Zombies…uh…zombies, find a way
Call of Duty campaigns are some of the most inconsistent storylines in all of gaming. While some entries are content with wowing you on a constant basis with new setpieces and unique sequences, a number of them (Ghosts and later Modern Warfare games especially) have dull narratives with uncharismatic leads and boring, samey levels.
Black Ops III unfortunately is the first of its sub-franchise to join that negative trend, but it has a killer zombies mode and a strong multiplayer base to help elevate the overall package.
Call of Duty: Black Ops III (PC, PS3, PS4 [reviewed], Xbox 360, Xbox One)
Developer: Treyarch (PC, PS4, Xbox One), Beenox/Mercenary Technology (PS3, Xbox 360)
Released: November 6, 2015
I’m just going to get right into it — this is the weakest campaign yet from Treyarch.
Right from the start you can see what it’s going for, and things get way too heavy-handed and exposition-laden without actually saying anything. There’s lots of talk about a “new Cold War” in the future, and after rescuing an Egyptian minister after an uprising in Cairo, it’s off to the races. There’s plenty of Terminator-esque “Man vs. Machine” going on with the 2065 backdrop and a touch of surrealism, but all of it has been seen before and done better.
To boot, none of the characters are memorable or compelling in any way, and the dialogue is the most generic it’s ever been. Part of it is because you’re now “The Player” (male or female) instead of someone like Modern Warfare‘s Soap MacTavish, a character you can somewhat connect with while you’re playing. You’re kind of just there, and the relationships with each cast member never really have a chance to flourish across all 11 missions. Treyarch seems to have a knack for historical narratives, but I’m not really buying its grimdark sales pitch here.
Now, that doesn’t mean that the campaign is all bad. The powers that be have now implemented a system where you can choose any mission you want, right from the start, without having played any prior stages. That way if you get bored and want to see the ending, you can skip right to the end. Additionally, the hub center where you can switch your abilities, weapons, and loadout around is convenient, as is the progression system with full XP rewards to encourage multiplayer playthroughs. There’s also an arena-based “combat immersion” center to test weapons out in, which looks a lot like Metal Gear‘s VR missions.
Split-screen play (for two players) is also in, as is online play for the story, on top of a “Nightmare mode” that remixes every level with undead foes. With the recent removal of split-screen from Halo 5, support for multiple players on the same console is a breath of fresh air. Yes, the framerate does suffer as a result of playing couch co-op, but I’m very glad it’s there, and that Treyarch is still actively pushing for it. Hell, LAN play is even supported on consoles — in 2015, that’s pretty damn rare.
Now, we get to the good stuff — all the other modes besides the campaign. Although light, the Freerun gametype is a cool way to show off all of the new mechanics (wallrunning and the toned-down jetpack). It’s only playable solo and has a scant four maps, but it’s really reminiscent of Mirror’s Edge‘s abstract DLC packs, which were my favorite part of the game. Plus, it has leaderboards, which are a major plus for a mode like this. I don’t want to spoil much, but the Smash TV-like Dead Ops Arcade is back, and it’s better than it was before.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a Treyarch game without zombies, and I think it’s assembled the best cast, alongside of the most interesting setting to date. I’m talking Jeff Goldblum, Heather Graham, Ron Perlman, and Neal McDonough in a Lovecraftian noir city unique. Seeing Goldblum play a washed-up scumbag magician is a treat, and the actors really give it their all for this new chapter of the zombie saga, “Shadows of Evil.” While I did appreciate the campaign tie-in for Advanced Warfare‘s zombie mode, I like where this particular setting is going, and I hope it can keep this same cast going forward.
It’s also the most fully-featured from a gameplay perspective, with customizable weapon loadouts, individual upgrades, and a leveling system. You can also change up your “Gobblegum Gumballs,” which are like miniature $500 soda machines that grant temporary perks. It’s a tiny little thing, but it really helps you play the way you want, which is only a recent concept for zombies. In terms of secrets I think this is going to be the most challenging one yet for the community, as a lot of it hinges on changing into the “beast” (read: a Cthulian creature) to unlock specific areas and bonuses. I’ve spent nearly 15 hours in Shadows of Evil alone and I feel like I’ve only scratched the surface. What the campaign lacks in personality, zombies makes up for in spades, and that principle also goes for multiplayer.
Now players will choose a “specialist,” when playing traditional multiplayer, which operates a lot like a unique character skin, with an added ability in tow. For instance, the robot “Reaper” has access to a minigun power-up that comes out of his arm, or a skill that creates non-lethal clones of himself to run around the battlefield. One dude even looks like The Fury from Snake Eater, complete with a flamethrower special. They clearly had a lot of fun designing these creations, and it plays that way.
Most of the powers feel balanced, especially when you consider the fact that they can only be used once you earn enough meter for them, which is typically only one or two times per match. This is on top of the classic scorestreak rewards — but since those reset your meter upon death and the specialist powers don’t, it’s a way for casual players to engage without feeling like they’re never earning anything.
Wallrunning also adds a new depth to arenas (of which there are 12 at launch), where specific chokepoints can be circumvented by traversing raised platforms on the sides of some bases. Likewise, swimming, as simple of a mechanic as it is, bids a welcome return from Advanced Warfare, with a lot more freedom in terms of movement and combat. Those of you who found Advanced‘s crazy twitch movement system to be too frenetic will be pleased to hear that it’s been toned down for Black Ops III, as the jetpack is now essentially a double jump, or a slide boost, and that’s it. While I did like airdashing and all of the craziness that the last iteration entailed, I’m happy that each game has a distinctly different feel to it.
Multiplayer has been overhauled from a features standpoint too, as there’s now full support for streaming (including a cavalcade of spectator options), arena ranked playlists with seasons, and an even more convenient instant menu option for perma-muting anyone outside of your party. There have been hundreds of people populating Black Ops III‘s servers during this testing period without issues, but if anything changes we’ll provide updates as needed on the front page.
At this point, at least two of the Call of Duty developers (Treyarch and Sledgehammer), have it figured out. They now have a three-year development cycle, which means that technically, each individual game is not a rushed “annual” iteration. While the campaign could certainly be a lot stronger, Black Ops III is living proof of that concept.
[This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]