In Treyarch's upcoming Black Ops 3, you are not you. You are a Specialist. For the first time, who you are in Call of Duty matters.
Activision's first-person shooter is a series defined by incremental tweaks and improvements. From one game to the next, a multitude of small changes add up to a new experience, slowly easing players into the new game. Black Ops 3 eschews that philosophy by changing a core component of play: who you are.
Specialists are new to the Call of Duty franchise, and a major part of the design philosophy behind Black Ops 3 in particular. They have names, histories and personalities. They look distinct from one another. They have different abilities. You're not selecting a randomized or nameless grunt as in previous games here, you're a champion of war.
Choosing my Specialist was a commitment, one that instantly caused me to feel more connected to them. Ruin was a personal favorite: a hunky warrior that personified his namesake thanks to a slicked-back haircut, square jaw and cybernetic arms. He stood tall in a stance reminiscent of a linebacker... with shotguns slung over each shoulder. I felt powerful and rushed headlong into danger when controlling this techno-beast, unimpeded by such minor inconveniences as bullets slapping me in the face.
While each Specialist can equip a standard or custom loadout of weapons and perks, he/she/it (yes, there is a bipedal robot character) also comes with a unique weapon and ability. The scout character, Outrider, can utilize a bow called Sparrow to shoot explosive arrows, or activate her Vision Pulse ability to mark targets through walls and other cover, like smoke or water. Another Specialist, Seraph, can practically disintegrate enemies with her Annihilator pistol, or earn scorestreaks extra fast by using her Combat Focus ability.
You pick your Specialist before searching for a match, also choosing whether you'll use their weapon or ability (you don't get both at the same time). Unlike many other aspects of Black Ops 3 multiplayer, this choice is locked for an entire match. You can change weapons, change tactics, and change classes, but you won't be able to change your character or which ability you want to utilize once the starting gun fires. Don't worry about your choice being governed by others though, as a team can have multiple copies of the same character. A Specialist's advantageous attributes are also not unlimited use; they charge and must be activated, similar to the special abilities of Activision's other sci-fi shooter, Destiny.
After finishing my first match, the parallels struck me. Here I was choosing not a class or aesthetic, but a character. As in a MOBA, my decision was not one I could reverse mid-match, and the sense of connection I felt with my favorite characters was strong, to the point that I sometimes forsook Specialists that might've been better suited to my playstyle.
For example, the Specialist Nomad features an ability called Rejack that lets him self-revive. Being the bullet magnet that I was, it would have made sense for me to play as Nomad frequently so that I could stay in the fight. But Nomad also wears a backwards cap, sporty sunglasses and a beard. It was a visual design I found off-putting, and I didn't care for his backstory as an off-the-grid ex-special forces soldier.
So, selfish as it may have been to pick a character somewhat less suited to deal with my frequent visits to the pearly gates, I wound up alternating between Ruin and Outrider instead. My reasoning was simple: Because they were cool, and I envisioned myself as them during battles. It's a powerful feeling, one MOBA players with a favorite champion or hero will no doubt recognize should they give the game a try.
It's not just giving players a sense of self that tripped my MOBA trigger, though. In games like Dota 2 and League of Legends, players "build" a character by buying items from an in-game shop to increase their stats. Similarly, advanced players will want to pick perks and weapons from Call of Duty's Create-A-Class system the complement a Specialist's abilities.
Outrider, scout that she is, benefits greatly from choosing a perk that allows her to see an enemy's recent footsteps. Ruin, with his super-speed Overdrive ability, benefits greatly from perks that allow him to switch weapons faster or fire while sprinting, allowing him to get the drop on enemies before they have a chance to react. In the same way that I would buy items to boost a magic user's mana pool in a game like League of Legends, I wanted to craft classes that supported my Specialist's abilities.
Lastly, Treyarch explained that players will be able to level up individual Specialists, just the same as they've been leveling up weapons in previous Call of Duty titles. Progressing a character will unlock new aesthetic options for them, letting you play dress-up for your favorite decked-out killing machine. Again, I heard the call of MOBA design on the wind. "Skiiiins," it whispered.
One of the most popular and fun things to do in a MOBA is to acquire skins; special textures or models that change how a character looks. Sometimes a skin is a simple color swap. Other times, you'll see an alligator-man dressed in swim trunks and sunglasses. I'm not sure to what extent Black Ops 3 will take the concept, but with its already comic book-ish designs and names for both characters and weapons, I look forward to finding out.
The Call of Duty franchise has been around for more than a decade, and Black Ops 3 is Treyarch's fifth mainline Call of Duty game (not including work on ports or expansions). It's natural that the game will mean something different to different players. For me though, Call of Duty: Black Ops 3 is taking elements from one of my favorite genres and infusing them into a game that has years of fine-tuning and a dedicated studio behind it. I can't wait.