Black Ops 3: The First Call of Duty MMO

With new additions such as specialists and total persistence, Black Ops 3 may have tipped Call of Duty into MMO territory.

The Call of Duty series has always skirted around being an MMO. Ever since Modern Warfare, after all, the multiplayer component has used experience points and levels to keep players addicted. Advanced Warfare even introduced the concept of weapon variants of varying rarities, giving players their first real taste of MMO loot. It's interesting, then, to see Treyarch embrace the MMO framework where their co-developers did not. Black Ops 3 is the first real effort we've seen by a Call of Duty developer to turn the franchise into an MMO, and it's worth playing almost for that alone. With character classes, universal persistence, and loot drops earned through play, we're seeing the final evolution of the Call of Duty series in Black Ops 3.

Every MMO has classes of some kind. From World of Warcraft to Albion Online, players inevitably drift into a particular class, even if that class is purely of their own making. While Black Ops 3 has the Create-a-Class system, much like every previous Call of Duty, this isn't what we really think of when we talk of MMO classes. Instead, Black Ops 3 has Specialists.

Specialists are the multiplayer equivalent of a class in any other MMO; in fact, they are best compared to Destiny. Each specialist provides players with a choice of either a specialist weapon or an ability, which are much like supers or class mechanics in other games. Weapons are aggressive, time-locked abilities (that you can earn quicker by doing well) that allow you to decimate entire teams or use the environment to your advantage. They are always built around killing other players. Conversely, specialist abilities have far more diversity, and range from the point-enhancing (for more killstreaks!) Combat Focus to the decoy-creating Psychosis.

These abilities are incredibly important, as they encourage you to pick a loadout that accentuates their strengths. Each specialist tends to favor a specific playstyle, and using a loadout that doesn't fit your specialist can pull your game down. For example, Ruin - a speedy guy who focuses on close-range combat thanks to speed boosts and an instant-kill ground slam - is terrible when using sniper rifles, as they don't synergize well with his abilities. On the other hand, Outrider - a sneaky recon that can see through walls and summon an explosive-tipped bow - works great at any range, thanks to the general utility of her vision power and the explosive denial of her bow.

This sort of "playing to your class" had never been attempted before in Call of Duty, and its inclusion in Black Ops 3 adds an interesting layer of depth to each match. The specialist you choose can restrict or open up your options for selecting loadouts, and it's important to have a variety of specialists to ensure their individual weaknesses are not exploited. Class variety is important, just like in classic MMO PvP.

This time, multiplayer also has an actual story beyond "shoot each other in the face because bad guys.” Each Specialist has a plot arc that gradually reveals itself through unlockable audio logs that are earned as you complete their respective challenges This lore even reveals that the Multiplayer is all a simulation, a way for these mercenaries to hone their skills and interact without the threat of dying for real. It injects a sense of story and interconnection into the multiplayer that is unheard of outside MMOs. Each class has its own individual story to navigate, much like the class quests in games like World of Warcraft, and participating reveals more about both the world and the characters that inhabit it.

This is also the first Call of Duty game to include the same persistence system in every single game mode - Campaign, Multiplayer, and Zombies - that has been traditionally used only in Multiplayer. This is especially interesting when you take into consideration Call of Duty's obsession with telling stories through DLC. Treyarch in particular has kept the same Zombies story running since World at War (which released in 2008!) by connecting each game through post-release DLC. This precedent means that they could conceivably do the same for the campaign, as Campaign now follows the same disjointed, non-linear play structure as the other two modes.

This is a standard practice in MMO circles - feature patches gradually leading into the next big release - but is uncommon among modern shooters. Even story-focused shooters usually only do one or two minor expansions to fill in some lost details before moving on to the next mostly-unrelated game. Treyarch opened a door for themselves that previously only existed for Zombies: the ability to tell an episodic campaign over time through feature packs, if they care to do so.

This persistence across all modes also makes Black Ops 3 a much more cohesive game. Each mode - campaign, multiplayer, and zombies - feeds into the others with cosmetic unlocks such as calling cards and camos. It feels much more like the same game with three different faces, rather than (as in Advanced Warfare and all previous games) three different games under the same umbrella.

Call of Duty has, since its inception, always been a series. Each year the next game comes out, each year a new community forms, each year the previous communities get smaller. But Black Ops 3 is the largest transition Call of Duty has made toward rectifying this. By incorporating classes and universal persistence, Treyarch didn't just build another Call of Duty. They built a platform that could be used for anything from episodic storytelling to true expansion packs to Dota-style class additions.

The potential for Black Ops 3 is endless, and even though there's plenty of reasons to be pessimistic about its future under Activision’s notoriously exploitative control, it's still heartening to see Call of Duty make the biggest step toward true persistence. Perhaps someday we'll see Call of Duty as the MMO it deserves to be.

James Murff is a longtime game critic who currently lives in Seattle. He’s awfully fond of transhumanism, pacing, player agency, and metagaming. His work can be found on his personal site, Simplikation, as well as Unwinnable.