There are times when Call of Duty: Black Ops III's multiplayer feels like a scratchcard from which you're scraping the dull metal grey surface of a military shooter to reveal the three matching Quake symbols below. Your prize: a game that's increasingly difficult to stereotype, which is fast and often fun, which has found solutions to many of its ancient frustrations, but which still has an annoying and possibly insoluble problem at its core.
It has been this way for a while. Call of Duty [official site] traded its modern military setting for the near- or mid-future some time ago, but the popular conception of the game is still one where mean kids control dudes in khakis, kill you repeatedly with impossibly quick reflexes, and call air strikes down upon your head. I've been playing Black Ops 3 for a few days however and I haven't once been machinegunned to unavoidable death by an invisibly circling AC-130, and I've barely seen any bad chat behaviour. Even 'Analking Skywank' showed good sportsmanship at the end of a losing match:
Much of what made Call of Duty multiplayer sour was washed away long ago, when Killstreaks were replaced by the teamwork-encouraging Scorestreaks, unlocks were balanced or removed to make them more generous to worse players and less all-powerful for the best, and when the future setting gave its developers an excuse (as if an excuse was needed) to build a world of colourful buildings, pink guns, tree-covered levels, and now a character roster which includes (gasp) women.
That future setting - and again, this is stuff which has been true for a few iterations - has also helped clean up the worst of Call of Duty's level design. Jumpjets let you clamber up to high ledges and windows, meaning there's no such thing as a defensible sniper position, and the ability to wallrun allows for more diverse shapes to the atriums and killzones that intersect with each map's twisting corridors. Black Ops 3's levels are all consistently good, and though I've yet to master any of them, it has been rewarding to learn their sight lines and shortcuts.
To summarise, I think Blops 3 is a pretty great version of a multiplayer game that's been becoming gradually better for years. But the problem that remains, which I still encounter constantly, is the part about being killed repeatedly by people with impossibly quick reflexes. I think it remains a problem because it extends into form rather than only execution.
Blops 3's multiplayer is about gathering knowledge of levels and executing on precision skills like positioning, aiming and shooting. Your gradual internal progress at those skills, as you memorise distances and increase reflex speeds and learn to compensate for recoil, is hard to measure. The unlock system therefore measures your progress for you: rewarding you with short-term rewards during matches, and providing access to new and sometimes more powerful tools which are persistent to your account.
This is why there's a problem when one player calls in an airstrike upon the head of another. The target of the airstrike can’t avoid it by using any of the skills that the game teaches, and the airstrike is itself a reward for a player who likely doesn't need the advantage. In other words, it feels unfair. By changing the systems by which those rewards are gained, and by making the rewards considerably less destructive, Codblops mitigates the frustration but doesn't do away with it entirely.
That's partly because, though the advantages and disadvantages have been smoothed, the systems still feel opaque. When you round a corner and come face to face with a player who has unlocked their Specialist ability - a class-specific skill or two which are unlocked as AC-130's once were - it’s not clear what that player did to earn that access. Even if the Sparrow abillity, which allows the Outrider class to slowly fire arrows in long arcs, is not as deadly as a bomb dropped on your head, it's hard to respect the skill that player applied to get that ability when you didn't see it. From your perspective, it still boils down to being one-shot by an enemy who has a special gun that you can't have.
Worse, this is broadly the problem with the rest of the game, too. It is not clear, when you are killed by a man who shot you with one of the more common machineguns, what they did right and you did wrong. Even the killcam doesn't make clear the thousands of hours of accrued knowledge your opponent applied in besting you. The instinct is to think that their gun is better - and sometimes it is, though that's also a symptom of their gathered knowledge - or to think that they're cheating. And accusations of cheating are one of the most prevalent remaining examples of toxicity in the game's community.
To be clear, I do not think that the reflexes on show are "impossible". I do not think that the people who are being accused of cheating are cheating - most of the time, anyway. I just also don't think that the people accusing them of cheating are doing so solely because they are bad losers. I think it's a problem with the game.
I am not sure what Call of Duty should do to fix this, without becoming something it's not in the process. But these weren't problems in Quake, where floor-spawning weapons and powerups could be picked up by anyone, creating the impression of - even if no greater a reality of - equal opportunity.
And while I don't want Call of Duty to become Quake - not entirely, anyway - we consistently applaud roguelikes for the methods they employ to avoid frustration even in the face of permadeath. Mainly, that when you die, you understand the mechanisms of your demise and it feels like your fault. It feels like a learning experience. Death in Call of Duty never feels like a learning experience, not even as much as it does in relatively similar games. It feels like noise on a graph of data points you can't read. It's perhaps the last noisy vestiges of a Call of Duty that's otherwise been replaced with something smarter and better designed, but it seems like the one aspect that'll be hardest to ever fix.
Call of Duty Black Ops 3 is out now. Adam's review of the singleplayer component is over here.