A bigger, blacker CoD
Call of Duty has come a long way over the years. Every subsequent release, though, has the ever-increasing challenge of upping the ante, especially as the fiction has crossed from the historical, to the modern, and, most recently, to the future. But just when you think there is nowhere left for it to go, Treyarch finds a way to push each mode to new heights and tie it all together in its most cohesive package yet with Black Ops III.
Set in 2065, Black Ops III’s world has actually taken a step backwards in some ways when it comes to how it wages war. Due to the setup of an air-defense grid after the attacks of Raul Menendez’s hacked drones 40 years earlier, warfare has once again gotten down and dirty, with foot soldiers serving as the difference makers in combat. But mixing with the blood, sweat, and tears out on the battlefield are the oil, rust, and frayed wires of robot soldiers and augmented humans looking for that extra edge in conflicts around the world.
It is here where Black Ops III begins, when your character is critically wounded on an op that goes sideways, and forced to replace several body parts in order to survive and continue operating for the United States government. As the story progresses through the eyes of your now-supersoldier, back in the field with robotic limbs and unfathomable abilities, you and your team uncover a secret that could turn the world on its head. Worse yet, you realize you weren’t the only ones to recently find out the truth.
Black Ops III’s campaign is easily the series’ most ambitious yet from a storytelling, gameplay, and design point of view. Each chapter is longer and larger than any we’ve seen in the past, with multiple paths to objectives available to players if they are willing to explore. These massive levels substantially lengthen the campaign, pushing my first playthrough to the 10-hour mark.
The wide maps and different routes are also ideal for the return of four-player campaign co-op. For the first time since World at War, you and some buddies can tackle the campaign together, with the difficulty ramping up dynamically depending on how many players have joined you. This also adds an element of potential planning and group tactics, as you can choose to be a team that moves as one, picking off enemies as you go, or branches off and tackles objectives from multiple angles. I personally found the multiple angles suited my team’s playstyle best, especially in the campaign’s handful of traditional boss fights—which were a surprising, but not necessarily unwelcome addition for a series known for its bombastic action filled set pieces.
The most significant addition to gameplay, though, is likely the new Cyber Cores. These are the different cybernetic abilities you can take out into the field with you. Grouped into three sets of six, each individual power can be upgraded as your character progresses.
Yes, one of the ways that Black Ops III more seamlessly brings the Call of Duty experience together is that progressing your character isn’t just limited to multiplayer. You can level up in all three modes of play, giving you specific unlocks in each one. In campaign, you not only customize your character’s armor, face, and guns, but their Cyber Cores, too.
This is done in-between levels, where you can visit a safe house that allows you to mess with your character depending on what chapter you’re going to tackle, while providing a nice respite from bullets whizzing by your ears. If you would like to be an offensive powerhouse, for example, you might want the Chaos Cyber Core that lets you shoot sonics out of your hands, debilitating all human enemies within range, or release nanobots that will swarm enemies and ignite them in flames. In the safe house you can also play a special simulation that acts as a Horde mode—which also features four-player co-op—within the campaign to test your loadouts before heading back into the story.
One of the most interesting aspects of the future setting, though, is that some of the levels are set in the virtual realm. While you can still die and have to restart from a checkpoint, these virtual levels make it so that nearly anything and everything are possible, like the inclusion of zombies for the first time in a main campaign, and even a return to Treyarch’s roots a bit with a World War II simulation that will blow your mind, all while still finding a way to progress the story.
That story, however, might be the one aspect of the campaign where things stumble a bit. Although the gameplay is phenomenal, and does a great job of really allowing you to play it however you want, Treyarch ran into the issue of having to essentially establish a brand-new world due to the 40-year jump in their continuity. Part of this takes place in the aforementioned safe houses, where people who want to dig deep into a small computer terminal will find fun articles ranging from fictional reports on major world events to fun little Easter eggs, like a failed military experiment that tried to weaponize cows.
The rest of the world-building begins in the middle of the narrative, derailing critical character development for the sake of establishing the backstory for your impending conflicts. One of the qualities that have made the Black Ops arc so great is that the conflict traditionally serves only as background noise for the characters that we get to know and love. David and Alex Mason, Woods, and Hudson were memorable characters that I adored. Black Ops III starts out similarly with this unfamiliar squad of undercover badasses, but then about a third of the way through, starts leading you down a rabbit hole around the conspiracy that you happen upon and forgets about making me want to care about any of the characters.
Although critical to the twist at the end of the campaign that will have players arguing on forums as much as Zombies enthusiasts do about that mode’s secrets, the campaign feels like it takes a break from the character development during that time to beat us over the head with themes like “Where do we draw the line with our dependence on technology” and “Americans messing with things they shouldn’t just creates more enemies.” This disrupted the narrative flow, and that became more evident just before the end when a romance subplot comes out of nowhere and the villain’s presence, predictably, is revealed to be with us since near the start of the story. I still enjoyed the campaign’s story as a whole, but I wish the conspiracy could’ve been better woven in with the characters so that the flow of everything didn’t feel so disjointed.
While on the subject of twists at the end of the campaign, the one that made me drop my controller was the reveal of a second campaign at the end of the first one. Dubbed “Nightmare,” this second campaign remixes the level order of the main campaign, but does so while providing a new protagonist, a new narrative, and new enemies.
The Nightmare campaign is a what-if version of the main campaign where all the enemies were zombies. You can’t personalize your loadout here, though. Instead, you have to rely on random magic boxes and drops from enemies in order to power up. The lack of control after having the keys to the customizable kingdom in the main campaign adds to an overall increase in difficulty considering how, even in the widest maps, the zombies will swarm you before you know what hit you. The Nightmare campaign provides a fun alternate narrative that might be stronger than the original and is also playable in four-player co-op.
But for all you Zombies fanatics out there, never fear. A more traditional Zombies experience called “Shadows of Evil”, themed on classic film noir, is also available. As that story goes, the four main characters, played by Ron Perlman, Jeff Goldblum, Heather Graham, and Neal McDonough, have each committed some horrible evil that is allowing zombies to enter their world. By working together, they’ll have to uncover the secret that supposedly somehow ties into previous Zombies entries and might save their damned souls.
Unfortunately, I didn’t get as far as I’d normally like in Zombies, but I did get plenty of time to experiment with two major additions to the mode’s gameplay. The first is the new Gobblegum system. Each player can customize a set of five gumballs they want attributed to their person, with each gumball offering a different ability. When you find a Gobblegum machine, you can spend some of the cash you’d normally use on guns or other power-ups to get one of the five gumballs in your set at random. And just like in single-player, there is a progression here that will unlock better gumballs as you level up.
The second element is the purple flame, which can be found at different locations throughout Morg City. For a limited time, this turns players into a lightning quick plant monster with tentacles (think Audrey II from Little Shop of Horrors) called “The Beast” that lets you open special doors, break boxes, and unlock the paths necessary to find all of Morg City’s secrets. There are few things more satisfying than finding new secrets and special narrative clues while killing the undead, so when combined with the hysterical dialogue that each character randomly spews, this year’s Zombies mode might be the best yet.
As great as Campaign and Zombies are, multiplayer is really Call of Duty’s bread-and-butter. Never to be outdone, the multiplayer has taken the futuristic ideas of the campaign and turned them into the slickest multiplayer suite yet.
Before you build your first loadout, though, you should check out Freerun. This short series of four time trials are a great way to teach you how best to use your wall-running abilities in multiplayer and get used to the idea of the maps’ new sense of verticality. Ramping up steadily, Freerun will show you moves you never thought possible, like running up columns or wall-jumping down narrow corridors, all while stoking your competitive fire by sticking a clock on you and daring you to get the best time.
Once your cybernetic legs are all warmed up, then you can jump into the largest selection of multiplayer modes yet. I was able to play on live servers pre-launch, and while there weren’t nearly as many people online as there will be on launch day, everything worked fine. You never know what might happen when the servers are flooded by millions of gamers, though. Multiplayer touts a bevy of returning favorites like Capture the Flag, Kill Confirmed, Team Deathmatch, Hardpoint, and many more, but Black Ops III also touts a new mode called Safeguard.
Safeguard tasks you with defending a bomb strapped to a robot as it heads to a designated point on the map. The robot only moves when members of your team are near it, and the enemy team can slow the robot down by shooting it repeatedly. If time runs out before the robot reaches its destination, the defenders win, and if the robot makes it, the attackers win. I found the mode to be immensely difficult because standing next to the robot makes you a sitting duck, so it really requires one person to act as a direct escort, and the rest of your team to keep the enemies off your back. In that regard it has elements of CTF in it, and requires monumental amounts of teamwork whether you’re an attacker or defender.
The beauty of multiplayer now, though, centers on the chain-based fluid movement system. After a little practice, I was stringing together wall-running and double jumps so effortlessly I felt like I could single-handedly change any battle. With each map and mode having their own special nuances to cater to this movement style, surprising my opponent meant a lot more than flanking them. Knocking that sniper off the high ground wasn’t nearly as impossible anymore. And springing up out of water with assault rifle blazing added even more depth to what are some of the best-designed maps you’ll see in any Call of Duty.
The other major change we see in Black Ops III’s multiplayer is the Specialists. Sure, you can still customize and choose whatever guns or weapons you want to bring into battle, especially with the return of the beloved Pick 10 system offering another layer of balance that I feel the past two Call of Duty games have lacked. But the Specialist a player chooses gives them more of an identity online than in previous Call of Duty games, from who the player selects, to how they define their look, and finally which of their Specialist’s two special abilities they pick.
Knowing what each Specialist does and what situations their powers are best used in could turn the tide of a battle on their own, and offer yet another strategy for players to think for, and potentially plan against. For example, I played with Ruin a lot. His two abilities are Gravity Spikes, which allows him to kill everyone close to him with a shockwave when he slams the spikes into the ground, and a supercharged sprint called Overdrive. In TDM, racking up that kill count is critical so the spikes were great. But in something like CTF, grabbing the flag and then hitting Overdrive with that enhanced sprint means I can get a point for my team a lot more easily, covering half the map in a fraction of the time I used to. Considering there are nine Specialists to play around with (four to start, with others unlocked via progression), I can only imagine the strategies players will come up with.
It’s never easy to continually one-up yourself, but Treyarch seems just fine rising up to the challenge each time its turn comes up to put out a Call of Duty game. By adding progression and co-op to each mode, players have new reasons to go back and play each one more, while also providing a common thread through each part to help pull it all together. Multiplayer and Zombies are more robust than ever, and although Campaign’s story might not have been the strongest we’ve seen from series, it’s still a high-quality thrill a minute ride with a twist that will keep players talking until the series’ next installment. Simply put, Black Ops III is the deepest experience the franchise has seen thus far.
|Developer: Treyarch • Publisher: Activision • ESRB: M – Mature • Release Date: 11.06.15|
Black Ops III is the deepest Call of Duty experience to date. With not one, but two campaigns, new multiplayer modes and more robust customization, and a Zombies mode that will suck in even the most casual of players, Treyarch has once again found a way to raise the bar.
|The Good||More quality content than ever before crammed into a Call of Duty game.|
|The Bad||Character development in campaign has a sharp drop off.|
|The Ugly||Why hasn’t Activision announced a Call of Duty starring Jeff Goldblum yet?|
|Call of Duty: Black Ops III is available on PS4, Xbox One, PS3, Xbox 360, and PC. Primary version reviewed was for PS4. Activision provided travel to and accommodation at a review event for the benefit of this review.|