"Damn, that's some cold-ass shit!" exclaims Erin 'Battery' Baker, my chosen Specialist in the Call of Duty: Black Ops 3 multiplayer beta. She's one of nine distinct personas that constitute the multiplayer classes, each with their own special abilities that stack on top of your custom loadout. And though I'd typically think such a goofy line of dialogue was laughably bad (and really, it still kind of is), I'm delighted to hear it during a frantic round of Kill Confirmed, because it's another reminder that Call of Duty is finally utilizing the inherent power of unique personalities built into multiplayer. Even if these Specialist don't stray far from the 'gruff military stereotype with cybernetics' framework, their inclusion shows a clear, commendable effort to get players even more invested in the multiplayer arena.
Like choosing your main in a fighting game or your favorite hero in a MOBA, picking a Specialist is a sacred ritual that revolves around an all-important question: Do I think this character is cool? With Battery, my answer is a definite "yes". Between matches, the mohawked supersoldier appears in a menu screen diorama, enjoying a cigar amidst the ruins of the convoy she just obliterated with her trusty War Machine grenade launcher. Every time I see it, it drives home the fact that for once, I feel a connection with my CoD avatar. For some, their Specialist will be just another variable when tinkering with their preferred loadout. But for those who value some style with their substance, making this selection means something more.
When you're able to identify with a character, no matter the medium, your experience is automatically imbued with more meaning, an additional level of attachment. And while that sensation is what drives so many poignant single-player games (The Last of Us, Red Dead Redemption, BioWare RPGs, and so on), it can also carry you through the learning curve inherent to any multiplayer warzone. For shooters like Black Ops 3 or MOBAs like League of Legends, there's a massive amount of item information, map knowledge, and muscle memory required before you can even think of calling yourself a contender. But finding the character that matches your personality encourages you to realize that individual's full potential during play; to be as great as they appeared to be when you first took notice of them. By design, it should be enough to inspire the kind of time commitment that's required to actually be competitive.
Black Ops 3's Specialists go a step beyond the wonderfully varied characters in classic shooters like Unreal Tournament 2004 or TimeSplitters 2 (which is the best FPS of all time, by the way). Those games had scores of exotic, visually diverse skins to make your default model stand out, though even if the possibilities are glorious (like pitting a cantankerous gingerbread man against a sexy clown in TimeSplitters), there wasn't much to distinguish the player models beyond their aesthetic. Black Ops 3 builds up its Specialist personas with loads of quippy character-defining dialogue to match each individual's unique look. It might not be enough you get you deeply, emotionally invested in their life stories, but the constant chatter adds a distinct dash of flavor to the online shootouts.
I get a kick out of hearing my teammates' banter in the quiet moments before the start of each match. Not their actual voices, mind you; given that I'm something of an antisocial multiplayer gamer, I'll mute any stranger with a mic almost immediately. No, I mean the playful, prerecorded jabs between established characters, like when cybernetic gunner Prophet comments that he'll lay waste to his enemies, to which the hooded archer Outrider mockingly responds "Have you listened to yourself?" Even throwaway bits of spoken intel - like Prophet calling out "Single shooter!" in a robotic tenor when his group encounters a lone enemy - can create a sense of camaraderie without any need for additional interaction between players.
And Black Ops 3 is just the latest in a wave of shooters that all arrived at the same epiphany: a little character goes a ridiculously long way when getting players to commit. Overwatch is enjoying a lot of positive attention for its diverse lineup, including a talking, spectacled gorilla and a stocky female bodybuilder rocking a tuft of pink hair. Everyone in Dirty Bomb's roster of Mercenaries has an elaborate backstory explaining how they got into the business of shooting folks for money. And they all owe a massive debt to Team Fortress 2, the progenitor of multiplayer shooters that play up personalities whenever possible. Even if I didn't click with his zippy, agile playstyle, I'd still love TF2's Scout purely for his smarmy, heavily accented one-liners.
The flipside of love is hate, and having the capacity to strongly dislike any of Black Ops 3's Specialists also has intrinsic value. I'll readily admit that I'm no fan of Ruin, the viking-esque warrior who can score kills by slamming the ground with his twin Gravity Spikes. Lethal ground-pounds are cool and all, but Ruin looks a bit too much like a bootleg version of Left 4 Dead's Francis for my tastes. Whenever I'm gunned down by someone playing as Ruin, it makes my blood boil to hear his randomly automated jeer of "Smoked 'em!" as my bullet-riddled body hits the ground. But my sudden thirst for exacting revenge is just another way I'm getting invested in the back-and-forth of the match. Shooters as far back as Unreal Tournament and Quake 3 Arena recognized the importance of taunts, which can compel someone to play vigorously until they can finally score a glorious kill of righteous retribution. And hey, one player's least favorite character can be another's go-to pick; fellow editor Sam Prell was all about Ruin during his hands-on E3 demo.
If there's any blatant downside to introducing established characters into Black Ops 3's multiplayer, it's the inevitability that you'll be seeing a lot of duplicate Specialists, especially since about half of them require hours of leveling up to unlock. Immersion shouldn't be too big an issue when you're engaged in a deathmatch full of infinitely respawning combatants, but it can be pretty awkward seeing Ruin triplets at the end-of-game score screen, or facing a team composed entirely of identical Outriders scampering around. Still, I'll take an army of endearing, cool-looking clones over nameless, nondescript nobodies any day.
Call of Duty is inarguably one of gaming's most successful franchises, but until now, it never really invited the player to feel lovingly invested in the makings of its multiplayer world (the lore-heavy, fan-favorite Zombies mode notwithstanding). Part of what makes League of Legends, Dota 2, and Team Fortress 2 such dominant, persistently popular multiplayer games is that their fans have a deep love - devotion, even - for their favorite characters, one that inspires them to whip up fan art, construct elaborate cosplays, and buy scads of merchandise. Before, the best that CoD multiplayer could offer was the impersonal excitement of playing as 'just another soldier' - but thanks to its Specialists, Black Ops 3 should be able to hook players in a way no Call of Duty ever has. I never would've guessed that I'd feel an affinity for a character who makes comments about cold-ass shit, yet here we are, and it feels great.