Where do you start with Call of Duty? It’s hard not to wonder, in the lead up to a new Call of Duty game, what the series might have left to give. Gone are the days where these games seemed to actually have something to say about warfare, and although Advanced Warfare showed off some new tricks it hasn’t been clear whether Infinity Ward and Treyarch were going to try new things too. Call of Duty, at its worst (see Call of Duty: Ghosts), can feel pretty soulless, and every year people wonder if the whole enterprise is going to fall apart.
But Call of Duty: Black Ops III feels like something new. It doesn’t reinvent the CoD formula, but it pushes the series much further in the interesting direction Advanced Warfare and Black Ops II were hinting at. It would be hard to go back from the bizarre, exciting, frantic game Treyarch have created here to prior entries in the series. Black Ops III doubles down hard on what came immediately before it – the future tech, the zombies, the increased mobility – and ends up feeling both familiar and fresh.
It’s also as assertive and confident as can be, in some very interesting ways. It’s worth saying, up front, that the campaign is absolute bonkers. The plot will be dissected and explaining by hardcore fans until it makes sense, but on the screen the writing is reminiscent of the rambling journal of a maniac. I could not possibly hope to summarise it, nor will I pretend that I understood it. The game is set in the future, your character has cybernetic implants, you play through people’s memories and thoughts (I think), there’s a metaphorical forest that was created by a rogue A.I. program, or something, and there’s some sort of weird cult brainwashing thing happening (possibly) that I couldn’t wrap my head around. Christopher Meloni takes the celebrity cameo spot previously owned by the likes of Gary Oldman, Kiefer Sutherland and Kevin Spacey, and gives a performance so hammy that he seems to be in on a joke with the player that the scriptwriter maybe wasn’t aware of. Katie Sackhoff appears too as a character seemingly designed to generate confusion.
But this mania has allowed Treyarch to go to some great, dark, weird places with their levels. The plot is a total mess, a disaster even, but there’s something oddly endearing about seeing the biggest franchise in modern gaming going so, so weird. It’s like if the new Star Wars focused heavily on Wookie politics as conveyed through drug hallucinations. Ignore the plot though, and this is, by an enormous margin, the best Call of Duty campaign Treyarch has ever designed. While Black Ops II’s campaign felt like a misfire, this one features excellent level design and fun abilities, which manages to mask the fact that enemy A.I. is still pretty awful. It’s not the best in the series, but it’s so far removed from previous games that it never feels like a lesser take on the same idea.
Black Ops III is set far enough into the future that a huge portion of the enemies you’ll be fighting are robots, and your character is, more or less, a cyborg. This means that along with the usual running, gunning, and crouching behind cover, you’re able to unlock extra abilities through three separate skill trees and use them in battle. You can boost your speed and health, unleash a swarm of nano-drones capable of setting enemies on fire, cause robots to malfunction, explode, or turn on each other, remotely hack vehicles or weapons, and generally turn the tide of battle.
This makes for a much more strategic Call of Duty experience, with the game relying less on big set-piece moments and more on a constant sense of intensity. Don’t expect any explosions to knock you backwards and blur your vision in this one – Treyarch have wisely focused on designing strong environments to fight through, and they’ve ramped up the difficulty pretty significantly to make sure that you actually think your way through each encounter. I can finish most Call of Duty games on Veteran without too much difficulty, and will generally play through Hardened for review. About four hours into this one, I realised that I’d need to knock it down to Regular if I wanted to finish it within the three day window the review event was affording me. Although some sections go a little too far (there are two specific buildings in the game that are just absolute nightmares if you’re playing alone), it’s actually pretty exciting to be challenged by a Call of Duty game again.
Co-op for up to four players has also been added too, which is a neat way of getting multiplayer-focused gamers to check out the campaign. Difficulty scales, but it’s still much easier with friends – playing with two other Australian reviewers, we managed (with a little communication and teamwork) to clear a section on Veteran in four attempts that took maybe ten tries alone on Regular. For some real fun, you can bump the difficulty up to Realistic – where one bullet knocks you down, although teammates can revive you – and spend a solid hour butting your heads up against the same checkpoints over and over again (any progress you make here feels like a massive victory). Unlike Halo 5, Black Ops III doesn’t feel like a lesser game alone at all – co-op is a neat, fun experience rather than being the only way to play, and it’s great having friends with you who are just as perplexed by the plot as you are.
That brings us to online multiplayer, which is, statistically speaking, the real reason why most people buy Call of Duty. Treyarch have wisely built upon the rock-solid foundation of Black Ops II, taking everything that made that game work and weaving in new ideas and concepts that make the game more fun without sacrificing any accessibility. In my time with the game (full disclosure: I played the game over a three day review event and probably managed about eight hours of multiplayer with other reviewers, not counting co-op or zombies) I only saw one mode that I hadn’t seen in a previous game, but your new abilities effectively shake things up.
You can now run along walls and boost jump, which have a huge impact on how you navigate the environment. Once you wrap your head around where all the annoying invisible walls are, pathways and strategic opportunities start to emerge in each map. Call of Duty has always had incredibly tight gunplay, and combining that with more interesting movement options really opens the game up. Melee kills are far less common than in previous games, and I experienced the ‘I hope my opponent watches the killcam on that one’ thrill of an excellent kill frequently. Wall-running opens up a lot of pathways through levels, and can lead to some very intense moments as you and an opponent run at each other along a wall, firing. More than once I killed an enemy during a wall run only to plummet to my death because I took too long to jump off, although the excellent wall-running single player challenge courses the game ships with should help you to prepare for situations like that.
The excellent ‘Pick 10’ system returns, allowing you to customise your loadout and killstreak rewards, but Black Ops III also offers something new with its ‘Specialist’ classes. Specialist powers activate once enough time has passed during a patch, and can grant you various perks and weapons. One Specialist is able to equip a superpowered grenade launcher, for instance, while another can leap into the air and slam down to cause massive shockwave damage. Knowing where and when to deploy these powers adds another strategic element, although it must be said that some powers are far more helpful than others. Still, once you work out which ones you like, Specialist powers are a lot of fun to use.
All of these new features and ideas work together to make Black Ops III feel like a fantastic and logical extension of the groundwork laid by Black Ops II. There’s not much in the way of innovation, perhaps, but there doesn’t need to be – there wasn’t a single moment where I wasn’t enjoying Black Ops III’s multiplayer, and running along walls never gets old. Some more new modes wouldn’t have gone astray, though, especially with all the new powers you’ve been granted here. It’s also a shame that Gun Game, a fan favourite, remains relegated to Custom Games only. It’s a mystery why the modes from Wager Matches were dropped after the first Black Ops.
Zombies are the third pillar of the Call of Duty experience, although this mode remains, in my mind, a fun distraction rather than an essential experience. As before you’re wandering through a large environment, closing up zombie entry points, opening up doors, and trying to get the largest score possible with three other players. It’s a bit confusing if you’ve been away from CoD Zombies for a while, but there’s a lot to discover in the Shadows of Evil map available at launch. Of course, Black Ops III will have a pretty aggressive DLC schedule, so zombie fans will want to grab the Season Pass to make sure that they get access to every map released.
It’s worth noting – without spoiling anything, because it’s a neat surprise – that another unique, pretty awesome zombie-related thing opens up after you finish the campaign. It’s an extra mode that probably wouldn’t exist if Treyarch hadn’t been given three years to work on this entry, and it adds a whole lot of life (albeit undead life) to the game.
Black Ops III might not be the absolute best Call of Duty experience ever, but it’s certainly the biggest, and probably the most fun. It’s the new gold standard for Treyarch too, the game that best shows off their strengths (and works around their weaknesses) as a studio. It’s a weird, confident, fresh take on the Call of Duty formula, one that truly excels in online multiplayer but also manages to provide a campaign that’s well worth playing through. Black Ops III shows that Treyarch are in a great position to keep the Call of Duty series fresh and relevant.