier — which can have obvious story implications — and gives him or her "omnipresent battlefield awareness."
That technology ties into Black Ops 3's cooperative campaign gameplay. A new Tactical Mode view gives players a "visualized threat analysis of the battlefield." Basically, what your co-op partners see, you can see too.
Players of Black Ops 3 will also have access to what Treyarch calls cyber cores and cyber rigs, a selection of about 40 upgradeable special abilities that give them a variety of level-agnostic skills.
Some of those abilities include the option to remote hack an enemy flying drone, letting the player fire from behind enemy lines; Fireflies, the aforementioned swarm of nanobots that distracts enemies and, after it's upgraded, sets them on fire; and Immolation, an ability to detonate all nearby explosives.
Treyarch says it's building Black Ops 3's campaign to include larger open battle areas, spaces for players to move around in and work out tactics for taking down enemies. In the past, Blundell said, Treyarch has known how players will move through their campaign, but with its new cooperative campaign, the studio has had to develop new animation, AI and graphics technology to adapt to a more dynamic co-op campaign.
Blundell said Treyarch is taking Black Ops 3 "off the rails."
"We're not afraid to let you move around the space and find new ways to engage the enemy," Blundell said.
Treyarch is also letting players move around the game's campaign structure with a bit more flexibility. In co-op players will be able to bounce around the campaign, revisiting levels with abilities they've upgraded later in the game to offer a sense of replayability. And players who are still early in the campaign will be able to join up with players who have completed its later chapters — even if you haven't beaten an early level, you can still join a friend's game if they're near the end of the game.
While it doesn't appear that the branching storylines of Black Ops 2 will return, Lamia said Treyarch made a "very active choice to layer the story" in Black Ops 3. Players who return to earlier chapters with new abilities or with co-op partners might get a new perspective on the campaign.
"When you go back in, there may be other things [you see]," Blundell added. "There may be disagreements about certain points of view."
The campaign's story will be the same for both the male and female protagonist. Blundell and Lamia said they wrote a gender-neutral script, and that a bit of character will come through in how both the male and female actors portray the lead character. Lamia was careful to point out that Black Ops 3's woman lead soldier is "not just, like, a female head on a male body."
"We had a female rig and a whole animation set," he said.
Players will also be able to loan out upgraded weapons and tech to their friends, even if they haven't unlocked them. Treyarch is adding a new feature called the Safe House, a social space that players can visit as a group between campaign chapters. In the Safe House, players can customize and upgrade their campaign character, and also explore some of the game's lore. They can show off medals they've won during the course of the campaign and even deck out their private bunk.
Treyarch had one chapter of the game's campaign playable on PC during a recent preview event. It was there, in part, to show off the work the developer is doing on the PC side, specifically its 4K resolution video output settings.
"If you've really invested in your rig, we want it to pay off," Lamia said. He added that Treyarch is also "putting a lot of work into moderate" and low-end PCs. Surprisingly, they even announced the minimum hardware specs for Call of Duty: Black Ops 3, which doesn't hit PC until November. Here they are:
- Operating System: Windows 7 64-bit / Windows 8 64-bit / Windows 8.1 64-bit
- Processor: Intel® CoreTM i3-530 @ 2.93 GHz / AMD PhenomTM II X4 810 @ 2.60 GHz
- Memory: 6 GB RAM
- Graphics: NVIDIA® GeForce® GTX 470 @ 1GB / ATI® RadeonTM HD 6970 @ 1GB
- DirectX: Version 11
- Network: Broadband Internet connection
- Sound Card: DirectX Compatible
Another surprise was that when we played Black Ops 3 multiplayer, we did so on a PlayStation 4. Normally, Call of Duty preview events are the domain of Xbox, which has typically been a product of the exclusivity arrangement between Microsoft and Activision.
But it sounds like a lot of things are changing with Call of Duty: Black Ops 3.