“This is the most fucked up story I’ve ever worked on,” says Jason Blundell, the man in charge of Black Ops 3’s story and zombies mode. He says it nice and loud, so I’m sure to pick up on it. While many criticise COD for being all ‘wham, bam, thank-you ma’am’, often without a care for narrative development and plot, it genuinely feels like there’s a story worth having in this one. For starters, it’s a Black Ops title - which is definitely a distinct spin-off from the core Call of Duty franchise - and secondly, it’s based on mankind’s destructive relationship with technology. There’s no way it won’t be fucked up.
It’s the year 2065. Genetic enhancements and robots are prolific in the world’s military forces, and you play as a heavily modified soldier in the Black Ops squad. There’s trouble brewing in Singapore, an area battered by wind and floods thanks to a shift in the world’s weather patterns, after a terrorist group called 54i infiltrate a CIA blacksite… and that leads to loads of men / robots shooting each other in the face.
This is the first look at Black Ops 3’s co-op component, which is - essentially - the entire story of the game. You can play the whole thing in co-op, and the AI changes dynamically according to the number of players and what difficulty you’re playing on. It’s a whole new system for the series, and means stuff like enemies appearing from the same spot every time, or using the same tactics, are completely gone. Well, that’s the theory anyway. My hands on with the game was so confusing, it was tough to tell how dynamic this AI actually is.
Let’s skip to the shooting, then. I’m set loose on the Rameses Station level in Cairo with three other players. If this wasn’t a demo, I’d have spent some time hanging out in the Safe House, a new ‘home’ area that acts as a kind of co-op lobby. More on that in a sec. The objective in this stage is to blow up a whole city street to stop an advancing army, and it starts with a portable wall being dropped between two buildings. Hey, it’s 2065, keep up. This essentially creates an area for the action to take place in.
The action is utter chaos. I’ve opted for a shotgun load-out, but I’ve also picked up a Spike Launcher, which fires spiked cannon balls at enemies, crushing them to gore and scrap. Oh, and then you can detonate them. While most of the standard weapons will feel normal for COD players, the big new thing is Cyber Cores. These are like psychic powers or - to make a fantasy RPG comparison - magic. In battle, you select them from a menu (pressing down on the PS4 pad in this case) and fire them by pressing R1 and L1 together. In my loadout, I had the ability to hack robots to make them fight for me, or to make one robot sprint into a bunch of his buddies and explode, but there are all kinds of other, more exciting abilities too.
During a later gameplay demo of the In Darkness level, which takes place in Singapore, I see a player unleashing swarms of (robot, I assume) fireflies, and remotely detonating human enemies. It’s amazing how the tech on display genuinely feels like magic, but has its roots on actual scientific research and philosophy. Throughout the whole game, you’ll even have the power to hack drones, tanks, and other vehicles, allowing you to play each level in whatever way you fancy.
The emphasis really is on choice. Let’s talk about those Safe Houses now. These are areas where players can gather before each mission, and if you’re in your own home you can fiddle with all kinds of stuff. There are areas where you can tinker with your loadout and physical appearance ahead of time, a trophy cabinet that shows off your achievements, a training sim that allows you (and friends) to practice scenarios, and even a machine that lets you build your own weapons by trading in currency earned during the game. It’s like the multiplayer loadout options of the newer CODs, super-charged, and applied to the story of Black Ops 3.
With such vast customisation options, it’s important that the game itself stays balanced. To that end, the whole of Black Ops 3’s story is unlocked from the start, meaning you can jump into any level with your friends and start playing right away. If you’re underpowered, they can even share guns with you, so you could - in theory - buy the game and head straight into the last level, fully pimped out with the best weaponry.
That’s why the story element is so interesting. Instead of giving up on plot and letting the game become an arena shooter, the folks at Treyarch are having to work extra hard to a) make people give a damn about story, and b) create something that works on multiple levels. So, while you could blast through from start to finish and enjoy it, you’ll need to dig much deeper to find out the real nuances of what’s happening. Again, that’s the theory. The story beats I see are laced with military jargon and genetically enhanced men shouting at each other. It seems like classic COD bluster, but these are merely snapshots of a greater whole.
Blundell freely admits that previous COD games have a tendency to go all out on action and yelling, right from the start, and explains there will be quieter moments in Black Ops 3 where the characters have the chance to interact and grow. Of course, if you don’t care about plot and you just want to shoot stuff you can always skip all the cut-scenes and get to the gunplay. But if you don’t even give the Black Ops story a chance to entertain you… well, that’s kinda fucked up, too.