Call of Duty: Black Ops 3 review

Game Info
Box Art N/A
Platform 360, PS3, Win, PS4, Xbox One
Publisher Activision
Developer Treyarch
Release Date Nov 6, 2015

Call of Duty: Black Ops 3 has the same challenge as Advanced Warfare and Ghosts before it: How do you take the biggest thing going for one console generation and meaningfully evolve it for the next?

Developer Treyarch took the Call of Duty franchise in weird new directions with Cold War conspiracy in Black Ops back in 2010, and in 2012 it picked up the slack left by series originator Infinity Ward's implosion, taking the lead with Black Ops 2. It wasn't that Black Ops 2 was perfect, exactly, but it had ambition leaking out of its ears, changing what people could expect from a Call of Duty campaign while introducing the first major changes to the series' world-conquering multiplayer system.

With Call of Duty: Black Ops 3, Treyarch has shifted direction again, with a major investment in cooperative play in the game's campaign and the introduction of new mobility and character creation tools. But in its efforts to bring player choice to more of the fundamental gameplay aspects of Call of Duty, Treyarch has made a game that doesn't really excel at any one thing.

In a first for the series, you can elect to play as a female protagonist

Call of Duty: Black Ops 3 takes place in the same world that Treyarch's previous Call of Duty games have, though that doesn't make much difference. It's another future teetering on the brink of chaos, where lines between military and corporate interests are blurred.

For the first time in the series, the campaign allows you to create a character, with a variety of ethnicities represented. In another first for the series, you also can elect to be a male or female protagonist, each of which is fully voiced and acted within the most cutscene-driven Call of Duty campaign I can remember. The story starts with some promise, featuring a scenery-chewing performance by former Law & Order: SVU (and True Blood) star Christopher Meloni as he explains how vital total informational awareness is, and reveals the power and necessity of the cyber rig, a set of cybernetic enhancements your character quickly finds themselves dependent on. But Black Ops 3 strangely fails to capitalize on the big narrative beats of the series.

The story also just isn't very interesting. Black Ops 3 quickly flails at ideas of AI consciousness and the "evils" of interconnectedness, and it's peppered with predictable "twists." There are scenes that I'm sure were meant to be edgy and morally gray; instead, it's just a lot of hyper-earnest swearing and glaring. It was enough to make me miss the number station-tinged paranoia and conspiracy theories that the series started with.

black ops 3 meloni

All of Treyarch's Meloni-fueled world-building does serve to set up changes to some of Black Ops' fundamentals. Black Ops 3 tosses all of its predecessor's narrative and mission choices, returning to the linear structure of previous games. In their place, Treyarch introduces a host of new mobility and offensive options courtesy of the aforementioned cyber rigs.

This starts in the most promising way possible, in a virtual reality training mission that gives you basically every possible cyber upgrade at once. It was a lot of fun learning to exploit the environment there, hacking turrets, running on walls, double jumping with aplomb — but then Black Ops 3 takes all of that away, introducing a trio of skill trees in its place. As you play through the game, you'll earn cyber cores — including extras for better performance, which is tracked via a campaign scoring system — which can be used to upgrade your rig and unlock and improve those cyber abilities.

You can't have every ability at once — until, that is, you reach level 20 on your campaign profile, which I didn't hit on my playthrough on hardened difficulty. This is where Black Ops 3's other big addition comes in: full co-op support. Every mission in Black Ops 3 supports up to four players, each of whom can outfit their soldier as they would in multiplayer, complete with weapon attachments and a variation of the popular Pick 10 system introduced in Black Ops 2's online component. But throughout the campaign, the goal of accommodating both cooperative play and player customization has as many negative side effects as it does positive results.

Everything is better with more people, and Black Ops 3 isn't going to ruin friendships. But the occasions where true tactical engagement required multiple people felt minimal. Usually, my partner or I would pick things off at a distance while the other did whatever "thing" there was to do at a spot on the map. Often, this was shooting a weak point somewhere, or doing the sorts of timed button press activities Call of Duty is kind of known for.

black ops 3 review screen 2 female lead

Co-op feels most necessary when Black Ops 3 is the least fun, which may or may not be the point. Call of Duty has always featured enemies with superhuman accuracy on any difficulty higher than normal, which I've been known to jokingly refer to as Terminators. However, for whatever reason, Treyarch has seen fit to expand to actual, honest-to-goodness bipedal murder robots, along with mech-suited soldiers and Warlords, human-sized bad guys that are all but impervious to normal weaponry.

These enemies aren't the quick kill that has come to define Call of Duty's overwhelming hordes and spectacle — they're the quintessential bullet sponge. This changes the series' core gameplay loop of fast shooting and prolonged forward momentum. Sometimes this plays out in thoughtful new ways, as more powerful enemies tend to be more aggressive — or in the case of injured robots, downright suicidal — chasing you out of cover spots and forcing you to coordinate with your teammates. Assuming you have them.

black ops 3 review screen 3

Alone, well. It's a lot less interesting, and a lot more frustrating. The decision to have enemies that take more than you can generally throw at them doesn't feel like it's been matched by a change in sensibilities with the weapons at your disposal or their general heft or sense of power. Despite gun audio that seemed much stronger than Black Ops 2, Black Ops 3's weapons either kill immediately or hit like frozen vegetables. The end result is some pretty serious derailing of Call of Duty's combat loop, and what takes its place isn't very fun.

With another person, these moments are more forgiving, in part because you can revive your teammate. This provides a little more space to experiment in the interest of tackling a particular encounter in a less obvious way. This is also ostensibly where your character's cyber rig abilities come into play — fodder enemies don't really require the ability to shoot robo-bees from your hand to kill them around corners, after all.

black ops 3 cyber core tree

Occasionally Black Ops 3 finds moments where the powers and co-op really come together, finding a delicate balance between challenge and empowerment. There are glimpses of a game where all the lip service the story pays to the crazy possibilities of cyber rigs and the posthuman soldier are realized. But decisions big and small undermine it.

For example, once you pick your ability set, you're locked in for the level — until, for some reason, at level 20, you can hotswap between your different cyber rig trees. This decision seems like a particularly transparent means of adding "replay" value to the game in an RPG fashion. But it makes for frustrating times where you'll load into a level you haven't played and realize that your ability set is inappropriate for the task at hand; an anti-robot loadout doesn't do much good against an almost exclusively human force, for example.

But more damningly, the number of abilities included — and the introduction of the weapon/loadout customization from multiplayer — result in a game that doesn't feel particularly designed around anything but the broadest possible capabilities. Where last year's Advanced Warfare felt oriented around particular skills and segments, Black Ops 3 seems far less defined by those sorts of neat, unique gameplay moments.

A note on last-gen

While Black Ops 3 is appearing on the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, an important caveat: The campaign is not included. Due to technical limitations of previous-generation consoles, the 360/PS3 release is multiplayer-only.

Multiplayer at least allows the same new traversal abilities that the campaign suggests, but makes them consistently available. And with all of those tools at every player's disposal, multiplayer should feel like the most revolutionary aspect of Black Ops 3. It doesn't quite work out that way, though.

While it has the same strong Call of Duty fundamentals of fast movement and smooth shooting, and a very hooky progression system, it also introduces character classes. Each character class has a pair of special abilities unlockable through scorestreak rewards that you select like any other perk, and as you level up your profile, you'll gain access to new characters.

But the reality is that the abilities of each character are used so sparingly that they don't really nudge the equation in any particular direction moment to moment. Sure, they can be good for a few kills. But in a game with as punishing a time-to-death counter as exists in the multiplayer space, they're not, if you'll pardon the expression, especially game-changing.

I didn't find the minimal importance of character classes a deal-breaker, because that's not really what Call of Duty is about. The series since Modern Warfare has always been about granular character customization rather than emphasizing specific power moves from any one kind of character, and that customization is still present. The character system itself feels half-baked. It functions — it just doesn't seem to matter.

Worse, though, maps don't feel especially designed to take advantage of the new movement mechanics, and double-jumping and wall-running make players better targets more often than not.

black ops 3 mp screen 2

This hurts for two reasons. First, Advanced Warfare introduced plenty of changes to the way basic movement and melee worked last fall, and it was a much better game for it. And second, Black Ops 3's Freerun mode provides the best example of what could have been. Freerun presents holographic obstacle courses designed to be run as fast as possible using all the tools Black Ops 3 has to offer. Chaining all of those things together as quickly as possible makes everything click in a way the non-committal design priorities of campaign and adversarial multiplayer just don't. It's the only thing in Black Ops 3 I want to return to.

Freerun is just one of several extra modes in Black Ops 3. The popular Zombies survival mode returns, as does Dead Ops, the overhead zombie shooter, which now features a full, lengthy campaign. I'll be honest: I've never enjoyed Black Ops' take on the undead with Zombies, and nothing here sold me on the mode more than usual.

Finishing the main campaign also unlocks a zombie variant that takes out the human combatants and replaces them with hordes of undead and the same power-ups featured in Zombies mode — though the way the existing game's story is covered up and repurposed here makes the whole thing seem like a funny afterthought rather than a fully realized concept.

Wrap Up:

Black Ops 3 doesn't meaningfully move the series forward

At its heart, Black Ops 3's multiplayer is still very much Treyarch's take on Call of Duty. This means it's fun — Call of Duty and Black Ops found a basis for solid, competitive multiplayer that worked almost a decade ago, and it still resonates here and there. But I'm surprised by how familiar, how recognizable it all feels, which is even more disappointingly the case with its campaign. Black Ops 3's biggest point of recommendation may be the breadth of content there, and that's a valid point of view. But Treyarch doesn't meaningfully move the series forward here.

While Call of Duty has historically proven resistant to virtually all launch-week reliability problems, in the interest of caution, this review will be labeled provisional until we can ascertain the state of Black Ops 3's servers on launch day. Call of Duty: Black Ops 3 was reviewed at an event held by Activision in downtown San Francisco during the week of Oct. 19, 2015, using non-final PlayStation 4 code. Retail PS4 copies provided by Activision were also used for this review. You can find additional information about Polygon's ethics policy here.

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