A dark future is upon us. The decay of a once-prosperous human existence and the incoherence of the world’s superpowers have contributed to what can only be labelled as the dark times for the future of humanity. Terrorist organisations, robotic life, and the undead lay waste to the earth, and, well, someone’s got to stop it.
Call of Duty: Black Ops III may be the most ambitious and abstract of any single Call of Duty game I’ve played, and that’s certainly not a bad thing. The game is full of ambition, and this emanates from all quarters, from the story, to the multiplayer, to the zombies. Treyarch’s latest is an admirable and violent look into futuristic warfare.
Black Ops III takes place in the 2050s and beyond. You’re a part of the Black Ops group – an elite set of soldiers who find themselves in a war-torn Singapore occupied by a selection of terrorist groups, hostile robots, and unlikely foes. The game takes place 30 years after the events of Black Ops II, and while it’s a continuation of the events that transpired in the aforementioned title, there’s certainly no direct correlation between the two in regards to prominent characters or the recounting of events; this story is completely entrenched within its own, abstract world.
In saying that, the story itself is highly conceptual and tends to play with the lines between reality and the subconscious state of dreaming quite a lot. It’s very abstract, and at times falls heavily into the sci-fi genre, but that makes for a refreshing change to what’s been seen in previous iterations of the franchise.
However, the problem with this is that the storyline does tend to deviate into confusing and muddled territory, making the overarching plot unclear and convoluted.
At some points throughout the story I’d felt like I’d completely missed a major plot point, only to realise that the game hadn’t actually told me it’d happened. It felt incredibly disjointed, especially considering most of these hiccups had to do with major character arcs, inevitably taking away any sense of immersion I’d established with the events transpiring.
That’s not to say the campaign isn’t fun, though, and the muddled nature of the game’s story became less of a problem when I had two other players join me. Black Ops III introduces co-op to Call of Duty’s single-player mode for the first time, and while it derailed any sense of story immersion I had previously established, it generally made the experience much more enjoyable.
We decided to make use of the game’s harder difficulty modes to try out co-op, and while veteran was certainly a challenge, having a third or fourth person run back and forth as a revival specialist made it more-or-less a breeze to work through. The game’s still hard, and there’s a lot going on at any given time, but being safe in the knowledge that someone’s always waiting to help you out made the experience less tense and more enjoyable. Cranking the difficulty up to realistic, the new one-hit kill difficulty mode, was a different story altogether, however.
This difficulty setting encouraged absolute teamwork to its core, and while it was incredibly difficult – impossible, almost – there was a real sense of achievement and satisfaction every time we’d reach a checkpoint. It was Dark Souls-esque in a way, and it’ll definitely be something that appeals to the most hardcore of Call of Duty fans.
In saying that, the Realistic difficulty mode made utilising the game’s Cyber Core abilities that much more important, too. Early on in the game you find yourself with some hefty robotic upgrades, with each giving you some sort of tactical advantage over enemies. One set, called Control, has a focus on Robotic dictation, allowing you to control drones and turrets or turn a hostile robot friendly.
Another core, titled Chaos, focuses on nullifying humans by blasting off firefly swarms or using an enemy’s set of explosives against them. This ultimately changes up what is otherwise a fairly formulaic FPS experience, yet combined with the game’s fluid movement system makes for one of the more enjoyable and entertaining Call of Duty adventures in quite some time.
Jumping into Black Ops III’s multiplayer was relatively easy, and it’ll no doubt be the place where most players spend a good chunk of their time. It’s safe to say that, despite no major changes to the formula, the series’ multiplayer is still really enjoyable and makes for the most dynamic and entertaining experience online yet thanks to a handful of refinements and truly excellent map design.
It’s important to note that the game’s multiplayer was set up by Treyarch in a contained environment, and so my experience might not necessarily reflect yours when the game’s servers launch worldwide. As such, we’ll be updating the review when we’ve put some time into the game’s public servers.
The biggest change to multiplayer this year comes in the way of Specialists: core characters with unique abilities that are unlocked throughout your time in multiplayer. Each of these characters offer up a specific ability that can be used a couple of times throughout a match, depending on its recharge rate. These abilities vary greatly and they genuinely change up what is otherwise your run-of-the-mill Call of Duty multiplayer experience.
When utilised properly, these abilities can help turn the tide of battle in an instant and often make for classic, smile-inducing Call of Duty moments. Experimentation is important of course, and as you make your way through the game’s multiplayer, you’ll be able to unlock more characters and their respective abilities to try out along the way. Each character has a certain ability that’s useful in a particular situation or game mode, and it’s definitely worth checking each of the characters and their respective abilities out as you level up.
The Pick 10 system also returns this year, and makes customising your loadouts both a breeze and painfully difficult. Cutting down choices to accommodate wildcards, perks, and secondary weapon attachments is still a grueling affair, but it ultimately forces you to play with a lot of the new weapons and perks, even if you aren’t so fond of them. While it can be a deterrent early on, it’s an enjoyable way to play through the game, and it’s still incredibly satisfying to finally meet that perfect weapon that suits your play style.
Other inclusions in this year’s multiplayer experience are fairly sparse, with a collective focus on small refinements and Specialists at the forefront. A new game mode – titled Safeguard – makes its debut, and has one team defend a robot travelling to the opposition’s goal while the defending team is tasked with holding the it back until the timer runs out. It’s certainly fun if you have a good team with you, but I found that most of my time was spent in Call of Duty’s more popular modes, and those are still the most enjoyable.
To round out the package, Zombies makes its return to Black Ops, and it’s more-or-less akin to what’s been seen in other Treyarch Call of Duty titles. While there’s only one map currently available – titled Shadows of Evil – there’s nothing quite like the frantic pace and fright Treyarch’s Zombies mode offers.
With a cast comprised of Ron Perlman, Jeff Goldblum, Heather Graham, and Neal McDonough, there’s a certain sense of immersion and intrigue felt for the characters you’re taking control over as they share exchanges throughout a match. The map itself is also brilliantly designed, with a diverse array of both tight corners and wide open areas to traverse through.
As is always the case with Zombies, the mode is best played with at least two other players. Playing by yourself or with just one other friend certainly bears a serious difficulty curve, especially following the initial few rounds. There’s also a few new surprises embedded within the map, and the ability to take control of a beast every now and again made those tougher moments a little easier to deal with.
In the end, my demise would always come, but I’d always try again, and that’s what Zombies is all about. Learning the best areas to head to and weapons to unlock has always been how I approached the mode, and playing through with two-to-three other players always heralded a sense of enjoyment and tension.
I didn’t get a chance to play through the recently announced The Giant zombies map, but will update the review when I sink some time into it. Shadows of Evil was the main focus during my time with Zombies, and it proved to be an excellent reintroduction into one of Call of Duty’s most beloved modes.
Connecting all three of these modes are a plethora of customisation options and the XP leveling up system. Each of the core game modes has a system in place that allows you to level up your character, customise your weapon loadouts, and upgrade and refine your weapons. They’re all locked to each game mode, but having a system like this embedded in each mode made for a bigger sense of replayability and player choice.
In the end, this is what defines this year’s Call of Duty: player choice. The new additions across all of the game’s core modes make for one of the most diverse and enjoyable Call of Duty experiences in years. While the campaign is certainly a let down, the game’s introduction of Specialists makes multiplayer the most diverse and enjoyable in a long while, with Shadows of Evil also marking an excellent return for Treyarch’s beloved zombies mode. There’s a lot of post-game content as well, including Nightmare Mode – a rejigged campaign with zombies littered throughout – and a couple of Easter eggs that will certainly appeal to long-time fans of the Black Ops series.
Over the coming days we'll dive deeper into the game's multiplayer on public servers, and then return to this review with a score and some additional thoughts.
Having spent quite some time in the game’s public servers over the weekend and the days following, I can confidently say that Black Ops III’s multiplayer experience is entirely reflective of what I originally played for this review. Minus a few hitches on the first day (which saw servers out across all platforms for varying amounts of time), everything seems to be in working order now. Matches are quick to find, and there’s been no noticeable lag in almost all of the matches I’ve played.
However, while I did write this review having played the PlayStation 4 version, it’s important to note that the PC version of the game has been having widespread issues, from an almost unbearably low fps count on the main menu, to stuttering and various performance hitches in single-player.
Because these issues are so widespread, I think PC players on the fence about the game should know about the current situation Black Ops III finds itself in on the system. However, the game seems to be running fine on consoles now.
In fact, at its best, Call of Duty: Black Ops III is a significant step in the right direction for the franchise. This is the most content-heavy Call of Duty package in a long while, and the majority of it is bloody enjoyable to boot.
◆ Toby was flown to San Francisco to review Black Ops III by Activision. His flights, hotel, and meals were all paid for. He played the game alongside dozens of other journalists from around the globe on Treyarch's private servers. There were no extra-curricular activities offered.