The most amazing thing about Call of Duty: Black Ops III is that it fails to meet expectations following the first two Black Ops, hits the bar set by the franchise as a whole, and surprises in ways no one saw coming. Throwing it all together, the result is a perfectly good game that only fails at being great.
Set 40 years after Black Ops II, the story picks up in the year 2065 in a world that looks an awful lot like that of Advanced Warfare. War is now conducted by covert agents that are more machine than man, which is exactly where we find the player as he hunts after a Singapore crime organization called 54 Immortals.
And by “player,” I really mean Player. You are an unnamed character of your own creation, including a chosen gender as a first for the series. This makes the proceeding narrative exceedingly impotent, as the subtitle placard “Player” serves as a constant reminder that your existence in the story is immaterial.
This is rather disappointing considering what many found interesting from the first two Black Ops games was the super whackadoo story and insane moments of pure non sequitur tying together two generations of killer Mason men. Granted, there are some times back to them, but it comes across as more ancillary than anything. (Christopher Meloni as Commander John Taylor, however, should be a necessity to everything ever made from here on out.)
Going from the ambitious branching elements of Black Ops II, the undeniably linear nature is all the way disappointing. There are some large and spectacular moments in the story, but Treyarch’s eyes used to be so wide looking at this series. It has unfortunately regressed back to when everyone dismissed the campaign almost categorically.
It does try to go to some nutso places regarding the game’s ongoing technological singularity and poses interesting questions in that context, but they were also asked and answered even in Advanced Warfare, let alone any other sci-fi movie about robots. The facets regarding agency are a bit Mason-esque, but even those never feel fully rewarded despite being very Treyarch.
As for playing the game, its almost exactly what you’d expect. It is 60 fps-smooth and moves perfectly fast with overflowing precision. In terms of mechanics, it brings in a lot of what Advanced Warfare offered with wall running and boosted jumps. None of it feels quite as necessary, though, as it did last year.
You have all these expanded mobility tactics and none of it ever feels useful so much as a inconsequential. Aside from the bonkers Free Run, Mirror’s Edge-style gameplay mode, the best you find is that you can jump over some ledges rather than mantling them. Worse yet is that there are some spots that are easily reached but are blocked by an invisible wall, which is a great discouragement for experimenting with this enhanced locomotion.
When you do force yourself to start messing with your bolstered movement, it plays like the best moments of any Call of Duty game, campaign or otherwise. Sliding around corners to blast a barrel as you dash out of the way of the ensuing explosion is some of the greatest fun you’ll have, which goes doubly true when you’re playing competitively online.
The game also expands on the idea of robotic superpowers including the ability to blow up dudes with your mind and setting a swarm of robotic bees onto your foes. It feels a bit like if Treyarch had decided to make a BioShock game, which is as cool as it sounds. It’s a bit limited in scope, but the utility and value are immediately apparent. (You blow dudes up with your mind.)
Unfortunately, in the campaign, they pull a classic God of War where you are given every single power-up all from the start—making you feel super badass and awesome—before ripping them all out of your hands and leaving you to wonder how you can be mugged by a video game. And since these abilities are specced out across a (tiny) tech tree, you don’t even get to be that powerful again until you beat the entire game and hit level 20.
You might be less inclined to care about that, though, if you are playing with some buddies all the way through. The campaign is built around the constant availability of four-player co-op like Halo 5, which is for the better since you can be revived in the moment and you can approach more bullet-spongey enemies with tactics.
As for the multiplayer, it’s basically the beta but with more of it. In it, you’ll pick from one of several character classes (referred to as “specialists”) and further drill into a subclass. What truly differentiates these folk are their special abilities.
Ruin’s subclasses, for instance, allow him to use his gravity spikes to AOE people to death or get a speed booster. Outrider, gets to use her compound bow that fires powerful exploding arrows or highlights enemies within range. (She’s very popular.)
They add missing variety to the multiplayer, which stacks nicely atop the diversity that the pick 10 system offers. That style of perk and loadout management has always engendered perhaps only a handful of truly different arrangements, but the specialists toss in some unique flair to the proceedings, especially if you use something like Prophet’s ability to rewind his physical location.
It’s unfortunate, though, that every player looks like one of these several characters. Even in the midst of playing as half-robot mercenaries in the future, it’s a bit too surreal seeing several Reapers standing right next to each other. It feels very MOBAish, which is a successful eSports structure but still weird to see in a Call of Duty game. (And holy crap, melees aren’t one-hit kills anymore.)
There’s also the return of the zombies mode, which is probably the most You Know If You Like This of any video game thing out there. It’s impressive how much this mode has expanded since its inception within World at War. These maps and their specialized functionalities are huge, offering multiple gated routes and hidden tasks.
There’s a new story included with new characters (voiced by Jeff Goldblum, Heather Graham, Neal McDonough, and Ron Perlman), but it’s once again incredibly light and mostly inconsequential, though the noir style is a nice touch. It makes me miss the more ambitious bus stuff of Black Ops II, but at least here you can become a The Darkness sort of demon and lay waste to a lot of undead all at once.
They’ve also included a super weird Nightmares mode that basically puts zombies into the campaign instead of robots. Like, you’re fighting the undead and working to take them out in place of battling corporate armies. It’s kind of insane.
This game very obviously has a lot of content that spans a ton of different modes. It’s more than we’ve ever seen from a Call of Duty game, but it’s also the most unfocused we’ve ever seen as well. Everything has enough polish to where you can’t fault its inclusion, but it’s all also borderline milquetoast.
The story tries to go to new and unexpected places, but none of it quite pays off. The enhanced mechanics are great for adding spice to a traditionally flat and linear gameplay loop, but it all feels ancillary. And the multiplayer is functional but lacks any real grip. Piece it all together, and Black Ops III is good but not great.
+ Added mobility gives you plenty of options for how to kill someone
+ BioShock-inspired abilities makes combat scenarios feel fresh
+ Runs smooth like butter all the way through and looks great doing it
– Story reaches high but fuddles around what it seems to really want to say
– Multiplayer maps makes using the expanded traversal mechanics a liability
Final Score: 7 out of 10
Game Review: Call of Duty: Black Ops III
Release: November 6, 2015
Genre: First-person shooter
Available Platforms: PlayStation 4, PlayStation 3, Xbox One, Xbox 360, PC
Players: Single-player, multiplayer