If one wanted to be a little callous, one could simply say " Call of Duty is Call of Duty ." That might be a halfway decent summary of the latest entry in the blockbuster franchise but of course, we'd be doing a disservice to the whole review process. On top of which, it's not really fair to make the implication that CoD never changes or innovates; last year's Advanced Warfare is a great example of a series that tried a little something new. And while I can't say Black Ops III is groundbreaking or revolutionary in some way, I can certainly say it's a solid and entertaining – albeit expected – installment. It's just too bad the campaign can't rise to the challenge.
I have to admit, I was pretty impressed with Advanced Warfare 's visual accomplishments on PlayStation 4. Maybe it was simply because I was looking at the first CoD on next-gen consoles but even so, I felt inclined to praise those visuals. I can do the same for the new Black Ops , as the battleground effects remain top-notch and the bombastic set pieces make for an eye-popping graphical feast. It's also important to mention the quality of the map design, which I tend to lump into this category. However, all that being said, I'm a bit underwhelmed at the presentation here and perhaps it's because it's not a significant improvement over last year's effort. It looks great and it's plenty stable but that's not enough to blow me away.
I treat the audio with a similar smile and shrug of the shoulders. We once again have good voice performances, a really effective soundtrack, and the sharp sound effects one expects from a game with such a massive budget. The balancing is just about right and when you're in the midst of the action, that great audio envelops you completely and amps up the overall immersion. This franchise has always excelled in this category and I see no reason to knock Black Ops III for any marked decline or stagnation. At the same time, I also can't say it moves beyond Advanced Warfare . In some respects, it might, but in other respects, it's pretty much the same ol' same ol'. Again, though, that's not necessarily a bad thing.
It occurs to me that as the campaign hasn't been a focal point in CoD – or just about any FPS – for some time, I probably shouldn't start my gameplay analysis with the narrative. After all, nobody is buying this game for the campaign, right? They're playing to throw down with their friends online and that's that. So, we need to tackle the multiplayer offering, which brings us deeper player customization and the appreciated addition of Specialists. Toss in those aforementioned top-tier maps and you've got a multiplayer-centric shooter that storms out of the gate, firing on all cylinders. You might start to notice a few drawbacks the longer you play, but nothing that will put a serious crimp in your enjoyment.
In addition to the traditional loadout system that features 10 open slots for weapons and equipment, there's an added layer of depth. This results in more tactical strategy decisions; for instance, you can only select a power weapon or special ability for a match. Once equipped, that weapon or ability charges several times during the course of play and this is where the game starts to shine. For example, the Outrider's Vision Pulse ability acts like an enhanced visibility mode that lets you spot foes through walls. I really liked experimenting with the special weapons and skills because these really do add a gameplay dimension that didn't previously exist in this series. Specialists really are the bomb, damnit.
At first, I thought I'd hate having to choose between a special weapon and ability. But as I started to play more, it was clear that such a limitation puts a very specific spin on each and every match, depending on what players select. Really, if you could equip both, every match would feel more like a traditional free-for-all, although admittedly with more variety than usual. Most won't give CoD a lot of credit for providing players with strategic obstacles but the Specialist addition can be considered one of the more intellectual features. Okay, so I'm using the loosest possible definition of "intellectual" here but you know what I mean. As you log more hours, you start to figure out which weapons and abilities work best on which maps.
The possibilities are actually pretty cool, if not exactly endless. You get four Specialists to fiddle around with and it takes time to unlock others, which some gamers may not appreciate (impatience is all too common in the world of shooters). The other possible downside is that when you stop talking about the Specialists, you're left with a still robust yet anticipated multiplayer experience. There are a lot of the same modes, the gameplay balance still feels familiar, and the experience-based progression is nothing new at this point. But it all serves its purpose; it keeps you coming back for more, and there are still a ton of weapons to unlock and build up. And with some of the best maps in the series, you're not often swearing at "stupid map design" after you bite the dust.
Then there's the new movement…well, new for Black Ops , I guess. It's not the same as the fresh action mechanic in Advanced Warfare but it's not entirely unique, either. The good news is that it puts a cool spin on the standard action; just when you think the game is reverting to standard CoD fare, the wall-running and sliding reminds you of the changes. Plus, this gameplay addition allowed the designers to be that much more inventive and creative when it comes to the maps. I daresay you can credit this faster, more dynamic action with helping to spur arena creativity. Chances are, you'll see even more imagination in the maps that are bound to come down the pike via DLC packs. As for core control, yeah, it all works fine.
Lastly, the Zombies map Shadows of Evil offers a very different experience. Led by the likes of Jeff Goldblum, Heather Graham, Ron Perlman and Neal McDonough, we follow a truly weird story that involves lots and lots of zombies, all set in some fictional 1940s city. This isn't your everyday zombie massacre and in fact, it almost seems like Treyarch put more effort into this zombie narrative than into the main campaign. You get caught up in the horror and surprising mystery of the mode and you're forced to continually experiment. I have to say, I was a little shocked at the difficulty, as it seems almost too steep for a mainstream title. But with a little practice, I'm sure the CoD veterans will fall in love with these characters and their terrifying ordeal.
And I guess that brings us back to the campaign, which I would describe as an entertaining disappointment. That's not really an oxymoron because on the one hand, I can honestly say I had fun playing through it. On the other hand, I can honestly add that there were times when I was confused or just plain bored, and the pacing occasionally felt way off. It's a hodgepodge, really; a mix of good and bad and one that ultimately doesn't click. It's too bad, too, because Black Ops has always had the best storylines in the franchise in my opinion. This one offers some high-adrenaline fun, like underwater escapes and aerial dogfights, but aside from that, there isn't much to get excited about. Sometimes it felt like Treyarch was just trying too hard.
What I mean by that is there are sequences you've never played before. There are gameplay segments that do seem interesting at first (like when you get the chance to control drones), but it all slides back to mass gunfights. That's the only problem. Perhaps the big saving grace is the ability to play cooperatively with a friend, which does ratchet up the fun factor. It's always more entertaining to blast through enemies with a buddy, right? Unfortunately, the developers didn't take the chance to create new opportunities for teammates. All they really did is toss more enemies into the fray, which feels old-fashioned and above all else, like a missed opportunity. It's harder, yes, but it's certainly not more inspired.
In the end, Call of Duty: Black Ops III is a good shooter that falls somewhere between "safe" and "chancy." It gives you great maps, awesome Specialists, a truly challenging and interesting Zombies mode, and a solid and more dynamic control mechanic. It also has a convoluted and uninteresting story and a co-op mode that doesn't consist of much more than extra enemies. The multiplayer is about as deep and addicting as ever, though, and you have to appreciate the general quality and stability of the technical elements. I doubt long-time fans will be disappointed and in fact, I'm willing to bet they'll be plenty happy. Aside from that, I don't see Black Ops III ushering in a lot of new players. But there are so many current fans, so does it really matter?
The Good: Well-produced, attractive graphics. Great sound effects and voice acting. Some of the best maps in the franchise. Specialists give multiplayer added strategy and zing. Zombies is a surprisingly inspired highlight. Solid and engaging control. Multiplayer is bound to be well-received among fans.
The Bad: Story is convoluted and poorly told. Co-op campaign option is a missed opportunity. Multiplayer can degrade into the same ol' gunfights at times.
The Ugly: "There's so much you can do with a co-op campaign…the least you can do is try."