Call of Duty: Black Ops 3 Review (PS4, Xbox One, PC)

Updated review

Black Ops 3’s multiplayer feels, more so than perhaps ever before, like a suite of modes and options which enable those who get serious about Call of Duty – like the guy I saw buying four copies of it on day of release, presumably for he and his – to get really serious. Custom games and arena modes, where players can decide on specific game types and options, protecting and banning certain weapons and items, are right there under the usual matchmaking options, rather than tucked away elsewhere. These are flexible tools for those who want to get more out of their favourite game, and while these options and their like have been present before, seldom have they seemed more prevalent.

This isn’t to say that newbies aren’t catered for: this Black Ops feels as fair – I’m not going to say ‘well-balanced’, because there’s sure to be a game-breaking weapon/item combo revealed right this second – as it ever has, enabling those who aren’t familiar with the game, or have found their interest lapsed, a good shot at having a lot of fun without huge frustration.

Most of this is down to the excellent shooting. It’s snappy, with a solid and agreeable time-to-kill which feels neither too fast nor too slow, meaning you’ll at least get a shot off before you get stomped. Starting weapons are powerful, and level as the player uses them, granting upgrades: you get better, it gets better, and round and round you go until you decide to change up and start the loop again. A smart system, if not a new one.

As with Advanced Warfare, Blops 3 feels resolutely gun-on-gun, despite the futuristic tech. In these early days there’s not much in the way of air support, mainly because most people haven’t unlocked it yet. In all honesty, I’d prefer it to stay that way: the bloated air cav which blotted skies in older games made it feel like you were playing the world’s most violent resource management sim rather than being rewarded for good play.

Here, it’s you and your gun, with the added wrinkle of thrust boosting (slides, double jumps, etc) giving you more tools to get in – and out – of engagements. But even if you are getting stomped, the inclusion of specialist classes (and their associated skills) gives even the most put-upon players a chance to get a kill and get back in the game. Governed by a cooldown timer, these abilities aren’t going to necessarily change the course of a round in and of themselves. Instead, they’re going to keep you in it. Infantry-annihilating ground and pounds, better armour, the ability to see through walls: they’re good things to have for when you’re not doing well, an opportunity for a bit of payback which will hopefully see you recover from your slump.

In the coming weeks more issues will emerge to go alongside the ones that are already there: the maps are enjoyable, pleasingly favouring close-mid range engagements, but spawns and spawn kills are an issue, particularly in Hardcore Free For All, where it’s not uncommon to spawn and die instantly. Then there are the weapons: generally I’ve seen a nice spread of guns so far, but soon it’ll be rammed with bastards sliding around all the time using autopistols to kneecap everyone. I’ve also had significant lag, even while wired into to the office network, which runs faster than a shoplifter from a Croydon shopping centre.

Despite these problems, it’s the most enjoyable experience I’ve had with a Treyarch Call of Duty since the original Black Ops. I’m long since past the need to level up to the cap, to prestige, to unlock everything, but even without those incentives, Blops 3 still appeals.

Outside of the traditional multiplayer mode there is of course Zombies, which here benefits from a larger budget (Jeff Goldblum’s in it, for fans of mediocre dinosaur films) and greater attention paid to the environment you’re fighting in: it no longer feels like a throwaway addition, more like something even non-rabid fans of the mode would like to at least check out.
Morg City – think 30s Chicago/New York, replete with guys and dolls, neon signs and noir alleys – is well-rendered and suitably frantic, with plenty tight spaces to run down without your teammates and get immediately killed.

I was never really a Zombies player before: it felt too much like a gag (‘Nazi Zombies!’) which accidentally became a huge, baffling deal. But there’s a pleasing absurdity here: automatic weapons fired by wisecracking characters in pinstripes and dresses, and a feeling that it has been built with repeated plays in mind, repeated forward momentum. There’s a reason to go back and try and see other elements of the environment, rather than just killing zombies and repairing barriers.

Overall, Blops 3 feels like a continuation of the work done in Advanced Warfare, an effort to move CoD onwards without losing its excellent base appeal, a game in which campaign is redundant at best and multiplayer feels like recapturing some of the magic of the past.

Original review

Now by far the least interesting element of the Treyarch Call of Duty package, Black Ops 3’s campaign continues its predecessor’s obsession with futuristic conflict and ends up being bland and uninteresting despite all the opportunities its setting and technology offers. Some may see the franchises’ campaigns as little more than a training ground for the multiplayer, and while historically this not always been true – the Modern Warfare series and the original Black Ops’s single-player modes were strong enough to stand on their own – Black Ops 3’s offering, in a lot of ways, is built to be exactly like that.

There’s still an overarching narrative to fight and die through, and many characters to follow and wait beside while they open doors for you. But the stages themselves feel less like corridors and more like small multiplayer arenas stitched together: co-op is back and as such there’s generally always a hub where the action is, surrounded by flanking routes and choke points. A lot of the time it feels less like you’re on the frontline of a battle, desperately fighting against the odds for a cause, and more like you’re hitting checkpoints to load the next mini-map, mowing down bots while getting used to the weapons. And you will be killing a lot of bots.

Blops 3’s story is set in the near future, and the world has of course gone to shit. Environmental disaster, political unease, regional conflict threatening to grow into total war: it’s a little like looking out your actual window right now, with one major difference: all the special ops boys and girls who you’ll be following throughout the 8-10 or so hour running time are now plugged into a system called DNI, direct neural interface, an all-encompassing AI which enables them to hear each other’s thoughts, coordinate their movements better, and use powers called Cores, which essentially turn them into GI Jedi.

Naturally, this all goes awry almost instantly, when a rogue element in the system causes near-catastrophic failure in the minds of certain personnel. These soldiers are now walking hard drives, and they’re spewing information about the super-soldier program and the CIA’s role in a colossal fuck up like no tomorrow, like a version of Universal Soldier starring Edward Snowden. It’s your job to stop them.

Now, this isn’t the worst setup in the world, and to be fair to Blops 3 – thanks to its decision to have players create their own avatars and be called ‘Player’ for 99% of the game – it seems like it’s attempting to make a point about the series itself, acknowledging in some small way that its characters are mindless drones there for other powers (you) to take control and cause havoc seemingly for your own amusement. Of course given that this is Treyarch this soon collapses under its own weight into sub-Wachowski piffle, including metaphysical experiences with the dead and an ending which features White Rabbit playing.

But there are moments of intrigue, including an extended tutorial which riffs on Source Code’s premise. The good stuff, however, is totally and utterly undermined by the script and in particular the characters. Squad-leader and ultra-jock Hendricks – who looks a bit like Bradley Cooper – is always, always swearing, even when the scene doesn’t call for it, and this coupled with his intense, over-the-top delivery makes the entire experience seem like you’ve accidentally wandered into a futuristic remake of Team America. At one point I thought he was going to threaten to make me shit all over my own balls.

It’s nonsense. But then, aren’t they all? Well, yes, although some are better than others at hiding it. Call of Duty campaigns live and die based on their set-pieces and firefights, and sadly Blops 3, despite being the most mechanically complex of all the games, soon descends into a slow drudge through a generic future. Older games worked as they grounded, no matter how loosely, their narratives in settings and conflicts we all know or at least recognise. Here you have ‘Super Trees’, giant treehouses which provide energy because, well, reasons, and various other forgettable locales.

There is scale to these missions, and at least the world feels appropriately fucked, with ops taking place on destroyed seaboards, or mega cities rendered in Blade Runner-neon. But the action itself is curiously muted: diminishing returns plays a part, but so do your powers. Thanks to DNI you can now see threats – enemy locations, grenade splash damage, ‘killzones’ where the AI will be firing into – overlaid on your HUD.

It’s meant to give you the edge in combat, and it does, but it makes the whole thing feel rote and perfunctory. You don’t feel like a super-soldier, you feel like a wall-hacker in Counter-Strike. Coupled with the game’s insistence of chucking wave after wave of robotic enemies at you, each of which aesthetically is so unappealing, so un-threatening that it’s less death rendered in chrome and more distraction knocked up by Ikea. It doesn’t feel like a battlefront: more like you’re running through your own debug map, seeing how the AI works. In this case, the answer is not very well: the bots essentially come straight at you at all times with no fear, making it even more of a shooting gallery than it used to be.

DNI is to Call of Duty what Detective Mode is to Batman: something that is meant to aid the player at certain times, but it’s too easy to leave it on and focus only on it: there’s no need for strategy when you’re locking and popping foes that haven’t even seen you yet. You can turn it off of course, or minimise its effects, but then, why would you? The game gets marginally more challenging, but it doesn’t get much more enjoyable. Even the huge-scale explosions feel phoned in: you’re never in danger, you don’t care about any of the characters, and the aesthetic design is so sub-Syd Mead, why worry — or even acknowledge — when a building explodes?

So, in Blops 3’s case, campaign IS a glorified training mode. It has a hub world where you select your missions (maps), craft weapons, and work on your perks (Cores, which are fun to use – force-choking robots en masse or smashing drones out of the sky with a wave of the hand is fun if lightweight, governed by a cooldown bar and usually used as a last resort). You unlock tokens to buy more perks, hit certain levels to get more shit, and share your loadouts across modes. There are collectibles, paint jobs, and ranks to pick up, work on, and fight through, but none of it is really memorable: instead it’s a forgettable tutorial for a mode you already know how to play.

Steve’s been playing through the PS4 version, but just how bad is the last-gen edition? Check our article for the answer.

Version Tested: PS4

8 / 10

  • Multiplayer is fun and addictive
  • Zombies has had some real work put into it
  • Campaign won’t live long in the memory
  • Lag and spawn issues in multiplayer