Activision just can’t catch a break with Call of Duty: Black Ops IIII leaks. Initially, item listings in GameStop’s system suggested that 2018’s Call of Duty title would be “Black Ops 4“. The very next day, James Harden of the Houston Rockets was spotted wearing a hat with a logo strongly resembling that of Black Ops III. Two days later, whether previously-planned or forced out, Activision released a teaser trailer for Black Ops IIII, confirming its existence and October 12, 2018 release date.
It was relatively quiet until rumors started circulating that Black Ops IIII will release without a single-player campaign, including instead cooperative modes and possibly a “battle royale” mode to fill the gap. Then, it was reported that the game’s traditional multiplayer component will be more of a hero shooter, comparable to Overwatch (which is also owned by Activision) and Lawbreakers. As much as I appreciate all of this information coming out, I would feel better if all of these leaks weren’t terrible ideas.
My first gripe is Black Op IIII‘s stylistic approach to “four”. While not incorrect, it’s not what you would normally expect to see. It does create a nice progression to the logo from the previous games, just as the reveal trailer for Black Ops III did. From a design standpoint, this idea isn’t all bad, which is why I’m getting it out of the way first.
It’s actually that very progression from the previous games that I have the largest quarrel with. Firstly, what all of the reveals, media coverage and even the developers fail to mention is that the story of the Black Ops series actually began in 2008’s Call of Duty: World at War. It’s in Treyarch’s first-lead Call of Duty game that we meet Viktor Reznov, a Russian solider who fights his way from the Battle of Stalingrad in 1942 to the Battle of Berlin in 1945. Reznov then played a pivotal role in the original Black Ops, appearing as a hallucination to protagonist Alex Mason through much of the second half of the game. Mason, Reznov and several other character from Black Ops returned for Black Ops II, set between 20 and 60 years after the original.
The connection between Black Ops II and Black Ops III is much more subtle. The Nova 6 weapon from the first game, and antagonist Raul Menendez from the sequel, are briefly and inconsequently mentioned in the campaign. Their inclusion serves no purpose to the story and if you weren’t paying attention for the few, short moments they were discussed you’d never know they existed. That’s it. No other characters, settings or organizations from the previous games appear to tie everything together.
If Black Ops IIII isn’t going to have a campaign mode, then there won’t be even trivial mentions of the previous games. So why use the Black Ops name at all? Why not create a new Call of Duty mythos? It’s because the Black Ops pedigree brings with it a certain reputation and expectation of quality. The Black Ops games are definitely the most popular and most highly regarded. This is due to all of the talented people working for Treyarch on their games, but it may be to much to ask your average Call of Duty player which studio is developing this year’s title.
With no single-player, you have to wonder about how much of the game’s three-year development was wasted, and how late into development it was scrapped. Black Ops IIII may have found a way to bridge all of the games together, we may never know. But this rumor does give credence to reports that a remastered version of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 not only exists, but will lack the multiplayer component that made the original game such a huge success back in 2009. Activision will likely offer Modern Warfare 2 to consumers looking for a single-player experience, despite the fact that many of us played the game when it initially released. As such, you can expect a version of Black Ops IIII to be bundled with the remastered Modern Warfare 2, similar to how Activision handled the releases of Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare and the original Modern Warfare Remastered in 2016.
The coupling of Infinite Warfare and Modern Warfare Remastered also served to suppress the initial distaste for the former’s gameplay. I’ve talked before about how Call of Duty players have grown tired of the more agile, futuristic combat that the recent titles introduced. Modern Warfare Remastered offered players who longed for the “boots-on-the-ground” gameplay an alternative experience. WWII was supposed to be a continuation of that. But if Treyarch is continuing with the Black Ops theme, we might be in for another year of jetpacks and wallrunning. And if that’s the case, Activision may once again offer a dichotomy of Call of Duty titles so that there’s something for everyone.
Will Black Ops IIII and Modern Warfare 2 Remastered be sold at full price, though? If both games contain essentially only half of what you would expect, one would expect some sort of discount, particularly if bundled together. After all, when Activision revealed that the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 versions of Black Ops III would not contain the game’s campaign mode due to hardware limitations of the aging consoles, they also announced those versions of the game would sell for $49.99 compared to the traditional $59.99. If Black Ops IIII and Modern Warfare remastered are meant to compliment each other, would it be too much to ask that both games be included in a single $60 purchase? Probably. Despite less-than-desired content, I imagine the games will follow similar pricing as the Infinite/Modern Warfare bundles, with a version including the new games Season Pass coming in at around $120.
Speaking of Season Passes, with Black Ops IIII releasing earlier than expected, that puts a little bit of a damper on the additional content coming out for Activision’s current Call of Duty title, WWII. In the past, Call of Duty games typically released additional content roughly every three months, with the final content releasing in early September for PlayStation 4 players, and early October for Xbox One and PC players. For Infinite Warfare players on Xbox One, they only had a few weeks to play the final content offered before everyone forgot about it and moved on to WWII.
With Black Ops IIII releasing in early October instead of early November, Activision has two options: have Sledgehammer Games expedite their content release schedule, releasing the final content in August/September as was the case with Ghosts and Advanced Warfare, or release the final content on Xbox One at roughly the same time as Black Ops IIII. The former option puts unnecessary pressure on Sledgehammer to release content more quickly than anticipated. The latter means losing sales of the DLC as everyone moves on to the new title, and makes those who purchased the Season Pass feel like they aren’t getting their money’s worth as no one will be playing it for very long.
Why release the game in October anyway? It’s likely to preempt the release of Rockstar Games’s next big title, Red Dead Redemption 2. If this game performs anything like Rockstar’s last outing, Grand Theft Auto V, the game will will be a record-breaking success. Since its release in 2013, Grand Theft Auto V has been in the top ten selling games every year. In fact, 2013 was the first time in ten years that Call of Duty was not the top selling game of the year. Grand Theft Auto IV also outsold Call of Duty: World at War in 2008. If anyone can take down the goliath that is Call of Duty, it’s Rockstar Games. Activision is likely hoping the two week head start is enough to either persuade people to purchase Black Ops IIII over Red Dead Redemption 2, or at the very least it will accrue more units sold before the end of the year.
I want Black Ops IIII to be good, I really do. As iterative as Call of Duty has become I welcome changes that can bring new life to it. But if these rumors hold true, I fear Treyarch may have lost the very spark that allowed them to make Call of Duty great in the first place. It’s too early to make that call. Next week, Activision is hosting a Black Ops IIII reveal event in Los Angeles. They promise to have gameplay footage, a look behind the scenes and “additional declassified intel”. I’d love for them to be scarce with information so I can dissect and analyze the reveal again. At the very least, I hope they put to rest all of the fears we have for the future of Call of Duty.