Review: Call of Duty: Black Ops III

Activision has hit the sweet spot with Call of Duty when it comes to annual franchises. Unlike some series which have the same development team scrambling to make the next game within a year after the last released, Call of Duty now has three studios to rotate between: Infinity Ward, Sledgehammer Games and Treyarch. This means that Treyarch had three years to work on Call of Duty: Black Ops III, during which time Call of Duty: Ghosts and Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare were released. This is exactly the right amount of time a major studio should have to make a major game and it shows with Black Ops III, which has a wealth of content included out of the box on day one.

Black Ops III boasts undoubtedly the strangest story of the entire franchise. Set in 2065 (forty years after the events of Black Ops II), players take the role of a soldier who is gruesomely injured in combat. Not sure what has happened, he suddenly wakes up on a train where Commander John Taylor (played by the fantastic Christopher Meloni) explains that he’s actually in a hospital bed and they’re virtually living out an event in the past where a bomb was placed on a train and detonated killing everyone on board. Instead of reliving this, however, you’re tasked with rewriting history by finding who made the bomb and stopping it from blowing up.  Sound familiar? That’s because it’s nearly exactly the same as the plot of the film Source Code. While he’s in a simulation and not actually being placed in the body of a living person as in Duncan Jones’ film, it seemed almost certain that the plot would revolve around him stopping these virtual crimes for “training,” but soon find out he’s stopping them for real and actually being led by the antagonists. Instead of going down this route, however, this plot abruptly shifts gears and becomes something else entirely — namely incomprehensible.

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After going through your virtual training, you awake (for real this time) to find that you’ve been augmented with mechanical limbs and cybernetic abilities. The timeline then suddenly shifts four years into the future, during which time you’ve become the world’s resident badass stopping terrorist groups left and right. While even though the plot was derivative of Source Code, this is a disappointing shift to the “take down the generic terrorists” angle, but (thankfully in this case) the jarring tonal shifts don’t stop there. Somewhere around the mid-point, the plot goes completely off the rails and delves into a number of bizarre subjects, becoming wholly convoluted in the process. While this all sounds bad and the ingredients for a disaster of a campaign, surprisingly it’s not.

With the exception Black Ops II, most every Call of Duty has had a generic story. None have been bad and most are cinematic in execution, but they tend to result in “take down the crazy bad guy.” Black Ops III has a lot of dialogue and story for a relatively short FPS and while most of it doesn’t make any particular sense, it’s riveting. The entire experience ends up feeling like a psychedelic drug trip (which perhaps is purposeful given that Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” closes out the game) that takes us through multiple realities that make you question existence itself. Even though Treyarch wasn’t able to accomplish something as profound as they probably wished, having a challenging and surreal story is much preferable over throwaway generic military jaunt. The core of the problem is that the ideas at work are too large to be expressed in a short action game. Perhaps the campaign is something to be studied and experienced multiple times, but even in an incomprehensible state, it’s a breath of fresh air for the franchise.

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Outside of the (likely highly-divisive) story, however, the campaign’s core gameplay is some of the best of the series. Even the best Call of Duty campaigns tended to have sections that felt like they were getting repetitive or dragging on, but Black Ops III is perfectly paced. Thanks to its existential campaign, multiple locals, time periods and even realities are visited ensuring that it never stays stagnant on the same environment. There are huge open-area engagements sprinkled throughout the campaign that are large enough to allow players multiple ways to progress through them without feeling scripted. There’s also a bevy of cybernetic modifications (dubbed “Cyber Cores”) available that include abilities like the remote hacking drones, sending a flood of cyber insects at enemies and disabling a robotic enemy (of which there are many). The entire campaign is also designed to be played with up to four players cooperatively online, although there’s not a single part that feels like it’s slighting solo players to accomplish this. Suffice it to say, this is a campaign worthy of experiencing regardless of your affinity with the multiplayer.

Of course, this is a Call of Duty game and multiplayer remains the main attraction — and for good reason. Black Ops III features a new momentum-based chain-movement system that allows players to fluidly move through the environments with the help of thrust jumps, power slides and fast-mantling capabilities. The much-touted guns-up philosophy is evident and there’s rarely a time where a finger won’t be on the trigger waiting to fire. In practice, everything feels similar to last year’s Advanced Warfare, which is far from a bad thing. While there will always be a place for more old-fashioned boots on the ground based multiplayer, Advanced Warfare did a great job reinvigorating the franchise and making the multiplayer more fast paced and enjoyable. Black Ops III carries this legacy on and hopefully it’s one the series will adhere to for the foreseeable future.

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The most notable feature of multiplayer is the Specialists system that introduces nine elite Specialists to choose from, each with their own skillset. For example, Ruin has Gravity Spikes (electrocuted spikes that are rewardingly slammed into the ground to create a shockwave) and Overdrive (grants a burst of speed), Outrider has Sparrow (compound bow with explosives) and Vision Pulse (tags the location of enemies within range), Spectre has Ripper (twin blades that dissect enemies) and Active Camo (invisibility) while Firebreak has Purifier (flamethrower) and Heat Wave (thermal charge that stuns nearby enemies). Every Specialist also has their own challenge-based unlock progression system, which are in addition to global and weapons XP. The abilities of all the Specialists are unique in execution from one another and add another dimension of strategy as players have to figure out which is best suited for which situation and how to properly utilize them. Most importantly, it’s simply a blast to unleash superhuman abilities.

Besides devastating foes with giant spikes, one of the most rewarding aspects to the multiplayer is the exhaustively-revamped customization. With the new Gunsmith system, any weapon can be customized with multiple models for each attachment, custom emblems and distinctive camos. Up to five attachments plus an optic can be added to weapons, unleashing multiple combinations. More still, the Weapon Paint Shop lets players create custom graphics to display on their guns with up to 64 layers and 3 sides to design. Finally, there’s the Black Market where players can redeem Cyrptokeys earned in multiplayer for Black Market supply drops that include new wares, reticles, weapon camos, calling cards and more. All of this adds up to a ton of personalization and strategizing that goes beyond simply learning the basics of maps and gunplay and makes the affairs more accessible for beginners and more challenging for experts.

Thankfully, there’s plenty of modes to unleash all of the personalization in. Fan-favorite modes like Search and Destroy, Capture the Flag and Hardpoint return, joined by the returning Uplink (the addictive Football-esque mode where players have to bring a ball across the map). A new mode Safeguard makes its debut, which tasks a team of players with defending a drone as it moves into the other team’s base. The defending team can disable the robot by attacking it, upon when the attacking team must wait for it to reboot before they can continue escorting it. Much like Uplink, it’s an addictive concept that refreshingly adds another mode that’s not just about an all out firefight.

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Of course, what would a Black Ops be without Zombies, something Treyarch once again brings in spades. Shadows of Evil is Black Ops III’s offering, which has players take the role of one of four characters — The Femme-Fatale, The Cop, The Boxer and The Magician — as they blast their way through the 1940s film noir-inspired world of Morg City. This is basically a standalone game, with a distinct storyline, full XP-based progression system and a impressive roster of talent including Jeff Goldblum, Heather Graham, Neil McDonough, Ron Perlman and Robert Pircardo. Shadows of Evil is incredibly hard and it will likely take all but the very best players hours to even reach past wave five. What’s neat about the mode, however, is that it’s similar to Edge of Tomorrow in that something new is learned every time the instance is experienced (there’s no FAQ or instructions). So while one might have been viciously killed on the last run, perhaps a powerful weapon was discovered hiding and can be picked up next time to fair better. This gives the mode a lot of replay value and many players could easily sink more than ten hours into it without getting bored, experiencing a completely different outcome every time.

Not only does Call of Duty feature basically three standalone games in Campaign, Multiplayer and Zombies, but there’s two more standalone games packed inside as well. Dead Ops Arcade II is an entertaining arcade throwback that features a bizarre plot of a killer space ape out for revenge. The core of the gameplay is an endlessly fun twin stick arcade shooter (similar to Robotron: 2084), but every so often it switches gears and features a mini-game set in another arcade universe, most notably Off-Road. Much like the campaign itself, it’s a surreal experience that could easily stand on its own as a PSN or XBLA downloadable title. Finally, there’s Freerun, which although predominately a tutorial on how to freerun, features multiple courses with leaderboards, challenging players to complete each course in the smallest amount of time possible (simple but addictive for the most competitive among us).
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Closing Comments:

Call of Duty: Black Ops III was created in a three-year development cycle and it shows. This is basically five standalone games wrapped into one deep package. While it will have DLC released for it, there’s enough content out of the box to keep players busy until the next Call of Duty and probably some time after that. The campaign is perfectly paced and entertaining throughout, the multiplayer is rich with customization and Zombies is refreshingly challenging. The only real black mark is a story teetering on the on the brink of pretension, but the existentialism of it is undeniably fascinating. Jam-packed with meaningful content, Black Ops III is the Call of Duty you’ve been waiting for.