When the multiplayer beta released for Black Ops III, I wasn’t impressed. As I noted on our podcast, I left the beta feeling like not much had really changed between it and the last iteration. Black Ops III simply felt like business as usual, and there wasn’t much of a reason to get excited about the full release. Turns out there was plenty that the beta left out from the full game experience, and there really is a reason to get excited about the newest Call of Duty.
With a new take on the popular Zombies mode, an increasingly developed PvP multiplayer experience, and the longest, most complex campaign mode in franchise history, Call of Duty Black Ops III takes the point position as the king of first-person shooters this holiday season, and perhaps overall.
People like to talk smack about Call of Duty for the same reasons as Madden: they claim it comes out every year even though very little changes. Though some of the franchise’s releases haven’t felt particularly innovative (I’m looking at you, CoD: Ghosts), the three-year development cycle put in to Black Ops III shows in every corner of the game. As the first current-gen release for the Treyarch team, it’s definitely set the standard for future Call of Duty games (and other shooters as well).
Black Ops III is set in 2065, which means they’re taking on the futuristic angle like last year’s Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare. Mobility kits allow players to run on walls, slide, and double-jump, and maps are designed to facilitate long wall-runs and snappy rushes for cover. The name of the game this year though is not mobility like in Advanced Warfare, it’s customization: each of the three main gameplay modes offers its own experience, leveling tree, and upgradable/unlockable weapons. This particularly goes for the Multiplayer, Call of Duty’s bread-and-butter staple: with new Operators, each of which wielding various special power-ups, there’s an almost absurd amount of tweaking and setting you can apply to adapt to your preferred play style. Still, each of the game’s three sections open themselves up to allowing the player a broader range of choices.
The Zombies mode is similar to other CoD Zombies modes: players cooperatively fight off hordes of the undead, racking up points and using them to buy weapons at various locations on the map. This year’s zombies feel tougher than the ones in years past, though; just a couple strikes from a zombie in an early wave can down you. The parties I played with generally struggled to make it past wave 4 or 5, offering a real challenge for Zombies veterans. Experience gained in Zombies mode allows you to level your Zombies profile and get access to new pieces of Gobblegum: single-use powerups dispensed from gumball machines spread around the map. You choose a set of five varieties you’d like to have access to when you start the mission, and you’ll randomly receive one of the five pieces each time you use the machine. This year’s Zombies game is set in the 1920s, creating a world detached from the rest of the Black Ops III experience. It’s dark and difficult, but nobody said surviving the zombie apocalypse would be easy.
The area that received the most improvement hands-down is the Campaign. Again, customization and choice are the obvious focal points for the game, and it shows in every new facet of the storyline experience. You can go through the entire campaign cooperatively, and, for the first time in franchise history, you can choose the gender of your protagonist. Both the male and female characters are fully voice-acted, and you can choose from one of nine different skins for each gender (though it’s worth mentioning that they’re all white). Before a mission, you set up to five various loadouts made up of guns, grenades, perks, and wildcards. As you go through the mission you’ll encounter ammo stations where you can change your loadout, allowing you to switch to a shotgun for close-quarters action, or grab a sniper rifle for long-range combat.
Black Ops III also introduces Cybertech upgrades: cybernetic enhancements that allow your character to summon swarms of nanobots to set enemies on fire, augment your speed and strength to charge through group of enemies, rip the battery cores out of enemy robots and utilize them as makeshift grenades, and more. There are 18 different Cybertech abilities to use, divided into three sets so you can determine which best fits your approach.
It’s not just the mechanics of gameplay that are customizable, though: the routes and tactics you use in each mission are up to your discretion as well. Call of Duty games have a reputation for being narrow runs from Point A to Point B, encountering set pieces after set piece until you reach the mission’s conclusion. Missions in Black Ops III are set in areas spread out over wide maps; each conflict area offers multiple paths of approach to choose from, so even though you’re still going from Point A to Point B, you have a say about how you’re going to get there. Maps are designed to allow careful planning when moving from one place to another, which is completely necessary in the game’s new “Realistic” difficulty where a single bullet will kill you. Even just playing on Veteran offers a challenge, though; plenty of new enemy types, including armed robots and assault ships, enter the fray at a moment’s notice to try and make your life shorter faster.
You can also go through the story missions in any order you want; you could jump straight to the last mission from the very beginning if you wanted, though you don’t receive achievements or unlocks for clearing the campaign until you’ve completed every mission. I really enjoyed that I didn’t feel pressured to conform to any one play style: though I generally prefer to keep my distance mid-range and use assault rifles, most scenarios offer cover for snipers and barriers for players to move between when blasting with shotguns. Completing each mission gives you experience and kits to unlocks gear to use in the single-player campaign as well as armor skins and callsign tags. Unlike older CoD games, you get to to choose what you unlock and when by spending tokens, so if you don’t want to burn energy or resources on shotguns, you don’t have to.
Though the story itself in the campaign isn’t particularly remarkable, the production value is. Locations look absolutely gorgeous as you move from place to place, and the frame rate maintains a consistent speed regardless of how many enemies appear on-screen. The story itself is the typical “someone betrayed us and we hunt them down” seen in other Call of Duty games, but this one’s done with an edge that brings up thoughts of ISIS and the current conflicts in the Middle East. I also felt twinges of Spec Ops: The Line bleeding through as the player character performed some pretty heinous acts to accomplish the mission: detaching a gang leader’s hand from her body to access a console and killing an enemy by lighting her head on fire were just a couple of the stand-out actions. Make no mistake, the campaign is gritty and gruesome and rated M for a reason; they pull no punches on the violence spectrum.
Of course, the mode that everyone picks up the game for is competitive multiplayer, and this year’s release feels better than ever. Though they’ve removed the boost dash that was introduced by the Sledgehammer Games team in Advanced Warfare, this makes the game more approachable for newcomers and those who just haven’t reached the pro levels yet. The game’s big addition are the Operators mentioned earlier: there are 18 different specialty powers in total spread across nine different character skins, and you’ll choose one of those powers before entering a match. That specialty power, whether a speed boost, shield augmentation, super-powered lighting gun, or more, charges up over the course of a battle.
Unlike Scorestreaks, which you only get access to if you can get a certain number of points without dying, operator powers recharge with time, speeding up if you’re doing well, so you’re always guaranteed to use your power at least a couple times each match.
The single-player in particular contains a 16-wave combat simulator similar to the Spec Ops mode in Modern Warfare 3, and a special “Nightmares” campaign to go through after you’ve cleared the original campaign. Plus, you can even do two-player split-screen play in all three modes.
Since the multiplayer beta, they’ve slowed the combat down a bit and made it easier to read and plan for. It feels less arcade-y than Advanced Warfare, and the map design creates a similarly frantic, yet contemplative atmosphere. Movement is fluid in Black Ops III; only some of the very large, very open maps feel appropriate for sniping and camping, but all of the maps have their own focus points for combat and progressive flow. Thus far I haven’t been exposed to a map I’ve hated; they all feel approachable and fun.
For the hardcore, there’s an Arena mode which simulates tournament play. The first “season” started at game launch, and players are divided up into 4v4 teams. Like a pro tournament, players first vote on items in game they either want to ban or protect from banning in the match, and then players take turns drafting operators before the match starts. This adds a meta-game element to play like in hardcore MOBA tournaments, since coordinated teams can try to choose certain weapon sets to work well with each other or hamper the other team. It’s an interesting addition to a game that already feels built for eSports, though it would play best with a team of four people all coordinating via headset.
Overall, Call of Duty: Black Ops III offers tons of content and quality play time, more than I would have expected from even two games of similar caliber. Each of the modes almost stand alone on their own, with the single-player campaign and multiplayer modes both offering enough depth to really be releases on their own. There’s plenty to keep players busy until the next Call of Duty comes out, and it’s thrown down the gauntlet for any other first-person shooters that want to claim the competitive space. This year, Activision and Treyarch quieted the naysayers with a polished, deep, triple-threat package, and it sets a high bar for even then next CoD.