Call of Duty has increasingly come to embody the modern day woes of Madonna.
After riding the cultural zeitgeist for so long and making a truckload of cash in the process, its sales figures are still good but not what they used to be. MOBAs offer a deeper gaming experience and RPGs have eaten into the shooting mechanics CoD once ruled over alone. Time to shuffle offstage?
No. Black Ops 3 is here to show these new starlets what for. Fallout 4 and League of Legends be damned, CoD BLOPS 3 still calls the FPS shots with high production values and slick multiplayer action. Turns out there’s life in this franchise yet.
Give em the ol' razzle dazzle
Alas, Black Ops 3 doesn’t offer up a great first impression. Its single player campaign is simply a case of old-hat bang bangs in a glossy package. Righteous fury swept the internet when Treyarch revealed that the PS3 and Xbox 360 versions of its latest shooter would be multiplayer only. Gaming Joe justifiably assumed this was a cynical plot to encourage sales of new-gen hardware.
After playing through the campaign in its entirety, I can understand the decision: Black Ops 3’s single player experience is completely reliant on its sense of spectacle. Without this, you’re left with a smoothly implemented, if fairly uninspired shooter with sci-fi trimmings.
Boom or bust
Each mission, which must be tackled in a set order, takes the player on a linear journey filled to the brim with scripted moments. Skyscrapers tumble, vehicles explode, and I quickly lost count of the amount of air to surface crashes I’d been involved in. The Black Ops team is clearly in serious need of new aeronautical engineers.
The principle ingredient to these moments is, of course, visual splendour, without which they would all fall flat. There’s almost no dramatic tension to float the game’s set pieces and the cast are a bunch of meatheads who say ‘f***’ and ‘s***’ as if they’re modelled on Hudson from Aliens.
It’s all tremendously shallow, but the results are satisfying in a mindless sort of way.The offering here is much better than Halo 5’s yawn-filled campaign, and it does manage to surprise with a few standout moments.
My mind to your mind
One of CoD BLOPS 3’s strongest facets is its admittedly ludicrous premise: super soldiers in the late 21st century have been fitted with an object known as a DNI, or Direct Neural Interface, that allows them to hook up to all kinds of tech. This is the key object in the campaign’s more abstract periods where it chooses to fool around with the player’s sense of perspective using delightful hallucinatory shenanigans.
One section in particular, which I shan’t spoil, is a great piece of dramatic design as the world around you becomes distorted like some Inception-style nightmare, but there’s still nothing here that hasn’t been long established by the likes of Half-Life 2 or BioShock.
As for the combat itself, the clearest change is the addition of sci-fi superpowers. This is the future dammit, and what would the future be without implausible but alluring gadgetry?
Abilities are divided into three skill trees: Martial, Control, and Chaos, only one of which can be equipped at any given time. The powers on offer include useful staples like a one-hit K.O ground slam and temporary stealth shielding that makes the player invisible.
These are terribly effective at clearing the game’s swell of enemies, which is divided into two camps: man and machine. Most abilities are only usable on one or the other, so each skill tree includes a mix of both human and robot killers.
My personal favourite, innocently titled the Sonic A.P that ‘incapacitates enemies with a focused sonic wave’. It might sound sanitary, but in practice this ability causes a group of soldiers spew bile everywhere until they collapse on the floor, face-first into whatever gruel they ate for lunch. It’s gross, it’s hilarious, and I love it.
Wait, I can still do that?
Most abilities are nigh-on interchangeable with the effect of well placed frag grenade or flashbang in that they simply take a few opponents out of action temporarily or permanently. The game never presents any scenarios where clever use of special abilities are required, leaving your newfound powers as pleasant optional extras floating atop of the core shooting experience.
You’ll have fun using them, but I often found myself forgetting my ability to induce projectile vomiting at twenty metres because the game never asked me to remember.
But all is not lost...
Style might come before substance in the campaign, but in multiplayer, mechanics are rightfully at the forefront.
The same slick gunsling experience returns, and it feels just as robust as ever. Each weapon is delicately tuned to a specific playstyle, each mod or perk thoughtfully constructed. I am, however, hardly inclined to award CoD brownie points for this. The series has sat this same exam for 12 bloody years in a row, if it’s not passing with flying colours at this point then something is seriously wrong.
Electric Proddy Man - I choose you!
Where Black Ops 3 multiplayer does receive a gold star from teacher is in the transition to its new sci-fi loadout. Players can now select from a variety of different classes, known as specialists, which each come equipped with two special abilities.
The Outrider can choose between exploding arrows or a vision pulse which highlights nearby opponents. The Battery can make use of a personal shield which blocks incoming fire or crowd-blitzing incendiary grenade launcher. With a total of nine classes and 18 abilities there’s a specialist to suit everyone.
This is an added dynamic that the series has been crying out for for some time. Timing is key, and by giving players the option to choose exactly when, and where to unleash hell, the battle becomes that much more volatile.
It also has the added benefit of giving team deadweights who are unlikely to accrue the benefits of killstreaks (such as aerial strikes) a chance to feel power overwhelming, Or, in my case, the chance to commit explode a bloke with a nitroglycerine arrow.
The only way is up
Abandoning realism in favour of sci-fi gadgetry has also worked wonders for CoD’s level design by offering players the ability to jump higher using thrusters and wallrun a la Titanfall.
Since dipping my toe in the open beta a few weeks ago a whole host of new maps have been added, and they’re all of an equal caliber to the existing set. Each one possesses a terrific sense of flow both horizontally and vertically, all made possible by player’s new mobility.
Treyarch’s attention to detail is mightily impressive, and each map’s carefully crafted circuit is designed to preserve the game’s newfound momentum. You’re always running around in search of kills, and the game respects that this will be happening in tandem with thruster-led acrobatics. I’ve seen players more skilled than I run into a jump thrust and then slice down couple of foes mid-flight. Most of the time, unfortunately, I was one of the victims of said display.
Call of Duty: Black Ops 3 Verdict
CoD BLOPS 3’s multiplayer package comes together supremely well, and does a far better job of launching itself into a brave new world than Halo 5: Guardians’ messy attempts at progress.
Even if the FPS is a dying breed, Black Ops 3 is still the king of its domain. Where Halo 5 offers a handful of game modes outside of Team Deathmatch, Black Ops 3 brings the full suite: Domination, Capture the Flag, Hardpoint, and the ever popular Zombies. In a one-on-one battle for your time, Guardians doesn’t really stand a chance.
So, there it is, Call of Duty cheats death for another year and with no little panache. The time will come when CoD’s vampirically-long existence stutters to an inevitable end. Just don’t bet on that happening soon.