Let us start this review with a disclaimer: you have probably noticed that the headline specifies “current gen.” The reason is simple: the versions for PS3 and Xbox 360 of Call of Duty: Black Ops III are missing important parts of the game, including the single player campaign.
Due to that reason, and the fact that DualShockers was provided with a PC version of the game by Activision, we are not able to gauge the quality and the contents of the old generation versions, so this review is to be considered strictly limited to the current gen versions of Call of Duty: Black Ops III.
But let’s get down to business, shall we? Call of Duty is back, and it’s time to gauge whether the annual chapter of the Franchise lives up to its usual enormous hype, just as usual faced by the jaded scoffing of those who find it way too mainstream.
But let’s be honest. While it’s true that Call of Duty is one of the most milked franchises in the entire universe, we could easily say that Black Ops is almost a separate IP in its own right, and the relatively new three year development cycle gives it enough breathing room to be quite fresh.
This time around Treyarch went all the way into the semi-near future, setting the game in 2065. The story is – and I hope you’ll forgive the French – all kinds of fuc*ed up. If you’re wondering, I’m not using the colorful expression lightly.
With that, I mean a couple of different points: on one side, Treyarch had the guts to explore much more personal point of view for the narrative, bringing it towards darker and more interesting topics, opening a great deal of potential for creating a really engaging single player campaign.
The second point, though, is where the problems lie: In order to make the setting and the narration as dystopic as possible, the writers went overboard, turning the whole thing into a messy affair that often seems disjointed and unnatural.
The trip into the realm of science fiction, which runs in parallel with a deep dive into the damaged psyche of soldiers whose humanity is threatened by the excessive use of cybernetics, at times drops flat into the realm of fantasy-ish settings that make somewhat sense within the story, but simply don’t fit the genre very well.
It’s not possible to fully explain the problem without slapping enormous spoilers in your face, but suffice to say that certain long sequences feel very much shoehorned into the story, and since they’re basically a long and rather monotonous shooting gallery, they aren’t even all that fun gameplay-wise.
Back on the positive side, at least all this psychobabble turns the characters into more interesting and deeper entities compared to the usual Call of Duty fare.
That is supported by some really solid performance capture and acting, underlined by a powerful audio complement, both in the field of music and sound effects. The only weak point is, paradoxically, the voice of the male protagonist, and when I say “weak,” I mean that it’s exactly how he feels through the story.
On the other hand, the female protagonist feels much better, but still pales in comparison to other characters like Hendricks and Kane.
You might have noticed that I mentioned male and female protagonists, and that’s because the game lets you select your character’s gender, and both are fully voiced. While this is great, additional customization for each gender is a bit of a joke, as there are only nine male option and nine females. That number wouldn’t be so bad, if all the heads for each gender didn’t share exactly the same model, only showing very limited variation in hair, facial hair, skintone and headgear.
I get that this isn’t exactly an primary feature for a Call of Duty game, but it really does feel half-hearted in its implementation. If you give me character customization, at least give me a chance to make my alter ego feel a bit more like “me.” Quite obviously, “slightly more dirty face 3” doesn’t really fit that bill.
The visuals of the game are quite appealing across the board, even if they stop just a step short of excellence. Character models are detailed and complex, and environments are well designed and convincing, but the quality of the overall visual impact tends to be slightly inconsistent.
Actually, scratch that: it’s consistent in the fact that interiors and exteriors at night look quite a lot better than exteriors during the day. Apparently the engine relies a lot on complex light sources in order to look at its best.
The result is that when objects are bathed in many artificial lights artfully placed by the developers, or by flames and explosions, they look really great. On the other hand, when they are mostly lit up by natural daylight, they tend to look a lot more flat and drab.
Animations are quite nice in their quality, and even in multiplayer they tend to look a bit more natural than the usual FPS fare, that often makes allies and enemies appear like they’re somewhat awkwardly skating on the ground. Absolute perfection hasn’t yet been reached, but we’re getting closer, even thanks to the quite credible animations used for the most extreme traversal moves like wall running and sliding.
Mecha design is another high point. Considering the theme of the game, artificial prosthetics are the norm, and we go all the way up to full fledged mecha. Those look suitably intimidating, perfectly complementing the fact that they’re also quite though.
A special mention needs to be made for the visuals of the co-op zombie mode Shadows of Evil. Since the city is set at night, the engine is at its best, and the atmosphere is simply perfect. Environments, lighting, rich details, enemies… Everything contributes to create one of the best looking parts of the game, and I honestly feel that Activision should pull Treyarch off Call of Duty for a while and put them at work on a Call of Cthulhu game.
Of course, a game like Call of Duty: Black Ops III lives or dies on gameplay, and not on pretty graphics, and that’s why the decision to sacrifice a bit of visual glitz for fluid frame rate is a wise one indeed.
The shooting mechanics feel very solid, well calibrated and responsive with both mouse and keyboard or controller. That’s pretty much a critical point considering the big focus on traversal. If shooting was any less snappy, it would basically demolish the game’s core based on continuously firing on the move. Luckily Treyarch nailed it, which means that Black Ops III has what I can easily define one of the most dynamic and purely fun gameplay I have experienced within the franchise.
During the campaign, balance seems to be a little bit skewed. If you play on your own, there are enemies that will appear to be true bullet sponges, and they simply aren’t fun to face on your own. It appears that this kind of encounter might have been mostly geared towards co-op, and the situations that give this sensation aren’t even very rare. It almost seems like the good folks at Treyarch forgot that some players might still want to play the game on their own.
To be fair, co-op is a whole lot of fun, so I would definitely advise to play the campaign with friends, if you have a chance to. It just makes the gameplay a lot richer, and the whole game more enjoyable. On the other hand, if you go with random players via matchmaking, expect some hit and miss experiences, and not just because you might meet a few jerks along the way (it’s the internet, after all).
Cutscenes are handled a little weirdly. If you trigger one, everyone else in the party will experience an immersion-breaking transition that really feels out of place, and they will be dropped into the cutscene as well, no matter where they are (even if cutscenes don’t really acknowledge the presence of the other members, they’re identical whether you play alone or in co-op).
This is particularly annoying if you try to play a support role, standing back and sniping the enemies. You’ll end up experiencing that transition a lot, and it feels quite awkward. If you’re with friends, you can make sure that the group stays relatively tight, minimizing this sort of automatic rubber band.
Since you’re playing an augmented soldier, you have a wide variety of abilities to unlock, as part of three separate progression trees or “cores.” One focuses on fighting mecha, the other on dealing with human enemies, and the third on enhancing your stealth and melee capabilities. You’ll need to level up a whole lot in order to be able to equip all three, and this also seems to be geared towards co-op, encouraging players to select different cores to complement each other’s abilities on the battlefield.
Artificial intelligence is a bit hit and miss. While AI-controlled enemies seem to have top-notch aiming pretty much all the time, their actual AI routines don’t seem to be at the same level as their sniping, and at least on regular difficulty settings there are many situations in which they can be picked off without putting up much of a fight. That’s even more true when you take control of a drone, which honestly almost feels like cheating, as it allows you to clean whole areas with relative impunity.
Whether you’re playing the campaign in single player or in co-op, you’ll have access to a safe house, where you can display collectibles you’ll find during missions, change outfits, cores and loadouts, and you can also meet your co-op partners before a mission. The feature is definitely very nice to have, but it’s made a little less appealing by the lack of visual character customization mentioned above. Meeting a couple of clones of yours with a different hairstyle isn’t exactly the most immersive experience out there.
Speaking of co-op experiences, the zombie mode is extremely fun, and it’s pretty much like a game in its own right. It has very little in common with the other modes, and distinguishes itself in gameplay, visuals, and even progression.
The gameplay is centered on a mix of exploration of the city, unlocking more and more areas to expand the gameplay, and adrenaline-pumping zombie shooting. You can even turn into an unique monster that can mow through the zombies, and even more importantly climb into otherwise inaccessible places thanks to its tentacles. As I mentioned above, it’s almost sad that Treyarch isn’t turning this (at least for now) into its own full-fledged game. That said, it’s great value added to Black Ops III.
Leaving the relatively safe haven of single player and co-op, let’s move to to the shark-filled waters of multiplayer. There’s a veritable metric ton of modes to play from, including ten core modes, six hardcore variations with no HUD and less health, four bonus modes, the ranked arena mode, and the asynchronous free run mode, which is pretty much a its own beast. It allows you to learn the advanced traversal techniques and to compare your results with others on the leaderboards.
As you can imagine, there’s an enormous level of diversity, and something for everyone. My personal favorite is Safeguard, as the moving objective creates some definitely interesting tactical situations, but your mileage may vary on this.
The maps are nicely designed (besides a a number of annoying invisible walls) to encourage constant free running and shooting on the move, making fights even more frantic and chaotic than in previous episodes of the franchise. They’re also mostly rather small, keeping the action focused and minimizing downtimes.
You definitely won’t be waiting long before encountering enemies, and camping a spot without moving is generally a bad idea, especially due to the fact that most areas have several vectors of approach. If you don’t move, you’ll probably die very fast.
Traversal plays such a big role in the game, and the focus on movement and shooting at the same time is so strong, that the gap between good and average players proves really significant. If you aren’t great, things can become quite frustrating. Of course you’ll probably find this a good or a bad thing, depending on whether you’re in the proficient camp or in the average camp. If you are in the clumsy camp, you can either arm yourself with a lot of patience, or you should probably stick to single player and co-op. Call of Duty: Black Ops III‘s multiplayer isn’t forgiving for those with bad aim and mediocre situational awareness and hand-eye coordination, that’s for sure.
The ability to swim and to shoot while swimming is something I found particularly stimulating, mostly because it multiplies the tactical opportunities in the maps that include some water, letting you set underwater ambushes and creating interesting escape routes.
I also enjoyed the jump gauge, that lets you control your ability to stay in the air longer in a very effective way. It’s the kind of easy to learn and hard to master mechanic that adds a further layer of complexity and flexibility to a game so heavily based on movement, both horizontal and vertical.
The various specialists that you can play also contribute to keeping things interesting, as their abilities can vary rather wildly, giving some a really unique play style. The only problem with this is that a few of those abilities really feel much more situational than others. This means that some specialists are be very flexible, while others’ special skills will end up being used much less.
Everything is nicely topped by an enormous amount of unlocks, pretty much ensuring that you always have short and medium-term goals to play that “one more game,” that will keep you up until five in the morning.
I used the term “enormous” a few times already, but that pretty much sums up the amount of content offered by Call of Duty: Black Ops III. While the campaign is a bit lightweight on its own, the ability to play every mission in co-op and the unlockable Nightmare mode multiply its longevity: Add to that he massive quantity of multiplayer modes, and the game is doubtlessly great bang for the buck.
Ultimately, Call of Duty: Black Ops III hits a lot of targets, but misses some, at times in ways that I struggle to understand. That said, it’s fun, fast and it comes nicely wrapped with a ton of content and longevity. If you love first person shooters, you’ll most probably sink a lot of hours into this game.
It’s not a revolution, but I can definitely define Treyarch’s labor of love as a positive evolution.