My fondest memories of the Call of Duty franchise are those early days of playing Call of Duty 2 on the newly launched Xbox 360.
What made it special at the time was its mixture of cutting edge graphics, brutal veteran difficulty and authentic World War 2 setting, all coming together to create a unique experience that was both engaging and exhilarating. That was nearly 10 years ago now, and with a further 10 mainline releases under the franchise’s belt, who would’ve thought that a series that once used to be so rich in authenticity would’ve come to this: a game about a sentient AI, robots and cybernetic powers. Welcome to Call of Duty Black Ops 3 everybody.
As with all the Call of Duty games before it, I initially jumped in to tackle Black Ops 3’s campaign mode. Weighing up the achievement requirements with my estimated patience for the title I settled on the “Hardened” difficulty – which is tricky, but not infuriatingly so – taking into consideration that the developer, Treyarch, has a history of making some of the most unbalanced campaigns in the Call of Duty franchise. Luckily I made the right choice, as through some boring, lazy and downright stupid game design, Call of Duty Black Ops 3’s campaign is perhaps the worst 10 hours or so that I’ve endured in the series and certainly not something that I ever want to experience again.
Losing both of your forearms in the game’s introductory mission, you’re quickly modified with the latest in cybernetic technology to make you part of a hive mind war machine. It’s with this that Call of Duty Black Ops 3 unveils its unique game mechanic: the cyber core system. Changeable before the start of each mission and also via mobile armouries unfathomably littered throughout the game, three cores are available each with their own abilities that you can unlock and upgrade to gain the advantage over your enemies. It’s quite a helpful gimmick – some of the abilities are genuinely useful in an intense firefight – but many of them are overpowered on lower difficulties whilst being next to useless on the higher difficulties. The new one-hit-you’re-dead “realistic” difficulty for example, renders charging melee skills such as “overwhelming force” pretty much obsolete, whilst the “firefly swarm” ability is downright devastating on lower difficulties.
It’s issues like this that succinctly demonstrate the crux of Call of Duty Black Ops 3’s campaign downfalls, at least on the harder difficulties: the traditional Call of Duty game mechanics just don’t gel well with the fantastical setting on offer. During the course of the campaign you’ll have enemies warping in behind you, or turning into a bunch of flying crows when shot only to reform in another location such as the side of you. You’ll also face many robots, with the larger of which being irritating bullet sponges that you’ll grow tired of firing at. My personal bugbears however, are the R.A.P.S. These little robotic rolling bombs speedily home in on you, often without you even being aware due to their small size, before sending you to an early grave by exploding. Call of Duty games played on higher difficulties have always been about dying, dying and then dying again until you get it just right, but they typically felt fair. Here you just feel like the butt of a joke – a super soldier that can only take the damage of a normal man, with enemies enveloping you from all sides keen to end your life before you have time to even react. Haha, very funny Treyarch. ROFL.
Even aside from the mismatch of typical Call of Duty gameplay with a fantastical setting, Call of Duty Black Ops 3’s campaign doesn’t get much right. The missions are boring and uninspired; with multiple “defend me while I do this” moments that are just lazy and annoying. The graphics are a mix of the great and the dire; with occasional framerate drops that are unusual to find in a Call of Duty campaign. Oh, and the voice acting for the male lead sticks out like a sore thumb for being utterly terrible. There’s a couple of redeeming factors such as the ability to play the campaign with up to three other players in online co-op, and an unlockable Nightmares mode that puts a new spin on the story, but they’re not enough to make the campaign interesting or any less of a pain to get through. I was rather taken by Dead Ops though, a fully featured top down shooter accessible from your safe-house between missions.
Away from the disappointing campaign, things are a little more positive. A feature loved by many, Call of Duty Zombies returns and is a more developed and rounded experience than it has ever been, although I still found it to be fairly lacklustre. Letting loose a team of up to four players in a setting that seems to be right out of the 1940’s, Zombies has you searching a vast map for items required to complete rituals whilst gaining points for killing zombies along the way. You get points for other actions too, and you’ll want to earn a fair few as they allow you to buy upgrades that are vital to your task, as well as access to new areas. Strangely, players can also interact with eerie altars dotted around the map that momentarily turn them into a tentacled monster, enabling them to charge electrical switches that uncover new items and upgrade stations.
The trouble with Zombies mode is, like the shambling zombies that inhabit it, it just feels soulless – you get the impression it’s here in this package more out of necessity rather than because Treyarch found something interesting to do with it. It’s also a difficult mode that requires a great deal of trial and error as you get to grips with the map and the many secrets it holds. Whilst many may see this as a positive because it means the mode gets more rewarding as you play, it also makes the experience extremely repetitive, as you’re forced to complete the same actions time and time again each time you die. If you’re able to assemble a team of four competent friends things are undoubtedly better as you’ll be able to communicate more effectively to complete your tasks, but when played with randoms, Zombies is very hit and miss.
Ultimately, most players will be buying Call of Duty Black Ops 3 for its adversarial multiplayer mode, and luckily, it’s probably the best part of the package. New this year is the specialist mechanic, which has you choosing from a wide range of character types that each feature their own special weapon and ability. You’re able to unlock just one specialist at the start, but by playing and levelling up you’ll eventually gain access to a grand total of nine, giving you range of options as you head out for battle. Aside from the specialist mechanic, the only other aspect of note is the new emphasis on fluid movement, which sees you able to wall run and mantle up and over objects. It’s a great addition as it keeps the action fresh and fast, and it’s matched by a great range of maps that benefit from this enhanced range of movement.
After having high hopes for Call of Duty Black Ops 3, I have to say that it’s left me very disappointed. The campaign is probably the worst yet, with a ridiculous story and traditional Call of Duty gameplay that doesn’t mix well with the highly fantastical setting. Zombies is also disappointing, due to its repetitive nature and boring gameplay. As usual however, the multiplayer mode is strong, and will likely make this a worthwhile purchase for most fans of the series. Basically, if you usually buy Call of Duty for the campaign, give Call of Duty Black Ops 3 a miss. If you buy it for the multiplayer that you know and love, then it is still probably worth your time and money.