The Call of Duty franchise is widely regarded as one of the more grounded and realistic of the popular shooter series out there today, but ever since developer Treyarch joined the series with 2008’s Call of Duty: World at War—which featured the hugely successful Nazi Zombies minigame–the COD games have inched closer and closer toward the science fiction and horror tropes common in rival shooters. Treyarch continued COD's flirtation with horror by including zombie minigames in Call of Duty: Black Ops I as well as COD: Black Ops II, the latter of which also pushed the series closer to sci-fi by prominently featuring future warfare technology.
That trend of genre cross-pollination will continue with Call of Duty: Black Ops III. This new addition to the franchise will feature an expanded version of the beloved co-op zombie mini-game - and judging from the new story trailer, the game will also plunge players even further into the dystopian darkness hinted at in previous installments of the series.
The trailer begins with footage of chaos in the streets and smoking city ruins along with a voiceover narration saying “We wanted a perfect future…and [expletive], we got it”—which should quell any lingering doubts that the Call of Duty: Black Ops III campaign is a dystopian story. The trailer goes on to tease a storyline involving the weaponization of human minds in an effort to create cyborg super soldiers; the narrative is likely to also feature multiple betrayals and psychological ambiguity as well as the full range of weapons, vehicles, and action set pieces that have distinguished Call of Duty campaigns for the last ten years.
Dystopian stories are pretty hot right now, so perhaps it was only a matter of time before Treyarch and Activision attempted to plant seeds in this genre with their military shooter series. The trailer indicates a fusion of futuristic concepts and weaponry with more classic military gear such as assault rifles and tanks—think Blade Runner meets Act of Valor. What’s also worth noting is that the game will be embracing cyberpunk elements: the trailer features an apparatus right out of The Matrix that fits onto the base of the soldiers’ skulls and presumably weaponizes their minds, and will no doubt provide opportunities for the story to toy with the perspective of the player (who will often be wondering if what’s on screen is “real” or not). The description of the trailer even includes the term “rabbit hole.”
So the Call of Duty: Black Ops III campaign will embrace the cocktail of dystopian and cyberpunk elements that made Blade Runner, The Matrix, and Akira such legendary properties. It’s great stuff, but is it Call of Duty? Our answer: it doesn’t matter. The insane popularity of this series has been linked to its online multiplayer modes, with the other modes seen either as pleasant diversions or as catering to players looking for a non-competitive experience. As long as Call of Duty remains Call of Duty in the online arena, the developers are free to experiment with “non-realistic” genre elements in the games’ campaign and cooperative modes—and potentially court new audiences.
Then again, Call of Duty fans are on the hook at this point. Treyarch might be able to do whatever they want with the series and still do well, in which case Black Ops III will be merely a taste of the genre experiments to come.
Call of Duty: Black Ops III releases on November 6th, 2015.