Activision’s Call of Duty: Black Ops III is one of the finest installments in a series that has generated $10 billion in lifetime revenue. The single-player campaign is challenging, surprising, and has more interesting missions that take full advantage of the next-generation game consoles. It’s too bad that the servers didn’t work perfectly on day one, frustrating many players who wanted to go straight online.
But as Activision straightens multiplayer out (and it has as of today), players should use the time to play the single-player campaign and the extra zombies campaign that you unlock once you finish the first one. You won’t be sorry, because Treyarch has shown that creativity and Call of Duty are not mutually exclusive. Black Ops III is the latest attempt to keep Activision — which just bought King for $5.9 billion — at the No. 1 spot in the hardcore video game business. And it shows that even when you’re making an expensive blockbuster, you can still take a 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. Market researcher Nielsen says Black Ops III is this fall’s most-anticipated game.
Some Call of Duty fans are definitely partial to Treyarch’s Black Ops series, which has been played by 100 million people. The stories of the Black Ops and Black Ops II versions of Call of Duty were some of the most memorable for me, in part because they were very disturbing. Add to that the combination of familiar first-person shooter combat with a number of surprise enhancements, and you have something that is definitely differentiated from the Call of Duty games created by Infinity Ward and Sledgehammer Games.
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Treyarch, the Activision-owned game studio, has taken the right risks to make Call of Duty seem fresh, even in its 11th edition. 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, as it will double the amount of time it takes to finish the game. It’s challenging to the point where you’ll breathe a huge sign of relief when you finish a mission.
That’s because the game has smarter artificial intelligence enemies. And when you play it on Hardened, you’ll encounter 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. You can play the campaign as a single player or with up to three friends in co-op mode.
This story has some plot spoilers, but I’ve tried to keep those to a minimum. –Dean Takahashi
What you’ll like
A dark story with imaginative twists
The story takes place much later in the history of the Black Ops. In the first Black Ops game, the title was set in the 1960s, focusing on an elite group of soldiers with access to secret weapons during the Vietnam War. The Black Operations teams fought in secrecy with prototype weapons in missions that give governments and politicians “full deniability.”
The second game took us 2025, when a villain named Raul Menendez hijacked a fleet of American drones and tried to start a world war between the U.S. and China. That drone war is now distant, as Black Ops III happens in 2065. The factions in place include the Winslow Accord (think NATO) and the Common Defense Pact (akin to the old Warsaw Pact), and the characters are all brand new. Air assaults are worthless because of extensive air defense systems that are in place. That places emphasis back on the individual soldier on the battlefield.
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 each other, and a theme about the frightening, realistic combination of human beings and machines, brought together 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. But it also means that the soldiers are now subject to being controlled through the DNI. 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.
The story has references to Alice in Wonderland, with an actual giant hole in the ground where the soldiers have to descend. As they are doing so, they tell us they’re going down the rabbit hole. With that foreshadowing, Treyarch’s script writers are telling us that things are going to get weird. By invoking both dream sequences and memory recall mysteries, the writers get a license to take us to some very strange settings that you would never expect to see in a game. You’ll see weird symbols, recurring memories, and completely insane scenery. It reminds me of Far Cry 2’s drug-induced insanity.
The post-campaign Nightmares Easter egg
Treyarch also included a completely new mode, dubbed Nightmares, that lets you play the single-player campaign over again with a fresh story. This Easter egg, or hidden surprise, is only activated after you finished the campaign. When you do, after the credits roll, you’ll return to the main menu. There, you’ll see a new Nightmares option. If you play it, the story begins anew, but the disaster that unfolds is now zombie apocalypse. The story is narrated by a new female character, and the combat is much different, as you have to survive waves of zombie attacks. Nightmares adds to the considerable depth of the game, which is really more like four games in one.
Big levels with a lot of room to fight
I played the game on the PlayStation 4, and it can render some huge levels. Treyarch created new rendering, A.I., and animation technologies to leverage the new consoles.
This makes the game more of an open world. I could take multiple routes to get past enemies and play exactly how I wanted. If you’re faced with a wall of fire in one direction, you can now outflank that position. You can even race to the opposite end of the battlefield, turn around, and then surprise enemies who are expecting you to become from the other way. That’s one way to use your superhuman abilities to achieve tactical surprise. If the levels were small, you couldn’t really do this.
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. In one of the final missions, I killed 184 enemies and incapacitated 61 of them. That’s a lot of work when you’re doing it one at a time.
The high-tech weapons and cyber skills add a lot to the gameplay
Some of these weapons are ones that you actually wield with the controller, but others are new abilities that you can activate by holding the left and right bumpers at the same time.
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. The danger of nanobots is that they can make the fight against infantry too easy. But the cyber skill ability has to be recharged, so you can’t use it exclusively.
The nanobots are just one of a half-dozen enhancements that let you take on electronic enemies, such as robots or the rolling explosive balls that are so deadly. You can adjust these powers in the Cybernetic Core area of the safe house. If you complete a mission, you get a few points to spend on adding new capabilities. You have to choose which cyber skill you can use before a mission, like Martial abilities that work well in close combat, or Cyber abilities that work against electronic foes. You can’t change it mid-mission.
I also became adept at setting robot mech soldiers on fire using the Immolation ability, which fries electronic gadgets and engulfs them in flames. It takes a couple of seconds to activate, so it’s a risky thing to do if you are already under fire. But it’s quite satisfying to take out robots in a single stroke. The abilities don’t work against the larger boss-like enemies.
Still other abilities include automatic detection of the locations of hidden enemies, which you can see in outline form even if they are hiding behind structures. All you have to do is hit up on the D-pad to turn this form of night-infrared vision on.
The more powerful a weapon, the more trade-offs it has in speed or reloading. And that’s a good thing, especially for keeping balance in multiplayer.
Some of the most difficult boss enemies are huge, tank-like walking robots, or “quad tanks,” dubbed ASPs. You have to shoot our their shields with a machine gun first. Then you have to hit them with three or more rockets from your XM-53 rocket launcher, which has fire-and-forget targeting, to bring them down. Targeting takes a few seconds to zero in on the right spot. The hard part is that the battlefield has huge numbers of enemies that are trying to take you out at the same time that you are preoccupied with the ASP.
Weapon attachments also add a lot to your lethality. The thermal optical sight, which you get at weapon level 12, shows infrared heat signatures. The Sheiva assault rifle is quiet enough to take out enemies from afar, in a silenced mode with a suppressor, but it doesn’t have the disadvantage of slow loading.
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. You have so many ways to let the enemy know that you mean business.
You’ll find yourself in a forest that is like no other you’ve seen, where you have to not only deal with humans and enemies of the future, like robots. You’ll also have to fight off wolves who can attack you from any direction.
Lots of customization options
Treyarch has built a new progression system into the game, allowing you to unlock tokens that allow you to acquire different weapons and equipment throughout the campaign. You can upgrade your weapons, abilities, and outfits in the Safe House, a hub where you go in-between missions.
The multiplayer game uses a familiar Pick 10 point system. You can customize your kit with 10 different items, building the most deadly character that suits your style. The new Gunsmith feature allows you to create and add up to five weapon attachments and an optical sight. The combination of Gunsmith and Pick 10 gives you nearly an infinite number of user-generated content options.
A Paintshop feature lets you put custom prints on your gun. On the PC, Black Ops III will have modding and map-making tools. Fans can create new game modes, arenas, and other things, starting out sometime in 2016.
Multiplayer has nine new characters dubbed Specialists who each have unique special abilities. Seraph is a stealthy character who has a giant pistol; Ruin is a brute who can kill a bunch of players by smashing “gravity spikes” into the ground; Reaper is a robot with a deadly minigun; and Outrider carries a bow with explosive-tipped arrows.
With the specialists, you play for a while with your own custom weapons. Once a yellow meter fills up on the lower right hand side, you can switch to the specialist’s main weapon. Playing with these characters made multiplayer feel even more like it was designed for competitive esports.
Players can now “thrust jump” to the tops of buildings. You can run on walls simply by jumping toward them at an angle. A timer shows up, telling you how long you can run on the wall. But you can also chain movements together, like jumping on a wall and then leaping to another before the clock runs out. You can also do a power slide, where you can run and move into a slide, all the while shooting.
The gameplay is fast, but in some respects it’s also slower compared to the Modern Warfare series. It still favors “scorestreaks” for actions that benefit a whole team rather than just “killstreaks” that benefit a single player.
It took me a while to get into multiplayer on day one, but when I did, it was satisfying. In my first round of multiplayer, I did terrible, with three kills and 16 deaths. I used the War Machine specialist character to get access to a grenade launcher. By the second round, I came in third place in the match, with 10 kills, 13 deaths, 4 captures and 5 defends in a round of Domination, where you have to capture and hold three points on a map.
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. The acting is superb. Christopher Meloni is the voice actor for commander John Taylor, Katee Sackhoff is Sarah Hall, Sean Douglas is Jacob Hendriks, Rachel Kimsey plays Rache Kane, and Tony Amendola is Yousef Salim.
At the same time, the game doesn’t over-use these actors in cut scenes. You won’t see a cut scene last for 15 minutes, or remove the opportunity for gameplay at a crucial moment. (Ahem, like some Metal Gear Solid games that we know).
Zombies are quite fun
Once again, the Zombies cooperative mode is both challenging and fun. Treyarch started adding Zombies as an Easter egg in Call of Duty: World at War in 2008. There are two storylines for the Zombies co-op play. One story, Shadows of Evil, is set in a 1940s film noir place dubbed Morg City. Each of four shady characters is guided by a mysterious person named the Shadow Man, and those characters have to shoot for their lives. Zombies has a second story, dubbed The Giant, with alternate versions of the same characters.
I found it very hard to stay alive for long in Zombies. And that’s exactly what you want in a mode where the aim is surviving as long as you can.
What you won’t like
Bad facial animation
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 this technology go in a backward direction. The problem is that many of the faces are used in cutscenes and in close-ups. The lip-syncing also isn’t that great in some parts. That takes away from the illusion that you’re immersed in the middle of a combat drama.
I had trouble connecting to multiplayer games on day one. That was very disappointing, as I had already completed the single-player campaign and wanted to move to multiplayer. Instead, I got server errors on Friday evening, the day of the launch. This is inexcusable, since we’ve had a huge multiplayer beta on the PS4. And it’s disappointing because the multiplayer version of the game has been ready much sooner than in past games. Sadly, server problems on day one are not uncommon, and they really deflate the initial experience. By Saturday morning, all the servers were listed as having “good” access, and I was able to get into games on the PS4.
Missions for single-player campaign and Zombies load slowly
It takes a while to load Zombies, and then it plays a fairly long cutscene before you can skip to the gameplay, and this happens every time you start a new round. When you die in Zombies, it takes a long time to get back to the main screen where you can start again. For some reason, they couldn’t make this as fast loading as other screens. Even the main story missions load fairly slowly. Fortunately, during the missions, the gameplay is seamless and uninterrupted, for the most part.
Some abilities arrive too slowly
I loved running on walls. But it took quite a while before I could earn enough points to add the ability. You can routinely use this capability in multiplayer, but it’s just not realistic that such a fundamentally powerful capability is used so late in the game, or comes at a price. This is, after all, the future. I should be able to do this on the very first mission.
I’ve spent a lot of time playing Call of Duty games in my life, and have played through the single-player campaigns of just about all of them.
This game has its flaws, but none of them (except the server problems) brought my gameplay to a halt. Most of the time, you don’t notice what’s wrong. You just keep on playing, and you won’t want to stop the single-player campaign until you reach the end. The game has a huge amount of content, and it is highly replayable. A “realistic” difficulty mode means that one bullet is enough to kill you.
Call of Duty: Black Ops III is a big step forward on multiplayer play, the quality of the single-player story, the imaginative story paths, and the outstanding quality of the wide-open landscapes, and the wide variety of enemies. I suspect that Activision has a very good chance of restoring the series to record levels in comparison to the last couple of years.
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. I’ve rated this version of Call of Duty higher than any of those titles.
Call of Duty: Black Ops III is available now for PC, Xbox One, and Playstation 4. The publisher provided GamesBeat with a copy of PS4 edition of the game for this review.