To say I wasn’t particularly excited for Call of Duty: Black Ops 3 () would be a mild understatement. While last year’s Advanced Warfare finally found its bearings after a couple of titles that staggered around in the dark, desperately trying to find focus as the Modern Warfare franchise died a repetition-soaked death, the Black Ops series of games always seemed to be a fun break between flagship releases.
With an emphasis on elite, team-based specialists performing bombastic covert ops missions — that invariably ended up being anything other than covert — I found the campaigns a guilty pleasure and the multiplayer more of the same addictiveness that has come to be a hallmark of the Call of Duty franchise. Plus, there was Zombies Mode. I loathe zombies with a passion, but grabbing three friends and working through those missions was always guaranteed to draw laughs, arguments, scares and invariably one of us (usually me) screaming at the other three to hurry up and revive them.
This time around, developer Treyarch seems to be the one that’s a little lost. Emulating Advanced Warfare, Black Ops 3 also makes the leap to future combat — in this case, the 2060s, where cybernetic enhancements are commonplace and megacities with glistening skyscrapers and glittering, digital finery are the norm. What does this mean for gameplay? Well, as you can likely expect, everything’s coming up Titanfall. Respawn Entertainment’s robot-enhanced, vertically-mobile shooter has set the precedent for this generation, just like Halo and Call of Duty did before them. Everyone is clamoring to add boosters and enhancements to their games, and Black Ops is no exception.
Let’s start with the main story missions. In true Call of Duty fashion, they’re utter garbage — so it’s nice to see some things never change. In the year 2065, most major nations have developed incredibly sophisticated air defenses, rendering aircraft and missiles useless. What’s an angry ruler to do, then, to topple an enemy state? Send in covert operatives, of course! This is Black Ops, after all. Covert missions that quickly become utterly obvious assaults are the series’ bread and butter.
Call of Duty: Black Ops 3, Credit: Activision
The battlefield is a very different place in the future. Robotics are a key player, with autonomous bots joining cybernetically enhanced soldiers in advancing on enemies or defending important areas. The soldiers themselves are so intertwined with their robotic enhancements that humanity has legitimate fear that robots could soon take over. Cue protests, government crackdowns, leaked documents and acts of terrorism. Really, Black Ops’ world isn’t too far removed from our own.
In terms of the story, it’s all incredibly familiar, despite the often impressive scenarios the futuristic setting offers. Players take control of The Player (no, really), who can be assigned a gender and a preset face, but who remains anonymous. Hearing the other characters speak to you without ever using a name is somewhat jarring, but then so is the rest of the script, which maintains Call of Duty’s incredibly (and somewhat impressively) low standards. There’s a fairly starry cast, though, including Christopher Meloni and Katee Sackhoff, but really all the double crossing and betrayals and reasonably pretty graphics — Black Ops 3 runs on an older game engine than last year’s title — are merely dressing around the gameplay.
Here, mercifully, all is well. There’s a reason Call of Duty sells so well, and it’s all due to the impeccably well-balanced controls. Yes, guns still feel remarkably ineffective to shoot, but they get the job done, as does the rest of your arsenal. What’s more, the better you shoot and the cleaner your kills, you’ll level up your chosen protagonist faster, which in turn grants access to even more weaponry and gadgetry. Said gadgetry includes being able to take control of drones, robots, turrets and other such technology — flying a drone into an area and clearing out enemies was a surprisingly fluid delight. Utilizing a Direct Neural Interface, plugged directly into the brain, players have access to a wealth of information while running and gunning. Soldiers are connected to one another, so any enemies targeted are highlighted for teammates. Grenades, rockets and other explosives will flash red. Ground areas are highlighted in various colors to alert to the danger of standing there — if it’s red, prepare to become Swiss cheese.
While the ability to wall-run and boost over gaps is ripped straight from other games, it works well and, combined with a focus on more open areas as opposed to corridor shooting, makes the campaign much more tactical in nature than other entries. Add in “realistic” difficulty, which ends your life after taking one bullet, and there’s plenty of replayability for those dedicated enough.
It is, however, fairly inconsequential stuff. Story mode has never been a Call of Duty strong point — indeed, if you buy Black Ops 3 on PS3 or Xbox 360, in addition to some comically downgraded graphics you’ll also find there’s no single player campaign at all. Instead, the focus is — as it always has been — on the multiplayer.
It’s here that you’ll sink as much or as little time as you see fit into Black Ops 3. The various techno-trickeries of the campaign find their way here, augmented by an even wider array of abilities and special moves. There’s also an effort to inject a little more personality into the whole affair — rather than being a mindless killer amongst mindless killers, you’ll now be a mindless killer with something of a back story and a few limited emotions. Players can choose from one of nine “Specialists,” who each have their own upgradeable and unlockable powers. Ruin, for instance, can use Gravity Spikes to send a fatal shockwave out around him, while Outrider can user her Vision Pulse to see enemies through walls and other obstructions. It offers the incentive to test out and level up various characters, but it also adds an unexpected element to multiplayer bouts — that player charging down the hallway could be preparing to Glitch to another location, or they could deploy their Ripper and slice your character in a one-hit kill. Guns and grenades aren’t the only dangers any more. Unfortunately, while the boosters, wall running and underwater sections add verticality to matches, they’re also hampered by level design that forces too many invisible walls on players — those rocks that would be perfect for sniping? No such luck, as Treyarch clearly didn’t agree.
Call of Duty: Black Ops 3, Credit: Activision
In terms of what you’ll be playing, Arena mode seems designed to complement these new Specialists. Here, players can choose which types are allowed to battle it out, what abilities they have access to, and even what weapons and loadouts players can have. There’s nothing quite as exciting (or terrifying) as being thrown into battle without any of the guns or gadgets you’ve carefully cultivated through meticulous levelling and organization. Joining that is the usual team deathmatch and free-for-all types, including Demolition, which tasks players with destroying specific sites, or the always-fun Kill Confirmed, which drops tags every time a person is killed, letting players earn extra points or allow teammates of the fallen to recover some honor.
Interestingly, while the single player campaign lacks anything particularly special, Zombies Mode seems to have been lavished with care and attention and Jeff Goldblum. Players can choose from a magician (Goldblum), a femme fatal (Heather Graham), a police officer (Neal McDonough) and a boxer (Ron Perlman) as they battle the hordes. The voice acting is superb, as should be expected, while the entire thing eschews the futurism of the rest of the game for a film noir setting. Players will battle zombies in Morg City, which smacks strongly of Bioshock — including vials that can be collected and swapped for power-ups.
At certain fonts, players can also transform into the “Beast,” a Cthulhu style being that utilizes electricity and tentacles to reveal collectibles. These collectibles perform the same tasks as those in other iterations of Zombies, opening up areas and granting access to new weaponry. It’s silly, dark, often humorous fun, especially with friends. Banding together, defending one another, rebuilding defenses and spending money carefully on new guns remains an incredibly enjoyable experience — only now, there’s a story you’ll want to follow attached to it, one that has some unexpectedly emotional moments. Icing on the zombified cake is that there’s an entirely separate story featuring the cast of Black Ops 2’s Zombies Mode in an alternate reality, which you can also play through.
Call of Duty: Black Ops 3, Credit: Activision
And, really. that seems to be the crux of Black Ops 3. It doesn’t really add or change much to the standard issue formula of Call of Duty, following Advanced Warfare into the future but keeping its core gameplay firmly rooted in tried-and-tested mechanics. Instead, Treyarch has sprinkled numerous additions and a wealth of content into its standard recipe: verticality, more open gunplay, personality in multiplayer, Zombie Mode’s twin stories and film noir aesthetic. No, I wasn’t particularly looking forward to Black Ops 3, but by the time I was finished with its campaign, had wrestled my fear of zombies as the femme fatale, and sunk many hours into its engaging multiplayer, I was somewhat converted. There isn’t anything here to convince those who’ve long since left (or abstained from) the Call of Duty fold, but there’s just enough to sustain the franchise. For many, that’ll be plenty enough.
Call of Duty: Black Ops 3 is $49.99 to $59.99. Available on PC, PS3, PS4, Xbox 360 and Xbox One (but you really don’t want to buy it on last-gen consoles).
Rhuaridh Marr is Metro Weekly's managing editor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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