Call of Duty: Black Ops 3 Review: War Ever-Changing
Ben Sheene / Nov 5th, 2015 No Comments
Call of Duty is just one of those things. People who know nothing about video games often recognize the name. It’s big. Big like Nintendo back in the 1990s when all video games even on the Sega Genesis fell under the “Nintendo” moniker by people like my mom. Call of Duty is one of the biggest game franchises of all time. It dominates conversations and sparks arguments about length and series fatigue and everything else under the sun. Yet millions play an exhausting amount of hours.
“Modern Warfare” was once the dominant point of reference for a franchise steeped in world wars. And then Black Ops came along as Treyarch‘s second effort to challenge Infinity Ward’s dominance over the world of shooters. For a while it was “Black Ops” instead of “Modern Warfare,” instead of “Call of Duty.” It’s been three years and the juggernaut is back. In the busiest season in gaming, Call of Duty: Black Ops 3 has entered the fray as one of the highest points the series has ever seen.
The Not Too Distant Future
Though Black Ops 3 is set in 2065 — around the same decade as Advanced Warfare — the two have virtually nothing in common. The game takes place after Black Ops 2 but players aren’t required to remember anything about the previous two entries to have a grasp of the story. Wars are waged across the world but they are now fought by soldiers who have given parts of their bodies over to machines. A Direct Neural Interface (DNI) links these soldiers together, allowing them to share battlefield information between their minds on the fly. Robots can be found wielding guns as frequently as humans. The advancement of technology sparks Terminator-like fears of an eventual robot takeover.
Much of this advanced technology is used as a backdrop for both gameplay and story in Black Ops 3. Just like any other Call of Duty game, Black Ops 3 has an explosive start. An initial mission (in this case a rescue of an Egyptian minister) leads the player to the brink of death and eligible for induction into the Winslow Accord Cyber Soldier program. The hows and whys of who is fighting who aren’t always easy to follow with all the bullets flying. Soon enough, data drives with critical CIA intelligence are stolen and risk exposing undercover agents across the globe.
It’s simple enough fodder for a Call of Duty game packed with action and betrayal, and there’s a bit of “just going along with it.” Christopher Meloni plays John Taylor in the role of fallen hero. Meloni isn’t used as prominently as Kevin Spacey in Advanced Warfare but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The handful of scenes that utilize him are filled with humor and drama. The real stars of the show are Jacob Hendricks, Rachel Kane and the player character. Through a majority of the campaign, this trio engages with each other while sharing the pain of loss and the joy of victory. Even when Hendricks came off as the foul-mouthed bro soldier, I felt a surprising fondness for his stubbornness. These characters are put through the ringer in more ways than one. Luckily, they aren’t dulled by the presence of a massive supporting cast, allowing their roles to be further fleshed out.
War of the Mind
What will help players connect with the narrative of Black Ops 3 is their own soldier. Before starting the campaign, players can choose the appearance of their soldier (though its limited to the rugged Caucasian archetype) and a gender. This unnamed protagonist is a clever vehicle to make the player feel more involved in the action and shows care in not crafting a completely one-sided story. During my first playthrough, I decided to choose a female and was impressed that Treyarch didn’t attempt to feminize the character too much. She was a soldier and not afraid to yell and cuss and punch Hendricks when he was being stupid. This is not a mere palette swap of voice and polygons. One could argue that playing as a nameless character weakens the narrative but I truly enjoyed seeing my soldier as a kind of vessel, especially when taking the end of the game into consideration.
As players progress through Black Ops 3, a lot of crazy things start to happen. The Black Ops franchise has always been about the darker side of war and it holds true in this entry as well, as there are many brutal moments in the game that may shock you. When the game starts its tailspin into the final third, a lot of weird stuff goes down. War takes a backseat as players deal with a very personal, inward battle. The notion of the DNI and technology overtaking our own humanity comes center stage.
Suddenly, an unexpected thing happens. A Call of Duty campaign becomes less about action setpieces and more of a cerebral drama about a group of soldiers tortured by a battle being waged inside their own minds. This allows Treyarch to introduce unusual camera angles during cutscenes, play visual tricks on players, and transform an experience that was once pretty straightforward. When it is all wrapped up, Black Ops 3 becomes a head-scratcher. The story doesn’t end in a black and white way and instead leaves players with just as many questions as answers. There is a hidden element to Black Ops 3’s story that hasn’t been advertised during the game’s constant promotion and players should see the campaign from beginning to end in order, even though they are allowed to play any chapter at any time. What’s just as impressive is that once every mission has been completed, a new mode is unlocked that delivers a different take on the story. Told out of order and with a new narration over existing cutscenes, it shows an exhausting amount of detail done by Treyarch to make a memorable campaign experience.
Duty Ex Machina
Whether in the multiplayer or campaign, gunplay remains as impenetrably solid as it’s ever been. Black Ops 3 introduces cyber cores to the mix, which are loadouts that grant players a different set of abilities to take advantage of unpredictable combat situations. The Chaos core is meant to terrorize the opposition with abilities like a robotic firefly swarm that sets targets on fire. The Control core exacts power over robots, allowing players to shut them down permanently or take them over. The Martial core allows for fast movement and stealthy attacks. Because players level up across all three modes, they are able to unlock new abilities and upgrades for each cyber core.
Scattered throughout missions are crates that allow players to change their cyber cores on the fly. It may be fun to try something new halfway through a section of the game but cyber cores take advantage of Black Ops 3 incorporating co-op into its campaign. Yes, the entire campaign can be played with up to three other people. Being able to blast through missions with buddies is not only fun but crucial. Surprisingly, the campaign is pretty tough even on normal difficulty. Levels are designed with multiple paths in mind and to be tackled with partners. The mix of human and robotic opposition practically begs for multiple players with different cyber cores equipped.
Combined with an inherent difficulty and co-op, gameplay becomes more thoughtful and strategic. Talking strategy with your team will help players survive because gunning through everything certainly won’t work. Co-op also makes the Realistic difficulty actually doable, considering a bullet is almost instant death. It makes the entire Call of Duty experience more accessible than ever before, and more entertaining.
Those invested in the actual narrative will see connections between the co-op aspect of the game and how multiple players add a twist on the story. Players also have access to a safehouse between missions. Safehouses act as a hub for players to customize their loadouts, engage in combat training, view collectibles and even brush up on lore. That’s right, the game has a fairly extensive bit of lore that is accessible in the safehouse and will also connect Black Ops 3 to previous entries. In additional to some Easter eggs, players can change their appearance or check out the rooms of their co-op partners.
Create a Specialist
Unlike the revolutionary co-op, multiplayer is mainly unchanged. The biggest switch from Advanced Warfare to Black Ops 3 is the lack of the exo suit. Exo suit powers are gone but motion is still dynamic. Being half a robotic soldier allows players to wall run, thrust jump, power slide, and shoot, all while being on the run. However, players won’t see others flying through the sky like last year. Movement is the most fluid yet but maps don’t rely on players mastering wall running.
Personally, I didn’t find a great advantage in running along walls as I usually was shot down. That being said, it seems like one of those delicate systems that expert players can master and use to dominate the battlefield. One gripe I had with Advanced Warfare that still holds here is the occasional difficulty in figuring out what players can and can’t jump over. Many platforms look like they can be scaled but are instead blocked by invisible walls. To compromise, levels are much less vertical and players don’t always need to watch the skies for sudden death.
The shiny new feature of Black Ops 3 is the specialists. Similar to class-based multiplayer games, specialists have a unique weapon and ability that charge up over the course of a match. Ruin has gravity spikes that slam into the ground and kill opponents nearby (think the Titan slam in Destiny) or he can use overdrive to gain a burst of speed perfect for capture the flag. Outrider’s instant kill compound bow and Battery’s grenade launcher are great for generating kills. But when you think tactically about how to incorporate these abilities with different loadouts and match types, they really begin to shine. Prophet’s tempest gun is perfect for Hardpoint because it chains electricity between nearby opponents.
While this is the most radical change to multiplayer, specialists are just one more enjoyable aspect of customization added to the game. It’s Treyarch’s way of gently nudging players towards being tactical while playing multiplayer. Pick 10 returns with some old favorite modes like Gun Game and Uplink, though I was saddened at the lack of Infected. Safeguard is a new mode tasking a team with escorting a robot to a set point on the map while the other team must shut it down before reaching the destination. It’s frantic and entertaining, especially as the distance clears between the robot and its goal.
Time and again I’m reminded how rewarding the Call of Duty multiplayer experience feels. When most kills and actions reward some sort of medal or unlock, it becomes addicting. The massive amount of challenges spread across multiple modes give players something to work toward but also reward players with tangible progression. The swift pace of matches and the responsiveness of the framerate are also things I’ve missed considering Destiny has been my primary multiplayer experience for nearly a year.
Old Fashioned Zombies
It’s Morg City, 1940s. A magician, a boxer, a cop and a burlesque dancer walk into zombie-filled alleyway. Haven’t heard that one before, have you? Shadows of Evil is the new Zombies map that shows Treyarch’s further mastery of the game mode they helped make famous. Much like Black Ops 3’s campaign, Zombies is best with friends. By now, players have come to expect a convoluted, insane journey when dealing with the undead, and this year is no different. Players are tasked with maintaining barriers, unlocking new paths and upgrading their guns to survive.
Black Ops 3 adds a few new touches to this nail-biting, difficult mode. GobbleGum provides players with unique perks by consuming a gumball from machines scattered around the map. From gaining more points or taking longer to bleed out, GobbleGum gives players an added edge in a desperate situation. Players are also able to level up in Zombies, allowing for new GobbleGum and weapon loadouts. These unlocks will prove useful considering how tough the game can get even in the early waves.
Morg City is a massive map filled with Easter eggs. Even after several hours of dying and exploring, it was hard to know just how much was left to see. Since players can transform into “The Beast,” they can use this power to quickly kill zombies or experiment with the environment. Unleashing this strange power is essential to find items and pathways that will start rituals for even more unexplained madness. Part of Zombies’ thrill is in how much lies underneath the surface. Tucked behind all the humor is a complex mode that will likely take a group of friends a long time to see out.
Back in Black
Call of Duty: Black Ops 3 is a culmination of Treyarch’s journey with one of the most respected parts of the franchise. Across three modes, the studio has provided a wealth of content for players to dive into. Not only does the campaign show growth in how the developer allows a narrative to play out, it gives players the chance to bring friends along for the thrill. Multiplayer is the same exciting blast as it always has been, and specialists allow for even more fine-tuning. Zombies is more of the same but has a lot of strange secrets up its sleeve.
It’s hard to predict how Call of Duty will grow over the years, especially when a new game is likely only 12 months away. But the three-year development cycle is proving to be a success for studios, and Treyarch’s effort is no exception. Black Ops 3 manages to stay true to its roots, paying homage to its predecessors while injecting them with fun welcome additions. This is Call of Duty at the top of its game and that should be a joy for players.
Note: This review is based off a review event Gaming Illustrated attended hosted by Activision. A retail copy was also provided for the purposes of this review.
tags: activision , Black Ops 3 , Call of Duty Black Ops 3 , Call of Duty: Black Ops 3 review , ps4 , review , treyarch