The newly released “Call of Duty: Black Ops III” trailer has everything a good war movie does: blood and guts; a leather-voiced soldier asking rhetorical questions; content that may be inappropriate for children; the Rolling Stones’ “Paint It Black,” faux gunshots popping in time to Charlie Watts’s snare drum. Squint, and the whole thing looks like “Full Metal Jacket” or “Apocalypse Now.”
“How far can we push technology,” intones the narrator, “before it starts pushing back?” (Elon Musk definitely needs an answer to this question.)
Activision Blizzard has been pushing the “Call of Duty” franchise for more than a decade now. And, despite a legal imbroglio and the ever-changing technological landscape, “COD,” valued in the billions, has survived — thanks to the games’ immersive quality. For, as great as digital dinosaurs like “Pac Man” and “The Legend of Zelda” were, they never made players really think they were there.
“Part of the brilliance of the Call of Duty series and its Medal of Honor precursor was their ability to convey a believable reality through a cinematic filter,” IGN wrote in 2009. “Scripted events made it so players would experience a dramatic view of the action every time. The game was still largely linear, but it was able to fool players into feeling like they were a part of a war.”
The “first-person shooter” — the genre of video games in which “Call of Duty” is the standout — have been around at least since Nintendo’s “Duck Hunt.” But such primitive attempts to transport gamers never really got them out of their bedrooms, rec rooms or basements. Something more than great graphics, a compelling story and dazzling explosions — choice — may be what led gamers polled by Guinness World Records last year to declare the game the best video game series in history, beating out legends such as “Super Mario Bros.” and “Grand Theft Auto.”
“This Call of Duty campaign is all about choice,” said Mark Lamia of Treyarch, which developed the game, as Engadget reported. Lamia said “Black Ops III” is better than any of its precursors: “Your investment in your character is going to mean something more than it ever has before in any Call of Duty game.”
Indeed, character investment is what “Call of Duty” has been about all along. In the years after the release of “Saving Private Ryan” (1998), there was no shortage of World War II-themed video games. But designers Vincent Zampella and Jason West took their virtual D-Day to another level even in a game they designed for an Activision rival before “Call of Duty.”
“Up to that point, game designers had instructed players on what to do using blinking arrows or on-screen text, which was an inelegant but effective way to keep players from walking into walls or getting lost in spaceships,” Vanity Fair wrote last year. “But in their rendition of the Allied invasion of Normandy, West’s team introduced a storytelling innovation: They put the game’s instructions in the mouths of commanding officers, making Allied Assault feel more like a movie than a game.”
The innovation helped lead to a blockbuster hit for Activision when “Call of Duty” was released in 2003. This was a blockbuster way bigger than actual movie blockbusters. The last six “Lord of the Rings” films, for example, have grossed more than $1.5 billion. But the value of the “COD” franchise was put at $3 billion — in 2009.
Money didn’t buy happiness for “Call of Duty’s” creators. Zampella and West thought they could make more nuanced games more suited to the age of terrorism, but were fired from Activision in 2010, setting off a round of suits and countersuits.
“Well, Activision wanted us to make another World War II game,” West said. “So that’d be an example of when we pushed for something creatively. And now they have billions of dollars they didn’t have before.” (Litigation was settled in 2012 after Zampella and West accepted a settlement from Activision “thought to be in the tens of millions of dollars,” as Vanity Fair reported.)
But lawsuits couldn’t stop this cultural juggernaut. Activision soldiered on with “Call of Duty,” releasing a swarm of new installments in the franchise. Developers even work on different future versions simultaneously. These are games so powerful Manuel Noriega, who appeared in “Call of Duty: Black Ops II,” sued, saying “COD” had damaged his reputation. (“This court concludes that Noriega’s right of publicity is outweighed by defendants’ First Amendment right to free expression,” Judge William H. Fahey of the Los Angeles Superior Court ruled last year.)
“Black Ops III” promises to be even more immersive. Among other innovations: customizable weapons, the removal of sprint limitations, thrust-assisted jump, power-sliding, wall-running and even swimming. For players designing their own protagonists, even gender is up for grabs — an option welcome in the age of Gamergate, an ongoing war about misogyny in gaming.
“It’s not just a female head on a male body,” Lamia said. “It’s a different set of animations for the entire game.”
“Black Ops III” will launch on Nov. 6.