The mega juggernaut that is the Call of Duty franchise continues its Black Ops offshoot with Call of Duty Black Ops III. While the game is set in the same universe as the Black Ops series, the events of Black Ops III are far removed from previous installments, which had players fighting communists in the Cold War and attempting to assassinate Fidel Castro. Black Ops III is set in 2065, over 40 years after the events of the last game. Black Ops III follows suit to Call of Duty Advanced Warfare, which brought the franchise far into the future by showcasing futuristic warfare and combat with a sci-fi setting. The Call of Duty franchise constantly faces the challenge to release a brand new game every year. So, Activision must continuously deal with freshening up the franchise, without moving too far away from that gritty, first-person shooter and military warfare style that made it so popular.
As a huge fan of sci-fi and cyberpunk, I do not mind at all to see the Call of Duty franchise move in this direction. Contemporary versions of World War III type conflicts can only be executed so many times. The main campaign of Black Ops III actually dares to take the Call of Duty franchise to places it’s never really explored before. Essentially, the theme of Black of Ops III can be boiled down to man vs. technology. In some ways, Black Ops III is evocative of Ghost in the Shell, The Matrix, Blade Runner and even Terminator. However, the developers at Treyarch have put their own personal spin on the cyberpunk genre, mashing up the Call of Duty style with cyberpunk. For the most part, the campaign is pretty effective in pulling this tone off by combining military warfare with an intriguing cyberpunk plot. The player and his partner Hendricks are set on a mission to stop a rogue agent named John Taylor and his team. There is a deeper conspiracy and web of intrigue at work behind Taylor’s actions. The answers appear to lie in the creation of an artificial intelligence that might not have benevolent goals for mankind. Unfortunately, the story comes to a rather disappointing thud by the time it’s over. It seemed to be an attempt where the story writers were trying way too hard to be cinematic and artsy in a franchise that isn’t exactly known for being deeply thoughtful and philosophical.
One of the interesting aspects and wrinkles to the main story campaign is the co-op aspect. Missions can now be played with a team of up to four players simultaneously. The co-op aspect is a nice change of pace for the franchise. It’s certainly a different way to experience the story than what the franchise has previously executed.
The other major difference to the gameplay involves the cyber augmentations for the soldier characters. As a soldier in the year 2065, players have various cyber abilities and augments at their disposal. This feature allows players the ability to hack weapons and turrets. Players can cloak themselves from combatants. There’s a progression and skill tree for the various cyber augmented abilities that can be unlocked over the course of the game. This adds some interesting differences in gameplay as these abilities allow you to run across walls, jump higher and pull off some fun cyber attacks. The trade off is that these elements sort of take the franchise further away from its gritty and realistic combat roots. It does put the franchise into an almost fantastical realm. If old school Call of Duty fans are OK with that, then it’s not really a big deal. However, traditionalists might not be happy with this change in direction.
Call of Duty Black Ops III does offer a nice amount of customization, and not just for weapon loadouts. The game allows players to alter their character’s look, and even gender. In between missions, Black Ops III brings the team back to a safe house, where you can upgrade cyber cores, build new weapons, check out collectibles that have been picked up and more. This level of freedom and customization for the outfitting and gear is very refreshing for a big first-person shooter franchise.
In terms of the combat, some of the enemies come off as rather over-powered. It sucks the fun out of numerous missions when robot drones sneak up on you and just ruin your day. While there is a variety of weapons to choose from in the game, a lot of them at times come off as quite powerless. In previous Call of Duty games, part of the fun would be trying out various weapons. However, the artillery available for the main campaign is rather lacking. The armor for your character also seems quite weak, and you will likely die after only one or two hits.
The controls are decent and fairly responsive. However, since Call of Duty has taken the franchise into the future with cyber-enhanced soldiers, I want the controls to be a bit smoother and easier to handle. Oddly enough, the controls of the soldiers do seem to handle a tad better in the multiplayer campaign. In addition, the multiplayer campaign maps offer a nice variety in utilizing the freedom of movement that the cyber soldiers are capable of. In the multiplayer maps, it seems there is more opportunity to take advantage of the more acrobatic abilities of these enhanced soldiers.
In terms of replay value, Black Ops III actually does quite well. Nightmares is an alternate, unlockable version of the story campaign that can be selected after beating the regular story mode once. Nightmares offers an interesting, sort of supernatural twist to the campaign. Besides multiplayer, there’s also the Zombies campaign that’s available for the game. The Zombies mode for this game, Shadows of Evil, has a fun and unique setting in World War II. A group of rather shady characters have gotten caught up in a rather arcane plot. Playing in this mode as the magician Nero Blackstone, voiced by Jeff Goldblum, was a hilarious trip. The Shadows of Evil campaign has a fun jazzy score and some obvious influences by author H.P. Lovecraft. The horde survival type mode for Shadows of Evil has a different feel for its gameplay. There is almost an old school, arcade style. The pacing of the rounds is very nice. Plus, the area map is located with ability pick-ups and “Gobblegum” balls that can be obtained for various perks.
Overall, Call of Duty Black Ops III is not a truly excellent gameplay experience, but it is a satisfying one. For a new installment in a long-running franchise, it seems to offer a robust amount of gameplay, even beyond the basic campaign and multiplayer modes. Some elements of the main story campaign and integrating multiplayer could have been more polished. In addition, multiplayer can be slog at times, unless you are a really excellent Call of Duty player. However, Black Ops III will likely satisfy longtime fans of the franchise and keep them coming back for more.