NOTE: The following is a review of the game on the PS4, which is the same version found on PC and the Xbox One. It will not apply to the last gen console versions, as a majority of the game has been stripped from those versions.
The Call of Duty franchise is a dual edged sword in gaming. On one hand, it is one of the most successful and popular videogames in the industry, selling millions of copies each year. To others, it represents the worst in gaming- a series that merely gets by on name recognition year after year, just reskinning the same first person shooter with little to no innovation and following a by the numbers schematic- an under 10 hour campaign featuring a soldier of some sort battling terrorists of some sort with assorted weaponry and big set pieces, and then a multiplayer mode with your typical array of styles and maps. And every so often when Treyarch served as the developer (alternating with Infinity Ward and Sledgehammer Games) we’d get zombies added into the mix. To be fair, it has been those Treyarch titles that seemed most looked forward to after the franchise came out of World War II with Infinity Ward’s Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. Treyarch did return to the popular historical conflict with World at War, but it was their addition of a Zombies mode that really drew notice. In 2010, Treyarch delivered one of the best entries of the franchise to date. Black Ops told a fantastic story that had plenty of twists and turns to go along with its action, a very good multiplayer, and an entertaining Zombies mode featuring four Presidents trapped in the White House. It even included the text adventure Zork as a nice side diversion. The sequel arrived in 2012, with a branching story for the campaign and a more robust Zombies that took people on buses across a large map. Now in 2015, Black Ops III has arrived. And does this game innovate again and rise to the occasion, or does it just play it safe by merely repeating the successes of the past and sticking to the paint by numbers scheme?
The answer to that is that to put it simply. Black Ops III is one of the biggest and best entries into the franchise in years. There is just a wealth of content here, especially for those solo players who have felt marginalized by shooters over the years with more games putting their focus on multiplayer and giving the single player campaigns the short end of the stick, and in some cases dropping single player all together. Not so with this game. The 11 mission campaign (which can also be played co-op with up to 4 players) tells a well written sci-fi tinged story that touches on themes of paranoia and just how intelligent should we make AI. The campaign can be rushed through by more skilled players in around six hours, but those who want to take their time and experience the full story, as well as track down the 56 hidden collectibles, can have that playtime extended to around 10 hours or more. In addition to the main story, once you complete that on any of the five difficulty settings (Recruit, Regular, Hardened, Veteran, and Realistic, a new difficulty level where one bullet will kill you), you unlock a campaign called Nightmares. Nightmares mixes up the order of the missions from the main campaign and introduces zombies into the mix, plus gives you a different character perspective (a lead female protagonist, a first for the franchise), new narration and its own individual story. Adding to the single player content is a side diversion called Dead Ops II Arcade, a top down twin stick shooter found on the data bank in your safe house, where you mow down waves of zombies s you collect treasure, and of course the Zombies mode, which ships with the Shadow of Evil map. Shadow of Evil follows four individuals- a murderous prostitute, a failing magician, a cheating boxer, and a corrupt cop- as they are placed in a strange setting by a mysterious shadowy figure. An extra zombies map called The Giant opens up if players elect to get the season pass or purchase the collector’s edition of the game. All of this adds up to the most single player content ever offered by the franchise, and that alone makes this game with the price of admission.
The single player campaign also gives another first for the franchise- it allows you to create your own character, either a male or female soldier. The character creator isn’t very robust, having only eight choices for your face, but it’s still a nice addition to a franchise that always forced you to play a certain character. In addition, you can customize your loadout prior to each mission, choosing which weapons, equipment, and perks you’d like equipped, along with your cyber cores. These cyber abilities are divided into three types- Control, Martial, and Chaos. Control gives you abilities such as taking remote control of enemy turrets or causing robots to short out. Martial enhances melee attacks, giving you a speed surge to slice through enemies or a ground pound to destroy them. Chaos does what its namesake says- makes the enemy chaotic and confused, whether that be causing robots to burst into flame or immobilizing soldiers with a swarm of nano-bees. Each cyber core can be leveled up and tailored to your individual play style, giving the campaign some replayability to experience different ways to take out your foes. The story is sci-fi based, with soldiers being outfitted with a Direct Neural Interface (DNI) that enables you to interact with doors and computer terminals, along with special armor that gives you increased mobility such as wall running. But something has gone wrong in granting this DNI, as war breaks out between various factions and a rogue AI is released. Later levels of the campaign veer into hallucinatory visions and sequences that could feel just as home in a Bioshock title or even The Evil Within. The themes of madness, paranoia, and a vast conspiracy are all touched on, as well as raising the question as to how far man should go in developing artificial intelligence. While it doesn’t completely deliver on any real answers to the questions it raises, it does manage to maintain your interest throughout, and had me moving forward to see what would be revealed next. The characters are all well voiced but never quite developed enough for us to truly have an emotional connection, though the game does have moments that could have had a greater impact had we had a deeper emotional attachment to the characters. Despite that, it all works, and provides one of the best campaigns in years, following the so-so campaign in Advanced Warfare and the very by the numbers campaign in Ghosts (though both did attempt to mix up the gameplay somewhat). There’s also a nice progression system that has you level up and allows you to unlock better load outs. Oddly though, your save in the campaign is tied to the servers, so if you end up offline your progress appears to be lost, forcing you to replay the campaign. It’s most annoying on your first playthrough, and less so after.
The Zombies mode also has its own progression system, enabling you to unlock better weapons and more perks as you build EXP by surviving as many levels as possible. It has a steeper learning curve playing solo, but even alone you’ll be able to unlock more of the large map with practice. The characters are all well voiced (the cast includes Jeff Goldblum and Ron Perlman) and are quite amusing as they try to figure out just what is going on and why it’s happening to them. Killing plenty of zombies cause perks to appear on the map, like max ammo and bombs that will clear all enemies for you. In addition, several areas have traps for you to set to take out the living dead (these are quite satisfying) and a fiery fountain that will transform you into the Beast, giving you tentacles to strike out at zombies or zap them with bolts of electricity. It’s a short lived perk, but quite fun while it lasts. As you make your way around the map you’ll have tasks to perform (like turning the power on) and a wide variety of deadly foes to deal with. Keeping in motion and aware of your surroundings is key, as it’s easy to become trapped and then overwhelmed. But each round goes towards leveling you up, so it never feels like a wasted attempt. Oddly, you cannot skip the full opening cinematic (you’ll see the beginning over and over) or the end cinematic prior to the after action report. So you’ll be returned to the menu each time when you want to continue, instead of just starting over in the mode. It’s an odd choice, and will frustrate those who have little patience and just want to get to slaying some zombies. Hopefully a patch will address the issue in the future. It affects both the Shadow of Evil and The Giant maps. Fortunately the gameplay is fun enough to make this more of a minor quibble than a major issue.
Of course, this wouldn’t be a Call of Duty game without its multiplayer, where a majority of players head upon opening the case and popping the game into their PS4, PC, or Xbox One. The new additions here along with the mobility are the Specialists, which have their own unique cyber abilities and load outs. Four Specialists are unlocked initially, with more becoming available as you level up. The Specialists are a nice addition as you can choose which one fits your gameplay style best, and which abilities appeal to you most. Ruin, for example, has a ground pound to incapacitate enemies, while Outrider with her Sparrow bow is a stealthier figure, and able to scan the insides of buildings. There are nine modes to choose from in the multiplayer- Team Deathmatch, Domination, Kill Confirmed, Hardpoint, Capture the Flag, Search & Destroy, Uplink, and Safeguard. Currently most of the players seem to be flocking to the Team Deathmatch or the Domination modes, leaving the others fairly barren. As before you get skill progression with each round you play, opening up better weapons to place in your load outs. Gameplay is pretty much the same and will be familiar to those who play the multiplayer in any first person shooter, though it does add in the mobility of Titanfall’s wall running, gives each player a jetpack, and you get your cyber abilities to aid you. Matches can be fun if you do well and work with friends. For those jumping in on their own you may find yourself outmatched, though with practice you will improve, and even a bad round works towards your next level. It would be nice if the matchmaking would put players of the same level into matches instead of mixing 1st or 2nd level players in with those who are level 25 or 43. But doing well is based more on reflexes and your awareness of where your enemies are, so for most this won’t be an issue. As a person who is not a heavy multiplayer person, I can say I’ve been having a lot of fun, and have found the multiplayer to be accessible, even to someone like me who tends to concentrate more on the solo side of things. 12 maps are available at launch, each with their own environments and places to set up that perfect spot (for a bit until the opposing team finds you), and all are nicely detailed. 4 DLC map packs are planned, adding in total another 16 maps to the mix. With the amount of modes and nine Specialists to play as the multiplayer will keep many occupied for some time.
In all, Call of Duty: Black Ops III is the most robust and deepest titles in the franchise to be released in years. It offers plenty for players of all kinds to do, from its great campaign to the varied multiplayer. The Zombies mode is also the biggest of the franchise, with Treyarch outdoing themselves with the noir feeling of Shadow of Evil and its 1940s setting and its large and varied map with plenty to explore and uncover. The Dead Ops II Arcade game is also a nice diversion, and its addicting gameplay make occupy you for hours on its own. This is one of the most complete packages ever offered in the Call of Duty franchise, and well worth the money for solo and team oriented players alike. It’s not without some faults. Grenades can still result in cheap deaths (and the enemy AI will throw a lot of them at you) and having to sit through part of the cinematics for the zombie modes can wear on you when you just want to jump in and play. The other oddity is why Treyarch and Activision tied your campaign save to their servers when it should be available offline. As long as the servers are up its not an issue, but it was disconcerting when I first encountered it when the server failed to connect my PS4. Some Xbox and PC users have noted lag and frame rate issues, though I encountered none on the PS4, where it seems to run best. Black Ops III does pull it all together, and is well worth your money, regardless of system, as the amount of content gives you plenty of bang for your buck. And for a shooter, more bang is just what’s required.
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