For a long time, it has felt like the once hailed king of first-person shooters that is Call of Duty has been struggling beneath its own weight. With a bombardment of lacklustre releases, only a few titles have managed to withstand the pressure of the incredible competition within the genre - Advanced Warfare certainly rose the bar in 2014. The blinding successes of the likes of Battlefield and Halo all but knocked Call of Duty out of the water. Treyarch and Activision seem to have retaliated by throwing all of their eggs into one basket, and that basket is Black Ops III.
We were promised a graphical wonder of new visuals, and Treyarch delivered, along with an abundance of new content and a nightmarish preview of futuristic warfare. The game is shiny, slick and everything we wanted from a current gen game, and more. But there’s just something holding it back from breaking the Call of Duty mould, something that it can’t quite escape - underneath the glitz and the expense, the bones are just the same. Where is the gamechanger?
Black Ops III faces the problem of humanity - more specifically, how far we can alter the human body before it is no longer human at all. The year is 2065, and the world has been ravaged by an onslaught of technological advances and climate upheaval. Robots, drones and cyborgs dominate warzones. Elsewhere, Virus 61-15 has turned populations of major cities into man-eating zombies, which must be quarantined and dispatched. The world is a hot mess, and human soldiers must undergo some radical changes if they are going to be able to survive.
The Sci-fi nature of Black Ops III opens a lot of doors to the gameplay. The line between reality and imagination is completely blurred, to an extent where one does not always know for certain that the events of the game are indeed happening to the player. Black Ops III takes full advantage of its stunning visuals to provide a dusky, blurred sequence of dream-like scenes for moments of illusion and hallucination. Toying with possibilities in this way casts aside any limitations that may have been present in previous titles and reveals a casket of potential scenarios and ways to consider the game. Such big, big ideas need to be perfectly executed in story-driven games like this and unfortunately, Black Ops III falls short here. The story can seem extremely confused, as if it is trying to express ideas it just doesn’t have the facilities for. The plot is disjointed and often incoherent. Treyarch tries to cover up its failure to deliver an intricate plotline with a bombardment of sheer amounts of enemy waves. They think you won’t have time to stop and contemplate the holes in the storyline - nice try.
This can partially be attributed to the fact that the franchise has made enormous changes in gameplay - for the first time in the franchise, cooperative play is now available in campaign mode (a mode which is only available on current generation platforms). However, Black Ops III tries desperately to leap from a story involving a single player, to one based on multiple players. Advanced Warfare benefited from pace, whereas Black Ops III feels much more sluggish. Although the storyline might suffer from this addition, the gameplay certainly does not. Co-op campaign is a refreshing and super fun twist, and can change the entire dynamic of the campaign mode. For a particular challenge, switch the difficulty setting to “Realistic”. A single shot in this mode is enough to kill you, resulting in some hilariously challenging gameplay. Slightly masochistic, perhaps.
Cooperative campaign is not the only “first” to be introduced to the franchise - it comes along with female protagonists, character creation and a number of changes to mobility (think corner sliding!). Nor is the female character scantily clad and presented as anything less than a soldier, but is portrayed as equally tough and capable as the men (albeit equally devoid of likeable personality, too). Missions are fairly unimaginative - fight the robots and enemy armies, until you find yourself brutally torn apart, and have your limbs replaced to turn you into a robo-human hybrid. Your party is comprised of similarly-maimed robo-soldiers, and you must uncover the secrets of some merciless killings that leave suspicions on your own teammates, all the while defending yourself from wave after wave of murderous robotic armies.
There is a lot going on in Black Ops III and Treyarch have done their darndest to squeeze as much exciting content in as possible. The outcome of this is an intensely enjoyable experience, but it leaves no particular element in the spotlight. There’s so much happening that nothing really stands out. They have made such enormous attempts to create a new and exciting game that it doesn’t even really feel like a Black Ops release anymore. The conspiracies and plot twists of the previous titles that enthralled fans have been pushed aside to make room for as much action as possible, at the detriment of the Black Ops atmosphere we expected.
Voice actors of note in campaign mode include Law and Order’s Christopher Meloni and Katee Sackoff from Battlestar Galactica, to name but two. Cutscenes play a significant role throughout the campaign to bring the story together, so it is crucial that the voice acting is on point, and it thankfully delivers.
As you progress through the campaign, you have upgradable cyber cores which are broken down into three skill trees - Control, Chaos and Martial. Essentially, you can craft a ‘class’, which can be used strategically to aid a fight with other players. With the help of your DNI system, battles become much more intricate than merely gunning and grenading your way through waves of enemies. The battlefield itself can be warped and used to your advantage, or you can inflict headaches in the enemy soldiers to affect their proficiency. You can even summon nanorobots to help fight your way through large waves. Martial comprises of self-boosts, such as smokescreens and movement options. Control involves hacking into turret systems or robots and turning them to fight for your team. Chaos is made up of big bangs - the clue is in the name! Deciding on your playstyle - whether you prefer crowd control methods, or movement boosts - means that you can customise the way in which you traverse campaign mode, and is an engaging addition to gameplay.
Ultimately, though, campaign plays like an A-to-B mission - very constricted and linear. Although it’s a chore, completing normal campaign mode unlocks “Nightmares” mode, which offers a playthrough of the campaign, but set in a post-apocalyptic, zombie nightmare. Your player is immediately pitched into a battle for the survival of all mankind. When in doubt, add zombies.
However, Call of Duty comes into its own through its multiplayer mode. Fans of the series were quick to hail Black Ops III as the best multiplayer of the franchise. Campaign is not the only mode which has been treated to an upheaval of series “firsts” - now, in multiplayer mode, you may select from a range of nine ‘specialist’ soldiers; each are named, and come with a set of special unlockable offensive or defensive abilities. These abilities, like in campaign mode, have the potential to tip the battle in your favour in a number of different ways. To activate these abilities, you must be in battle for a certain period of time, or have accumulated enough kills. So the early stages of battle often feel much more like a classic Call of Duty shootout, before the Black Ops III additions begin to take effect. But it does not seem elitist, like it often can in these kinds of games - it isn’t only the top-of-the-charts players who manage to earn the points to unlock the most offensive and useful skills. Average players alike have an equal availability and advantage as the more adept. The Pick 10 system, where you can choose 10 available items for your class in advanced, adds to the sense of equity. Unfortunately, for those like myself who have never so much as glimpsed the top of a kill chart, you are still likely to be easy prey for those hardcore fans. Multiplayer is, after all, largely skill based.
Abilities include camouflage, heightened senses or aggressive attack options, and each character feels distinctly different to another, despite base stats remaining the same. Moulding to an individual’s gameplay, or just providing alternatives to prevent a sense of staleness, works very successfully in making a fresh and exciting form of multiplayer. They can offer a huge advantage, but do often require some forward thinking and planning in order to use the abilities to their full potentials. At no point do you feel as if a singular character is overpowered enough to tip the entire game - a reliance on skill remains.
The maps have been beautifully crafted to accommodate new chain-based movement styles, with Treyarch paying particular attention to being able to fluidly traverse the entirety of a single map. Walls are perfectly placed to allow for wall-running between areas for example, and for taking advantage of verticality and height differences within battle. Glorious mid-air twirls and floor-sliding can be performed without once interrupting your shooting, resulting in a feeling of such dexterity and seamlessness. It feels more natural and less jilted than previous, more limited titles. Each of the 12 basic maps feels distinctly different from another - none feel like an empty arena with a different theme. They feel like microworlds, despite being fairly compressed. Call of Duty has broken away from corridor fighting, and opened up into long-distance ranges and more closed-in quarters for a variety of deadlocks. Advantage points are many, yet hotly contested. The multiplayer is one of the most explosive and dramatic yet.
Of course, the title would feel positively incomplete without the iconic zombies mode (Shadows of Evil), and this takes centre stage here. Black Ops III delivers its zombie-infestation story with finesse and character. In Shadows of Evil, Morg City (aptly named, of course) is a 1940’s inspired space, with a soundtrack to match, which has been hit hard with a viral zombie outbreak. Jeff Goldblum (Independence Day, Jurassic Park) provides a singularly eccentric and witty performance, alongside Ron Perlman (Hellboy, Sons of Anarchy). You may select one of four characters, each of which have committed some sinful deed, and thus been selected to battle the undead horde. You must defeat endless waves of zombie attackers, and take a hard look into your own sins. The city has a distinct personality, and is a far cry from a generic derelict cityscape that is predictably seen in zombie modes and games.
Like campaign, zombie mode can feel lengthy and difficult when played solo, and benefits hugely from the addition of friends. For the first time, it includes a levelling progression system and perk benefits, which add to the momentum and provide a greater sense of durability. Being able to turn into a tentacled, monstrous beast is also an exciting and unusual addition. For a short amount of time you are untouchable, and can tentacle up to otherwise unreachable areas.
Another notable additions is Gobblegums. Before a match, you can select which five Gobblegums will be available to buy as you level. They each have different perks which can completely tip the game, such as increasing the length of time it will take you to bleed out. The currency to purchase Gobblegums is called Divinium, which you acquire from machines. Obviously, the rarer and more powerful Gobblegums will cost more Divinium.
There is a lot more to be said about Shadows of Evil, and discovering the uses and gimmicks that can be found around the map is both completely overwhelming and unbearably exciting. Do yourself a favour, and don’t pre-read too much into what you will find and how to use it. The chaos of finding this out is a huge part of the fun.
The only possible thing which could have made zombies mode more entertaining would have been to include some of the fantastic movement enhancements that are present in multiplayer, to add to the already rapid pace. Otherwise, Shadows of Evil easily stands out as one of the great successes of the Black Ops series.
Call of Duty: Black Ops III (Reviewed on PlayStation 4)
This game is good, with a few negatives.
Black Ops III hits two out of three big marks for me. We were promised a wealth of mindblowing graphics, exciting new content and dynamic gameplay and Treyarch most certainly delivered on all points. Black Ops III is a fantastic Call of Duty game, but despite its best attempts to be completely different, it can’t help but to fall into its own category. Underneath the glamour, it feels like just another Call of Duty game - to the delight of existing fans, but the chagrin of players seeking new turf. It is severely let down by its clumsy campaign mode, but additions to movement and customisation in multiplayer mode make it one of the best Call of Duty multiplayers ever created. The new zombie map, Shadows of Evil, is also an enormous high in the series, and is innovative and replayable enough to mark it as the largest and most exciting zombie modes yet.