My personal first-person shooter baton has passed between the titans of console shooters at various times in my life. At the apex of Halo 3’s popularity, I was armed with a battle rifle and hitting heads with the shocking accuracy of youth. Then, when Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare changed the game, I was right there with it, armed with the M16’s grenade launcher and aiming at the domination point. I was in the Call of Duty camp for years, but the release of Battlefield 1 signaled a slower, more deliberate experience, and I jumped over there. That’s been my FPS experience for the past several months, a World War I battle simulator, and so Call of Duty: Black Ops IIII’s beta event has been my introduction back to the fast-paced, lightning-quick death spirals of the Call of Duty franchise. And, you know, it’s pretty good.
What I mean by “lightning-quick” is that Call of Duty as a media franchise has been, at least since 2013’s Ghosts, about speed. Being a good COD player means reducing the time between sighting an opposing player and killing an opposing player to as close to zero seconds as possible. Once you’re really good, and you’ve memorized the maps, you can even start firing before someone enters your field of view, meaning that the time between sight and death is reduced exactly to zero.
Whether in World War II or in the far-future of zipping exosuits, that basic focus on speed was what determined the bounds of design. In Battlefield 1, there is room for a sniper war to take place that is slow, plodding, and allows players to move and maneuver. In Call of Duty, generally, this does not happen. Being seen is being dead, or at least it means that you are now in a fight that will immediately end with someone respawning.
Black Ops IIII seems like it is interested in complicating the “there can be only one” equation of previous games. The time-to-death is still, of course, incredibly short. There’s sliding, so you can get out of the way of bullets and behind cover. Trying to take a fight when someone has gotten even a fraction of a second of “the jump” on you is, generally, a fool’s errand.
The difference I experienced between the BLOPSIIII beta and previous Call of Duty games really hinges on how the game’s specialists work. Like previous games, IIII allows you to create specific loadouts that enable you to express yourself as a player. So, for example, I always want some kind of missile launcher because I like to shoot them at other players hiding in windows. Like all the previous games, I can do that here, as well as choose my specific weapon, its attachments, and all that other stuff you might expect from a game in this franchise.
The specialists, however, come into play once you load into the game. There are ten, and they are all particular kinds of soldier. Battery, for example, is a demolitions expert who can get a grenade launcher if she performs well enough in a match. Seraph can put down a beacon that creates a new respawn point. Nomad unleashes a roomba that stuns people. They’re pretty rad.
These specialists are basically character classes that go “on top” of your loadout, and the game sort of feels like you’re a CounterStrike soldier in the suit of an Overwatch character. You’re a basic soldier in a super suit.
And, you know, they feel balanced. They each have a basic ability on a long timer and a super ability that only works after you’ve performed well enough in a match. Nomad can throw that roomba down every couple minutes, but it’s only once or twice a match that he gets to use a sniper rifle that literally stuns enemies to death. You can think of these super abilities almost like those magical and weird attacks that you can perform when you’re all charged up in Destiny. They’re splashy, and big, and it sucks when they happen to you.
These super abilities, and their many different ways of changing how you need to fight your enemies, feels like a response to the hyper-fast gameplay of the last couple Call of Duty games. As a series veteran, I found those recent games to be tiring and stressful. There was no opportunity for casual play. It was competition or nothing.
Black Ops IIII feels like it is trying to appeal to both that competitive, screaming player and someone like me who enjoys the games but is not going to dump 40 hours a week into them. Through the beta, I was able to compete and help out my team, although I was rarely in the number one slot. For what it’s worth, it seems like the level of skill that you need to have to actually contribute and be helpful has been evened out, and that’s something that’s better for the health of any game.
Being a beta, there were a lot of small things that I thought were telling of some potential problems in the game. The number one player in the match was almost always Ruin, a rushing character who does the Titan’s explosive jump from Destiny that seems mostly uncounterable, and that felt off. Most guns feel and sound the same. It is very easy to die to a super ability that you just don’t see coming. Someone shooting you from behind is almost an automatic death sentence. These are all things that were either designed into the game or were smuggled into the game via the assumptions it makes about an optimal play experience. None of them are great.
On the whole, though, the Black Ops IIII beta gave me a little bit of hope. I could see myself playing more than a few games of this. It is a deliberate experience that has the feeling of doing more than the previous games, and it feels like it wants to reach out to more than the comfortable playerbase screaming “let’s go!” There’s still another beta between now and release, so things might change, but I’ve gone from pure neutral to generally optimistic about the game.
Cameron Kunzelman tweets at @ckunzelman and writes about games at thiscageisworms.com. His latest game, Epanalepsis, is available on Steam.