I’ve played through the entire single-player campaign for Activision’s Call of Duty: Black Ops III, the latest installment a series that generates a billion in revenues a year and has exceeded $10 billion in total lifetime revenue. It is without a doubt one of the best and strangest games I’ve played this year. Chalk it up to Treyarch, the Activision-owned game studio that loves to take risks. I’ll do a full game review later, after I play Zombies and multiplayer. But here are my top impressions for the single-player campaign.
Black Ops III is the latest attempt to keep Activision — which just bought King for $5.9 billion — at the top of the heap in the video game business. And it shows that even when you’re making an expensive blockbuster, you can still take lot of risks that could either delight or disillusion a loyal fan base. In this case, the fan base is as hardcore and committed as they come, as an estimated 40 million people play Call of Duty every month.
I played the game on Hardened, which is one notch more difficult than Normal but not the hardest setting. If you’re a veteran player of previous Call of Duty games, I recommend Hardened. It’s challenging. But if you combine smarter artificial intelligence enemies and more of them, it becomes really hard to win each firefight. And that’s what you want in this game. It has only 11 missions, but you’ll spend an hour or more in each one of them, because each level is massive.
Here’s five things that I like about this new Call of Duty so far.
1. A dark story with the Treyarch touch
This is one of the best Call of Duty stories that I’ve played. It has a narrative with mystery, some main characters who have to learn who to trust, and a theme about the frightening, realistic combination of human beings and machines for the sake of killing. The story has a warning about the future of mankind if we keep developing more high-tech weapons and combine them with unlimited computing power. As with Deus Ex; Human Revolution, Call of Duty’s soldiers who lose limbs find they can get better, superhuman prosthetic replacements, dialed into something called a Direct Neural Interface, or DNI. This DNI makes communication between squads instantaneous and hard-wired. The story combines cool sci-fi with gritty and dark moments.
But if that was all there was to the story, then it would be a retread of past games. This tale goes off in strange directions, and I really thought that was where Treyarch showed its creativity. By the end of the game, you’ll be wondering if this imaginative title that you’ve been playing is really a Call of Duty game. There’s a lot of mystery in the way the story is told, and that will keep you soldiering on to the end. It reminds me of the Tim O’Brien novel Going After Cacciato, a Vietnam War era book where an AWOL soldier is hunted down. But you find that the journey is the important thing, as are the choices you make along the way.
2. Big levels with a lot of room to fight
I played the game on the PlayStation 4, and it can render some huge levels. This makes the game more of an open world. I could take multiple routes to get past enemies and play exactly how I wanted. With a companion soldier and good markers, you don’t get lost. Getting lost in a big level is a real problem, especially if there’s only one way out. But Treyarch put indicators of where you had to go next. The 11 big levels are also really difficult, and you’ll be exhausted after finishing each one. In one level, I shot 121 enemies and incapacitated 61. That’s a lot of work when you’re doing it one at a time.
3. The high tech weapons add a lot to the gameplay
You’ll experiment with futuristic sci-fi capabilities like running on walls. But I actually enjoyed the ability to use the bonuses I earned in combat to equip my soldier with some cyber skills. You can change these up as you like. I enjoyed sending swarms of fireflies at infantry. These little nanobots drive your enemies insane and wind up taking them out of the battle. I also became adept at setting robot mech soldiers on fire.
4. Wide gameplay variety
The action in this game is insane. You have to take your bio breaks between levels, because you won’t have a quiet moment during the middle of the missions. You can hop in a jet fighter or shoot underwater. There’s a sniper stealth level that was very well done. And you can choose how to start a firefight in any number of ways. There’s just so many ways to let the enemy know that you mean business.
5. The acting and cinematics are just right
The story, gameplay, and cinematics (film-like sequences) come together in a way that just immerses you in the world of future combat where something has gone terribly wrong. Some games overdo the gameplay and have no purpose, and others drown you in cinematics. This one has a very good balance.
There are some disappointments, The facial animation doesn’t look as good as Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare from last year. Who could forget the perfect animated face of Kevin Spacey? It’s odd to see that go in a backward direction. I had some very small glitches during the play, but nothing that halted my progress.
Like I said, I’ll have more to say on multiplayer and zombies later. But if they function as described, fans are going to love those too.
I’m very taken with this game. Last year, I scored Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare at 89 out of 100, in terms of a review score. Before that, I was disappointed with Call of Duty: Ghosts, and I gave it an 80. I ranked Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 at 90, and I ranked Call of Duty Black Ops II at 89. For sure, Call of Duty: Black Ops III is not a disappointment.
Activision’s Call of Duty: Black Ops III debuts on Friday on the PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC.