Video Games Review: Call of Duty: Black Ops III (PS4, 2015)

In many ways, Call of Duty: Black Ops III has to deal with the same design problems that Advanced Warfare, and even Ghosts, had to deal with. What can you do to keep a franchise that ruled the roost in one hardware generation fresh and interesting while still providing new ideas and features that move things forward in a worthwhile way?

Treyarch became the series’ best developer after the release of Black Ops in 2010. They then had the full weight of the Call of Duty juggernaut fall on their shoulders when series creators Infinity Ward more or less fell apart. They rallied to release the most successful game in the series history, Black Ops II. It was a necessary stride forward for the series – best-in-class multiplayer with substantial differences from its forebears and a campaign that tried to do things people hadn’t seen before.

In Call of Duty: Black Ops III, Treyarch are trying new things once more. They’ve pushed hard on introducing co-op play into the campaign and there are a wealth of fresh character creation and traversal mechanics that we haven’t seen in any prior Call of Duty games. The problem with all of this (very admirable!) striving for differentiation is that Black Ops III finds itself a “collector of skills, master of none” situation. Most of the things it does, it does quite well, but there isn’t one of them that stands out as truly exceptional.

Call of Duty: Black Ops III is still set in the same fictional universe that Treyarch’s other games exist in, but that’s not especially important. It comes across as just another version of the story we heard last year, and the year before that – a near-future world that stands on the edge of complete disaster and the difference between military ideologies and corporate interests are getting harder and harder to tell apart.

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Right off the bat, the campaign gives us something we haven’t seen before: the ability to choose not only the gender of your character, but handful of different ethnicities to choose from as well. Either gender is given complete voiceover treatment during the campaign, which is good because I think this might be the most cutscene heavy campaign the series has ever had.

The campaign starts rather strongly with Law and Order: SVU’s Christopher Meloni in full-blown, crazy-eyed baby eater mode, taking you through a virtual combat simulation and talking at length about how important it is for you to have non-stop awareness of all battlefield information and your DNI rig, a set of cybernetic enhancements that your character becomes more or less dependent upon for survival. As my housemate rather aptly pointed out, Call of Duty: Black Ops III finally takes the series completely meta and turned you into a literal killing machine.

Sadly, beyond that the story just doesn’t hold much interest. It attempts to tackle some surprisingly big ideas head on – the concept of a conscious AI, and the idea that being so utterly connected through technology could be more of a curse than a blessing. I might be wrong about this, but I’m pretty sure every last one of the campaign’s major plot twists have been used in other Call of Duty games before, including Advanced Warfare. It tries hard to be serious but the writing is creaky and, despite the best of efforts of their very energetic cast, it becomes a series of rather cliche dudebro catchphrases and violence that is ugly and gratuitous even for Call of Duty. “Time to do what we do best,” says your partner Hendrix towards the end of the campaign, “Kill some bad guys.” Your character chuckles and replies “Just like old times.” Yes, if by “old times” you mean “literally three minutes ago.” It’s enough to make you wish for the tinfoil hat wearing, pseudo X-Files-iness of the first Black Ops to make a comeback.

Treyarch wants you to sample everything at the buffet and they kick you off with a training sequence in the aforementioned virtual combat sim. Rather than giving you choices to make in-mission or in the narrative, they instead allow you to choose your play style to a greater or lesser extent. It’s promising initially, giving you every possible upgrade for your rig all at once and letting you fool around with them. It was actually a lot of fun – you start learning all the little ways you can exploit the level design for fluid Titanfall-esque freerunning, and the ways that creative hacking can help you out in a pinch. Playing through the campaign earns you cybercores which can be used to purchase more upgrades and improvements to your rig. The better you rate, the better your score and the more you’ll unlock at the end of each mission. As far as I can tell, I don’t think you can have every last ability all together until your campaign profile dings Level 20 (and I never quite got there on my playthrough).

This, however, is where one of Black Ops III’s best new features comes in: co-op. Each mission in the campaign supports up to four players with complete, multiplayer-esque weapons and outfitting configs reminiscent of the old Pick 10 system from Black Ops II. The thing is, where a game like Halo 5: Guardians that is built for co-op constructs their level design around that style of play, it doesn’t quite feel like that’s the case here. Don’t get me wrong, having co-op play is never, ever a bad thing in my book. I would like more of it! But here, most of the time the default formation was me and one other person hanging back and sniping everything in sight while the other two players pursued whichever macguffin we needed to proceed without being hassled.

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Cranking the difficulty up any higher than normal in a Call of Duty game has always meant dealing with infuriating, hyper-aware AI that are able to headshot you with blind fire, from cover, at a range of twelve city blocks. I’ve heard people refer to these inhuman fear engines as Terminators in jest before but with Black Ops III, Treyarch have apparently taken the term to heart, having you battle a swarm of actual, not-even-joking murder droids, in addition to soldiers in robotic suits and Warlords, infernal bullet sponges that have to have the damn kitchen sink thrown at them before they’ll take a dirt nap.

Enemies like these are the antithesis of the spray-and-pray style of killspree that Call of Duty is known for. They aggressively prevent you from the usual strategy of ridiculously quick firing and the relentless march toward your objective. These new enemy types will seriously surprise you if you go in expecting to yolo-stomp your way through the campaign. If you dig in, they’ll come to you. The robots have no problem waltzing right up to you and beating your brains in. On the higher difficulty levels, especially in co-op, co-ordination is the key to survival.

Go it alone, however, and the campaign becomes a frustrating slog in a hurry. Enemies that can take way more than you’re able to hit them with at any given time need to be matched in some respect by the arsenal at your disposal and it doesn’t feel like that’s the case. It feels like I’ve got the same guns I’ve always had and the enemy’s gotten way better at dealing with them. Solo play is where the traditional game-loop for Call of Duty should probably have still made an appearance. While this new model works okay in co-op because you can revive your teammates and find new ways to take on a particular problem, it takes any sense of fun or tactics and replaces it with anger when playing on your own.

Every now and again, though, the campaign will find its feet and provide a genuinely interesting trade off between difficulty and player power, and even manages to make its hamfisted approach to the difficult concepts it badly wants to explore somewhat palatable on occasion.

But then they go and undermine the whole thing with a bunch of incredibly weird design calls.

Remember those abilities I mentioned earlier? Once you pick which set you want to take with you, that’s it. You can’t change it any point throughout the next level. At least, not until you ding Level 20, at which point you can suddenly jump between them to your heart’s content. It’s clear Treyarch would like to add a little replayability to the campaign, and that’s (again) admirable. Also admirable: you can look at intel on the next level and trying to make a call based on its predicted encounters. Getting in there and discovering you’ve taken completely the wrong set to deal with the situation is infuriating. All my powers stop humans but I’m being buried in robots. Great! There’s nothing I can do about that.

These abilities, plus the ability to customise your loadout as in the multiplayer, makes it feel like this campaign was designed to cater to every possible contingency. The result is that it feels less focused than Advanced Warfare’s campaign (which is saying something because that campaign drove me crazy for real) and certainly less defined.

The multiplayer component takes the new freerunning feature and gives you a number of strategically placed surfaces you can run on and you would think that, having all of these fun new toys at the beck and call of every player, this should be one of the most interesting multiplayer components of any Call of Duty title. Sadly, it doesn’t quite come together like that.

To be clear, Black Ops III gets all of the Call of Duty multiplayer groundwork right. The movement is rapid and the shooting super quick. The progression system returns and will get its hooks in you again with a quickness and we now have character classes to play around with. Each class gets two special abilities which you can unlock via scorestreak rewards, and you can pick these as you would any perk. Levelling up will also unlock more characters to play with.

This sounds amazing on the page (character classes in Call of Duty? At last!) but in practice, their abilities are so underutilised that they end up having no significant effect on a round one way or the other. They might come in handy for a kill or two every so often but when the time between deaths is short as it is in Call of Duty, most people I’ve encountered online are (quite literally) sticking to their guns.

It’s not a dealbreaker though. When you get right down to it, these crazy powers aren’t the core of the Call of Duty multiplayer experience. It’s about really specific building of your character moreso than server clearing superpowers or the skills of any one character type. Progression and customisation are still here and they still work a treat. The character class system feels like Treyarch haven’t been given the time to implement it properly, so it’s there but it doesn’t appear to matter.

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Multiplayer maps also don’t feel like they’ve pushed the freerunning mechanic far enough. I mentioned earlier that they were present in the multiplayer maps, it just doesn’t feel like there’s enough of them. Advanced Warfare built its multiplayer maps around the exo-suit mechanic and the way that changed your movement. It doesn’t feel like that same thinking has been applied here.

If you want a prime example of what the multiplayer freerunning could have been like, try out the new Freerun mode. You’re dropped into a VR obstacle course and the goal is to get from one end to the other just as fast as your little robo-legs will carry you. It’s so much fun and when you get it right and chain all your jumps and runs together just so, it sings. I really love it and I’ve spent quite a bit of time in this mode.

Freerun is one of a handful of add-on modes for Black Ops III. Zombies are back and, honestly, not much has changed there. The addition of Jeff Goldblum as a playable character is great and I like the 50’s aesthetic but there’s nothing substantially different from any other year’s Zombie mode and, for me at least, it’s getting pretty stale now. Dead Ops is back, the top-down twin-stick shooter mode, which has been given a surprisingly long campaign. It’s fun and it works, especially with a few friends.

I’ve spent a lot of time in this review stomping on Call of Duty: Black Ops III but it is, at its grimdark little core, still a Treyarch CoD title and that means it’s fun. It all feels very familiar, which is disappointing, but there’s a wealth of content here that makes it easy to recommend to any fan of the series. Still, it would have been nice to see Treyarch take the series and brusquely push it forward again the way they did in the original.

Review Score: 6.5 out of 10
Highlights: Freerun mode rules; Super pretty; Solid multiplayer; Gender and racial diversity!
Lowlights: Inconsistent campaign; Zombies mode is getting pretty stale
Developer: Treyarch
Publisher: Activision
Released: November 6, 2015
Platform: Campaign & Multiplayer: PS4, Xbox One, Windows PC, Multiplayer only:  Xbox 360, PS3

Reviewed on PlayStation 4