CALL OF DUTY: BLACK OPS III Review
“Another year, another Call of Duty.” This is a phrase that has seemed to grow in familiarity over the course of the franchise’s long reign as the biggest blockbuster shooter in gaming. With every iteration, fans of the series are welcomed by an explosive thrill ride of a campaign and a robust multiplayer suite, tied neatly together by rock-solid gunplay. But the problem comes from its frequent releases and lack of innovation over the years. Though the last two releases GHOSTS and ADVANCED WARFARE took the series in a futuristic route, they left a little to be desired in their execution. But with developer Treyarch returning to the helm and taking the series even further into the realm of dark science fiction, does the COD franchise still show life and room for evolution?
The third entry in the BLACK OPS series introduces the idea of “cyber soldiers,” or high ranking operatives that are implanted with a “Direct Neural Interface.” This sci-fi construct basically means that the human brain can connect with robotics, such as biomechanical augmentations throughout their body. Much like the Exo-suits in ADVANCED WARFARE, this presents new abilities for movement, combat, and support while on the battlefield. The new upgrades are the crux of the evolution for this iteration of an established franchise and really can shake up combat scenarios across all of the game’s content with boost jumps, slides, and wall runs. And speaking of content, BLACK OPS III has plenty. From the campaign, to the staple multiplayer, the return of the fan-favorite Zombies mode, and even newcomers like the FreeRun mode, there is an immense amount of shooter content to chew through.
In the past, Treyarch’s campaigns have revolved around questionable morals and complex storylines. With this new emphasis on robotics and body augmentations, the game saddles players with a mystery that spans the globe, with quite a few twists and turns, ultimately showing what happens when technology affects the minds of soldiers themselves. Equipped with the DNI, players can access hacking powers to bolster new playstyles, such as the ability to launch a massive concussive blast or hemorrhage enemy brains with an electronic pulse. These abilities are further highlighted by the introduction of cooperative play in campaign. I played the game entirely through co-op and the missions feel designed to offer various paths for different playstyles, and I think it’s an experience best enjoyed with friends.
Bowling is way more complicated in 2065
Unfortunately, much of the game’s early missions feel wasted in building the mystery and leaving the player in the dark. I found myself confused for much of the beginning, trying to decipher what the objective was and who we were chasing. Many relationships between characters don’t feel as fleshed out as I would have liked, and emotional payoffs suffer as a result. Thankfully, the second half of the campaign drastically shifts the paradigm of the story and really starts to suggest dark themes; there are numerous mind-warping moments. With its multiple bombastic set pieces, the game certainly scratches that blockbuster thrill ride itch. I can honestly say my jaw dropped at a few gruesome moments and during some truly brain-numbing mental trips. It won’t go down as my favorite COD campaign, but there is true enjoyment to be had, and I want to play through the game again to see what little hints I missed the first time.
Trust me, Team Deathmatch’s plot is much more cohesive
For multiplayer, BLACK OPS III keeps things simple in many regards. Familiar modes like Team Deathmatch, Capture the Flag, and Search and Destroy all return. The progression system from past titles is back on display, and Treyarch reincorporates their “Pick 10” system for custom classes, allowing players to custom tailor their builds to certain playstyles. But things change with the new Specialists. These characters are chosen before matches and each has a trademark skill or weapon that can be brought into battle, such as a gun that can lay proximity-activated hives of tiny drones, or an explosive bow and arrow. These all feel unique and highlight different playstyles of COD, really shaking up the playground. Using the Tempest lightning gun to disintegrate a group of enemies around an objective is always empowering.
The maps all seem varied and highlight the new movement capabilities with an emphasis on verticality. It took a few matches to adapt to the new dynamic, but I find it refreshing and exciting for the franchise. Furthermore, unlike ADVANCED WARFARE’s jerky and clunky exo boosts, all of the movement feels fluid and Treyarch has wisely chosen to keep a player’s gun ready at all times, meaning that regardless of running, jumping, sliding, swimming, the player is always ready to line up a perfect headshot. All of this comes together with the staple progression system, offering unlock tokens for guns and upgrades. Every gun feels really powerful, so I kept having to decide which to unlock next as I experimented, really drawing out the game’s replay value.
Treyarch always seems to take their trademark Zombies mode to new heights with each title and BLACK OPS III is no different. This is the best Zombies mode to date and brings a plethora of new gimmicks and craziness, all in a 1920s setting. Most important, the mode offers the ability for player to “Become the Beast,” a state that allows them to become a tentacle-like creature with electrical powers and grapple mechanics. Mastery of this ability is essential for opening specific doors or accessing certain perks throughout the map. I was pleasantly surprised by the cast of characters this time around, voiced by stars such as Ron Perlman and Jeff Goldblum, who all zip out one-liners while blasting the heads of zombies and other creatures. Their individual stories are interesting and the rituals and effects around the map are tied to their specific histories.
Much to my personal delight, Treyarch has managed to expand the Zombies content in BLACK OPS III. Upon completion of the main campaign, players unlock the Nightmare mode, which reskins many of the existing levels with the trademark Zombie flavor. While it is in essence a reskin, the gameplay really changes when you replace robots with mongering husks that growl and charge at you. In addition, the Dead Ops arcade mode from the original BLACK OPS returns with its top-down survival gameplay intact. This fun easter egg is hidden in the campaign and is an entertaining diversion. Both of these modes are wholly unnecessary but really add to the entire BLACK OPS III package, highlighting the effort Treyarch has put into this iteration of the series.
Shooting zombies and all that jazz
Free Run is new to the series and puts the game’s new movement mechanics to the test. It acts as a series of time trials during which players must boost jump, wall run, slide, and swim through a course to get the fastest time possible. It’s a fun distraction, but with only a few tracks to run at the moment, I didn’t see much need to keep coming back other than to keep my score at the top of my friend’s leaderboard.
Amongst the fun sci-fi campaign, seemingly infinite multiplayer suite, Zombies mode, Free Run, Nightmare campaign, and Dead Ops Arcade, there is an insane package within BLACK OPS III. It almost feels daunting to look at that list. I haven’t had this much fun with a COD game in years, and I find myself excited to fire it up and strap my gear on for some mayhem. I don’t think it will do much to persuade naysayers that COD is worth purchasing annually, but if you haven’t touched the series in a few years, now is the best time to dive back in. BLACK OPS III is an excellent entry in the series and is an easy game to recommend.
Reviewed on Xbox One, also available on PC, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 3, and Xbox 360.