I'm going to start this Black Ops III preview by saying something maybe a tad unconventional: I'm the guy who cares about Call of Duty's singleplayer campaigns. It's me. I'm the one. Activision builds out these six-hour blockbuster action circuses for me and me alone. And probably like, a few thousand other people.
I say this though because I want to be clear where this preview is coming from. I did not try Black Ops III's multiplayer, nor do I have any real desire to. From what I saw in the E3 trailer it looks like Titanfall Redux but that is literally of no interest to me. When I'm playing a multiplayer shooter nowadays I'm reaching for Battlefield or Red Orchestra or Rising Storm or any of a dozen other slower, even slightly more tactical shooters. And that's fine.
But few shooters do singleplayer spectacle like Call of Duty, and ever since Infinity Ward kind of collapsed in on itself post- Modern Warfare 2 it's been Treyarch's Black Ops series that's taken over as crown jewel of Call of Duty.
The first game's Cold War-inspired paranoia not only took us to locations that are relatively untouched by the FPS genre (Cuba, Kazakhstan, the Vietnam War) but drew on the era's pervasive espionage to create probably the most thrilling Call of Duty story since the original Modern Warfare. Black Ops II took a similar tack, with a dual narrative taking place alternatively in the latter part of the Cold War and, for the first time, the near-future of 2025.
Let's do the time warp again
With Black Ops III, we're apparently jumping even further into the future. Far into the future. 2065, to be exact. I took an extended look at the campaign last week during E3, although if you saw Sony's press conference you already got the flavor of my demo--it was basically a half-hour version of the same section Activision/Treyarch pulled the five-minute trailer from.
And I'm left with one pervasive, slightly-disappointed question: What happened to Black Ops?
Now, as always, this is an opinion based entirely on pre-release footage. I mean, I could make a joke and say that based on the average length of a Call of Duty campaign, the half hour I saw is about 1/12 of the games length. I could say that. Wink.
But jokes aside: I haven't seen much. Certainly not enough to cry doom and gloom.
I have to wonder though if there's more to Black Ops III than what we've seen. As a Cold War buff (Seriously: It's the era I wrote my undergrad history thesis on), I really loved Black Ops. It took an interesting look at some conflicts that previously were thought of as "off-limits" for the shooter genre by striking a balance between the typical Call of Duty bombast and something slightly more self-reflective and shadowy. Similarly, I loved the 1980s portion of Black Ops II, which somehow crafted a compelling shooter from the morass of late-era Cold War posturing--Noriega, the Russian war in Afghanistan, the US aimlessly throwing money at guerrillas.
If I tolerated the 2025 portion of Black Ops II, it was because it was tied so well into the overarching story of Alex Mason, the protagonist of the original game (and the star of the second game's 1980s section). Flashing forward to 2025 allowed Treyarch to imbue your actions in the past with some sort of future repercussions. And that was good!
Black Ops III...Let's put it this way: If there's no time-hopping section revealed later, I can't help but feel the series has lost something. It doesn't feel unique anymore.
Call of Duty was the first series (as far as I can remember) to stagger its development cycles so it could be "yearly" without requiring a single studio to actually put out a title every year. In the old days this meant two studios traded off releases--Infinity Ward one year, then Treyarch playing second fiddle. Nowadays it's three studios, but the idea is the same.
This setup isn't perfect. The most notable example was when Infinity Ward put out the first Modern Warfare and then Treyarch followed up the next year with World at War which--while a respectable game--came off as a throwback to the series' earlier World War II days when all people really wanted was more Modern Warfare.
But the odd two/three-studio development cycle also resulted in something I found kind of fascinating about Call of Duty: Each studio made something different--at least on the singleplayer side.
So you had Infinity Ward pumping out Modern Warfare while Treyarch tossed out the Black Ops titles, and it was great. People who like to rag on Call of Duty for putting out the same product every year might disagree with me, but certainly for fans there was nuance between Modern Warfare and Black Ops--especially in the campaigns. The much-touted multiplayer side of things felt largely the same year-to-year, but the campaigns and their explored themes were very different.
What I worry about now is the increasing similarity between all three of Call of Duty's singleplayer products. Moreover, I wonder how the hell it happened. Did each studio decide to make near-future games at once? Did Activision decide "This is what the market wants?" Two years ago we got Ghosts with its alt-timeline look at near-future 2017. Then last year we got Advanced Warfare, which went off to the 2050s. And now Black Ops III, in 2065.
Here, we see something more akin to Assassin's Creed, where there are multiple studios involved in the series but they're all oriented towards cranking out the next entry in the same product line. Assassin's Creed Unity follows the events of Black Flag followed the events of III, et cetera.
Activision is still maintaining some sort of "separation" in these current products by calling this Black Ops III, but if you watched the demo last week and thought "This could've been called Advanced Warfare II," well, I don't blame you. It looks like an ultra-generic future shooter. There is nothing to suggest, from what we've seen, that this is a Black Ops game, or that it has anything to do with the previous Black Ops games. There's none of the Cold War paranoia. There's none of the weird us-versus-them conspiracy theory menace.
And there's none of the charm of exploring conflicts previously unexplored. We've only been in this "near-future shooter" kick for the last few years, but it already feels done to death in my mind. Probably because nobody's managed to do anything interesting with it. It's just a lens for our modern-day xenophobia.
Days of future past
So as I watched my thirty-minute preview of Black Ops III last week, I found myself yawning. There were guns cracking, explosions, massive robots stomping around--but there was none of what I come to Black Ops for. There was none of the human element, none of the intrigue and manipulation, none of the cowboy diplomacy, none of the shady allure of Mason and his number stations.
It looked like another near-future shooter in what is now becoming an indistinguishable glut of near-future shooters. You could've told me it was Advanced Warfare II. You could've told me it was Titanfall 2. You could've told me it was a near-future sequel to Spec Ops: The Line (yes, please). You could've told me...well, anything. Okay, maybe not that it was a sequel to Viva Pinata. But short of that, pretty much anything. That's the problem.
Again, let me reiterate: There's still plenty for Treyarch to show off. Maybe this was just a bad demo. Maybe they wanted to push their take on future-tech so much they simply forgot to put some sort of soul into that demo, some kind of hook for players of the prior games. Maybe there is something about Black Ops III that will make it clear This Is A Black Ops Game.
It doesn't seem that way though, and what little I've seen has me worried Black Ops squandered what used to make it unique. That it's now a "name" or a "brand" more than a true series. I had high hopes for Black Ops III, which is interesting because most years I have zero hopes for Call of Duty.
But the further we get away from Alex Mason--tied to a chair, a chilling silhouette barking commands at him, numbers playing over and over in his head, memories of Vietnam flashing through his twisted and broken brain--the less I seem to care.