Call of Duty: Black Ops 3 preview: wall running, co-op, and future tech

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For more, check out Black Ops 3's minimum system requirements and the first gameplay trailer.

I'm playing Call of Duty: Black Ops 3 as Seraph, a female criminal assassin raised in Singapore's quarantine zone and one of nine Specialist character types that can bring a unique weapon or ability into a multiplayer match. I pick up the enemy flag and quickly get out of sight by powersliding 15 feet into a nearby building. It's a lot like the slide in Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, but faster and longer.

Inside, I shoot another player in the back. It's still Call of Duty, where sometimes you get kills because you're lucky, which I was. On the other side of the building, I choose the left route back to base. I can get across a long stretch of it by wall running over an abyss, which is quicker, and in this instance, much safer than the shooting gallery which was the open courtyard in the middle of the map.

Halfway across the abyss an enemy player started wall running at me from the opposite direction. We can both aim down sights and fire our guns mid-run. I, however, am fully in the zone at this point, and my special ability is charged.

I push the right and left bumpers (I played on PS4; PC wasn’t made available to us during this demo), pulling out Seraph's special weapon. It's a cannon of a revolver that kills anyone in one shot, so I blast the fool away and watch him fall to oblivion as I take the flag home for a point.

Then someone kills me and in the next life I catch a bullet before I do anything cool. Despite some significant changes, it's still Call of Duty, meaning players take turns kicking ass and getting their ass kicked.

Off the wall

Treyarch managed to get through a two-hour presentation without ever mentioning Advanced Warfare, and when asked, it said that no, even if both games are set in the future, Black Ops 3's soldiers aren't wearing exo suits—they're cybernetically enhanced soldiers with jetpacks.

The distinction between one future war fiction and another is silly, and I'm here to tell you that despite what Treyarch says, movement in Black Ops 3 is very similar to Advanced Warfare, especially because of the ability to boost up into the air. It's not exactly like Advanced Warfare's double jump—you expend a recharging thrust meter by holding and feathering the jump button—but the overall impact on Call of Duty is the same: you have more freedom of movement, especially vertically.

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To Treyarch's credit, movement in Black Ops 3 does feel better—slower and smoother—than Advanced Warfare, but not as good as Titanfall, which despite its problems, has bigger, more interesting maps that encourage improvisation.

Only after playing Black Ops 3 did I realize Advanced Warfare was too jittery, with incessant jumping, dashing, and sliding from side to side. It's a complex system worth mastering, but the short bursts of movement divided the action into short, violent spurts, a familiar problem in Call of Duty multiplayer that Advanced Warfare made worse.

With unlimited sprint, smooth mounting animations, no dashing, and other small changes, Black Ops 3 let me connect wall runs, slides, kills, and special abilities so my turn kicking ass was fun enough to justify waiting for another.

You'd think that wall running would be the biggest addition here. It isn't. Maps are still Call of Duty-sized, with three, interconnected lanes combining tight and open spaces. Some lanes or interconnections include a wall running opportunity, which adds some nice variety, but based on the three maps I saw, that's about it.

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Swimming serves the same function. That's right: For the first time ever in a Call of Duty, I was running around the level, and when I saw a body of water I didn't treat it as off limits. I could jump in, shoot every gun as I could on dry land, and with the jetpack, break through the surface like a beautiful marlin, kill someone in midair, then dive back into cover.

There isn't a body of water in every map, but it was cool when it was there. In this early alpha state, there was a cover advantage to being underwater, and a mobility advantage to being out of the water, which made for some interesting hide and seek moments.

Treyarch seems to understand Call of Duty is in desperate need of variety in terms of loadouts as well. Black Ops 3 has more guns than necessary that you can customize with up to five attachments, each with one purely cosmetic variation, crazy deep paintjob tools, and Black Ops 2's "pick 10" perk system. But loadout variety thankfully goes beyond gun fetishisim.

We've spent more than 10 years playing Call of Duty games as generic soldiers, and now Black Ops 3's Specialists are finally adding some personality to multiplayer characters (even Call of Duty devs play MOBAs, it seems).

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You commit to a Specialist and either their special weapon or ability before the match, and there's no restriction on who gets to pick what. If everyone wants to go into a match as Seraph, it'll be a bit boring, but balanced.

In addition to Seraph, I played as Ruin, a viking-looking rusher with either a ground-pound area-of-effect attack, or a special speed ability. A robot named Reaper was another popular choice, probably because his arm could transform into a minigun, which is easy to understand and pretty badass. A character named Outrider wields a bow with exploding arrows, but I was more interested in her vision pulse ability that revealed enemies through walls.

The abilities are cool and powerful and can be snatched away from you with a stray bullet. They're just another type of Scorestreak (which are still here), only they charge up on a timer that goes faster with every kill.

You'll customize your Specialist's appearance, too. I didn't get to see what that looks like, but I do worry it will make Specialists harder to identify on sight, which is important information to have quickly in a first person shooter where different characters have strategic significance.

Buddy systems

Black Ops 3 is set decades after the events of Black Ops 2. You won't see returning characters, but you'll see how they impacted the world, which in short has gone to shit. Following Raul Menendez's devastating drone attack on the United States in 2025, nations split into two, opposing world factions, both of which which employ comprehensive air defenses that put a new emphasis on boots-on-the-ground warfare.

I didn't get to see much of the campaign, but there are big changes here as well. The biggest is that the entire story has four-player co-op, with each player bringing their own campaign-specific customizable character into the session. There's progression system that lets you upgrade your cyber-soldier with different abilities, and as each player can change the appearance and gender of their character, they're not named, celebrity-voiced characters as in previous Black Ops.

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In the level I saw, the four characters arrived in Ramses station in Cairo, which in the midst of a hellish war, looks like something between between a Warhammer 40,000 planet and 2013's Judge Dredd's rendition of Mega-City One.

There was a lot walk-and-talk exposition, classic, jingoistic Call of Duty monologuing, and then someone shouted "look out!" or something like that and the shooting started.

Ball shaped drones dropped from the sky and exploded into dozens of blades, impaling poor redshirts. A harrier dropped a prefabricated barricade with gates and sniper nests, which blocked of city streets by extending into nearby buildings, smashing cars in the process. Drones buzzed above, peppering the battlefield with bullets and missiles. A swarm of bee-sized nanobots set humanoid robots on fire. It's Call of Duty turned up to 11, but it's where the volume dial has been stuck for years, so it's not that impressive.

With four players running around, you need more room than the narrow corridors Call of Duty is known for, and in the Cairo section I saw, once that instant barricade dropped from the sky, it did create an open space for fighting that looked bigger than usual.

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I'm extrapolating here based on one section and Treyarch's promises, but I imagine that rather than an endless on-rails experience, Black Ops 3 will make frequent stops in these arena-like sections, giving you and your friends more freedom to decide how exactly to blow everything up.

Since players are presumably choosing different upgrade paths for their campaign soldiers, they bring different abilities into battle that can work together in interesting ways. A player with a bunch of movement enhancements can act as a great flanker, while another player can stick to the high ground with a sniper, provide cover, and mark targets, which other players will see with their shared 'direct neural interface.' Another player with the ability to remotely hijack drones could initiate Call of Duty's signature, eye-in-the-sky turret sections at any given moment, which is another way to help your friends.

If the campaign includes more of these sections than it does corridors, than I'm genuinely excited. If this is just one out of a handful of sections in the game, I'll be pretty insulted. The corridor of epic set pieces is just not going to cut it anymore.

Treyarch will have a lot more of Black Ops 3 to show before it's released on November 6 this year. More specialists, a social layer to tie multiplayer and campaign, an esports strategy, and the return of Zombies mode, which Treyarch created in the first place.

What I've seen so far is promising, potentially much better than Advanced Warfare. Traversal improvements and Specialists are changing multiplayer for the better, and co-op could finally open up the campaign a little, and at least let you experience it with friends.