Back in Black — Call of Duty: Black Ops III review

The evolution of the post-modern shooter is here, and the market is crowded with squad-based combat tactics, cybernetic enhancements including enhanced mobility and vision modes. We have plenty of space marines, wall-running and enough tech installed in people to officially forfeit the term lifespan in favour of “warranty period.”

I can’t stress this enough: Call of Duty. Household name, annual franchise with multiple developers. It’s been parodied in TV shows and films throughout pop culture. This isn’t just a big game, it’s a AAA title being released on consoles that reaches the largest audience. While last year’s COD: Advanced Warfare was well received, both it and the previous year’s’ Ghosts were criticized for underwhelming campaign modes, as well as some gameplay elements which served as gimmicky.

If there was a perception to overcome in the Call of Duty series, it’s that the campaign is secondary to the multiplayer. How does Treyarch follow up on that? Can they strengthen the brand, push their own spin on the franchise, and continue upon the success that Black Ops and Black Ops II built? How do you improve upon a series that props itself up on yearly releases, yet not lose the core of what makes it Call of Duty?
codblopsiii-04Welcome to the machine
You begin the game selecting either man or woman, which has no direct bearing on the story itself and can be changed between missions. The facial selections are limited, however you can change outfits later on. Treyarch thrusts you into combat as a special operations soldier extracting the president of Egypt from a detention centre. Gun in hand, your first taste of combat is with a submachine gun, sidearm and a will to survive. I had already played all the deathmatch game modes before getting to the campaign, and I can tell you it felt weird to be a simple soldier.

You eventually get cybernetic enhancements which include three distinct cyber cores (think special powers with different sets of abilities), several vision modes, and tactical rigs (passive perks). The second mission introduces you to these potential powers. I say potential, because during that mission you are given some of the powers you can choose to unlock. As you play both you, and your weapons gain experience. With advancement and special achievements come upgrade tokens and, in the case of weapons, additional parts.

After some time, you should have a pretty good grasp of how to use your additional powers, like the ability to double-jump and run on walls. This particular rig is not essential, but is certainly one that you may want to spend your unlock tokens on. I would also suggest the mimic rig which can fake out biometrics and pick up anyone’s weapon (and grenades if you spend two tokens).

I’m not looking to explain the entire game or all the mechanics involved, but I would like to touch on some important ones. Firstly there are Cyber powers which have a limited skill tree and two levels, as well as those passive “tac rigs” – and with two slots on each of your five customizable loadouts, you might just want to change things up a bit depending on your build.
codblopsiii-02There are custom skins, as well as the option to create your own designs – a welcome feature that lets you run around with a pink rifle. Any clothing or gender changes, weapon loadouts and even paint jobs are reflected on your character both in-game and during cutscenes. I found a couple scenes, while playing as a female were particularly powerful in the same way Sigourney Weaver’s portrayal in Alien was “badass.”

I have zero interest in spoiling the content of the campaign for you folks, so I’m going to instead say this: I’ve completed the game (both in solo missions and cooperatively), seen the ending, and want to play again and again.  This isn’t just to complete posted challenges, but more to pick up clues I’d missed the first time around. The story is present and complete, but there are mysteries to solve and unless you put in the time, you’re only going to scratch the surface.

The other reason is that playing cooperatively can impact the story experience, and not just because we were chatting during cutscenes. As is common in co-op shooters, if one player progresses too far, the person hanging back gets teleported forwards. This is considered acceptable, but what I found was the screen is obscured during the scene and so there are moments where all I got was audio.

The other aspect is that this is a drop in, drop out campaign with up to four members, and that’s exactly why I avoid the term “single-player mode.”. The AI is reactive to the size of your party, but it’s not simply incremental. Instead, Treyarch developed a method of increasing the challenge rating significantly, as otherwise the game gets exponentially easier with each person added. So instead of doubling the amount of soldiers for every player added, it adds significantly more challenge by adding smarter archetypes, different types of appropriate enemies. If a player drops out, the upcoming skirmishes will reduce their challenge rating to an appropriate level.

codblopsiii-01Speaking of adjusting, when you’re at your safehouse between missions, there is a lot to do and see, including upgrading your cyber cores, arranging trophies, configuring your different loadouts and exploring the Personal Data Vault. Contained within the PDV is an entire Black Ops wiki and simulated Internet based on what you’ve found in-game. There are also combat modes in the training simulator, which one or all four players can take part in or spectate right from within the safehouse.

There is a hidden game, a followup to the arcade game included in Black Ops II – Dead Ops Arcade 2. Complete with cheesy 8-bit opening and a training montage, this mostly top-down shooter alone is worth playing. It gets hard quick, but there are so many neat things to find. One of the waves has a level of RC racing that seems to be a tribute to R.C. Pro Am, and there are powerups that switch it from a Smash TV-look to a first-person view that gives you a dash ability. It’s a fantastic easter egg that is so rich it could steal your attention.

The campaign story mode is hefty, and considering it is 11 levels (some of which are marathons, I’d go with at least 10-12 hours with a healthy challenge and quick pace). It doesn’t stop there though, because you’ll need to complete at least one more playthrough and a significant amount of digging in the Personal Data Vault if you want to uncover the mysteries. Oh, and I know Treyarch has worked hard to keep this a secret, but there is a second campaign mode unlocked titled Nightmares. Using all the game footage and levels entirely differently, it must be played if you have any interest whatsoever in a Zombies story. Having sunk three hours on it and barely scratched the surface, I’m pretty sure it’s going to get a lot of game time from me.

codblopsiii-07Raising Zombies is a dying art
Let’s get this out of the way now – if you enjoyed Mob, Die Rise, Kino der Toten or Der Reise, then you know how Zombies works. This mode is a fatalist game where you don’t go into it expecting to survive, but instead aiming to unlock its mysteries and survive for as long as you can as wave after wave of progressively tougher zombies try to overrun you. The four player characters are voiced by Heather Graham, Ron Perlman, Jeff Goldblum and Neal McDonough, and while the opening cinematic is dark and doesn’t contain a lot of humour, the interactions between characters as you play the game are sometimes hilarious.

The era is the 1920’s, and there is a massive town to explore. I really don’t want to go into the specifics, but there are powers involved that include turning into a beast that is exactly two bat wings away from looking like Cthulhu. At its core, though, this game mode is still shooting zombies, buying upgrades, traps and finding the Pack-a-Punch machines as you board up entry points and work together to stay alive.

zombiesBeyond the beast and his special powers, there are other upgrades to the Zombie formula, including Gobble Gum – a selection of powerups you get from a gumball machine. Instead of random powerups, you choose what it spits out, including new flavours you make by spending vials you earn. Another new addition to this mode is customizable weapons. As you play your weapons gain experience. When you apply changes to them from the Zombies main menu, you get those enhancements when you buy them in-game.

At this time there is only the one map in this mode – but we know that four DLC packs are coming out, and Zombies are on the menu.

codblopsiii-05Shoot em all and let God sort em out
Multiplayer competitive combat, for me, is not my first go-to. That isn’t to say I don’t enjoy it, but I find myself wishing I was better at it. I could hide behind the argument that I don’t want to be bested by teens, but in reality I simply haven’t enjoyed the kill, be killed and reset. My reviews generally reflect that, but I’m putting it out there that I simply don’t invest the time and dedication to learn the maps, skills and nuances required to maintain a greater than 1.2:1 kill:death ratio.

So it comes as a big surprise to me that I really enjoyed the dedicated focus to the multiplayer gameplay that so many flock to, year after year. Treyarch has made it accessible and fun, even for those like me who aren’t MP heroes. Once again, the focus of the game is balancing perks, being able to do things like call in UAVs and earning kill streaks, but Treyarch took it up a notch. By increasing the number of addons to your weapons and introducing the new specialist powers, they support people diversifying how they play to suit their style. The create-a-class system is here, where you get to choose two weapons, their upgrades, tactical rigs, explosives and wild cards.

There are eleven different game types, not including eSports CODcaster and spectator enhancements. The game ships with a dozen different maps, and they are pretty consistent in multipathing, smooth motion with mantling, wall running and swimming. I should note that you can fire at any point including while on walls and in the water, and the only thing I found to quibble about is that there are occasionally rooftops that look accessible but you hit invisible barricades.

You can customize any aspect of your persona including backgrounds, weapons, taunts, logos and loadouts and clothing. Not only do you have your preset character designs, but you also select a specialist – nine different characters (men and women) who all have one of two power-ups available. Whether that skill is a blast of electricity, being able to scan for enemies nearby or a temporary shield, these skills play big into your game style.

codblopsiii-03As a general rule, don’t solve puzzles that open portals to hell
When you put all of these pieces together in a single, seamless game you get quite the experience. Being able to transition from campaign to zombies to multiplayer without having the game effectively restart is fantastic – we’re very happy to see Treyarch close that gap. Each area still has its own progression, and if you’re into prestige (trading in your progress to get a star beside your name), each of the three respective areas has its own measurement.

Normally I cover the technical aspects far above this point, but they are easy to overlook with the sheer amount of game included in COD: Black Ops III. I’ve played it with headphones and 5.1 surround – the sound production is incredible. I’ve literally (yeah, I’m using that right) looked over my shoulder several times in reflex to positional audio. The graphics are so good that you don’t even notice them; it’s simply gorgeous. There were a few times I got caught admiring the graphics and was killed for it. I could gush about the lighting, the water effects or the cinematic presentation, but at the end of the day, they deliver a complete experience.

codblopsiii-06The thing that stood out for me, in every single circumstance, is the combat. Guns always felt significant. There was kick to them and they behave as I would imagine they should. There isn’t a time where I felt like I was holding a digital peashooter – and for this kind of game it is a pivotal point: I am pleased to report they’ve nailed it. The other part to combat is mobility, both from level design and character movement. There is almost always another way in, and the movement between running, sliding, mantling, jumping or wall-running was convincing. As I mentioned before, I found a few moments frustration when the abilities I had should let me climb on the roof but did not- but besides that they’ve truly outdone themselves.

There is one thing that may be controversial, and I’d be remiss if I did not address it. The female characters in the campaign mode, both the player and enemy soldiers, may disturb some. The role of fighter is not gender-specific, and while initially I was shocked that I was hearing women’s voices calling for my head, it is truly a gender bias to think that, given the way our societies have evolved would not have female troops in the later part of this century. I applaud the team for bringing a realism to the game where not everyone is willing to tread.

The question you’re here to answer is whether this game is worth your time and money. How would I describe it in a single word? Fantastic! If this is the kind of work a three-year development cycle can give a AAA game, then I don’t want to see Black Ops 4 until 2018, and counting down the days to its release.


Born and raised in Winnipeg, Canada, at a young age I was forced to decide whether the harsh northern winters were going to claim my fingers, or to turn to the safer pursuits of indoor activities. Little did I know that a little game called Ninja Gaiden would bring my digits more pain than frostbite ever could. Starting with Vectrex and C64 games and moving forward through the era of electronic entertainment, I sampled as much as I could in the different platforms, and began my interest in PC gaming from wrestling with DOS memory management.

While console games were a part of my earliest gaming memories and I certainly had played on most platforms including 3D0, all things Nintendo, PS1 and the like, truly the PC was my domain until the Xbox. As an old PC gamer, I ever chased the cutting edge technology. Eye of the beholder with CGA 4 colors was my first step down the the path of blowing thousands of dollars on PC upgrades over two decades. Ultima 7, with the Guardian talking to me through my monitor, still haunts my dreams and keeps me ever hoping for a decent Ultima 8 and 9. From the 3DFX SLI VooDoo2s and Aureal to today's GPU driven DirectX games, the new and shiny pictures seem to keep me going. My PC gaming has slowed down with the market shift though, and although I have choice games that will ever be on PC, I have found myself in console gaming with a bit of portable gaming in my life.

Back around the turn of the millenium (and long before fatherhood), I had fired off an email offering to help Ron with a little-known site called ConsoleGold. Little did I know it would be be a part of my life to this day. While I've seen my fair share of shovelware (thanks Ron!), I manage to try and find the fun in most games. Leaning towards sandbox and action titles, I've grown to love games for their potential to reach art. Console agnostic and excited for the progress of tomorrow, I fancy the latest and greatest, but still enjoy the good old classics ... as long as they've been revamped from their 8bit graphic roots.



Call of Duty: Black Ops III

Review Guidelines

Call of Duty: Black Ops III deserves your time - take a day off work to play. With two campaigns, world-class online combat and a deep and passionate step forward with Zombies (not to mention the fantastic Dead Ops Arcade 2), there is something here for everyone.

Justin Pauls

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