No matter the console generation or popular trend, the Call of Duty war machine marches on. After the pleasingly refreshing Advanced Warfare, Black Ops III picks up where Treyarch’s hammy alternate story left off. Or rather, it transplants it to a near-future that cribs from a range of sources. With three massive modes - a curious campaign, massive multiplayer and the traditional zombie offering - Black Ops III certainly has quantity but is the game a new high-watermark for the series?
Confession: this reviewer has been out of the Call of Duty loop for quite some time. Not since Black Ops II, in fact, meaning that the franchise nadir of Ghosts and the Spacey-centric Advanced Warfare both sailed past in the meantime. So it’s with a fresh set of eyes, the jaded cynicism faded after a few years free of jingoistic tosh, that I witnessed Black Ops III. Never holding much prowess in multiplayer it was the campaign tackled first. The tried-and-tested Call of Duty core remains, that twitch shooter rapidity heightened (quite literally) by the boost-jump wall-running that gives every aspect of the game verticality. The plot is nonsensical - augmented soldiers investigating shady government facilities. Rogue agents. Some shit about robots. But it’s presented in possibly the most bizarre way.
Firstly, each mission can be played at any time right from the off. If you’re insane you can dive straight into the middle or final part of the campaign and play it as the shooting gallery to which it often devolves. Play it in linear fashion and it’s a hodge-podge of cinematic inspirations, flights of philosophical fancy and more than the odd truly surreal, abstract digression. As if the developers saw something cool in a film and had the liberty to plonk any old thought into the story, it’s a mish-mash of floaty concepts, focused towards the Tesco crowd that tend to buy Call of Duty. You wouldn’t usually say that a Call of Duty campaign warrants examination but there are glimmers within that hint at meta levels of theorising; the nature of conditioning and AI almost touches on the concept of Call of Duty and its audience. Were it not for the easily telegraphed inspiration - a train bombing is straight out of Source Code - it would be remarkable. As it is, it’s wholly interesting if utter bullshit due to the scatterbrained dialogue, 2D characters and non-descript locations.
Deus Ex and Remember Me both have memorable visions of a near-future. Even previous Call of Duty entries have etched their levels into memory, the collapsing Eiffel Tower of Modern Warfare 3 remaining a sight to behold. Black Ops III looks brilliant but it all becomes a blur of metal, neon and urban decay - despite real world locations it never feels grounded. Then again, the series has always been one of surface sheen masking shallow depth. The augmentations also take some of the fun out of the game. Like Batman’s Detective Mode there’s the temptation to keep it on all the time as it tags enemies, highlights dangerous areas and traces projectiles and their trajectories. Useful, yes, but the constant UI overlay heightens the arcadey feel while removing some of the challenge.
Another problem lies in the antagonists - brutal as it sounds, there’s something satisfying about human enemy combatants and their occasionally erratic AI. In contrast, Black Ops III will often chuck boxy robots at you - they’ll walk directly towards your position and are barely intimidating. They also make up the bulk of the campaign’s enemies, as does a boss fight that repeats itself to its detriment. To say that Call of Duty’s campaign is most interesting when not in combat reveals the extent to which it differs from its predecessors while making a few missteps of its own.
Nevertheless, multiplayer still retains that addictive ‘one-more-go’ nature it’s always had. There’s a wealth of customisation on top of the sturdy core mechanics. There’s something about Call of Duty that means that even the worst players feel rewarded for something and the new maps encourage a range of playstyles. This is convenient, given the new specialists on offer - a range of character classes each with their own skillset. Tailored to things like brute force, stealth or firepower, each brings their own weaknesses or strengths to be developed and explored. Ranking up credits you with unlock points - this can go towards weapons, weapon customisation, specialists… the list goes on. The maps themselves feel fantastic while managing to discourage too much camping (a little is fine!) or predictability. Of course there will be hotspots of death as always but the lure is undeniable. Treyarch are top of the field in creating balanced, compelling competitive multiplayer and rarely place a foot wrong, despite the new layers of technology and perks at your disposal.
Of course, the main problem with Call of Duty is still people who buy Call of Duty - it brings in a community more obsessed with a 420-friendly skin for their gun than any semblance of civilised teamwork. That, however, is the price of popularity - it might be the best, but that’s why everyone plays it. Luckily there’s a third option… and it features Jeff Goldblum. The new Zombies mode glitters with the Bioshock-sheen of neon lighting. Unfortunately it’s pretty impenetrable to begin with; beasts and powers and gobstopper machines and curses. Step into it as unfamiliar territory and you’ll be lost, even when paired with a team of online players who seem versed in Zombies’ mysterious objectives.
Get a handle on proceedings and you’ve got a fully featured mode that spins the Call of Duty template in a setting that is vibrant. The actors - Goldblum, Ron Perlman, Neal McDonough and Heather Graham - put in adequate work though it is Goldblum who finds a way to sound both animated and entirely dejected at being associated with such frippery. On its own it would nearly count as a fully fledged game but as part of a package Zombies just feels overly generous.
That’s the take-away from Black Ops III. Eclectic, occasionally misjudged but intriguing, it feels about as far from the Call of Duty name as the series has yet managed. It’s incredibly full-featured and the longevity is undeniable. The campaign has some genuine water-cooler moments but the whole thing still has the same problem as blockbuster films. It all feels so calculated, so designed to please and yet so shallow. It’s ridiculously entertaining and has almost escaped the oo-rah jingoism so closely associated with the brand - it feels like the next great leap could allow it to break free from the shackles of convention and do something completely radical. As it is it’s polished, entertaining and well worth a try, even for lapsed Call of Duty players. If there were a time to take another look at the series, now would be it. In its imperfections lies a brief glimpse of revolution - for that it is to be commended.