The Black Ops IIII announcement took place in an airplane hangar. Seats lined up in rows faced giant screens flanked by massive hanging speaker arrays. We filed in, the journalists and the YouTube BLOPs enthusiasts and the Twitch streamers and some portion of the public, to find out about the new game. And it was projected at us at ear-splitting volume, shotgun blasts and mystical devices and zombie noises, all powered into our sense organs with the singular purpose of turning us into conduits for the correct Black Ops IIII message.
You can, of course, see all of that information in the official release video of the event. Black Ops IIII is going to have multiplayer without double jumps or boosting. It’s going to ship with a robust zombies mode. It will have a new mode, called Blackout, that is emulating the widely successful battle royale games that have come to dominate games discourse. As many outlets have reported, it seems that we are losing narrative in this game for a more ephemeral, replayable multiplayer commitment. Black Ops IIII is an entry with a lot of changes.
So what, then, is the point of being in that room? If the information is out there and available, what’s the point of packing the room with all of these screaming, hollering fans who chattered constantly about speculation beforehand and, in a different register, about their experiences after?
I was sitting on the right side of the hangar while the presentation was going on. Like a pseudo-E3 event, the pitch was split into sections that dealt with each part of the new game. Between each of those sections, in the small moment of pause between when a loud video stopped playing and when a man on stage began speaking, someone behind me would scream. “Let’s go!” No matter what was happening at the time, we were getting ready to “go.” More content, more ideas, more things to become excited about before we saw them. It was the most honest (and loudest) vocalization of a readiness to be excited that I’ve ever heard.
And, god damn it, I did get ready to go. Annoyed by the loud presentation and the vague promo information, I went to the play session fully prepared for a generic Call of Duty experience that was maybe 10% different from all of the games that I have been playing for more than a decade now. I expected more of the same. When I think of Call of Duty, I think of the screaming guy behind me, the screaming guys who played the original Modern Warfare down the hall in my college dorm, the screaming guys who show up in voice chat with regularity.
There wasn’t much screaming on my team, although there were a couple hollers from our opponents, and I think there are a few reasons for that. On one hand, we weren’t the screaming type. On the other, I believe that Black Ops IIII’s overhauled healing system truly creates a less stressful and more contemplative experience. From the design level, I think that this game might be less geared toward yelling.
The difference here is that healing in no longer automatic. In other games in the franchise, if you wanted to heal you would go crouch behind a crate and wait for the bloody visions to disappear. With a little bit of luck and some time out of action, you could be back to fighting strength and ready to take the fight back to your enemies. In Black Ops IIII, that automatic heal is gone. Instead, you have a button that you can press that gets you all jacked up on healing juice. There’s a subtle timing to it, but now there’s an opportunity to have a fight, dash behind a crash, smash the heal button, and come around the other side with guns blazing again. It’s a tactical choice that actually requires a bit of thought. You need to be paying attention.
Former University of Georgia running back Todd Gurley plays Black Ops IIII.
It’s a different kind of Call of Duty experience. Even though I was all amped up on bodily panic due to that loud, abrasive presentation, the act of actually playing the game was weirdly soothing. Identify enemies, take them out, heal myself, and help my team out with the powers of my specialist character (I mostly played as Crash, a medic character). Playing wasn’t a “let’s go!” experience. Instead it was a slower, more controlled “let’s do this” feeling.
And I wonder if that’s how the developers wanted it to work. The point of these events is to turn us all into that screaming guy. Call of Duty has crafted a player base who craves extreme action and a twitchy gameplay experience, and this game feels like something that tends closer to the speed of Ghosts than any of the other Call of Duties in recent memory. The tactical choices give the game a wax and wane that doesn’t feel face-smashing or scream-worthy. And I wonder how that’ll play over the game’s life cycle.
On the bus back to the hotel, I overheard some content creators talking about their experience of the game. They were “reading” the situation as much as talking about the gameplay, noting that almost everyone was gone after playing once and that very few people lined up to play twice. “If I had to rate it right now, I’d give it a seven out of ten,” one guy said. The anticipation of what the game could be had been shattered by what the game was, and the nervous energy that had filled the bus on the way to the event was fully dissipated into discussions of mechanics, presentation and map layouts.
Releasing a videogame is a nimble act of managing player enthusiasm and delivering something that rewards that enthusiasm. If you miss the mark on either side, or if you mess with expectations too much, then you end up with players who cannot absorb the new thing into their mental model of what the game is “supposed” to be. Black Ops IIII is walking on a thin wire, changing the game in fundamental ways while trying to harvest the flow of good feelings and that “let’s go!” attitude from all of the screaming dudes of the world. It’s hard to imagine that it’s possible to stick that landing.
Cameron Kunzelman tweets at @ckunzelman and writes about games at thiscageisworms.com. His latest game, Epanalepsis, is available on Steam.