Call of Duty: Black Ops 3 review - A New Shade of 'Black'

Those expecting something closer to the first two Black Ops games are in for something of a surprise. Call of Duty: Black Ops III sees Treyarch changing up some of the ideas established by its last two games. Some of them hit. Others, not so much. Our review.

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As discussed during the early part of the Chattycast, it's become difficult to successfully iterate on the Call of Duty formula each year and make it feel like something new. Among the three-headed developer monster tasked with keeping the franchise feeling fresh, arguably no studio has taken the ball and run with it more than Treyarch. The Black Ops series has been considered among the best among the subset of Call of Duty games, which is why there have been some high expectations placed on Call of Duty: Black Ops III. Those expecting more of Black Ops II are going to find some noticeable changes here, for better or worse, but they mostly add up to a memorable package.

The Future of Warfare

Some of the biggest changes are going to be found in the Black Ops 3 campaign and they can be a mixed bag. The story follows an unnamed advanced soldier in the year 2025, improved by the implementation of a brain implant called the Direct Neural Interface. While players can go in with very little knowledge of the BO2 story and fare just fine, there is enough fallout from the previous game to help set the table for a tale of political intrigue, an unstable league of nations, and rogue soldiers with their own agenda. Without spoiling events of the story, what that agenda ends up being is something incredibly far-fetched and whacked out, so much to the point that it's almost fair to wonder if this is still a Call of Duty story.

Gone is the idea of a main central character, like the Masons, since Treyarch is implementing the Create-A-Soldier idea from traditional CoD multiplayer. This is right down to weapon loadouts, cosmetic appearances, and even character gender, though it'll become clear later in the campaign that the story was written with a male lead in mind. The narrative somewhat suffers from this idea, since your character comes off as something generic.

On the other end of the spectrum, where the story feels lacking, the gameplay feels the freshest of any Call of Duty campaign in recent memory. In addition to more spacious stages that reduce the corridor shooting that has helped some campaigns feel stagnant, Black Ops 3 also adds new powers in the form of Cyber Cores. These grant players abilities in three distinct areas to change up the way they play certain levels, with one focusing on manipulating and controlling enemy machines, another focusing on enhancing the player's own abilities, and a third that uses more sci-fi-style abilities like pyrokinesis or nanites that ignite foes.

Up to four players can play the campaign together, both online and locally, which goes well with the improved stage design. This is something of a double-edged sword, though. With the idea that players can drop in and out of campaign stages, it means that the branching paths and multiple endings that made the first two Black Ops campaigns feel like a breath of fresh air have gone by the wayside. Whether this is a positive or negative is a matter of perspective. I love the idea of being able to shoot robots and search for collectibles with friends, but there are certain instances where it would have been nice to have some choice. There are examples throughout the story, including a few where characters ask you to make a decision before surrounding events wind up making that call for you.

The Uncanny Specialists

Multiplayer makes some similar trade-offs from previous Black Ops games, but unlike the mixed bag of the campaign, this feels like it's entirely for the better. Create-A-Soldier has been cast aside in favor of Specialists, which turns Black Ops 3 into something of a class-based shooter. Players must now go into games with the idea of which Specialist abilities will best fit their play style and situation.

While the end result seems to veer far away from what Call of Duty originally was, it's hard to deny that it's a lot of fun. The Specialist abilities add some hilariously fun moments at opportune times and add some new ways to play some old favorite game modes. Using Ruin's Overdrive to speed through Capture the Flag, for example, is a difficult, but rewardingly amusing endeavor. It also feeds into Black Ops 3's noticeably faster pace, with all players getting unlimited sprint and thrust movements to pull off some keen wall runs and slides at virtually any time.

Aside from the soldier side, there isn't much new about Black Ops 3's multiplayer modes. They're mostly returning favorites, like Domination, Kill Confirmed, and Uplink. There is one new addition called Safeguard that sees teams escorting a robot to the opposing team's base to detonate it. It feels like Call of Duty's take on the payload game mode, with the idea to target escorts, rather than the VIP itself, though the rules don't make that explicitly clear at first. After figuring out the rules, Safeguard became a lot more fun, especially as conflicts escalated across several chokepoints.

The addition of Specialists also makes for a compelling eSports atmosphere. Treyarch has also added a new eSports-style Arena mode and smartly segregated it from the main multiplayer modes. These playlists focus on a more professional gaming atmosphere and introduce MOBA-style rules, like bans and protections on characters, weapons, scorestreaks, and more. If there's a criticism to be found here, it's that the ban system goes a little too deep, with individual weapon bans feeling almost like overkill. Only the hardest of the hardcore will know which SMG or Assault Rifle is more effective than others.

Speakeasy of the Dead

In a game that appears to be all about change, Zombies has been its own facelift. While the objective in 'Shadows of Evil' remains to survive as many undead waves as possible, there seems to be a narrative and a roguelike atmosphere to this iteration of Treyarch's classic game mode. Players take the role of four different Prohibition-era sinners, all with their own particular demons. They've all bear the mark of the Beast and must survive the zombie plague, while gather together a number of artifacts to complete a ritual that saves the world.

The Zombies map is a vast one, filled with a number of closed-off gates and even a tram that goes into a different area. There are also secret areas that can only be accessed when one player accesses a Beast altar, becoming an invulnerable tentacled creature that can open certain doors or activate certain switches.

While this opens up possibilities for exploration, unfortunately, Zombies seems to end all too quick. By about the sixth or seventh wave, the undead will become much more durable, faster, and travel in larger packs. Surviving these onslaughts becomes nearly impossible and when the game ends, everything resets. Unlike a roguelike, where it feels like some progress is being made, in Zombies, once your team dies, it's time to start from scratch. Powerups called Gobblegum can be accessed from gumball machines sprinkled around the map, but even they don't help too much in the end.

Care Package

While Treyarch could have called it a day with Campaign, Multiplayer, and Zombies, the final package winds up being far greater than the sum of its parts. There are numerous unlockables to find and they go beyond the campaign collectibles and the usual race to prestige. Completing the campaign will open up a pair of new modes, one that's something of a throwback to old-school arcade classics of yesteryear and a fourth game mode that blends together elements of the Campaign, Multiplayer, and Zombies modes.

Treyarch has clearly packed a lot of effort into Black Ops 3 and while not all of it necessarily hits, there's enough to keep both solo players and social butterflies active. While the campaign story itself feels silly, co-op is a marvelous addition and a far better way to experience the narrative for those that don't feel like killing zombies. Meanwhile, multiplayer feels like a huge difference from previous CoD games and much of it is for the better. With a faster pace, more fluid movement, and cool Specialist ablities, it feels like a refreshing twist on the CoD multiplayer formula.


This review is based on a Steam code provided by the publisher and was conducted over the course of three days at an on-site event. Call of Duty: Black Ops III will be available on PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Xbox 360, and PlayStation 3 on November 6 for $59.99. The game is rated M.

Senior Editor

Ozzie has been playing video games since picking up his first NES controller at age 5. He has been into games ever since, only briefly stepping away during his college years. But he was pulled back in after spending years in QA circles for both THQ and Activision, mostly spending time helping to push forward the Guitar Hero series at its peak. Ozzie has become a big fan of platformers, puzzle games, shooters, and RPGs, just to name a few genres, but he’s also a huge sucker for anything with a good, compelling narrative behind it. Because what are video games if you can't enjoy a good story with a fresh Cherry Coke?

Pros
  • Enjoyable new campaign mechanics
  • Co-op adds greatly to the campaign experience
  • Specialists make multiplayer feel different without dragging it down
  • Multiplayer modes are fun and include separate eSports area and custom games for bots
  • Multiplayer movement mechanics feel solid
  • Zombies features strong roguelike elements
  • Astounding number of unlockables, including new game modes
Cons
  • Story goes off the rails
  • Removal of branching paths/multiple endings is disappointing
  • Zombies can feel unforgiving
  • Occasional framerate hiccups in cutscenes
  • Create-A-Soldier in campaign feels shallow
From The Chatty
  • reply
    November 5, 2015 10:00 AM

    Ozzie Mejia posted a new article, Call of Duty: Black Ops 3 review-in-progress - A New Shade of 'Black'

    • reply
      November 5, 2015 11:34 AM

      I like what I'm hearing.

    • reply
      November 5, 2015 11:49 AM

      This sounds awesome, I am going to call it now its going to be better than Halo 5.

      Thanks for the write up Ozzie.

      GMG still has it on for $39.99 [ PC ]

      http://www.greenmangaming.com/s/ca/en/pc/games/shooter/call-duty-black-ops-iii/

      Sounds like it has the most content out of any FPS released to date, good on them for trying to make things better in this release, sounds like they succeeded.

      It be cool to do a Halo 5 vs BO3 comparison article from the Shack bro's. I am just glad both games are pushing things and they are both better than before. We all win.

      • reply
        November 5, 2015 11:55 AM

        Halo is for console kiddies. So is CoD, but the question is if the new CoD will do enough to be a respectable PC shooter, too. It sounds like it will be, given that it'll get a dedicated server software and mod tools. I definitely won't pre-order, though.

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          November 5, 2015 12:04 PM

          Totally this "if the new CoD will do enough to be a respectable PC shooter, too" I like to know that as well.

          Sounds like it will hey, we shall see. If they didn't care they is no way they add dedicated server software and mod tools for the PC. All that stuff take a lot of extra effort.

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      November 5, 2015 3:26 PM

      Nice, this was a PC review? Well played!

      Speakeasy of the Dead
      They've all bear the mark


      ^^^ They've

    • reply
      November 5, 2015 4:35 PM

      What ever happened to the Ass Creed "review in progress" has the progress stopped?