The Black Ops series of Call of Duty games are generally the most popular and revered games to play, so when Treyarch announced they were releasing Black Ops III this year, there’s a lot to get excited for. However, that excitement wains as the campaign often stumbles over its complexity and nonsense, and a bunch of extra modes are introduced but fail to impress. The multiplayer doesn’t see as much innovation as Advanced Warfare did, but manages to be the highlight and reason to return daily.
Almost in an attempt to one-up the opening events of Advanced Warfare, Black Ops III begins with one of the most brutal and gory displays of a human ripped apart through the first-person perspective that I’ve seen. It’s after this once seemingly normal mission, that things would be going in a certain direction, but the rope-a-dope effort is played off well, showing the darkness surrounding introducing cybernetics entwined with organics. The result has catastrophic events, resulting in a dilapidated Singapore and a war-torn Cairo.
You are a nameless character, to which you can customize with limited ethnic diversity, and choose to be male or female. And you’re never locked in to any of these options as between missions you can change your character completely. You and your long-time friend Hendricks undergo surgeries together to become part of a group of elite soldiers with technological implants.
In this future cyber-dystopia, you will be performing double-jumps, wall-runs, and more. Black Ops III focuses more on the mental-aspect of your character over the physical aspect, with the exo suits that Advanced Warfare went for. Then there’s using the power of your cybernetically-enhanced mind to set humans on fire, and overload circuits of the robots. These all can be used once you’ve charged up your ability and can use a multitude of different attacks. And the up-right robots are almost straight-up Terminators, that require a lot of extra bullets before being put down.
This futuristic setting allows for neon-soaked environments, a HUD that gives you a lot of colors, and some fantastic lighting. The weapons are familiar to that of Advanced Warfare, but maintain a unique sound and look to them, also complete with lights and neon in their design. The combat itself often gets problematic, with far too many spider-like tanks that require to be shot with bullets until it slumps over, to then be shot with a couple of rockets, and for this cycle to be repeated before it is downed for good. Taking damage has a shield system now, but you’ll be spending a lot more time behind cover either waiting for your armor to recharge, or for your special ability to recharge so you can send out the next swarm of nanobugs to set them on fire.
The game uses the term Direct Neural Interface (DNI for short), a lot. It is used for hacking doors, and even people. Often, when one of the big bads have been downed and knocking on death’s door, a DNI interface will happen, much like Assassin’s Creed does with the major assassinations. These lead to Black Ops III‘s more interesting moments, where your character will go on “visions quests” of sorts to learn about things that happened, often having you reliving their moments from a different point-of-view to somewhat get answers, which usually lead to more questions.
The game features famous television actors, complete with voice-over and uncanny valley likeness of the faces. Among the recognizable cast is Katee Sackhoff (Battlestar Galactica), Christopher Meloni (Law & Order: SVU), and a late appearance by Robert Picardo (Star Trek: Voyager). These characters fall into the trap that Advanced Warfare did with Kevin Spacey, and that was to cast these actors as villains and not-so-good people by game’s end. It’s a predictable trope, but done well for these actors to portray.
The game as a whole does little to tie-in with previous Black Ops games, but the . While it doesn’t do so implicitly, there is a vague in-game reference to Raul Menendez, who did seem to change the world for the worse by the end of Black Ops II, though it feels super disconnected from the rest of the goings on. There’s some other things where you glimpse at World War II and run-ins with zombies, but it isn’t enough to tie this universe together. And like Black Ops ingrained the phrase “Tell me the numbers, Mason” so too will Black Ops III and the phrase “Frozen Forest” – you’ll be tired of hearing it by game’s end.
Levels within Black Ops III individually feel like it takes too long, and the game as a whole is just a slow burn with a little payoff for sticking it through. The campaign certainly has its moments, it overall is something that goes over your head. It’s smartly realized, but poorly executed and presented to you as the player. And it’s hard to wrap your head around a lot of what happens. It’s a campaign that’s bold and ambitious, and where Infinity Ward’s Ghosts campaign played it safe, Black Ops III does the opposite but those risks do not pay off.
At the Safehouse, which you are transported to several different kinds between missions, is a place where you can outfit your character, make changes, and level up your cybernetics. This is the only place to get downtime during the game from all of the combat and explosions. Here you have combat immersion which are wave-based survival modes where the multiplayer seems to stem from, in a way (more on that later). You have access to three tiers of cybercores, Martial, Blah, and Blah 3. This is a choice you can make before each mission, but never during. At Level 20, that becomes inconsequential as you’ll be able to switch to all three types mid-game. You can of course edit your loadout, display collectibles from the campaign, go to a fake wiki page in the data vault, or select a new outfit that was unlocked from the previous mission.
Playing on the game’s Hardened difficulty, seems to be the suggestion the game offers, as that’s the only place to get achievements and trophies for the difficulty. Now there’s a fifth, much more challenging difficulty known as Realistic. Hardened is a solid challenge, but often feels imbalanced with one-hit kills.
Staying with the trend on bringing in famous or well-known actors into the zombie fold has Jeff Goldblum, Heather Graham, Neal McDonough, Ron Perlman, and Robert Picardo (another appearance for the game) defending themselves from an evolving map set in a noir world full of neon.
There’s a more traditional system of earning XP, and leveling. Zombies is a bit toned down, well, sort of. No longer do you have to do a 360 no-scope with all players throw a grenade while singing “Red Red Wine” by UB40. Now there’s just weapons, doorways, and a new supernatural element that lets one player become “The Beast” who can knock down walls to access secret areas or help take out enemies. It’s simplified, but still maintains its complexity and nuance.
While the systems of Zombies have changed, the rest hasn’t. It’s still a wave-based shooter about survival and getting enough points to get that next gun to do more and faster damage. There’s only one episode available, called “Shadows of Evil” and it tells an interesting tale as you progress, but is only told based via your team’s progression. It’s a fun diversion, but continues to be a mode that doesn’t capture my interest for long.
This mode is only unlocked after completing the campaign. I’m not sure of its requirements, but I had done so on Hardened, and now this was available in the menu when I was back at the main menu. Now this mode replaces all the humans and robots with zombies, no tactical HUD, and only a pistol. The entirety of the campaign is not available due to certain reasons, but what is there allows to you see the campaign in a whole new way. This feels much more challenging, but it is zombies, and can even be played through co-op. I just wish it was a bit more substantial of a mode than that.
Tucked away in the Multiplayer mode, or visible when Offline / Local, you’ll find this mode about traversal and shooting in the optimal way via time trials. I found it is a great way to learn the systems unobstructed or while taking fire. Other than the personal experience of playing it, there’s no reward to this mode. There’s four maps with increasing difficulty, it just feels like a distraction rather than a meaningful diversion.
As covered in my preview of Black Ops III, the multiplayer differs from that of Advanced Warfare, but it isn’t far off. Rather than exo suits, you have the ability to do double-jumps and can perform wall-runs with excellent efficiency while unloading bullets into your enemies for panache, and the fluidity allows for such displays of style to happen often.
There’s nine character classes you must pick and choose from, each with one of two abilities that can be used. There’s a total of eighteen abilities that can be used, and certainly more bad ones than good ones, but that’s all up to how you play as an individual. There’s a lot of characters unlocked from the get-go, but a few are locked away from level progression. Over time or through point accumulation, you will enable your ability, whether it is a bow & arrow, a rail gun, or two spikes you slam into the ground. It is a one-time use weapon with a timer counting down before it expires. It’s not a use it or lose it scenario if you’ve never used it. If you die while using it, it’s gone until the next recharge.
Outside of the characters, your loadout follows the Pick 10 system introduced in Black Ops II. This is here where things get leveled. The ability or power a specialist uses is far and few between. There’s a lot of customization as you’d expect the multiplayer to have, and it works well to your playstyles. Scorestreaks are the way of earning your special, visually stunning, and exciting kills.
Call of Duty: Black Ops III often lost me through its complicated story, but introduces elements I’d like to see in future Call of Duty campaigns and other first-person shooters of its kind. Sadly, the events of Black Ops III is too far-removed from its predecessors to feel worthy of the title, given its weirdness and military conspiracies of the first game. It’s a game that’s too self-serious and often times just alright instead of bombastic and cool. There’s a lot to this game, but nothing that held my interest for long. It is worth noting that Jack Wall’s musical score is fantastic, edging on classical with violas and it becomes thought-provoking as you listen to it along your journey. Call of Duty: Black Ops III is sure to enthuse and enthrall many, but the multiplayer is what I’ll be back for in the long haul.
A PlayStation 4 copy and Steam code were provided by the publisher for review purposes.