“Call of Duty: Black Ops 3” might be where we can pinpoint the series dropping any pretense of military realism and just going for full-blown sci-fi spectacle. The series has been moving progressively toward futurism, in the previous “Black Ops 2” and last year’s “Advanced Warfare,” but always with plenty of attention given to consulting with notable futurists. From our look at E3, “Black Ops 3” ratchets it up to a degree that if you’d told me I was looking at a gritty first-person X-Men game, I would believe you.
In a lengthy hands-off demonstration, I was treated to all the gut-wrenching, explosive set piece moments one has come to expect from an E3 presentation. At this point, all of that is old hat. What struck me instead was how firmly futurism has taken hold in this series. No longer defined by its historical or modern accuracy, the next incarnation of “Call of Duty” gives you superpowers.
Within the span of roughly 15 minutes, I saw the player character wave his hand to make an enemy combatant burst into flame, and another take control of enemy mechs — pyrokinesis and cyberpathy, respectively. In a brief cut scene, a character held his hand toward a tablet, closed his eyes as if preparing for a psychic reading, and suddenly opened them with alarm at information he had found. He read the mind of an iPad.
Now, obviously, Treyarch isn’t going to hand-wave away these abilities as magical powers. As Arthur C. Clarke noted, any technology sufficiently advanced will appear similar to magic. The far-future plot introduces Direct Neural Interface (DNI) as its sci-fi buzzword, letting soldiers connect with each other. Even if it’s fantastical, the introduction of a fictional technology lets Treyarch bypass logic and get straight to the superpowers. Even “Advanced Warfare” started down this path, by introducing a final threat so vaguely defined that it was straight out of “X-Men 2.”
All of this may sound over-critical, and I do think there are some inherent problems in using a series rooted in patriotism and sacrifice to tell a story that’s starting to resemble the latest “Avengers” flick more than “Saving Private Ryan.”
But honestly, with an aggressively annual release schedule, how often can Activision’s many development arms be expected to hit those same notes? This is just the latest in a logical progression, from overt patriotism to mistrustful conspiracy to light futurism. Now we’re reaching heavy sci-fi. At the very least it escapes some pitfalls of treating realistic, modern war as cool and fun.
Untethered by some more realistic considerations does allow a certain kind of frenetic energy. Particularly notable was how the demonstration accented its four-player co-op campaign. Aside from again stressing the team-up aspect that made it read more like a big Marvel comics game, it did seem intense to see a chaotic battlefield with four characters all fighting off hordes of enemies on their own and occasionally finding creative ways to use their powers together. It was a thrilling experience that I’d like to try for myself, even if I’m relatively sure my own play-through will involve a lot more reviving of downed teammates. (By which I mean, teammates reviving me.)
I enjoyed my time with “Advanced Warfare,” largely because it used its newfound future-based freedom to experiment more with verticality and vary its weaponry. You can only go so far with realism, and it found the right way to expand on the concept. “Black Ops 3” might be the game to tip that delicate balance just barely over the edge, by presenting tech that doesn’t seem to have any noticeable basis in reality. I’m curious to find out for myself, and if all else fails, I can imagine this is Activision’s take on the X-Men.
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