Review: “Call of Duty: Black Ops III” – Quantity vs. Quality

Developer: Treyarch, Beenox and Mercenary Technology (Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 versions)
Publisher: Activision
Formats: Windows, Xbox 360, Xbox One (REVIEWED), PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4
Released: November 7, 2015
Copy purchased (by my brother Daniel) at retail.

There’s always been a problem with big budget annualized games and in this console generation, it’s more obvious than ever. Games that are rushed to retail to hit a deadline are often rife with glitches, latency issues, and feature creep that strayed away from the original games simple design. Activision has charged three developers with the Call of Duty franchise in order prevent stagnation from annualization and the current generation games released have had interesting results. A fractured Infinity Ward released Call of Duty: Ghosts and its uninspired design didn’t win over critics or the hardcore fanbase. Sledgehammer Games released their first game as lead developer with Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare and it was the shot in the arm the series needed for the current generation of consoles (sorry Wii U owners…but you have no games). And now, Treyarch has released their first game in three years with Call of Duty: Black Ops III. Have their efforts been worth the wait or is this just “another Call of Duty” to add to the pile?

Machines and Mind Games. (SPOILER FREE)

The first Black Ops was a very distinct Call of Duty campaign that blended political spy thrillers with its use of mind control, conspiracy theories, and Gary Oldman. Black Ops II mixed things up with science fiction elements along with a branching Cold War thriller past/drone warfare future storyline and Gary Oldman. The six hour campaign in Black Ops III goes all in on with the science fiction weirdness but the main problem I have with it is that it doesn’t feel like Black Ops game. There’s no Gary Oldman and brief mentions of events from the first two Black Ops games.  This self contained story might as well have been an Advanced Warfare game. At least that game had Cyborg from Teen Titans Go.

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Anyways, after customizing your character from a bunch of caucasian facial templates (Sidenote: it doesn’t matter if you pick a female character as the character in the campaign will address you as “him”), your “player” starts off in the year 2065. You and your partner Jacob Hendricks infiltrate an compound run by the evil Nile River Coalition (NRC) to rescue a Prime Minister. You succeed in rescuing the Minister but get critical injuries from getting your limbs torn off by a combat robot. You’re saved by Black Ops operative John Taylor and get mechanical limbs hooked up to a cybernetic system in your spine dubbed the Direct Neural Interface (DNI). With your fancy new toys, you join the Black Ops unit and continue to stop terrorism with your newly acquired robot powers.

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PlayStation Users get exclusive early access to the new map packs before Xbox owners. Well Xbox owners, now you know how PS owners have felt since Modern Warfare 2. This pic is unrelated. 

This is easily Treyarch’s most ambitious Call of Duty campaign to date with elements borrowed from games like Deus Ex and Syndicate but it suffers from the usual tropes. The lengthy tutorial level holds your hand for about 30 minutes and slowly gives you access to your cybernetic abilities. The plot delves into themes of transhumansim, mind manipulation, and playing God but never truly delivers on them instead focusing on shooting your way from “Point A”  to “Point B”. Throw in a bizarre twist, a villain reveal that’s too silly for this kind of game, a shoehorned romance subplot with Starbuck from Battlestar Galactica, a conspiracy with characters that have zero development and you have the most disjointed Call of Duty plot since…the last one.

Thankfully, the campaign offers plenty of experimentation and replayability which are perfect for the returning 4 player co-op mode that has been absent since Call of Duty: World at War. Repetition sets in quickly when playing solo but when you’re playing with others, the game feels existing and the difficulty scales making it an enjoyable challenge. The action set pieces are amazing with buddies and no play through is exactly the same sans the tedious tutorial levels. After completing the tutorials, you’ll return to a Safehouse where you can view Collectibles, reselect missions, customize your load outs, and unlock items. There’s also a “Combat Immersion” station to play a horde mode styled time trial against increasingly difficult AI opponents if you’re into that.

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The shooting hits the benchmark set by previous CoD games but the inclusion of cybernetic abilities adds an interesting wrinkle to Black Ops III. Mobility has greater emphasis than Advanced Warfare as your character can wall run, run up ledges, and jetpack around like in Titanfall. Unlike Advanced Warfare, Black Ops III‘s thruster pack doesn’t have one or two air dashes but a boost governed by an ability meter. Environments in the campaign and multiplayer arenas are designed with these abilities in mind as high balconies and long walls are set up for players to use creatively. You’re always aiming while moving around and while rare, it’s a thrill to take down enemies while wall running.

 

Exclusive to the campaign are abilities that truly make you feel like a super solider. Like Halo, there’s a body damage indicator that tells you when to hide and how long it takes for your health to recharge. With a press on the directional pad, you can use night vision or an enhanced scanner to know where enemies are. Cyber Cores are upgradable perks in the Campaign. There are seven perks under three specific cores. The control core is all about hacking enemy robots and drones. The martial core focuses on direct melee combat (not recommended on the higher difficulties as enemies will turn you into bloody swiss cheese). And the chaos core is all about fucking shit up with robotic firefly swarms and spontaneous robot combustion. You can only choose one core at a time until you hit level 20 and a cool down timer means you’re still using guns to clear rooms. Being creative with your abilities in the campaign is encouraged and offers plenty of replay value.

Dead Alive! (or Braindead if you’re not in North America)

Ever since Treyarch included the nazi zombie mode in Call of Duty: World at War, they’ve continually added twists to the formula and Black Ops III has three different flavors of zombies. After beating the main campaign, you unlock the “Nightmares” campaign mode. Nightmares is a retelling of the main campaign with the plot changed to resemble B-Movie horror films with a zombie virus and other supernatural monsters reeking havoc across the campaign levels. You don’t have access to your customizations in this mode and have to rely on item pickups and random magic boxes in order to survive. This second campaign while fun in short bursts, feels haphazardly cobbled together to add content to an already packed game.

The traditional zombies serval experience is called “Shadows of Evil” and has a Noir thriller vibe to it. Set in the fictional Morg City, you play as one of four main characters played by Ron Perlman, Jeff Goldblum, Heather Graham, and Neal McDonough. Each of these characters has blood on their hands and someone calling themselves the Shadowman  has trapped them with zombies. These four mismatched killers have to work together to uncover secrets, stop evil, and save themselves from eternal damnation. The mash up of Pulp Detective fiction and H.P. Lovecraft horror work well together and the labyrinth streets of Morg City are chock full of secrets. Be warned, this version of Zombies is tough and is not meant to be played alone.

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Lastly, is the Dead Ops Arcade II: Cyber’s Avengening mini game hidden within the main campaign. It’s a twin stick shooter similar to Smash TV where you shoot down zombies and rack up high scores from a top down perspective (although it occasionally switches perspective to first person to mix things up). It’s a fun diversion but then again, so is the entire zombies package.

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Yeah, this is what happens when Treyarch is given three years to make a Call of Duty game. 

Care Package Inbound

The meat and potatoes of any Call of Duty experience is the twitch trigger multiplayer and Black Ops III’s offering does cool things. You select one of a number of specialists each with their own distinct personality and then select either their special ability or special weapon. Battery for instance has a grenade launcher to rapidly kill enemies which is perfect for team deathmatch while her kinetic armor ability absorbs damage for a short time making it ideal for domination. You can either wait for 2-4 minutes to access your Specialist’s skills but earning points in a match will fill up meter faster. The “Pick 10” system is back and the ability to customize your loadout is as robust as ever. Specialist and Scorestreak rewards are independent of the Pick 10 system but none of these feel overpowered in play. Further weapon customization comes from the Gunsmith which allows for combinations of attachments and paint jobs for guns.

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It’s just not a Treyarch Call of Duty game without zombies and flamethrowers. 

Despite the levels of self expression, the multiplayer feels the same as it ever was. You still level up, unlock perks, and prestige multiple times. A majority of game modes you’ve probably played before like Gun Game from the first Black Ops and Uplink from Advanced Warfare. The only new multiplayer “Free Run” and “Safeguard” modes. Free Run trials are like in Mirror’s Edge where you play a series of challenges that test your skills against the clock. They’re interesting but unless you’re really into chasing high scores, there’s not much fun to be had. Safeguard is like Team Fortress 2‘s Payload mode where one team has to escort a defenseless robot across the map while another team has to destroy it. It’s fun and chaotic as the robot creates a central focus point for both teams. The new modes don’t affect the original Call of Duty multiplayer recipe but the experience overall is plagued with issues. On the Xbox One, I’ve noticed multiple times where the game would dip below 60 frames per second and lag would ruin entire matches. Treyarch can and should patch this stuff out but right now, these poor performance issues are insufferable.

It’s Just Another Call of Duty

I asked my brother why he bought this game and he said, “It’s the same as the other Call of Duty games. It’s simple to pick up and play”. Much like a McDonalds hamburger, the strength and weakness of the Call of Duty games is how consistent they are and Black Ops III is the Super Sized Combo Value Meal. It’s clear that Treyarch put a lot of effort into this game and the sheer quantity of modes and customization features justifies the $60 price point. But the lopsided quality of Black Ops III stems from the amalgamation of elements borrowed from other games which doesn’t do enough to make the core formula feel fresh. If you love playing online with friends then chances are, you’ve already answered the call of duty. It’s not a bad game but it’s certainly not a great one either.

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