You can't DNI its charms.
After the dumpster fire that was Call of Duty: Ghosts, I decided to take a self-imposed break from Activision’s annual shooter. I was angry at the lack of progression, bewildered by the general positivity, and utterly bemused by the commercial success each game consistently achieved. In short, I’d simply become apathetic to the series as a whole.
So when I was tasked with reviewing Call of Duty: Black Ops 3, well… you can imagine my initial disdain. The thought of yet another romp through a bland, repurposed, whack-a-mole military shooter was about as appetising as a six-week-old mouldy sandwich covered in human feces – and that’s putting it lightly.
The question I asked myself, then, was whether this year’s developer, Treyarch, could somehow mask the god awful taste that I’d been forcibly stomaching for years. I didn’t even contemplate the idea that they could serve up something fresh.
But miracles do happen, and Call of Duty: Black Ops 3 is right up there with good old Noah and his Ark full of two of every animal. It’s somehow managed to turn my bitter, Ebenezer Scrouge-like scepticism completely on its head, and it’s the most enjoyable entry I’ve played since Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare.
All Aboard The Crazy Train
Black Ops 3’s greatest strength lies in its sheer lunacy. The game is set in the not too distant future, 2065 to be precise, and borrows heavily from Deus Ex: Human Revolution’s premise where men and women can be rebuilt with cybernetic implants and limbs.
In fact, that’s exactly how the game starts out: you’re rebuilt. Your character, which can be either male or female, suffers a horrifically brutal attack from one of Black Ops 3’s many mechanical nasties. You’re then operated on, blessed with an array of cyber core abilities and assigned to investigate a compromised CIA black site.
And that’s about as normal as the plot gets. The campaign quickly escalates into a rollercoaster sequence of confusing events, crazy twists and ends with an even more off-the-wall conclusion. It’s like Call of Duty unleashed. Anything goes, and anything can happen. Oh, and it’s also the most graphic Call of Duty since of World at War, which means it will probably be featured on the front page of the Daily Mail soon enough.
I won’t spoil the insanity of the campaign, but I would be doing the game a severe injustice if I failed to mention that its unpredictability is why it resonated so strongly with me. It’s like a grizzly bear working 9 to 5 at a call centre. It shouldn’t happen, but the mere thought of it is mildly amusing. Call of Duty: Black Ops 3 is the grizzly bear.
The bonkers story isn’t the only highlight of the campaign, however. As I alluded to earlier, you get to choose the main character before you begin. Your character is featured prominently throughout the game’s cutscenes, which can only mean one thing: your character can finally speak. For years, I’ve lamented the fact that you always played as a silent protagonist in Call of Duty, simply following orders and listening to people bark general nonsense in your direction. Not so in Call of Duty: Black Ops 3. Your lead character is wonderfully vocal, and even physically represented in the game. Stir in some excellent voice acting and impressive facial capturing tech and you end up with a highly competent campaign that dwarfs previous games with its length and scale.
So Black Ops 3 packs a punch in the story department (something I thought I’d never say), but that’s only one piece of the puzzle. Do the monotonous gunplay and linear progression remain? The answer isn’t clear cut I’m afraid.
On the one hand, you’ll still be progressing through each level in a wholly linear fashion, following your companion Hendricks’ every step. And you’ll still encounter the odd slow-motion door breach, along with plenty of well-timed explosions. However, instead of the usual tedium of “pop, shoot, repeat”, Call of Duty: Black Ops 3 introduces cyber core abilities into the fray along with an all new tactical view that I hope will return.
Cyber core abilities play an important role in dealing with enemies and generally make the game more expansive and interesting to play. There are three sets available: Control, Martial and Chaos. You can choose between the three sets before a mission begins, as well as tinker with your loadouts, and they can be upgraded as you advance through the campaign. I stuck with Chaos during my playthrough as it was by far the most effective. I also loved firing a swarm of bothersome, yet deadly nanobots into a horde of enemies, who now pleasingly include both genders and robots (which can be strangely cathartic to kill, as Binary Domain proved).
Cyber core abilities play an important role in dealing with enemies and generally make the game more expansive and interesting to play.
The tactical view, which is only available in the campaign, proved to be an unexpected game changer. Essentially, the nifty feature highlights enemy threats and even indicates the blast radius of explosives or when enemies are firing. This may sound rather overpowered, and even overly simplistic, but I found the tactical view increased my enjoyment of the game considerably. It removed the unnecessary guesswork of locating enemies and was particularly handy on the harder difficulties such as Veteran, where it’s easy to be shot at unawares.
I should briefly mention that you can also play the campaign back-to-front if you like; all the missions are selectable from the outset, and there’s co-op support included, too.
But what about the online multiplayer? It is, after all, the sole reason so many gamers enlist every year. Well, it’s still very much Call of Duty as you know it, whether that’s good news or bad is down to your perspective.
You create a class, personalise your weapons, and usually whoever spots each other first tends to win. The experience system primarily rewards those who sink in the most time as opposed to those with the most skill, too.
That may sound like a crass summary, but it’s ultimately true. The multiplayer still contains all the staples that helped boost the series to the stratospheric heights it hopes to retain today, such as the killcams for final deaths, and a wonderfully snappy matchmaking system.
The biggest change to the multiplayer, however, is the Specialists. Each Specialist has two unlockable abilities, which power up over time. They can also be personalised with new gear, but that’s as far as it goes. Unfortunately, the result is a map filled with clones, who each mutter the same one-liners as one another. Wall-running, power sliding and boost jumping are also prominent in Call of Duty: Black Ops 3, but their impact on gameplay is negligible.
The Zombies Are Coming
The final area of discussion is the game’s beloved ‘zombies’ mode, which has evolved far more drastically than the competitive multiplayer.
Set in 1942, and buoyed by an all-star cast, “Shadows of Evil” tasks players with working together, solving puzzles and overcoming waves of zombies. I missed the simplicity of the early games, where your sole aim was to board up windows, harvest XP, and then buy better weapons – but Shadows of Evil represents another string to Black Ops 3’s multi-stringed bow.
Is Black Ops 3 the best-looking Call of Duty game to date? Almost. While the campaign is filled with spectacular particle effects and memorable locales, such as a neon-lit Singapore and an overgrown, abandoned complex, the game suffers from unsightly blur on Xbox One. It’s particularly noticeable in multiplayer, and softens the appearance of objects in the distance. Thankfully, however, a rich colour palette and art style do enough to overcome this irritating shortcoming.
A review code of Call of Duty: Black Ops 3 was provided courtesy of Xbox. The game was reviewed on Xbox One.
Mech Me Happy
Call of Duty: Black Ops 3 is a surprisingly comprehensive package that will satisfy the droves of players who flock to it every year. The multiplayer retains all of the foundations that helped transform the series into the behemoth it is today, with enough tweaks to the formula to keep things interesting. The campaign is unquestionably nuts, but it’s one of the highlights in recent years. If you’re disenchanted with the idea of yet another Call of Duty like I was, then Black Ops 3 might just make you a believer again.