Call of Duty: Black Ops 3 Review

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Posted November 13, 2015 by Sean Capri in Video Games

Developed By: Treyarch

Published By: Activision

Release Date: November 6, 2015

Platforms: PC, Xbox One (reviewed), Xbox 360, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 3

Imagine you’re playing Tetris. There are an infinite number of pieces, all varying in shape and dimension, falling from the sky. Thanks to your cunning, the pieces fall nicely into place. But then something horrible happens. The pieces are falling too quickly and you’re happy to let each one land where it may and move on to the next. Inevitably, the blocks stack up and breach the upper limit. Today, I’m here to tell you that Call of Duty: Black Ops 3 is game development equivalent to this ridiculous Tetris analogy.

Black Ops 3 is stacked, overflowing even, with content. Plenty of effort went in to ensuring you could potentially play until the next Call of Duty. Unfortunately, I have never been so acutely aware of how such a massive game was stitched together by the various teams involved in developing each component. The single-player controls are fundamentally different from multiplayer and less empowering than Advanced Warfare. Then there’s the script. Playing as a female protagonist, I am forced to assume the writers worked in isolation from the rest of the development team. On more than a few occasions, the dialogue fails to acknowledge the gender of your character. Finally, the visuals in the first two missions get an upgrade in the third. I thought it was just me but, unprompted, a friend said the same thing as we were playing co-op.

Call of Duty Black Ops 3 Screen1

Black Ops 3 is really dark. Enhanced Vision and DNI Tactical Mode help but are a crutch. They don’t look great and are required too often.

Yet somehow, Call of Duty: Black Ops 3 manages to be greater than the sum of its parts. The framerate is nowhere near as buttery smooth as is advertised, but I was still immersed in the hallmark larger-than-life action. The campaign is shockingly disjointed, but shooting stuff feels great with powerful weapons and tight controls. Two-player split-screen is arguably unplayable, but co-op is saved by the gleeful joy of playing with three friends on Xbox Live or PSN. Multiplayer has some matchmaking issues, I spent levels 1-10 playing against Prestiged robots, but there are many (many!) great modes to play. Zombies is less-accessible than ever but, assuming you have a few friends to join in, you’ll have a blast.

So you see, this is a difficult package to review because there are so many pieces, all varying in shape and dimension. Let’s discuss each chunk and then wrap it up a little more cohesively than Treyarch managed to do with Call of Duty: Black Ops 3.

Putting the CAMP in Campaign

Call of Duty Black Ops 3 Screen2

Take a good long look at this guy. Famous actors don’t come cheap, ya know.

The beginning. The middle. The end. Doesn’t that look odd? Those should be connected with commas, right? This is how the campaign feels. Separate. Disjointed. There’s a conflict in Egypt so you visit friends-but-enemies in Singapore while interfacing with worldwide networks. And they can’t trust the CIA but you can. And there are robots. Oh, and the world’s largest cities are a mess too. Trust me, this doesn’t spoil a thing but gives you an idea of how complexity contained within the seven-hour story arc.

More than a few “now here’s what’s really going on!” moments drop with the intent of blowing your mind, but unlike previous Black Ops, they never do.  The final spoken word is particularly a let-down. The dialogue is laced with cheese and the script keeps you from becoming attached to any of the characters or what they’re fighting for. My personal favorite was hearing, “That’s how you get <expletive redacted> done” over and over in one of the earlier missions. This is just one example of a true-to-stereotype dude-bro moment that solely exists to remind you that, no matter what happens, no matter how intellectually-driven the fundamental story elements were conceived, players of all IQs can enjoy the game. The juxtaposition of meat-head soldiers against progressive social commentary is not clever and only cheapens the experience. This identity complex makes me wish Black Ops could make a leap of faith and truly differentiate itself from the other Call of Duty games. Instead, we’re playing another Michael Bay movie.

The best Easter Egg I've ever found on my own.

The best Easter Egg I’ve ever found on my own.

Black Ops has traditionally shown its strength in storytelling by linking exposition with action. This time around, however, I nearly fell asleep through the first two missions. Sitting idly and watching characters appear, talk at you, then disappear is mind-numbingly boring. Hopefully you recognize John Taylor as Christopher Meloni from Law and Order: SVU because you’re going to be staring at his beautiful mug for the majority of these “tutorial” missions. He, quite literally, appears out of nowhere and halts everything to tell you stuff. Despite a strong performance, it feels like a desperate follow-up to Kevin Spacey’s vastly more intriguing character in Advanced Warfare.

Chaos Cybercore abilities are the cornerstone of the campaign’s new super soldiers. Taylor and his squad train you on some of the game’s most powerful augmentations through a decent tutorial. You become well-conditioned to adopt Immolation, Firefly Swarm, and the wall run into your gameplay vernacular. Did you enjoy those power-ups? Of course you did. But they inexplicably disappear in Mission 3. It makes sense within the story because the training is done through a simulation but by the time it’s over, you’ve spent enough time using them that it’s confusing to have them removed.

One of the best missions in the campaign.

One of the best missions in the campaign.

These augmentations are actually a clever excuse to bring the multi-player perks system over to the single-player experience. It creates an individualized experience for what is typically an on-the-rails shooter. Smashing into a group of robots with Concussive Blast or punching up to three enemies in a row with Rapid Strike is immensely satisfying. And not just viscerally. Some of the abilities, like Active Camo allow you to take a more strategic approach and the result is intrinsically rewarding. You’ll find your favorites and be inclined to stick with them, but the game is best experienced through experimentation.

Some of my favorite moments are when the story takes a backseat to unapologetic and explosive combat. You’ll shoot more enemies in Black Ops 3 than ever before. Using the excellent Direct Neural Interface (DNI) Tactical Mode to locate all opponents within your squad’s collective vision often reveals a formative army and gives you a fighting chance for survival. You can choose how much information is displayed, but I would love to see this fully-customizable to achieve a Goldilocks just right feel.

One of my favorite missions puts you in charge of planting powerful explosives onto underground support columns, then detonating an earth-shatteringly satisfying sinkhole. Sure, the explosions are fun but this mission is memorable because of the freedom you’re given to wander the entire battlefield in order to achieve the objective. This is something Black Ops 3 strives to achieve throughout the campaign–the opening missions awkwardly mention the options for left, right, high, low flanks as if reading it off the box art bullet points–but ultimately, the action is funneled through a series of corridors rather than opened up to a living battlefield.

Call of Duty Black Ops 3 Screen5

Frame rate issues and scaling issues plague split-screen mode.

Four-player co-op, on the other hand, is easily the best addition to the series. It effortlessly disguises any shortcomings in the campaign story and power-ups rollout. Just steer clear of split-screen. Frame rates suffer shamefully–again most notably in the first two missions–and the HUD shrinks like it went for a cold swim, even on a 55” TV. Shooting, jumping, smashing, exploding, and all other FPS verbs are top notch but, unfortunately, this campaign has a rough set of bookends; the opening and closing chapters are boring and self-indulgent. Even with its forward-thinking ideas and heavy-hitting combat, this campaign does not elevate the series in the way the first two Black Ops titles did.

Double jumping online

I would be perfectly content playing Gun Game forever.

I would be perfectly content playing Gun Game forever.

Black Ops 3 continues the trend of dependable multiplayer servers and gameplay. I was online within minutes of the “midnight” launch (10 PM MST) and played as if the game had been around all year. No hiccups, no waiting, and no lag. It is as it should be. And that’s good news because there is a lot to dive in to.

If you haven’t already, skip over the familiar Team Deathmatch and play some of the Bonus Modes. Gun Game, a killing ladder where every rung is a better gun, is outrageously fun. While Chaos Moshpit will demand the attention of even the most distractible player with its mishmash of modes set in a series of small maps. I’ve spent the majority of my time in Bonus Modes because they playout like the Nerf fights we used to have in my backyard. The rules seem made up on the spot and this spontaneity will keep you coming back for more.

Thanks for the cover fire, bro.

Thanks for the cover fire, bro.

My only gripe with the online experience has to do with matchmaking. This has to be a reviewer’s worst nightmare–admitting complete and utter failure playing a video game. If you’ve been on my team over the past week, I’m sorry. I was that guy. I’m not sure what goes on behind the scenes, but I never felt like I was placed in the right lobby. Whether I was Level 2 or 10, I was up against far too many Level 40+ players. Surely there must be a large enough group of Under-20’s I could play with. This is the biggest entertainment launch of 2015, after all. I don’t expect to top the charts but some players are going to find this overwhelmingly exclusionary.

A Titanfall-esque booster pack gives you better mobility that was absent from the campaign but feels floaty and less evasive than Advanced Warfare. Jumping rarely gives you an offensive advantage because you end up hanging in the air like a clay pigeon. What’s worse is the shooter on the ground will get bonus XP for picking you off. Talk about salt in the wound.

Final Verdict

This year, I bought the digital version of Call of Duty because I wanted to be able to jump in on a moment’s notice. Over the past year, I’ve seen friends playing Call of Duty online but I was too lazy to grab the disc and join in. But after spending some serious time with Black Ops 3, I just wish we never moved past Advanced Warfare. If you didn’t enjoy Sledgehammer’s game then you’ll probably disagree with nearly everything I’ve had to say here. Still, I enjoyed my time with Black Ops 3–just not enough for an unreserved recommendation. The inconsistently=satisfying single-player is made better with friends through co-op and the troubled online matchmaking is saved by a plethora of modes. But overall, there’s too much going against it for Black Ops 3 to be anything more than a good-and-huge-but-not-great entry in the long-running series.

Try to rent this one first. I’ll leave it at that.


About the Author

Sean Capri

I am a beady-eyed Canadian. I play video games and feed/walk my three dogs.