Game Name: Call of Duty: Black Ops III
Platform(s): PS4, Xbox One, Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PC
Release Date: 06.11.15
Reviewed on: Xbox One
Jim Sterling was quite right when he put pen to paper to declare the Call of Duty series “the disposable camera of the videogame world.” Yet I must admit, no disposable camera on Earth has given me as many hours of entertainment as this monolith of a franchise. Despite the core gameplay remaining alarmingly consistent since the revolutionary Modern Warfare back in 2007, every game has tried in its own unique way to reinvent the wheel.
Not a single game has succeeded in doing that; let’s be honest – they’re all generic first-person shooters, yet what they have offered is new and interesting ways of essentially shooting people in the face. I remember World at War vividly re-peaked my interest in the franchise with its injection of Nazi Zombies. Black Ops, likewise, with the unbelievably addictive Sticks & Stones mode on the fan-favorite Nuke Town map. Each game has been a safe gamble – the core gameplay remaining consistent enough as to not alienate existing fans, with enough new features added to justify the price tag.
Last years’ Advanced Warfare hit the tip of my gaming iceberg. Not only did it produce a fine single-player campaign (containing a scene-stealing performance by Kevin Spacey) the online modes were absolutely on-point. It was going to take one hell of a game from Treyarch to knock that off top-spot…
Before I prematurely give the game away, it’s best to begin with an analysis of the meat and bones of any game, the single-player campaign. Although that said, in a franchise so famed for it’s online gameplay the single-player experience is definitely more ‘bones’ than meat. The game is set in 2065 and inherits plot-strands from both the sci-fi classic Deus Ex and Channel 4’s recent television drama, Humans. In a series first – you play as your own character (exciting in theory, in reality you’re offered a similar customization panel to that of last gen’s Fallout 3) who embarks on a ludicrous journey around a future-world using cybernetic enhancements to make the art of mass-murder easier. While I know the storyline (or coherent lack thereof) has taken quite a bashing by many critics – I actually enjoyed playing a Call of Duty game that didn’t actually feel like a Call of Duty game. It was genuinely so far removed from what I’d anticipated; I found the conclusion to be surprising and stayed with me for a few days upon completion. Was it ridiculous? Basically. Short? Very. Unconventional? Definitely. Worth it? Um, I guess…
The combat essentially boils down to traditional Call of Duty run n’ gun warfare, with comparable BioShock Infinite super abilities thrown in to keep things feeling fresh. These abilities are well publicized by now; my favorites are shooting robo-bees at people to momentarily frustrate them and performing a devastating radial ground-pound which conveniently translates into the online side of proceedings. The set pieces are predictably gargantuan and once you’ve completed the fairly stark five-hour campaign, you can do the entire thing again with significant plot points changed to pander to a Zombie thread.
One of the biggest refinements of the entire game comes in the form of wall-running, a factor that would have felt a lot more impressive if it hadn’t already existed in Titanfall. I like having the ability to use the environment to your advantage although it’s significantly less vital online than it really should be. The walls that you’re intended to run across stick out like a sore thumb – easily signposted so that maps begin to resemble the tutorial stages of Mirror’s Edge. I hope it’s something that is continued in the future Call of Duty titles, although it definitely requires some attention as there are plenty of occasions where freerunning feels more of a gimmick than a necessary tactical option.
Which brings us neatly to online…
The once great bastion of the Call of Duty franchise is now the reflexive self-parody of what made the games stand out in the first place. I’m not sure what has happened exactly, but the bizarre and uncharacteristic approach to the single-player has translated fairly ham-handedly to online play. It seems in a reactionary moment of madness as to what was ‘hip’ and ‘popular’ with the kids on Twitch – you now begin your multiplayer deathmatches by selecting a ‘Specialist’ (a shameless rip-off of a Champion from League of Legends) who possesses a unique special weapon and a super-charged special ability.
When I mentioned earlier in the review that every sequel thus far has been a ‘safe gamble’, this feels like a bizarre and very unsafe side step. The idea of having a Specialist generally detracts from the sense that you’ve earned a wonderful Kill/Death ratio yourself using sheer grit, talent and brains. Now you’ve got to contend with children running around with a super-charged cyber-bow that a super-soldier can pierce you with from virtually anywhere. The online mode has become too, for lack of a better word, modernized – caving in to a consumerist culture that seems to be crying out for more ludicrous features that eventually dismantle the wonderful arcade-like joy that comes from sitting down for a quick ten minute blast on Gun Game.
To make matters worse, two-player local co-op has become a chore to instigate. You can’t simply add a ‘guest’ anymore; you have to make sure you have a second account on your console which requires a fair chunk of set-up time. Then, there are some odd stylistic black bars that take up 20% of the screen on each side, causing the general play to be so minuscule you barely have a chance of seeing what’s going on. Text becomes unreadable, the frame rate becomes oddly problematic and the general look of the game slumps to an unplayable standard. I spent a few hours double-checking whether or not it was myself causing the issue – apparently it’s a staple stylistic choice which Treyarch are proud of. I’m not sure who thought it was a fine idea to decrease players’ visibility – especially seeing as it had been executed so well on Advanced Warfare and especially seeing as it’s generally quite pivotal to your overall enjoyment of a shooter
Finally, Zombies has re-emerged in all its glorious HD beauty. While I was somewhat overwhelmed by this mode back in the Black Ops II days, I’ve been able to concentrate a lot more on it seeing as the online play this year was such a disappointment to me. I’m not necessarily a huge fan of making things ten times bigger and bolder; it makes for a confusing and difficult first few weeks with a game. I loved Nazi Zombies in World at War for the sheer fact it took place inside a map you were already familiar with and your boundaries were fairly restrictive. Now Zombies has advanced to a stage where it may as well be a game in its own right.
It’s best played with four people (ideally friends, as the matchmaking system is pretty arduous when it comes to recruiting randomers), each embodying the role of four famous celebrity soldiers – which begs the question; why didn’t they pick four random voiceover artists for this mode and stick Ron Perlman, Jeff Goldblum, Heather Graham and Neal McDonough in the main quest? Regardless, Treyarch have outdone their usual wonderful job of injecting smart humor into a dark scenario. Each character has a fleshed out back-story; revolving around an aspiring actress-come-femme fatale murderess, a crooked cop, a broke magician and an unsporting boxer. Zombies mode contains its usual jack-in-the-box mayhem with hoards of the undead roaming every inch of the Morg City map. You’ll have to work hard as a team to make it anywhere near realms where you’ll be fighting bigger and badder creatures; as ammunition and weapons are also scarce, you’ll have to be smart about what decisions you make and when.
Overall, Call of Duty: Black Ops III is undoubtedly a huge modernization of the tried and tested FPS formula. It draws its narrative inspiration from popular culture and works of fiction such as Deus Ex and Humans, while it owes a lot of its gameplay to BioShock and League of Legends. While I enjoyed my time with the more introvert gaming modes available, I was left bitterly dissatisfied with an online mode which hasn’t been released in its best shape. While the audio, visuals and controls are tight and refined – there’s some very unwelcome and generally undercooked new ideas sprinkled throughout the online experience. In terms of wall-running and scaling your environments – that’s all fresh and exciting, this ‘Specialist’ idea however has to be abandoned. It’s a shame a lack of attention seems to have been paid in terms of catering to the more casual gamer, the local co-op suffering a massive hit as a result.
I was always told the best film director is one you never notice – the one that draws you in to their narrative masterfully… sadly Treyarch have their fingerprints all over this one. Whether that’s a good or bad thing is up to you to decide…
*Review copy provided by publisher
In all, Black Ops 3 provides a lot of content for its price tag. Not all of that content is refined enough or as entertaining as previous entries to the series – however there’s a lot there to be admired. A great Zombies mode and a completely unpredictable single-player campaign means two thirds of Black Ops 3’s trifecta of parts work very well. Sadly, in terms of replayability and longevity, the online mode hasn’t won me round this year.
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