Call of Duty: Black Ops III

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Discover why your squadmates went rogue.

PC Release: November 6, 2015

By Ian Coppock

The end is here at last. Call of Duty: Black Ops III is the final installment in this quest to figure out where CoD came from and where it’s going. Like Black Ops IIBlack Ops III bears an uncommon dedication to twisting CoD‘s conventions into new and unfamiliar forms. The catch to change, though, is that deviating from the beaten path doesn’t guarantee newfound success.

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Developed by the longtime CoD-heads at Treyarch, Call of Duty: Black Ops III is the twelfth Call of Duty in Activision’s long-running, bad guy-shooting series. The game is set 40 years after the events of Black Ops II, in which a Nicaraguan narco-terrorist nearly brought the world to its knees simply by hijacking a fleet of drones. The year is now 2065 (more future CoD, hooray…), and all the world’s countries now sport impenetrable air defenses in case the robots rise up again.

With everyone suspicious of so much as sparks from a toaster, the only way for nations to conduct warfare is to use teams of cybernetically enhanced soldiers. In a first for the CoD series, players can create their own character with a variety of cosmetic options, and can even choose to play as a woman (surprising for a series as seemingly gynophobic as CoD). Once they’ve created their character, players join up with their own squad to undertake hazardous missions in a dystopian future.

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Sweeeeeet…

It’s worth pointing out right away that the only thing Black Ops III shares with its predecessors is the name “Black Ops.” Most of the characters in this sub-series aren’t all that interesting anyway, but their absence from Black Ops III‘s story campaign makes this title feel isolated from its peers. Black Ops III seems to be insecure about this fact, because the game rather conspicuously shoehorns a plot device from the first game into the ending. That’s about all the shoutouts that Black Ops fans can expect.

The characters that Black Ops III introduces to fill those holes aren’t very memorable either. The player character speaks every so often, but they’re devoid of personality and restricted only to heavily scripted, soullessly delivered dialogue. The character’s NPC squadmates are dead ringers for past CoD niches: there’s the overly angry sergeant, the computer nerd, and the guy who waxes philosophical about freedom and ethics. Treyarch couldn’t be asked to make these gunslingers a bit more endearing.

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You might say that this game has a few… Crysis moments.

Anyway, after spending a few years as a half-human, half-robot, all-American killing machine, the player character gets a phone call informing them that the rest of their team has gone rogue. Their new mission is to find out why, with only the aforementioned angry sidekick and the shy gamer girl to keep them company. Apparently the AWOL members of the player’s team have been exhibiting weird behavior, such as intent to bring down the CIA from the inside. That’s probably worth looking into.

It was mentioned at the beginning of this review that Black Ops III tries to make some changes to CoD, and narrative is first up on that chopping block. Black Ops III‘s premise and moment-to-moment dialogue makes for some of the series’ most yawn-worthy exposition, but the game does get a few points for experimenting with abstract psychological horror. More than once, the player character is pitted against mind-shredding hallucinations set in weird nightmare worlds, which both deepens the atmosphere and comprises a far cry from CoD‘s usual chopper-running.

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Where are we?

The idea of running around in a robot nightmare may sound cool on paper, but don’t get that wallet out just yet. Even though the player character can dive into their rogue squadmates’ brains and play around inside their darkest memories, those exposes almost never serve the narrative. Black Ops III seems more interested in letting players fight through nightmare worlds for the sake of fighting through nightmare worlds instead of actually advancing the plot. Until the very end, these vignettes all end with “I actually don’t know why we’re rogue, but the NEXT person definitely will!”

Unfortunately for Black Ops III‘s notion of depth, it takes a lot more than fighting ghostly Nazis in a floating snow field to construct a heartfelt or sophisticated narrative. Set pieces by themselves do not tell a story; the game has cool dream worlds down pat but can’t be asked to give players a good reason for being in them. That question is almost guaranteed to burn in players’ heads, especially when the game’s mystery mantra of picturing a frozen forest gets repeated ninety billion times.

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Are we awake yet?

Luckily for Black Ops III, there’s much more rhyme and reason to the game’s waking environments. When players aren’t busy running around in their frenemies’ heads, they’re exploring some of the most engrossing cyberpunk environments that gaming’s produced in recent years. Whether it’s the flooded ruins of a post-apocalyptic Singapore or the environs of a futuristic Egypt, Black Ops III‘s gritty fusion of technology and dystopia is to be envied. Good that these environments are rendered gorgeously; better that they’re rounded out with lots of beautiful lighting effects.

Unlike their ethereal counterparts, Black Ops III‘s corporeal realms actually make sense to be in. Players are given concrete objectives with which to explore these environments, and these help keep the narrative on track. Unlike virtually every other CoDBlack Ops III keeps its story confined to just 2-3 locations around the world. This represents a welcome change of pace from the senselessly quick globetrotting that CoD is known for, with multiple missions set in (gasp) the same city. Who dreamed that notion up?

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How scenic!

Although Black Ops III‘s environments certainly look cool, Treyarch continues to lag behind fellow CoD studios Infinity Ward and Sledgehammer Games when it comes to sound design. Guns in this game sound relatively muffled, as do sound effects like running through rubble or smashing through glass. Treyarch needs to take a page from its buddies and put in some clear-cut sound design: something that doesn’t sound like it’s being listened to through a Styrofoam head-wrap.

Even though Black Ops III‘s gameplay sound design is nothing special, the game bears the unusual (for a CoD) distinction of having an awesome soundtrack. The game abandons the conventional string-and-horn action music of its peers in favor of darkly textured synthesizers that sound straight out of Blade Runner. That’s probably no coincidence given the game’s gritty cyberpunk vibe, but boy does it sound glorious. It’s definitely one of the best soundtracks big-budget gaming’s produced this decade.

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The future is retro.

Black Ops III‘s levels have more to offer than a cool aesthetic and some retro tunes: they’re where one of Treyarch’s most ambitious gameplay change-ups comes out to play. Unlike all of its predecessors, Black Ops III can be played in 4-player co-op. The game’s levels thus shed the linearity of their peers in favor of expansive, open environments that multiple players can fool around in. Whether playing solo or with friends, players can pick different paths to the same objective instead of the single hallway littered with chest-high walls.

While the change to a more open level format is refreshing for CoD, it also reveals that CoD doesn’t know how to do open. Most of Black Ops III‘s levels are confusing mazes that are easy to get lost in. These levels are short on environmental cues or tactical opportunities, but enemies continue to spawn in from all sides. Black Ops III‘s idea of open is simply to dump a bunch of different hallways on the player and say “have fun”, instead of creating a functioning combat space.

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You, sir! Do you have a map?

It’s a shame that Black Ops III‘s levels are such a mess, because they’re meant to be the playgrounds for the title’s biggest gameplay innovation: augmentations. While Black Ops III‘s first-person shooting and health regen are virtually identical to those of other CoDs, the game lets players enhance their character with cybernetic superpowers a la Deus Ex. Whether it’s thicker skin or the ability to run along walls, players can pick a few different augmentations to suit their playstyle.

These powers’ biggest problem is that opportunities to use them are seldom. Some are restricted to certain contexts instead of being free to use whenever, which is an ironic call-out to CoD‘s fondness for giving players five minutes with the shiny toys. Players can buy more of these powers by acquiring upgrade points and switch them out between missions, but their difficulty of use dampens their potential.

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GIMME MY UPGRADE POINTS!

Black Ops III‘s multiplayer is still kicking, albeit with a much smaller community than when the game launched two years ago. Most of the maps consist of the same small spaces and static environments that all CoD maps do, which the use of jetpacks only does so much to freshen up. The “specialist” mode, in which players pick from 10 pre-augmented soldiers, does confer some Iron Banner-esque thrill to CoD even if one of the classes is locked off behind completing a series of challenges.

Despite a new XP system and a horror-noir setting, Black Ops III‘s zombie mode fails to make much of a splash either. Players can count on seeing the same undead home invaders that they’ve already seen many times before. Players in the mood for something new might want to check out Black Ops III‘s parkour maps, which force players to run up and through abstract environments like the challenge maps in the original Mirror’s Edge.

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I just want to run…

Black Ops III gets props for letting players be a female character and for having a great soundtrack, but the game proves that changes have to be implemented for more than the sake of change in order to actually work. The game is more different than any CoD before or since, but it’s not actually better. Its open levels are a change, but they’re roughshod. Its augmentations are a change, but they’re stilted. Its narrative is a change, but it’s nonsensical.

These net-zero changes mean that players won’t miss much by skipping Black Ops III. Hopefully Treyarch figures out how to make its attempts at innovation more meaningful, because everyone knows that CoD could stand more innovation these days. Meanwhile, Black Ops III serves as a reminder that attempting change is not the same as achieving change.

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You can buy Call of Duty: Black Ops III here.

Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at ianlaynecoppock@gmail.com with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.

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