Let’s get this straight out into the open so we all know where we stand: I’m not a fan of the futuristic setting that the Call of Duty franchise has stumbled into. It kind of made sense with Black Ops II as it still had its links to Black Ops I’s time-period, but Black Ops III just lurches too far forward for my liking. There’s no real-life hook for me to relate to. World at War, Black Ops I, and Black Ops II (to some degree) all had relevant time periods that I knew of and could go off and read about once I’d finished the game. For me, this has always been an attraction with games that have some historical spin; finishing the game, getting onto the internet, or even visiting a library, and having a read about the place, the era, and the characters. Not this time. Everything is firmly set in the future. Chances are, I won’t even make it to the year the game takes place in.
Despite the shift into the future, Black Ops III is still compelling, but the lack of previously known characters is something that just doesn’t sit all that well, mainly because we’re not given any resolution over the end of Black Ops II’s events. Instead we’re thrust into the killing boots of a man/woman that we don’t know and never really get the chance to. This time around we’re given our own avatar to configure to our liking with some preset faces for both genders. Nice enough, I suppose. What we don’t have is a name. The game simply refers to your character as ‘Player’ and the supporting cast in your futuristic fracas never utter your name, only daft terms like ‘new blood’ and the like. There’s no connection on a personal level, despite that being the exact thing Treyarch was aiming for with deep(ish) customisation.
It’s not just your own ‘Player’ that is a little 2D: the entire cast is underwhelming with no real stand-out characters. Previous Call of Duty games all had characters that became fan-favourites among the Call of Duty faithful; Captain Price, Soap, Mason, Ghost etc. Unfortunately I just didn’t click with any of Black Ops II’s cast. The voice acting was serviceable, though the ‘Player’ character sounds like a complete tool. One thing that’s always stood out for me personally with Treyarch’s games is the great script writing and character interaction. It was these little moments in the game that brought me off my sofa, and threw me into the dirty jungles of Vietnam.
The game’s story is also a bit of a mystery, though after playing through the campaign a couple of times I think I’ve got the jist of what’s going on, but I can’t be completely sure. That’s the problem with future settings: it’s not easy to explain the leap in technological advancements and keep them working as a plot point when the player is being bombarded with all sorts of new information. Take the new progression system as an example: I haven’t the foggiest what I’m doing with it.
In between missions you have a central hub where you can view data logs, look at your records, and customise your weapons and capabilities. You’re no longer the man of the past. You’re a machine of the future. ‘Player’ sustains some horrific injuries during the opening level and subsequently gets some new robotic prosthetics which upgrade you from human to machine-man-human-thing-soldier. It’s weird, to be honest, but I went with it anyway. As a robotic man-thing you can upgrade your capabilities in the hub world with points earned for levelling up in the campaign. Nice enough, but it’s a bit over complicated and as a result, I never really cared what I was upgrading and just clicked whatever was available. Is it possible for there to be too much customisation? Maybe.
So far I’ve spent the majority of this review having a moan and a whinge, but it’s not all bad – I promise. The gameplay is the same shooty fun that we’ve all come to expect from a Call of Duty, but Treyarch has thrown in a few new features to keep up with the yearly “we’ve added new cool stuff!” marketing campaign. One addition is the ability to run across walls. In all honesty, I did it a handful of times, quickly got over it, and rarely did it again. It’s more of a multiplayer thing… That’s not the only addition, though. There’s new guns to shoot (yay?) and new abilities to master. Kind of like the exosuits in Advanced Warfare, but not quite the same. Honestly, though, I blasted through most of the campaign without making too much use of the futuristic tech my soldier was kitted out with. One thing I was quite impressed with was the tactical view. With the press of the d-pad you get an overlay of the battlefield that picks out enemies, their distance, their status, and more. It also shows the explosion radius of grenades so you can retreat to a safe distance. Then there’s the killzones: the floor will change colour depending on what’s going on in that moment: if it’s a blood red, you don’t want to be anywhere near it; amber means you’ll be alright so long as you don’t go all Rambo. It’s a nice touch but it does feel a bit overpowered, especially when I can see enemies before they’ve even rounded a corner. For this reason I used it sparingly.
Black Ops III takes you across some really nice locations and the next-gen graphics do shine through – brighter in some levels than others. I spent a good couple of minutes just standing around moving ‘Player’s’ head during the opening of the storm level; the lighting was immense and moving through it was genuinely awesome. Not all levels are breathtaking spectacles, but they get the job done and still look fantastic doing so. Characters flit around with purpose, though sometimes the A.I can be a little strange: my ally, Hendricks, nonchalantly walks past enemies without as much as a second look, leaving me to clear up the mess he seemingly can’t be arsed about. It’s a minor blip on an otherwise decent experience.
The entire campaign can be played cooperatively, but as I previously stated in my Halo 5: Guardians review, I don’t care for sharing my stories with others. I’m selfish in that respect, but it’s a personal choice that I stand by. I did give couch co-op a go once I’d finished the campaign solo, just to see how it goes. Surprisingly it works nicely and wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be, but I’d never go through the entire thing with others. Again, a personal choice. It’s nice to have the option and it does add some replay value to the game, so I’m not going to be too critical of it.
However, I will say that my first hour with Call of Duty was a royal pain in the arse due to the online connectivity. I’ll explain: I started the campaign online, though I wasn’t aware I was starting it online. After a few minutes I needed to attend to something in the house so I sent the game to the dashboard and proceeded to make my Earl Grey. A few minutes later, I return to the game and go back in, only to find my character has been teleported 5,000m away from the objective, and a lovely ‘connectivity issue’ message was all across my screen. “What the balls?!” I exclaimed. So I rebooted the game and made sure to set the game to ‘Play Local’ and then proceeded to the campaign. Unfortunately my progress wasn’t saved from my online adventure and I was forced to start again. Nah, son, no bloody way. So I took advantage of the fact you can play any level in any order and skipped to the next mission. A minor blip, granted, but significant enough for me to swear loudly and declare the game a “cock of shit” in the heat of the moment.
When all is said and done, the campaign is decent. Not great by Treyarch’s standards, but decent. In fact, there was one standout level that seemed to turn the game into a B-grade horror movie. The level had the terminator-esque robots all sleeping soundly in their cases on the walls. I slowly moved past the dormant droids, all the while rotating to keep an eye on them. All good so far. I’ve passed them, so I turn forward towards my objective and – HOLY SHIT THERE’S LOTS OF THEM!
The robots from up ahead had broken out of there glass housings and were making a beeline straight for me. Despite having some suped-up future gun in my bionic hands, I didn’t even think to use it. Instead, I legged it towards the lift. The horror struck me when I couldn’t get in the lift until the wave of soulless enemies were destroyed. There’s something very unnerving about seeing a wave of non-human enemies slowly shuffle their way towards you, I’ll tell you that.
I enjoyed the campaign for what it was, and I particularly liked the fairly open level design that encouraged taking a different route every now and again. It’s hardly ground breaking and it doesn’t work on the same level as Black Ops II’s multiple-choice system, but it works well enough. If you’re coming into Black Ops for the story, you’ll have a good bit of fun with a 9-10 hour campaign. The story doesn’t make a lot of sense the first time around so it’s worth playing through at least twice, even if it’s just to gather the collectibles for your achievements/trophies.
Multiplayer and Zombies aren’t something I’ve fully explored just yet so we’ll leave that for another day, yeah? I did give the new free-running game mode a go though, and while it’s fairly simple, it’s still fun play and chasing the high-score is always appealing. Taking it in turns with a few mates to race around and see who can get the best score is a good laugh, but it’s not really something you’ll spend as many hours on.
Disclaimer: Review conducted using a copy of the game bought at retail at the cost of the reviewer. Primary version tested: PS4.