As sure as the sun will rise tomorrow, November can be trusted as the month of choice for a new iteration in the ever-popular Call of Duty series to be unleashed upon us. While a casual perusal of Internet forums will uncover rabid swarms of gamers who despise the blockbuster franchise, an even more casual glance at Activision’s finances will reveal that there are many more who worship the ground it walks on and hang out for every yearly release. With a three-year development cycle split between three developers, 2015 is Treyarch’s turn to woo us with Black Ops 3. While BO3 is certainly an improvement on last year’s Advanced Warfare, and is of itself a very solid game, Treyarch have continued the COD tradition of favouring iteration over innovation. Apart from a few bizarre twists to the campaign model, anyone who has played a COD game since 2007 will be able to pick up BO3 and get that warm, very familiar COD vibe. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as COD’s core gameplay stems from a tried and true formula that has been finely honed over many entries, however if you’re expecting a revolution in how COD fundamentally plays then BO3 is not your game.
The Campaign: Stranger Danger
“Ramirez, teach me the magic of friendship!”
The story in BO3 continues in the futuristic vein of the last few entries, but makes only passing references to the greater Black Ops universe. You start the game as a nameless male or female soldier (you get to choose their gender and there are some cursory customisation options as well), who in the course of a routine op has their arms and legs unceremoniously torn off by robots. Luckily, in the year 2065 they have the technology, and they can rebuild you. Half human, half cyborg and half Bluetooth device, you become part of a supersolider program and are implanted with something called a Direct Neural Interface (DNI). The DNI allows you to commune with electronic devices and machines of all shapes and sizes, from the lowliest door lock to the most complex rerouted cryptomatic encephelogram. Ok, so I made that last one up but if it existed you could definitely interface with it if you had a DNI. You and your fellow supersoldiers are generally tasked with going to places that average soldiers fear to tread, tracking and eliminating sensitive targets and even more sensitive data in a world where wars are increasingly fought on the digital front. When you and your buddy Hendricks are ordered to investigate an old CIA Black Ops site in Singapore, the
horrors you discover there will split loyalties as you are forced to question the motives and actions of your fearless leader, Commander John Taylor (better known as Elliot from Law and Order: SVU).
The story setup is interesting and the introduction of the DNI allows for Treyarch to add some gameplay flair to the classic formula. Not only does your DNI allow you get detailed information on the immediate threats around you like enemy types and incoming grenades, it also gives you access to a variety of abilities that function a little like the biotics from Mass Effect. These are offensive and defensive powers and some of them are quite useful and fiendishly fun to unleash. Things like sending swarms of nanobots that blind enemies and slowly set fire to them or using your sonic anti-personnel device to make soldiers vomit to death are extremely satisfying. These abilities are specifically tailored to taking down either the human or robotic enemies that you will face in droves and you will constantly switch between them depending on who you’re trying to kill. There is quite an impressive amount of abilities spread over three different categories (Control, Martial and Chaos) that can all be upgraded and are quite fun to experiment with. While these abilities are hardly a gameplay revolution, they form a nice supplement to the standard gunplay.
Even with the abilities and DNI shenanigans the campaign has a very familiar feeling. There are the same over-the-top set-pieces and the same occasional on-rails shooting section that have become COD staples. If something hasn’t exploded or a building hasn’t fallen over in the past ten minutes then it’s probably not far away. For just over two thirds of the 8-10 hour campaign the experience feels fairly derivative and lifeless. I will say however that the environments are beautifully varied and detailed, with some of the best lighting effects I’ve ever seen in a Call of Duty game, it’s just a pity that I’m doing the same thing in them that I’ve done for the past decade or so of yearly COD releases. It is not until a very bizarre twist in the narrative that I actually started taking notice, simply because what was unfolding was too strange to look away. The plot takes a quasi-supernatural turn in the later chapters that simply has to be seen to be believed. It is probably the boldest innovation in the entire game and comes with mixed results. It allows Treyarch to experiment with some stranger gameplay settings and ideas that shock you out of the humdrum of the beginning of the campaign, and I really appreciated the sharp change in tone. However, attempts to introduce an emotional and cerebral element to the proceedings generally fall flat, mostly because all of the characters (especially your own) have the personalities of an uncooked piece of toast and their interactions and dialogue feel stilted and anaemic. There’s also an over-reliance on clichés like: “The body will heal but the mind will take much longer” quotes and punching your partner in the face to snap them out of a rant. It’s all a bit ridiculous, but I happily rode the bizarre vibe to the end.
As if the campaign wasn’t strange enough, once you’ve completed it you’ll unlock Nightmares mode, where you’ll be able to replay various sections of the campaign with one important twist… all the enemies are zombies. Someone has put a lot of thought into this and there’s a complete alternative story line worked in. In fact, the quality of the story sometimes rivals that of the main campaign. In the same theme there is the incredibly popular Zombies mode. This is a standalone mode with its own leveling system in which you take control of one of four characters who awake in a world infested with the undead. The simple goal is to survive as many waves of increasingly numerous and aggressive zombies as possible, however there are also vague secondary objectives that you can frantically rush around and try and complete… if you
True friends stab you in the back
For many, the wait for Fallout 4 had become unbearable
can figure out what they are. You are given visual and audio clues as to what to do and completing the level’s secondary objectives gains you access to tonnes of Easter Eggs and also gives you insight into the backstory of the characters and setting. Shadows of Evil (which takes place in a 1940s-inspired Chicago setting called Morg City) is the only map in the retail version of the game so if you like what you see and want more you’re going to have to open up your wallet and get the Season Pass. Personally I feel Zombies is more of a fun distraction than anything to be taken seriously, and the lack of map diversity is a little disappointing. Howver, there are a lot of things to do in just Morg City so fans of this mode will have plenty to occupy them while waiting for more Zombies content to drop.
Campaign: Now with 100% more zombies
Multiplayer: Futuristic Weaponry, Ancient Netcode
Multiplayer is of course the main event in any COD game, and BO3’s multiplayer is as solid as ever. Last year’s Advanced Warfare attempted something quite innovative by introducing exo-suits which gave you greatly enhanced mobility. While initially this was quite a fresh feel for the series, the problem was that it went too far. The exo movements were simply too fast and the old COD gunplay just couldn’t keep up with it. Black Ops 3 does the sensible thing and winds this back significantly. While parkour and boost sliding is still a thing, you aren’t punished for not jumping around like a lunatic and can spend all of your time on terra firma if you wish. It’s the guns that do the talking in BO3, not your ability to throw yourself around like a cat in a washing machine. The Pick 13 system in AW has also been scrapped in favour of the Pick 10 system, which is far superior in terms of overall balance.
A well-conceived addition to BO3 is the Specialist system. Basically you take control of one of nine Specialists with various abilities which can be activated periodically during the match. All the abilities are on a timer which can be accelerated slightly by getting kills. You are given a choice between two abilities for each specialist which range from Battery’s powerful rapid-fire grenade launcher to Prophet’s chain lightning gun. Some of the abilities are more defence-oriented like Spectre’s stealth cloak ability or Reaper’s Psychosis ability which generates multiple clones of himself to disorient the enemy. While these abilities are powerful and fun to experiment with, they won’t make or break your game which is testament to Treyarch’s eye for balance.
As always, the level design adheres to a simple three-lane design, and like the campaign the environments pop with colourful detail and personality that gives them a great distinct feel. There has also been the introduction of waterways that you can swim in and these mostly serve as shortcuts between important areas. Treyarch seems to have rewritten some fundamental rules of physics though as you can shoot people at range when underwater, and dead bodies tend to sink like they’re wearing concrete shoes rather than float.
All of the modes you know and love like Team Deathmatch, Domination, Hardpoint and Kill Confirmed all return in BO3. The Uplink mode where you have to manoeuvre a ball into a goal for points pioneered in AW also returns, however the neutered movement mechanics compared to AW makes this mode slightly less exciting and frantic, yet enjoyable nonetheless. The only new mode is Safeguard, where you are entrusted with escorting a robot from your base to the enemy base. The enemy can impede the progress of your robot by shooting it or killing its escorts. The matches seem unfairly skewed against the defenders who have to hold off the robot onslaught for a full five minutes. I also would have liked if you could actually destroy the robot rather than just temporarily disable it. I sincerely doubt this mode will rival the popularity of TDM and Domination, but it might serve as a distraction if you get tired of the main modes.
One thing that is noticeably different in BO3 is the speed of progression. Whereas in other games in the series you could expect to be showered with XP for mundane achievements and you would gain levels at quite a decent clip, BO3 has a much slower
Spectre vs Colourful Robot
Take the battle underwater
pace. While there are still hundreds of challenges to complete which will net you XP, the levelling as a whole feels far more gradual. It gives you a greater appreciation of the slow stream of new unlocked weaponry and gadgets that become available and if you are eyeing off a particular weapon it provides a tangible goal to work towards. However, some of the better weapons like the Sheiva Assault Rifle and Razorback SMG are locked at very high levels and will take a lot of work to obtain. In general though the game is very well balanced and in principal you can use any gun and do well if you’ve the skill to wield it. The slow progression extends to the weaponry too, which gain levels as you get kills and complete weapon-specific challenges. As they gain ranks you unlock attachments just as you always have, but more than usual I found myself feeling like it’s more of a grind to get important attachments. Again, the game is balanced and no gun absolutely requires an attachment to make it useful, but they certainly help. Very useful attachments like Laser Sight and Long Barrel for Shotguns and SMGs are locked at quite high weapon levels and simply take too long to acquire.
The bright lights of Nuk3town
My greatest issue with BO3 multiplayer is Activision/Treyarch’s insistence on Peer-to-Peer match hosting. On console there is apparently a hybrid matchmaking system that uses both dedicated servers and P2P hosting, however it certainly feels like the latter predominates. While for the most part the game runs smoothly, the substantial drawbacks to P2P hosting often raise their ugly heads. Spotty hit detection, unfair lag compensation and inconsistent kill cams are far too common occurrences. There is nothing more frustrating than unloading a clip into someone only to have them turn around and smoke you, or managing to duck around a corner only to mysteriously keel over and die and have the kill cam show you still running out in the open. For a twitch shooter like COD, where the time to kill is so short and milliseconds can be the difference between life and death, it is mind-boggling that in this day and age the game has not moved to dedicated servers. Recent releases like Halo 5 and Titanfall prove the value of dedicated servers in creating a smooth and even playing experience, COD needs to get with the times.
Narrative-wise, Black Ops 3 features one of the strangest campaigns I’ve ever experienced in a Call of Duty game. It takes itself a little too seriously and ultimately falls flat but the risks it takes and the novel DNI abilities system are still appreciated. The multiplayer is the same great balanced fun you’ve come to expect from a Call of Duty game and it successfully dials back the overly frenetic pace of Advanced Warfare to good effect. While weapon and character progression is slow and teeters on becoming a grind and occasional online inconsistencies due to archaic P2P-hosting are irritating, BO3 is a very strong entry in the series and its success is likely to be the envy of all online adversarial FPS games. With over 550 million dollars in sales, BO3 is the highest grossing entertainment release of the year, managing to beat both blockbuster film and television entertainment releases alike by a wide margin. It looks like this colossal series isn’t about to go gently into that good night anytime soon. See you next November.
Reviewed on PS4