Infinity Ward may have been the ones who started the Call of Duty phenomenon, but after Treyarch released Black Ops, they've been the ones carrying the torch. The first game in the series managed to beat all first week sales records imaginable; records that have since only been bested by its sequel. But that was three years ago. Since then much has changed. Activision has altered their development strategy from a two-year cycle, alternating between Treyarch and Infinity Ward, to one that includes Sledgehammer Games - affording each studio three years of development time.
We have already seen the results of this new three year strategy with last year's successful Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, with Sledgehammer Games creating a game the likes of which we hadn't been treated to since the very first Modern Warfare. Meanwhile Treyarch has spent their time developing Black Ops 3, and as a result of the longer development time and new hardware, you should expect a Call of Duty that feels wholly new rather than mere update.
When Gamereactor paid Treyarch a visit earlier this week as one of the first media in the world to get hands-on with Black Ops 3, we were told that the extra time had afforded the studio the luxury of experimentation, the chance to test out new ideas. Some proved completely useless. Others turned out to be great additions. The time to stress test these new ideas comes directly from the new three year cycle. The result? Amongst other things, a new movement system and the ability to swim.
But before we dive into the details it might be appropriate to introduce the concept of Call of Duty: Black Ops 3. In short it's a future war that awaits you. It was something we got a taste of in Black Ops 2, but now the world has completely collapsed and it has resulted in a war over the few remaining resources available in the aftermath of an ecological disaster. There are two coalitions fighting over resources, and after an elite squad goes missing and large amounts of data have leaked, it's left up to the player to set things right.
In Treyarch's vision, the future soldier has been enhanced with cybernetics, several body parts being replaced with improved mechanical versions. It means enhanced capabilities such as a jetpack that lets you jump higher and gives the ability to run on walls. As such, the game feels like a fusion of Advanced Warfare's mechanics and the enhanced abilities seen in Titanfall.
In spite of this, combat is vintage Call of Duty. Focus remains on ground battles. An in-fiction explanation details the implementation of huge protective shields that halt any aerial attacks, which in this new setting keeps the action on terra firma. Soldier versus soldier is still the most important aspect deciding the outcome of future wars.
It's clear to see Treyarch are now the development veterans of the series. The lead developers speak of their game with a great deal of confidence as they explain how every new feature has been created through meticulous work. Every aspect has been weighed up, considered thoroughly. Playing the game ourselves, it's easy to believe the developer's sell. The game looks like it'll be another boost to the series.
BIGGER WARS, MORE COMRADES: THE FUTURE BATTLEFIELD
Single-player has a lot of welcome additions that completely reinvent the Call of Duty concept (at least from a campaign perspective). There's now four-player co-op with the added option to view what the other players are seeing via a new screen-in-screen system, with the additional perspective allowing you to locate where the enemy is hiding; provided that players work as a team and position themselves strategically.
To make this feature into more than just a gimmick, levels are considerably larger than before. Forget about the claustrophobic corridor shooter vibe of previous games: this time it's all about expansive battlefields.
That's not the only major change as Treyarch has lowered the number of scripted events. For example there won't be set-pieces where you will be tasked with flying a drone. Instead this is something you're able to do whenever and wherever you want.
Single-player also sees the addition of XP and customisable upgrades to increase its replay value and give you a reason to return to the campaign. In true roleplaying fashion you can unlock new abilities and change your tactics. We get a taste of this when we try out a level at Ramses Station in Cairo, midway through the game.
A technologically-savvy enemy attacks, supported by cyborgs that remind heavily of the Terminator. This mix of enemies that behave very differently instantly creates an interesting dynamic. Robots have no need to find cover while human soldiers, wary of bullets, do. Additionally, flesh and bone opponents strategise as a team. Treyarch are proud to say they've tried to create goal-oriented artificial intelligence, where enemies actually consider other factors rather than just trying to kill you off as soon as possible.
It quickly becomes apparent that the audio has gotten a real boost as you hear the deep and reverberating explosions that echo between the buildings on the battlefield. Even the graphics have been given an overhaul without sacrificing the high frame rate that the series is known for. We're being shown the game on Xbox One, but it will also be available on PC, and we're told that version's getting a lot of care and attention, meaning more graphical settings, improved optimisation and 4K support. When we get a peek at a work-in-progress build later on, it's apparent that it's a giant leap ahead of its console sibling.
READYING UP FOR MULTIPLAYER
Despite the expanded single-player mode, it's still the multiplayer mode that makes Call of Duty the phenomenon it is. Treyarch is working closely with the eSport scene and will have a beta for those who pre-order the game, a way to ensure that the online experience will be both well-crafted and balanced. It's something that appears vital as many new gameplay innovations await.
Most importantly, the controls are now more streamlined, even if features have been added.
As in Halo 5: Guardians you automatically grab onto edges when you jump towards them. You can run along walls. You can use the jetpack to fly short distances and perform assist jumps, and it's possible to sprint for as long as you like.
Regardless of what action you're performing, you are still able to aim, reload or slide along the ground. Initially it's overwhelming. The game offers multiple possibilities for surprising your opponent, but to counter that the choices that guide you to survival during intense firefights are better than ever.
You assume the role of one of nine elite soldiers. Each carries a super weapon and ability, of which you choose one, which then can then be activated during the match. Treyarch explains that the previous Streak rewards were rarely achieved by beginners, but this new system will make sure that every player gets the chance to activate an ability or super-weapon during each round. The meter that determines when fills up as both time and score increases, so skilled players will be able to use their special abilities more often.
Four soldiers were shown, with the other five to be revealed at a later date. We got to see Ruin, who has a gravitational attack that slays nearby enemies when he attacks from above, and Seraphi, who carries a gun called the Annihilation which can kill anyone in a single shot (and immediately reminded us of the Golden Gun from GoldenEye).
Our personal favourite, however, is the Reaper, a robot with a mini-gun and the ability to manipulate time. We mostly opted for the mini-gun, which proved to be an excellent tool for cleaning up the capture points in Domination mode.
You will be able to tailor these elite soldiers as you level them up in different ways, and Treyarch has also worked hard on the ability to customise your weapons. One scope, five accessories, designs and camouflages can all be added to each weapon, with the customisation tool allowing you to craft your own designs (somewhat reminiscent of the one in Forza Motorsport 5). It means a lot of potential for artisans, and should mean we will see outrageous designs online.
BATTLING MP MODES
During the three multiplayer matches we played, we were struck by how all these novelties actually add something without losing sight of what makes Call of Duty the phenomenon it is today. This means that there will not be any vehicles. Instead the maps offer plenty of pace, but without too much verticality. It's full of chokepoints where firefights naturally tend to break out.
The controls are excellent even at this early stage, and the satisfaction felt when pressing the shoulder buttons to enable Reaper's mini-gun and mowing down 4-5 opponents at once is tremendous. The ability to swim introduces underwater combat, something that we thought works very well.
We suspect that these rather deep and advanced mechanics may discourage beginners, but Treyarch did not agree with our sentiments. It remains to be seen how the community of new and returning players will feel about it, but the fact that the special abilities unlock with time and aren't reliant purely on skill is surely something that will make newcomers feel more welcome.
One thing we'd like to see tweaked, however, are the spiked mines that can roll and home in on enemies when activated via a Scorestreak. Extremely annoying, naturally when you're the victim, but they aren't even that entertaining to deploy. Apart from that one misstep, even at this early stage Call of Duty: Black Ops 3 entertains to such a degree that it's hard to put the controller down when we're told our time's up.
...AND THE KITCHEN SINK
It feels as if Treyarch has thought of everything this time around. They have finally been given enough time to realise their dream game, and the early version is very promising. Many will consider it just a continuation of the concepts laid down in Advanced Warfare (which in turn was inspired by Titanfall), and initially we felt we'd do better with a different Call of Duty, one that didn't involve future wars or super-soldiers.
However, after having played Black Ops 3, we've changed our minds. Treyarch does Call of Duty better than anyone, and with Call of Duty: Black Ops 3 it comes into focus why their games have been so successful. The recently introduced three-year development cycle seems to have done wonders for the series, and it's looking like it's going to allow for a ton of innovation which each entry.