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Call of Duty: Black Ops 6 could change the first-person shooter forever

A motorcycle jumps over a car in Call of Duty: Black Ops 6.
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This story is part of our Summer Gaming Marathon series.

The stakes have never been higher for Call of Duty. With the series officially under Microsoft’s wing and being heralded as Xbox’s biggest first-party franchise, the next entry needs to deliver. That would be stressful enough as is, but it’s doubly anxiety-inducing for developer Treyarch. Not only is it ushering in a new era for Xbox, but it’s about to release a foundation-shaking moment for the franchise at large with Call of Duty: Black Ops 6.

At first glance, the latest entry in the long-running shooter series might just seem like another Call of Duty game, a reliable product spit out of a well-oiled machine. That’s not exactly the case. Black Ops 6 is more of a reinvention than it looks, turning the military shooter into a full-on spy thriller. A tonal shift like that isn’t just a matter of writing a blockbuster story filled with political intrigue. It requires a deeper overhaul of how fans actually play Call of Duty. And that’s exactly what Treyarch is delivering.

Ahead of today’s Xbox Showcase, I got a comprehensive look at all the changes coming in Black Ops 6. Its Hollywood blockbuster missions and 1990s setting might be the talk of the weekend, but the real star of the show is a major change to movement that might not just reshape Call of Duty — it could change the way shooters are made, period.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

Call of Duty: Black Ops 6 takes place in 1991 amid the drama of the Gulf War. It acts as both a sequel to Black Ops Cold War and, more directly, Black Ops 2’s 1989 missions. The story kicks off when Russell Adler reemerges during a mission in Kuwait, a surprise that sends the CIA into a tailspin. Soon, it’s revealed that the organization has been infiltrated by a shadowy group called The Pantheon that is hatching a deadly evil plan. That dynamic takes the story in an exciting direction: players have to go rogue.

The new squad consists of Adler and newcomers Sev and Felix. Rather than working under a resourceful military, the trio breaks the established rules of Call of Duty to weed out the traitors within the CIA. That change is even reflected in its DIY tools. Rather than using a military-approved cluster grenade, players instead use a spring mine that looks like four rudimentary bombs fastened together with zip ties. It’s a refreshing change of pace for the series; it’s less of a military fantasy and more of a Tom Cruise movie. Associate Creative Director Jon Zuk (from Raven, which once again collaborated with Treyarch to create the campaign) says it was able to accomplish that thanks to the unique story it’s telling here.

“It came together really nice with the whole concept of the rogue team,” Zuk tells Digital Trends. “They’re trying to solve this mystery and they jump into these different situations that a military simulator operator wouldn’t get themselves into. You wouldn’t expect a Delta Force soldier to get into a political gala. But now we’re on the outside! We can do these things and it feels more natural. But they still know people on the inside and can call in some favors … We can go back and forth between those two worlds.”

A man aims a gun in Call of Duty: Black Ops 6.

I’d see that play out in a hands-off demo of one of its story missions. In Capitol Station, players have to infiltrate a fancy gala for then-governor Bill Clinton (yes, really). It turns out that there’s a black site underneath the fancy event guarded by chain gun-wielding Pantheon members decked out in Fallout-style power armor. What ensues is pure Hollywood chaos. A climb up an elevator shaft turns into a daring set piece when someone cuts the ropes. That bleeds into a hallway shootout where I watched the player character grab a bad guy, strap a grenade to his chest, and kick him into his pals.

The adrenaline only ramps up from there when the rogue squad gets back to the gala space, now ravaged by gunfire and explosions. Fortunately, they find some motorcycles and set out on a road chase that would make Jason Bourne jealous. It’s a spectacular sequence that fully looks like an interactive spy movie. As someone who’s offered his fair share of criticism about Call of Duty stories over the years, it’s the most interested I’ve ever been in one.

Back to war

Capitol Station is just one mission. Treyarch’s goal with Black Ops 6 is to ramp up the variety, with everything from a casino heist to a “behind enemy lines” setup. I’d see that philosophy in action when the developer showed off a completely different mission, this one set in Iraq as a squad looks to storm one of Saddam Hussein’s palaces. It’s structured more like a mini open-world operation, where players have several sabotage objectives scattered around a map. The demo I saw had a team storming a missile test in the desert, killing everyone in sight, and blowing it all to smithereens.

We’re not trying to make war propaganda.

While it’s an impressive spectacle, it’s a mission that’s likely to raise some familiar unease about the series. It leans back into frustrating military game clichés as players once again gun down Middle Easterners in the name of the morally gray “greater good.” That’s bound to touch some raw nerves in a year that’s been dominated by a bloody geopolitical conflict in Gaza that’s made the true horror of warfare feel more visceral than ever. After my demo, I’d raise that context to Associate Creative Director Miles Leslie and ask how reality influences Treyarch’s choices.

“We’re not trying to be provocative to be provocative,” Leslie tells Digital Trends. “We’re not trying to tap into things to elicit a reaction and be insensitive. We’re trying to craft entertainment. It’s fictional make-believe. We want to make it believable to immerse the players in our fake thing, but we’re not trying to recreate horrific moments that actually cause pain. We recognize there’s real things in the world. We’re not trying to make war propaganda. We’re trying to make entertainment for people to escape into … With us focusing on that, in a way, you don’t have to worry about what’s going on in the world. Yes, we’re affected by these things and hear about them, but as long as you stay away from it, it’s never really a problem.”

A soldier stands outside in Call of Duty: Black Ops 6.

Total escapism might not be realistic this time around. While the story is an over-the-top spy thriller, it’s also playing into real-world conspiracy theories involving current-day political figures. The Pantheon looks like a stand-in for the Illuminati, a shadow group that secretly runs the world. The fact that George Bush and Bill Clinton play roles in the story only pours more fuel around the powder keg. If nothing else, it feels like it’ll create some controversy — especially as the timeline is only 10 years off from having to grapple with the franchise’s corrupted government’s potential role in September 11.

It’s that politically complicated backdrop that makes me glad that Black Ops 6 is leaning so hard into Hollywood fantasy in at least some of its missions. The further away it gets from real moments that some players were alive to experience, the more it can let loose with exhilarating Hollywood fantasy. There’s a harmless joy in tossing a homing knife at an enemy and watching it explode on contact. That unabashed spy silliness feels like the right step for the series, even if it’s playing with fire in an explosive political moment.

Redefining movement

Story can only go so far when it comes to changing a series like Call of Duty. Gameplay would have to shift to fully sell the spy movie fantasy. That’s where Black Ops 6 feels like a revelation that could become the franchise’s most influential moment in over a decade. The star of the show is Omnimovement, an ingenious new traversal system. In most games, players can only sprint in one direction. That’s not the case here. Instead, characters can sprint in all four directions — and even dive in them too.

That’s a genuine game changer on paper. Say you’re hiding behind a wall in multiplayer and know there’s an enemy around the corner. Rather than slowly strafing out and becoming an easy target, you could instead do a leaping dive to the left and gun down your enemy as you pass by. It’s a system that feels custom-built for content creators. I can already see videos of people getting kills while diving backwards out a window. It makes Call of Duty feel like Max Payne. I imagine every first-person shooter will adopt the same system fast, making it a new industry standard.

We want a sense of mastery, but it should never feel unfair.

The idea is to turn players into action heroes, and a bunch of systems help build that feeling. While laying prone, players can now contort their bodies around to get into a new position instead of awkwardly crawling into a new position. Fluidity and immersion are the name of the game here. One new option removes the need for extra button presses when mantling, ducking, and performing other actions like that. Players can just run forward and let the game take care of the rest. There’s also more dynamic gun slicing, with players’ view and weapon angle naturally tilting depending on the situation. All of those details built an action system that feels less stiff overall.

The question is how well players will adapt to that. I’d get to try Omnimovement for myself when I played a handful of multiplayer matches. Though I can’t get into specifics just yet, I can already imagine that it may take players some time to get used to it. As players, we’ve been conditioned to always sprint forward. The idea of doing it side to side or backwards might be hard to internalize at first. This isn’t a fault with Black Ops 6. Treyarch is doing something genuinely exciting, but new. It’s going to take time for players to rewire brains influenced by decades of video game movement.

Two players shoot at one another in Call of Duty: Black Ops 6.

I imagine it’ll be an impactful change in the long run, though it does leave one lingering question: How will that impact multiplayer? My initial fear (especially as a Destiny player who is used to annoying Hunters) is that hardcore players who take full advantage of Omnimovement will create an even higher skill ceiling. It’ll make Call of Duty a far more exciting spectator sport, but would casual players stand a chance against those who can dodge out of gunfire like Neo in The Matrix? Leslie says that the team grappled with that balance a lot during playtests and feels that those concerns have been ironed out for now.

“We have a lot of experience. I go advanced movement and all the movement things we’ve done before,” Leslie says. “We’re making sure players are in frame. They can’t move too fast out of the way. You can still track them even if you’re on keyboard or controller. We want a sense of mastery, but it should never feel unfair. And that goes for both sides. I want to use it and feel like I’m doing the really cool thing to be successful, but on the receiving end, I don’t want to feel like I’ve been bamboozled because you’re moving too fast. I think we’re striking the right balance; we’ll find out at beta.”

I hope that’s the case, because Call of Duty: Black Ops 6 really does have the makings of a watershed moment for shooters. Its focus on fluid movement and action movie thrills (coupled with some jaw-dropping visuals) make it feel like the most enticing installment in a very long time. And with a planned Game Pass launch that’s sure to bring in more casually interested fans than ever, all eyes will be on Call of Duty later this year. There’s always the risk that Treyarch’s ambitions could come with growing pains, but if it’s successful, it could reshape the genre in the same way staples like Halo have. At the very least, it’s the most exciting Call of Duty has felt in a very long time.

Call of Duty: Black Ops 6 launches on October 25 for PlayStation 4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S, and PC.

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Giovanni Colantonio
Giovanni is a writer and video producer focusing on happenings in the video game industry. He has contributed stories to…
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