Love it or hate it, you have to admire Call of Duty’s staying power, which has allowed it to remain relevant for the past 8 years. The franchise was admittedly stagnant for a while until Sledgehammer shook the series’ expectations with Advanced Warfare, Call of Duty’s response to the changing landscape of first person shooters. This year, Treyarch brings us Call of Duty: Black Ops III as the second Call of Duty title to benefit from a three year cycle. At its worst, Black Ops III changes the rules as most Treyarch games do with mixed, yet sometimes commendable results. However at its best, Black Ops III delivers a package that is so content rich, it is frightening that $60 can still hold this much value.
The first bevy of content in this massive Call of Duty package is its campaign, which is arguably the best in the series since Modern Warfare 2. Treyarch has corrected the wrongs of Sledgehammer’s veil of player agency last year, and has given Black Ops III the most personalised campaign Call of Duty has ever seen. The story mode features a full levelling system and customisable loadouts, abilities, and even the player’s avatar itself – all of which can be accessed from your base of operations, which has been aptly named ‘Safe House’. Everything here exceeds expectations except for the actual character creator, which oddly features only all white characters in an age where both skin colour and gender choice are basic creation options.
The levelling and loadouts work as you would guess from a Call of Duty, preserving the now standard Pick 10 system which is a welcome asset for the shooter’s campaign. But while loadouts are an evolutionary feature of Call of Duty’s story mode, it’s the new cybernetic abilities that really shake things up this year. These ‘Cyber Cores’ grant your character abilities that affect both you and your enemies. You can disarm, disable or destroy enemies with a cybernetic pulse form your hand, pull off chain melee kills and area-of-effect damage, or even buff your character with active camo and enhanced mobility.
There are 21 Cyber Core abilities in total divided into three separate styles; each of them are upgradable, though many bleed together in terms of functionality and impact of the battlefield. More so, the UI doesn’t manage them perfectly as switching between abilities isn’t all that intuitive. In most games, a weapon or command wheel is mapped to a shoulder button and slows the action down while selecting. Black Ops III, on the other hand, places it awkwardly on the D Pad to avoid compromising Call of Duty’s perfectly configured controls. The action doesn’t slow down either, discouraging experimentation with the near two dozen abilities available throughout the campaign.
When putting them into practice, you’ll likely rely on those that cripple the opposition. Players who wish to dissect their applications, however, may find more value here, especially since Black Ops III offers optional stealth missions ala Crysis or Far Cry. Using active camo with a silenced pistol played in a way that Call of Duty has never felt before, though it’s disappointing that these moments are few and far between, whereas massive and messy robotic boss fights are more commonplace.
Black Ops III also features a new HUD system that’s simply brilliant, and greatly improves the quality of life in how Call of Duty campaigns are played. The new cybernetic HUD auto-highlights enemies both in line-of-sight and behind cover so that you know exactly where you’re shooting. They’ve even gone as far as to highlight hot-zones, where risk of harm is high, and enemy grenade radii and trajectories that make it far easier to toss them back. Although Black Ops III doesn’t puff its chest out with new mobility features, levels are wider and taller than past entries, where clambering up high and flanking your foes is highly encouraged. But the wide and more expanded structure is obviously in favour of Black Ops III’s excellent co-op campaign.
As someone who largely despises co-op campaigns with a strong belief in experiencing story within isolation, I will be returning to Black Ops III’s campaign co-op several times in the future. The Cyber Cores, which seem somewhat trivial in single player, find their purpose here when teamed with human allies. Black Ops III’s co-op is at its best on harder difficulties where Cyber Core usage is important for success. I donned a support role with the ‘Martal’ core abilities where I was able to revive other players while cloaked to avoid getting shot at, and deployed smoke screens to grant cover while my team gunned down our enemies through Enhanced Vision.
But I warn you, stay away from Realistic mode if you want to avoid a nosebleed. The new difficulty above Veteran is fuck-you hard where just one shot will down you instantly, and it’s game over if a single player dies. It’s more Rainbow Six than Call of Duty for sure, but there are many difficulty spikes that feel downright unfair. Frustrations aren’t only isolated to Realistic Mode thanks to the co-op’s iffy performance. On Xbox One, I’ve experienced multiple game crashes and server instability issues among other technical hang-ups to the point that I’ve put the game down altogether on more than one occasion. Nonetheless, Black Ops III’s campaign is authentically designed for co-op, and it works far better than it deserves to, offering multiple opportunities for replayability. But don’t let co-op play distract you from the actual story itself.
The story in Black Ops III’s campaign has been given lot of attention, and even deals with themes that Call of Duty stories have never flirted with before. It’s incredibly dark and tackles the challenge of exploring cybernetic psychosis, human experimentation, and ethics in global security. Unfortunately, the story can get so carried away and up its own ass that the game’s pace slows down to a crawl, particularly in a series of levels midway through the campaign. Black Ops III’s closing chapters suffer from similar issues, albeit them being admittedly fun. Despite this, it cannot be ignored how ambitious and confident Treyarch’s writers have become.
That ambition and confidence spills over into Black Ops III’s suite of zombie modes, all in which pack more meat into this stuffed calzone of a game. First, of course, we have the long running Treyarch staple: Zombies Mode. Featuring Hollywood B-listers such as Jeff Goldblum and Ron Perlman, Zombies follows the same beats as other entries in the series; though this time, up to four players are tasked with gathering artefacts and completing rituals to uncover the fates of four playable criminals. While a fan favourite, Zombies has always been a highly divisive mode among Call of Duty players thanks to its over-reliance on player communication and in-game discovery, and, unfortunately, that doesn’t change here. On the other hand, Nightmares offers a less obtuse alternative.
To put it simply, Nightmares takes everything in Zombies – from the weapon and bonus pick-ups to the zombies themselves – and injects them into Black Ops III’s campaign mode. Weirdly enough, it also features a completely alternate story that is presented as a therapy session with your main character, where the narrative itself is voiced over the muted audio from the campaign. The clash of the two modes doesn’t entirely work, as it’s noticeable here that zombies take too many hits to go down, and because of that, sections of each level take much longer to complete.
While we’re on the subject of zombies, Dead Ops Arcade – Treyarch’s bonus top-down twin stick shooter – also makes a return. Unfortunately, it is disappointingly walled behind having to coordinate a session that can only be accessed in the Safe House terminal, instead of simply being featured on the main menu. In this regard, Black Ops III is, by many accounts, a zombies extravaganza. However, none of these zombie modes can satisfy entirely – and unfortunately, I’d have to say the same for the competitive multiplayer.
As many Call of Duty instalments have done, Black Ops III, while retaining the tight core mechanics of the series, has made almost as many omissions as it has additions to the franchise. And while the new features are more or less welcome, the omissions themselves are quite frustrating. Things like the Virtual Firing Range – Advanced Warfare’s brilliant addition last year that allowed players to safely test their weapons before entering a match, and the customisable Scorestreak system (also from Advanced Warfare), are notably missing. What’s most infuriating is the decision to remove the lethality from melee kills. That’s right, melee kills feel more like Halo this year (where insta-kills can only be performed from behind) which immediately hampers part of what makes Call of Duty’s combat loop so slick and instantaneous.
On a personal note, I’m most conflicted by Black Ops III’s new traversal mechanics that stand in place for those from Advanced Warfare. You might have read my impressions on the Black Ops III’s open beta earlier this year, where I discussed how much I prefer Advanced Warfare’s exo-suit mobility to Treyarch’s new jet boosters. My opinion hasn’t changed, as I still feel that Sledgehammer had created a system that fits well in both traversal and combat applications more evenly than Black Ops III’s fuel-managing unidirectional mechanics.
Still, there are some design choices here that work pretty well. Black Ops III’s multiplayer map design has been well-built around the new mobility options. Their three-lane structure is more established, lining some pathways with runnable walls, and underwater areas to sneak below battlegrounds. What this does is make objective-based modes such as Domination, Capture the Flag, and the new Battlefield Rush Mode-like Safeguard more deliberate and better suited to Black Ops III’s maps and mechanics. This is especially noticeable in Uplink, which is the only mode that Treyarch designed better than anything from last year, and is arguably Black Ops III at its competitive best. However modes like Team Deathmatch are among the least interesting, thanks to the game’s thematic focus on locomotion and getting from one side of the map to the other.
And then we have the Specialists, the only universally positive addition to Call of Duty’s multiplayer. Treyarch has finally pushed the franchise into ‘hero’ territory (thanks MOBAMA) with nine distinguishable characters that somehow fit within the Black Ops universe. While your player loadout remains separate, Specialists come with either one weapon or one augment ability that become available after a steady cooldown. My favourite is Reaper: the sometimes-sardonic robot that’s either equipped with a disgusting chaingun or is capable of deploying clones that distract enemy players. Others such as Nomad’s trap setting H.I.V.E. and Ruin’s speed boosting Overdrive find their strengths in other objective-based modes.
It’ll take some time to unlock all of them, as the final Specialist doesn’t become available until level 46; but all characters can be accessed through Black Ops III’s Arena Mode, this year’s level-playing-field competitive playlist that offers ranked or unranked matches with everything unlocked. Arena forces you to experiment with the different Specialists thanks to the new Ban and Protect system, where players can vote to retain or omit Specialist weapon and abilities, along with every other perk, weapon, and scorestreak in the game. Both Specialists and Arena mode give Black Ops III’s multiplayer some serious legs, making this potentially one of the most evergreen Call of Dutys yet.
I could write 1500 more words on Treyarch’s latest instalment, but it boils down to this: stretched across campaign, zombies, and multiplayer, Call of Duty Black Ops III is the most feature-filled and ambitious Call of Duty to date. Treyarch delivers its strongest and most successful effort in its campaign, which promotes player agency and replayability, along with an even better co-op experience than any of its zombie variants has to offer. Black Ops III’s multiplayer, even with all of its nonsensical omissions, still delivers a strong competitive experience, with the Specialist system, and a new set of mobility mechanics that work surprisingly well with modes outside of team deathmatch.
New additions and experimental systems: this is what’s going to keep Call of Duty fresh.
A robust Call of Duty package
Treyarch intends to give you more bang for your buck in the latest instalment of the Black Ops series.