Release Date: November 6, 2015Platform: XBO (reviewed), X360, PS4, PS3, PCDeveloper: TreyarchPublisher: ActivisionGenre: First-person shooter
Call of Duty: Black Ops III, the latest installment in the blockbuster FPS series from developer Treyarch, is a combination of the best and worst Call of Duty has had to offer in the past few years. I’ve largely abstained from the yearly installments since Black Ops II, and after playing its sequel, I can say that I was delighted to find plenty of new gameplay mechanics. But I was also extremely disappointed by its incomprehensible campaign mode that offered up a lot of good practice for the multiplayer modes and very little in terms of story.
It’s a shame that Call of Duty campaigns have been relegated to “that thing you play when you’re bored or need a break from multiplayer.” It’s doubly painful to see it happen with Treyarch, the developer who has spun some of the best narratives in the franchise. World at War and Black Ops were high points in the series in terms of story, only eclipsed by Call of Duty 4, which has yet to be toppled from its legendary status. In Black Ops II, I saw a botched opportunity for Treyarch to capitalize on its previous efforts, and its sequel does nothing to correct jumbled plots, transparent characters, or an over-reliance on explosives.
By the time the story came to an end, I didn’t really care, and that’s probably the worst thing I can say about any narrative. The great conspiracy threads from the past Black Ops games are completely ignored, which made me wonder why I spent time with those campaigns at all. Halfway through the campaign, I had to stop and scratch my head. What was the point of casting talented actors like Christopher Meloni and Katee Sackhoff if their characters weren’t going to be front and center or fully explored? Their inclusion in the game is mostly glitz.
So what does Call of Duty: Black Ops III do well? Everything else.
Gunplay is better than ever in, and the modes that you’ve come to love from Treyarch, such as Zombies and multiplayer, hit the mark and then some. At the forefront are all of the new CyberCore abilities, which are a godsend for a franchise that is closer and closer to phoning it in with every installment. Both last year’s Advanced Warfare and Black Ops III have done their part in introducing new ideas to the franchise, and Treyarch’s latest does things just a bit better.
New CyberCore abilities, which are part of your loadout at the beginning of each mission, include martial, control, and chaos options. The way you approach missions depends a bit on which CyberCore mode you choose before starting a mission. I preferred playing with the chaos variations, which allowed me to send killer nano-bots swarming into the battlefield and cause robotic enemies to short circuit. Control also allows you to hack into enemy turrets, for example, and martial provides you with things like a smokescreen when under heavy fire. Each mode has several abilities to choose from a wheel. And unlike other Call of Duty games, I actually had other options than just running and gunning, thanks to CyberCore.
Special abilities are also at the center of the multiplayer mode. When you first jump online, you’re asked to choose a specialist and a special weapon or ability. Four Specialists are available at level 1, including Ruin, Outrider, and Prophet, who all have their own abilities. The others must be unlocked by leveling up and earning tokens. You’ll want to choose wisely your first time around.
The abilities add a sense of unpredictability during online battles. You might think you have someone in your crosshairs, but they can quickly pull off a special ability that turns the tables, like Prophet’s Glitch, which allows him to basically teleport to another spot on the ground when being chased. Suddenly, you’re the prey. It’s not surprising that this lends a faster pace to the online matches. You not only have to react faster with the trigger and melee, but with abilities that will give you a unique advantage at a dire moment. Of course, you can’t really abuse these abilities, which have a cooldown.
The highlight of this installment is unsurprisingly the Zombies mode, which is bigger and more ridiculous than ever. I certainly wish that Treyarch had just focused on developing the story potential of this mode than pursuing a separate campaign. There are hints of noir, hardboiled detective stories, the Cthulhu mythos, witchcraft, and much more on a giant metropolis that you’ll spend a lot of time getting to know well. I’m excited to dive back in and find the best way to traverse Morg City in the “Shadows of Evil” story. Also making a welcome return is Dead Ops Arcade, the top-down co-op shooter mode that is a relaxing bit of fun that you’ll probably spend a lot of time playing on your downtime.
Is Call of Duty: Black Ops III the best installment in the franchise in years? No. But it lays a solid foundation for the series’ future. It definitely shows what it can continue to do well and what it completely needs to overhaul. Should Call of Duty ditch the single-player mode and go all-in on its online and arcade modes? Black Ops III made a great case that it’s exactly what this franchise needs.