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Call of Duty: Black Ops 6

Preview: Black Ops 6 finally moves Call of Duty forward (and in other directions)

Gotta love the 90's style, but the expanded development cycle makes a difference and this looks like the future of CoD. We've visited Treyarch, talked with the devs and played a first slice of the evolution of Activision's franchise. Here's all you need to know.

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It was coincidental, but it feels great in retrospect: when I was readying for my then-secret trip to LA, and specifically for my visit to Treyarch's offices for a first, redacted, very exclusive look at Call of Duty: Black Ops 6, I discussed with some hardcore players how CoD's first-person movement, as we all identified as its signature feature, was still years ahead other shooters. And when other recent games were still playing catch-up, Activision's franchise just took another quantum leap.

Because movement, well, Omnimovement as it's officially called, is precisely BLOPS6's game changer, a comprehensive upgrade to that very system which we previously agreed to describe as genre-defining, and that now will transform the series going forward. So yes, besides the foreseeing notion, it feels good to report that the team has focused on improving the most important thing gameplay-wise first and foremost.

But first let me put you in some awkward context, and with a big caveat. Yes, I've played Call of Duty: Black Ops 6. No, unfortunately I cannot share my detailed gameplay impressions as of yet. But yes, I think it's going to be great.

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After a quick tour around some parts of Treyarch's impressive offices in Playa Vista, and before our gameplay session, we attended a masterful 90-minute presentation by several team members describing many aspects of the game and discussing the hows and the whys of its extended 4+ year development. It was so clear, interesting and to-the-point, that it felt like half an hour, but man there are so many points to talk about.

Whereas the traditional portions of the game had their dedicated showcase (including your typical Campaign, Multiplayer, and even Zombies), a common motto united every effort on all fronts: that this had to feel like Black Ops, but that it also had to establish a new era for Call of Duty. This intention permeates seemingly unrelated aspects such as lore, progression, graphics, or characters. It's been the starting point, apparently, for every single design decision.

Somehow, the 90's setting seems like the most fitting to this end, as many will see it -myself included- as something relatable, retro if you will, yet modern at the same time. It might have to do with the timing and the mood, with Bill Clinton, George Bush, Margaret Thatcher, but to the sound of The Prodigy's Firestarter. With the spy stories of the new and returning black operators and rogue squads such as Jane Harrow the handler and Russel "the monster" Adler, but to the lighthearted, almost cheesy notes of an action flick's soundtrack from the time. With the trademark gameplay style we all know and love, but with an added emphasis on mission variety and player choice, or at least that's the promise.

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Coming from a disappointing story mode in Modern Warfare 3, and given Treyarch's pedigree in this regard (not to mention how much I loved Cold War), I'm very intrigued about Black Ops 6's Campaign. With the year being 1991, the game sits in the timeline a decade after that previous entry, and just a couple of years after the 1989 missions in the beloved Black Ops II, with all this means for characters and plotlines. Narratively, the premise remains the same, with historical touching points as grounding elements, but with a permalink to the fictional world that the franchise has been building through the years.

The difference is in the context. "You can't call Uncle Sam", developers repeated a few times, meaning that with the Gulf War in the global spotlight, and with the new era of blacks infiltrating the highest levels of the CIA, you're on your own more than ever, even "hunted from within". There are even fewer rules, agents are more liable to break them, and those who go rogue push that further beyond. It'll be interesting to see where this story goes in terms of paranoia, mystery, and trauma, where locations, mission design, and of course gadgetry will define the single player experience.

In terms of the aforementioned mission variety, we'll have to wait and see for ourselves, but it seems that this one is taking a note or two from Hitman's book. Literally, in the Capitol Station mission, the one about the political gala in Washington D.C., you can for example blackmail a senator's wife, or perhaps operate as a journalist in disguise, which is of course how we ourselves felt upon infiltrating Treyarch's own bunker. It's the same mission where we got to see the new, nineties model of the radio-controlled RC XD car, which can play great havoc with some attached C4, now with added boost. And "did you guys see The Great Escape?" "Yeah, they didn't make it out", recalls Adler, but now you know where the heavily-featured motorbike section goes, too.

The Iraq mission on the other hand opts for a semi-open world approach, with liberty on how and when to tackle every objective, and with scripted sections ready to trigger behind the scenes. We've seen this done wrong many times before, so I'm also looking forward to trying out Treyarch's take as Delta Force operatives try to clear the way to one of Saddam Hussein's hideouts in the desert. Oh and here we got to see another cool new gadget in action: the homing knife, which you can manoeuvre in the air and then detonate. Or for further effect, you can do similarly with a laptop to call for aimable missiles.

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Now, enough of the campaign. What's all the buzz around the movement? Well, even if it might look sameish at first sight, Call of Duty: Black Ops 6's movement and animation systems have actually been designed from the ground up. This was necessary for them to be able to seamlessly chain movements in a more varied and physically-logical way. The obvious example is that you can now sprint in any direction. To one side, backwards, diagonally... and this also means sliding or diving, if you combine those moves. The icing on the cake is the supine prone position, which you can take while laying down... or perhaps mid-air after jumping through a window, in The Matrix's Trinity's fashion, to then turn back and take the pursuing enemy off before landing on your back.

It looks absolutely fabulous, and we were shown part of the intricate mocap and rigging effort that went into it to make it work like a sports game, almost like your typical FIFA dev demo. Again, I can't tell you how it actually feels, but if you're a regular CoD player, just take a closer look at the trailer, notice the fancy moves, and just think of the possibilities, both strategically and just to play to the gallery. I think it'll take time for some players to realise how much more this offers, but the pros will surely get the bragging rights after a couple of rounds.

Two more notes about movement and animation, because again, it's the franchise's cornerstone. The first one, as per inspired by Forza Motorsport's driving aids (and I can confirm it has nothing to do with Microsoft's common ownership), is called Intelligent movement, and means you can now reduce the button presses needed for the most common world-interaction and movement actions, as the game will predict what you want to do and assist you. I think this is quite interesting in terms of accessibility and not just for newcomers, as long as it doesn't make a difference in the competitive battlefield. Again like in simracers or sports games, you will be able to adjust where it kicks in, for example with mantle assists, sprint assists, and the like.

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The second also may seem subtle, but pros will notice right away: it has to do with how bodies, cameras, and weapons react physically, with positions adapting dynamically depending on momentum, intention, strength, and more. And speaking of bodies, hit locations have been increased from 4 to 9, which again have been heavily motion-captured for some realistic (and some hilarious) impacts, which will look much better with the also updated dynamic deathcam, which produces much more accurate and cinematic angles.

And I've mentioned new gadgets (some are very DIY such as the spring mine with a few claymores sticked to it, some are as cocky as the signal lure, for top players to say "come at me") but not new 90's weapons, such as the Ames 85 or the cool-looking Kompackt 92, which has a transparent magazine for you to take a quick look at remaining bullets. We'll also get the Jackal PDW, the XM4, the Marine SP or the 9mm PM handgun, which could very well have pertained to Pierce Brosnan's James Bond 007.

With those weapons, gadgets, and new fancy moves, players will spend most of their time in the multiplayer section of Call of Duty: Black Ops 6. Biggest news in terms of progression is that Classic Prestige is back, as per requested by the community. There will be 55 military levels, similar to what there's now, but when you top those you can then enter Classic Prestige for 10 different prestiges with dedicated rewards, then unlock Prestige Master for 100 additional levels and a final reward. Thankfully, all this is not linked to any seasonal content, as we were promised it'll release day one with the game.

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Another feature for both veteran and new players is that, for the first time ever, Call of Duty HUD will be customisable depending on playstyle and needs, and including elements such as map position, or widgets, all arranged by HUD Presets and even being able to tweak sizes. This is great for accessibility, different screen sizes, or perhaps those who want to arrange elements differently, such as streamers.

And when it comes to the actual multiplayer action, as far as I can tell you at this point, they keep the same premise of an approachable and engaging experience, while expanding on both content, readiness (with a much more streamlined lobby), and variety. There will be new combat specialities, mastery badges, and more loadouts, with returning wildcards, detailed weapon stats, shared optics, and more, not to mention the Diablo-inspired Enforcer Perks, the 10/5 custom/default classes, or the dedicated quick equip. Theatre Mode also returns as one of the main requests for fans, as does Best Play from Black Ops IV and winner circle to host some post-match dances.

The two factions of characters, with Rogue Black Ops (Troy Marshall, Yara, Bayan, Westpoint, Nazir, Ratcliff), and Crimson One (Alejo, Caine, Stone, Niran, Daily, Volta) will face off in some of the brand-new 16 maps at launch, with 12 being classic three-lane, 6v6 type of deal, and 4 smaller Strike 2v2 maps. And MP will take place after the campaign, for additional lore and context.

Finally, before it's fully revealed, I can tell you that round-based Zombies is back, that the mode will continue the Dark Aether story with Dr. Peck chartering a boat to visit some "old friends", and that the crew includes Grigori Weaver, Elizabeth Grey, Mac Carver, and brand-new Maya Aguinaldo, who has her own motivations. And yes, there are also two new maps in the form of Liberty Falls (Appalachian Mountains in West Virginia, small and bright location) and Terminus; Blacksite 13 (darker, deeper, more complex).

Call of Duty: Black Ops 6

So... yes, on paper this all shows great promise, as most of the aspects renewed or expanded are those fans were asking for. Campaign seems exciting once again for the more casual movie-like approach, hardcore players will surely do crazy things with omnimovement, and both progression and day one content sound engaging for the shorter and the longer run. But sadly, for now, all that is on paper, because my actual first hands-on impressions with the game are, for the time being, well, redacted.

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