Call of Duty: Black Ops III Review

If you're like me, when you first start playing a new Call of Duty game the first thing that you do is jump into the single player campaign. Sure, I'll spend plenty of time in the multiplayer mode, but I can't wait to see what "Call of Duty" moments the campaign has in store for me. If you're nodding your head in approval as you read this, then you are really going to love Black Ops III. Not only does it serve up the best campaign in years for a Call of Duty game, it adds a number of new features to the campaign that will have you coming back to it even after you've played the story through to the end. And if you're all about the multiplayer, don't worry, Black Ops III delivers in that department as well.

Since I always start playing a new Call of Duty game in the single player campaign, that's where I always start my reviews. If you've been following the recent Call of Duty games, then you'll know that they've focused on the battlefield of the near future, featuring weapons and technology that exists in the prototype stage today. Even the last Black Ops game pushed its timeline out to 2025. Black Ops III, though, takes the action much farther into future, leaving the realm of tomorrow's battlefield behind for the battlefield of tomorrow's tomorrow and charging full-force into the realm of Science Fiction. And I don't just mean that you're fighting robots in the game, which you are, but that the story provides a warning as to where our technology may be leading us and leaves you thinking about some very interesting questions long after the story ends.

In the campaign, you'll play as a newly minted Black Ops Cyber Soldier who ... well, I don't really want to tell you. Anything that I reveal about the story will only serve as a spoiler, and I just don't want to do that here. The story is nothing like the Bond-esque super villain tales of the past couple of Call of Duty games and it will take you in wholly unexpected directions that you should experience and enjoy for yourself. I will, however, let you know a little bit about what it's like to be a Black Ops soldier in the latter half of this century. In 2065, the networked battlefield has progressed to the point where even a soldier's nervous system is a part of the network. Cyber Soldiers, the elite of the Black Ops elite, are given implants known as DNIs (Direct Neural Interfaces) that let the soldiers communicate with each other within their minds and provide each soldier with a direct mental link to the battlefield sitrep; a heads-up display that's entirely in the soldier's head. Being directly connected to a network at all times also gives them the ability to hack drones, automated defenses, and the electronic systems equipped by enemy soldiers. But they're not just electronic warriors; enhanced mobility, provided by a combination of lightweight exoskeletons and bionic limbs, gives them the ability to quickly cross the battlefield and perform superhuman feats such as boosted jumps or wall runs. And they can rip a power source from a robot's core, overload it, and use it as a grenade to take out its buddies. Yeah, Cyber Soldiers are pretty badass like that.

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These capabilities make for a unique battlefield in Black Ops III. First of all, being connected to your fellow Cyber Soldiers means that you can see what they see, specifically marking out the locations of enemy soldiers that are outside of your line of sight. In addition, your connection to the network gives you access to real-time data based on the battlefield situation - dangerous areas due to enemy fire are marked as kill zones to be avoided and you'll be able to physically "see" the blast radius of a grenade before it even goes off. And if you find the battlefield of the future to be a little less, shall we say, sporting, you can go into the campaign options and adjust the level of information you'll get from your DNI.

And then there's the hacking. Hack a drone and you'll take control of it and see things through its "eyes". Or you'll turn it into a "friendly" and watch it turn on its former masters. The bigger the drone, the longer it takes to hack, but when that drone is a walking tank it's hard to resist the urge to hack it and then use it to go on a tear behind enemy lines. Hacking into defenses to take over weapons, turning drones to your side, overloading a robot's circuits until it bursts into flames, all of this makes you feel like you're more than soldier, that you're a technical wizard casting electronic spells of possession and destruction.

The enhanced mobility combined with the campaign's larger battle areas and their multiple pathways adds new tactical options that really open up the action. Crates, rubble, and destroyed vehicles are no longer artificial barriers designed to keep you in tight virtual hallways when you can climb on them or vault your way over. You can use wall run to traverse between catwalks or buildings, flanking and quickly taking down the enemy while they are focused on your allies. The controls make it all quite easy, there aren't awkward moments where you find yourself pushing the jump button as you helplessly hop up and down in front of an obstacle. It's up and over and on your way in a smooth and natural sequence of moves.

The game features a number of larger environments for you to use to exercise all of your abilities, and also offers ways for you to use the environment to your advantage. One of these is the old genre standby of exploding barrels (OK, they're technically not barrels here, but close enough) that give you plenty of chances to immolate the enemy, but there are other things to look for to turn to your advantage such as molten metal and large sheets of icicles hanging from the rafters.

The campaign also provides a handful of the vehicle sequences that are a signature of the series. These are action-packed and filled with glorious destruction and plenty of explosions, and while I enjoyed them I have to say that my favorite parts of the campaign (at least those that I can mention in a spoiler-free manner) came from the huge set piece battles. Armored super soldiers, mechs, drones, and vehicles locked in fierce battle with you in the middle of it all, the kind of intense cacophonic chaos that gets your adrenaline going and reminds you of why you got hooked by Call of Duty in the first place.

There's a lot to love about the campaign based just on what I've covered so far, but there's a lot more to it than this. The first thing, that the game allows you to select the look of your character at the start of the campaign, may seem minor at first, but it's actually quite significant because for the first time in a Call of Duty game you'll have the choice of playing the campaign as a female protagonist. The game keeps the dialog towards your character consistently gender-neutral, at least as far as I noticed, but all of the cutscenes feature the character that you selected at the start of the campaign.

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While playing through the campaign you'll find yourself in a safe house between missions which serves as the campaign's hub, and there are plenty of things for you to do there. Some of these are for vanity's sake, such as placing the collectibles that you've found in a display case, admiring your campaign medals, and changing your outfit (and, yes, you'll be wearing your selections in the game's cutscenes when you're back in the campaign). There are also a couple of game modes for you to play from the hub. Combat Immersion is combat simulator that places you in a VR space and challenges you to survive against waves of increasingly more deadly enemies. It's a fun little diversion, but not something I see myself returning to time and again. Dead Ops is a 3D twin-stick shooter that draws some of its inspiration from Smash TV, except with zombies. Dead Ops is a full-featured arcade game unto itself with numerous areas broken into several levels apiece, and even though it's a bonus game here, there's more to it than most twin-stick shooters that you can buy off of PSN. The game is filled with different types of weapons and power-ups, one of the latter which will switch the game from a top-down view to first-person, something that is really all kinds of awesome the first time you experience it. There are even cutscenes to enjoy, all rendered in glorious 16-bit graphics while the game belts out chiptunes. Dead Ops is a blast to play, but it is hidden in the safe house so you are going to have to find it first.

There are other things that you can do in the safe house that will have a direct impact on the campaign. One of these is such a brilliant addition to the campaign that in hindsight it's hard to believe that it hasn't been done before like this: loadouts. Black Ops III has taken a full loadout, weapon progression, and weapon customization system out of the multiplayer realm and dropped it into the campaign. You can manage multiple loadouts, select your weapons and attachments, and even add "wildcards" that allow you to bend the loadout rules a little. Now there's a bit of a catch with all of this, one that will be familiar to those who've played multiplayer in recent Call of Duty games, and that is that you're going to have to earn your arsenal. You'll start with a weapon available in each class, assault rifle, SMG, etc., but you'll have to earn experience with a weapon by using it to begin to unlock all of the attachments available. New weapons, wildcards, and the like will need to be bought using "Fabrication Kits" earned in the campaign missions - the better that you do, the more kits you'll earn. You'll also earn custom weapon camo options through the campaign that you can apply to your weapons, and you can even apply camo schemes that you've earned by playing the multiplayer mode. You'll have to be diligent with those Fabrication Kits, though, as you'll also need them to unlock new cyber abilities, or cores, and upgrade existing ones. Remember that robot power core grenade trick? That's a cyber core and you'll need to unlock it before you can use it. The cores are divided into three categories (control, martial, chaos), so you can try to be a jack-of-all-trades or specialize in just one area.

Before you begin a new mission, you can read an intel report on the anticipated enemy force structure. Will it be robot-heavy or mostly human soldiers? Can you expect long-range engagements or up-close and personal firefights? You can use this intel to select the loadout and cyber core set that you'll take into the mission, or you can choose to ignore it and just bring your favorite weapon with you. You can even challenge yourself to try and complete a mission using only a sniper rifle and a pistol. The key here is that it is your choice and you can arm yourself however you see fit. You don't have to worry too much about bringing the wrong loadout to the fight with you, though, there are special weapons stations placed periodically through the missions that allow you to change your loadout.

After you complete a mission, you'll earn a score for it based on a number of factors. Some of it is tied to what amounts to your kill-death ratio, but there are also bonuses for earning accolades - earned by completing optional mission challenges. All of your accomplishments - kills, accolades, weapon leveling, etc. - also go towards giving you rewards such as new outfits, Fabrication Kits, and weapon customizations, as well as experience points. In another feature borrowed from the multiplayer game you will level up as you play your way through the campaign.

Once you've completed a mission, it will be available for play at any time from the safe house without affecting your overall campaign progress. You can go back and replay a mission to look for collectibles that you missed, to try it again with a different loadout, to improve your score, or to earn more experience with a weapon or for your overall level. The ability to go back with new weapons combined with the multiple pathways through the levels and different approaches available to achieving your objectives all work together to add a high degree of replayability to the campaign missions. You won't hit the level cap during or even after the campaign, either, so if you want to unlock everything you'll want to hit the campaign again, but you certainly won't mind reliving some of those battles again after the first play-through.

And the missions are also replayable from other perspectives as well. First, every mission is playable in co-op mode, from split-screen local play to four player online play. The game will scale the opposition to match your team size, so don't think that you'll be able to tear through the missions simply because you've brought more guns with you. I have to say that fighting your way through one of the campaign's major battles with three friends at your side is a blast, and I like the way that all players appear in the cutscenes, carrying the weapons and wearing the custom gear that they've equipped. There are a couple things that are a little annoying - if one player falls behind, the game will warp that player forward to join the rest of the group, and some mid-mission events won't trigger until every player reaches the trigger spot - but overall it's a great way to experience the campaign.

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There's also a surprise waiting for you at the completion of the game - Nightmares mode. Once you've finished the campaign you'll be able to play it again, but with a completely different storyline and with the enemies replaced by zombies. The levels, the cinematics, and the mid-mission events remain the same, but the audio is replaced with narration that changes the levels into a story recounting how the zombie apocalypse occurred and what people did in an attempt to end it. While there are a few slightly awkward moments when characters in a scene are mouthing words that you can remember them saying during the campaign while only the narrator is speaking, overall the developers did an impressive job of what amounts to taking an existing game and completely changing the story. Offhand you might think that fighting the shuffling undead would be a cakewalk compared to robot armies, but the zombies have numbers on their side, are relentless, and can take a lot of damage if you don't hit them in the head. Some of the smaller areas in the campaign that featured manageable small engagements become the stuff of, well, nightmares when you're surrounded by mobs of groaning zombies that unrelentingly press towards you until one of you is dead. Nightmares mode adds a new level of challenge to the game and, take my advice, you'll want to bring your friends with you.

As you can see, there's a tremendous amount of content in the game before you even get to multiplayer - and I didn't even get a chance to mention the timed parkour courses of the game's Free Run mode. This is not your standard "six hours and done" campaign that's all too common in multiplayer-focused shooters these days. The campaign modes are a cornerstone of Black Ops III, and gamers who've always played the campaign first will be very happy with it. But make sure that you don't lose yourself in the campaign mode, because there's a lot more still on offer from Black Ops III, beginning with the new Zombies mode.

If you played Zombies mode back during its genesis days, then you'll recognize the core gameplay at the heart of the new Zombies mode. Zombies attack in waves, each one larger and more deadly than the last, and you must survive this onslaught for as long as possible. You start out confined to a small area with a few planks nailed to the doors and windows acting as the only barrier between you and the zombies, and with a weak handgun and a handful of bullets as your only defense. Killing zombies rewards you with dollars which can be used to purchase additional weapons and ammo at special spots indicated by the profile of a gun painted on a wall, but you have to search to find where the good guns are hidden. The original Zombies mode pretty much stopped there, but in Black Ops III that is only the beginning; there's more to the mode than survival. In fact, there's an entire mystery-filled story behind it, introduced by a full-length cinematic no less, and the mode even has its own subtitle, Shadows of Evil. It's the 1940s and four people, a prostitute, a cop, a boxer, and a magician, each have a dark secret, all of which are known to a mysterious figure known as the Shadow Man. How does he know their secrets? How has he brought them together, and why? And just where are all of these zombies coming from? Well, you're going to have to work pretty hard to learn the answers to those questions.

You'll begin a round of the game as one of the four characters in the story selected at random. As you play you'll hear your character's thoughts and observations, as well as those of the disembodied Shadow Man, and with time you'll begin to piece together more of the story. But there's a lot more to the mystery, and to uncover some of it you'll need to go into beast mode. Approach a pedestal with a purple flame glowing on top of it and you'll be able to "become the beast", a transformation that turns you into a Cthulhu-like creature. Not only does this give you tentacle and electrical attacks to use against zombies, the tentacles allow you to reach places that were inaccessible in your human form. You'll also gain a "second sight" that allows you to see things that are invisible to the mortal world. The downsides to this form are that beast mode only lasts for a short time, so you'll need to make the most of your powers while you have them, and when you return to human form you'll be teleported to the spot at which you first entered beast mode.

The setting for Shadows of Evil is an urban, downtown environment complete with alleyways, streets, squares, building interiors, and more, with sections locked behind gates that you'll have to pay to open. There's a lot more to do here than surviving zombie attacks and learning backstories, but I don't want to reveal any of it because discovering it on your own is such a big part of the experience. The first few games will leave you almost lost as to what you're supposed to be doing, but you'll slowly discover a little piece of the puzzle here and another there, and soon you'll be starting a new mode with a decided plan in place ... only to discover that there's more to the puzzle than you thought. This mode is not easy - when you first start out you'll be able to count the number of rounds that you survive on one hand - but it has a way of giving you just enough to go on each time so that you can't wait to jump back in and try to make it further into the game, and the intriguing setting and its mysterious characters only add fuel to that fire. However, you'll need some patience because this is a difficult mode, and that difficulty ramps up quickly and you'll need a bit of luck and a lot of mistake-free gameplay to make it far. Those who are paying attention have probably already figured this out, but the mode supports up to four player co-op. You can play it solo, but if you do, then good luck. Not only is it difficult to go it alone, there will be no one around to revive you when you fall.

There's one last aspect of the Zombie mode that really deserves mention here, and that is that like the campaign, you can level up with experience as you play. Not only does this give you access to player cards, weapon customizations, and the like to use in both the campaign and multiplayer modes as well, you can use your advancement to unlock additional weapons to make them available in the mode. And can now we can finally move on to the multiplayer modes.

If you've played any recent Call of Duty game, then a lot of what's in store for you in the multiplayer modes will be familiar to you. Recent game mode additions such as Kill Confirmed (team deathmatch in which kills don't count until the dog tags are collected) and Uplink (essentially a Capture the Flag variant in which there's one flag and it's a ball) are included here, as well as all of the old favorites and a new mode, Safeguard. Safeguard is a team-based mode in which teams take turns escorting a robot into enemy territory while the other team tries to destroy it. I think it's a good addition to the mode list since I tend to enjoy the modes that bring players together to hotspots like Domination (capture and hold three control points) and Hardpoint (capture and hold a single control point that moves to a new location after a set amount of time). All game modes are available in the Core playlist, with each mode given its own lobby. This means that you'll need to pick a mode to play and leave the lobby when you're ready for a new one. The mode menu gives you statistics on the percentage of current players in each playlist, which is a nice feature during off-peak hours and something that I don't remember seeing before. The Hard Core playlist only includes Team Deathmatch, Free-for-All, Search & Destroy, and Capture the Flag modes, but it ups the ante by removing the HUD and limiting hit points. Lastly there is a Bonus playlist that features Gun Game (all players start with pistols and get a gun upgrade with each kill), Ground War (larger player counts in a three mode rotation), and Mosh Pit, which cycles through the objective-based modes at random. Gun Game is a lot more fun than a mode with such a simple premise should be.

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One thing that started to appear in recent years but is now missing is any kind of starter area or boot camp. It was good to see playlists geared to new players that would give them time to get their feet wet without having to jump into a match filled with high-level players that will kill them every fifteen seconds. The game does a good job of balancing teams from an average team level perspective, but you won't find yourself in a match filled with other first level players the first time that you jump into a game. If you're a casual player, then you'll just have to jump in and take your lumps, and you will climb your way to respectability eventually.

The biggest difference between Black Ops III and the Call of Duty games that have come before it is the addition of Specialists to the game. Specialists are the player characters for the multiplayer modes, and each one has a pair of unique weapons or abilities, only one of which you can bring into a match with you. The special weapons/abilities work like the cyber core abilities from the campaign in that they must be charged before use and then you must wait for them to recharge before using them again. Some of them have a direct correspondence to one of the cyber core abilities, like the ground-pounding Gravity Spikes while others are unique to multiplayer, like a compound bow that fires explosive-tipped arrows. When you start out the game for the first time, you'll have one unlock token available and you'll need it to pick a Specialist and unlock one of that Specialist's two unique abilities. Each Specialist after that, or each new ability, will require an additional token that you'll have to earn by leveling-up through playing matches. Since these tokens are also used to unlock things like weapons and perks, you'll need to make some hard choices at the start as to whether you want a variety of Specialists at your disposal or if you want to work your way to a weapon that you're trying to obtain. However, not all Specialists are available to you until you meet certain level requirements anyway.

While you may think that the game is limiting players by virtue of the limited list of Specialists, this really isn't the case. Since you still have control over your loadout using the Pick Ten system (you can equip a total of ten items, attachments, perks, and such, in almost any combination that you'd like), you are not picking a stock character as much as you are selecting a special attack to add to your loadout. At first your character will look like everyone else's with the same Specialist, but customization options are promised through the game's Supply Drops which can be obtained through the Black Market with special tokens earned during play. And you also have access to weapons personalization through camo skins and custom paint jobs.

No matter which Specialist is chosen all players have access to boost and wall-run capabilities. These feel more subdued than the boost abilities given to players by the exoskeletons in Advanced Warfare - they feel more like another part of your arsenal than the focus of the game in Black Ops III. You'll find players using boost jumps to scale walls or cross gaps, but not to go moon-jumping around the map at breakneck speeds and the game keeps a tight lid on the verticality of the battlefield. Some maps include features that can only be traversed by wall-running, but they are only there as alternate pathways and not as centerpiece features designed to force everyone to wall-run. Overall, I think that Treyarch has done a good job with the multiplayer mode in Black Ops III. The Specialists and the boost abilities add a fresh and new touch to things, but the core aspects that have made Call of Duty the paragon of multiplayer shooters remain intact.

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I enjoy playing Call of Duty games, poke around this site a bit and you'll find that I've written a review of every game in the series, and I have to say that Black Ops III sticks out to me as one of the most enjoyable of those games. I like what's been done with the campaign, both in terms of bringing in the multiplayer-like loadout features and in taking the story in a thought-provoking, Science Fiction direction, and I love that so much replay-ability is built into it. Nightmares mode and Dead Ops take that campaign play value and stretch it farther than it's ever been in a Call of Duty game before or in other Triple-A marquee shooters in recent memory. Zombies mode is now all grown up and comes with a compelling story of its own, although it's become pretty challenging in the process. And the multiplayer modes add just enough to the mix to feel fresh without spoiling the core. I am really impressed with the amount of gameplay packed into Black Ops III, and the quality of that gameplay across the board. The next Call of Duty game certainly has its work cut out for it.

Final Rating: 95% - Black is indeed back, and it's bigger than ever.


Note: A review code for this game was provided by the publisher.

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