It’s the annual release of the Call of Duty game, and with ever decreasing fanfare, Black Ops III is amongst us. Treyarch have a hefty job of maintaining Activision’s sales expectations and keeping the gamers happy, and being arguably the second best developer of the franchise (after Infinity Ward), have they managed to pull it off once again?
Black Ops III is the fourth instalment from Treyarch, and the third in an unconnected series under the Black Ops banner – don’t worry, you don’t need to have to played the other two to jump into this one, they’re more linked through the story-telling ethos than continuing tales. And the zombie mode of course, can’t forget that. Or the multiplayer, which is where we’ll start the review. You play online against people, level up, blame lag on your inability to shoot anyone, and get reamed by people who have more spare time to hone their skills than you. Oh, and there’s now wall-running, Operative characters, and Nuke Town is back if you pre-ordered. Right, done, not much more to say about the mode where lots of gamers will spend the next 12 months agonising over their K/D ratio, and the rest will dip in and out for a quick fun blast now and again. Let’s move on.
Zombies, or rather Shadows of Evil for this version, is a significant step up on the previous games. If you’ve not experienced the mode before, it started out as a time-killing diversion in the Treyarch offices whilst they were making World at War, which ended up in the game as a bonus mode because the publishers loved it. The simple premise is to survive as long as possible against waves of the undead, netting yourself a score that you can then spend on weapons or accessing new areas. For Black Ops III the bar has been raised by going further with a background story, immersive hub world in Morg City, character levelling, and loads of secrets and power ups to discover.
What’s particularly interesting with Shadows of Evil is the amount of effort that’s gone into delivering this experience in Black Ops III. It’s not quite up there with the main game, but the voice talent (Jeff Goldblum, Ron Perlman, Heather Graham, Robert Picardo – who’s in the main game as well), the story, and the XP system strive to give you a deep and rewarding experience, as well as one that you’re going to keep returning to. The fact that additional time and money has been spent on what began as almost a joke, and has been advertised heavily including making the announcement at Comic Con, speaks volumes on how the developers view this mode. The only criticism I have is that you really do need to play with friends, there’s just too much going on to make headway on your own. Thankfully there’s the option to do this online with up to four others (as you’d expect), and also split screen co-op which, for this type of game mode, is a belting idea.
If you’re able to drag yourself away from the multiplayer offerings, and haven’t bought the game on PS3 or Xbox 360, there’s then the actual campaign to have a go at, and there’s a chance here that it’s the most comprehensive campaign to date. Four-player co-op, the option to play any chapter you want, gun customisation, XP levelling, special ability purchasing and power ups, character customisation including choice of male or female that can be changed on the fly, time trial and combat challenges for training, and a story that’s more than a gung-ho-shoot-the-evil-bad-guys-in-the-face affair. In fact there’s so much on offer, and all available to play with from the beginning, that it can be a little overwhelming. There’s not much in the way of instruction or guidance (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing), and figuring out where to focus your energies is entirely up to you depending on your choice of combat style. One thing that is familiar is that the difficulty level is just dictated by how many grenades are thrown at you…
What’s it all about though? Well, quite a lot of things that make you think a little deeper than your usual FPS experience. Keeping things as spoiler-free as I can, you and your partner Hendrix are on the hunt for a rogue CIA operative in the year 2070 (possibly, it does keep the dates vague after the first mission). Feeling a little like James Bond, you’re trekking round the globe trying to find a man called Taylor who’s releasing top secret information to the public, yet still managing to stay one step ahead. Going through Ethiopia, Singapore, Egypt and Zurich you’re treated to some great looking environments, even if they are a bit cluttered. Early on, especially as you’re getting used to the abilities bestowed through the characters DNI (Direct Neural Interface), things seem designed to trip you up rather than provide a solid grounding to the mechanics of the game. A big deal is made of the traversal mechanisms and wall running, but if you don’t add the modifier to your loadout then the option’s not there. Seeing the enemy is also a challenge – they typically wear dark clothing in dark environments so can be a pain to see, even with an augmentation that shows you positioning through cover.
Getting past the midway point the level design seems to click into place, and with the direction events take there are some genuine surprises that are a joy to play. However, it does fizzle a bit at the end, not necessarily because of the gameplay, but with the ambiguous way the story ends. That in itself does drive you towards replaying the game and figuring out what’s really happened, which is facilitated by the XP levelling and continued loadout/DNI customisation. In true Treyarch fashion though, they still keep on giving after the credits have rolled, and there’s an alternate story mode for you to play through once it’s done – a really pleasant surprise. Not a pleasant surprise though is the ridiculous notion of having to be connected permanently to get access to the campaign mode, especially when it refuses to connect and you’re stuck without any progress. This rolls into rest mode on the PS4 too. If you put it on standby you’ll be kicked of any game mode and back to the main menu which won’t properly work until your reconnect to the servers. It really spoils any chance of a quick go, or being able to use the rest function.
I’m not the world’s biggest Call of Duty fan, and have avoided the last few games. Getting sucked back into the action heavy world I was expecting to be blown away from the start, and was disappointed that wasn’t the case initially. Black Ops III has grown on me though, and whilst in our latest podcast I had said it was getting traded quickly, I’ve changed my mind and want to give it another chance. Not for the multiplayer mind, that’s still not my cuppa, I’m wanting to delve deeper into its story secrets and see what else I can find. There’s loads of content and customisation, more than the majority of shooters out there, but it also comes with some pretty user-unfriendly implementation that frustrates given the high level of polish everywhere else.
Call of Duty: Black Ops III is available now on PS4, PC and Xbox On, and has cut down online only versions on PS3 and Xbox 360.