What do you do with an IP that prints money and a gameplay formula that works best with a light touch? Well, you slather it with high quality visuals, fancy new toys, sticky drama, and kick the whole thing into the future. Yes, the gritty future of cyborgs, high-level conspiracies, scary software, and of course, special ops. If you saw the latest story trailer for Call of Duty: Black Ops III (due in stores November 6th), you’d be easily forgiven for scouring the footage for purple hair or a black trench coat. And if you don’t understand why, then buckle in.
Call of Duty: Black Ops III is the 12th iteration of the Call of Duty franchise. That’s right, since 2003’s release of the original Call of Duty, there has been one main title release every year. We’re approaching the point in video game history where Call of Duty has been a cultural force for about a quarter of the medium’s entire existence. This type of longevity and stamina has only been matched by franchises like Madden, Pokémon, and Mario; even Halo takes a break every two or three years.
Activision’s favorite first-person shooter is an easy target for derision since it seems to suck up all the money and inspire endless derivative games and gameplay features in other titles. But, credit belongs where it’s due. Black Ops III may not feature amazing gameplay innovation (that remains to be seen), but there is clearly a lot of effort being put into the game’s story and cinematic appeal. The latest trailer promises a plot with some substance as well as a grim and engaging take on the future of mankind.
Enter the fans of cyberpunk. When your sci-fi story focuses on artificial intelligence, programming, cyborgs, conspiracies, and plays with the line between man and machine, you’ll usually find yourself in the cyberpunk subgenre. It came to life in the early 80s, but hit its stride in the late 80s and early 90s. Movies like Blade Runner and The Matrix helped catapult the stylistic neo-noir aesthetic into the public’s consciousness, but genre fans quickly point to Neuromancer, Ghost in the Shell, and Deus Ex as paragons of high-tech, low-life storytelling and artistry.
Rather than pit power-armored soldiers against zealous foreign nationals, the latest Black Ops III trailer suggests that players may need to apprehend or eliminate former members of their ranks. All we know for certain is that some soldiers are losing control of themselves due to a program latching onto their consciousness, but the source of this control remains to be seen.
Aside from advanced prosthetics and dreary skylines, the plot of Black Ops III appears to revolve around the direct neural interface. It isn’t clear exactly what this does, but it’s safe to infer that it applies to how soldiers interact with their hardware, and is likely the vector for whatever software is taking over their minds. It’s this focus on mind and machine that arguably brings Black Ops III into the realm of cyberpunk.
So the question is, as asked by an unnamed soldier, “Are you still in there, John?” Where does soldier end and machine begin? Who’s responsible for an entire black ops team going rogue? Who’s trying to hide what? Hopefully, this will all be answered in the game. And if the writers have taken cues from the classics, the answers will come with a heavy dose of existential philosophizing.
The success of Black Ops III will likely ride on whether or not longtime fans of the franchise enjoy its multiplayer component, but the story trailer provides an extra push for those who prefer engaging narrative. Most Call of Duty titles feature characters and plots that would do well in a “Tom Clancy Lite” section of a book store. But recent titles show that the developers are driving hard to flesh everything out and provide more substance in the campaign.
Borrowing elements from the much-loved cyberpunk genre is certainly a smart move. Its concepts are inherently timely and only become more relevant as technological innovation marches on. It also plays well with the themes of subterfuge, betrayal, and intrigue, story elements that are hard to make boring. Considering how slick and cinematic the visuals are and how evolved the story seems to be, if Black Ops III can’t draw in story-loving naysayers, the future for expanding the Call of Duty audience looks a little bleak. At least the developers will have plenty of cash to wipe their tears away.