For long-running series’ that go largely unchanged, the matter of who they appeal to and how they should be measured is something I am yet to entirely reconcile. Should each release be treated as its own or be trialed in light of its lineage? Black Ops III might be the best new thing to someone green, but for the well-versed it’ll be “another one of those”.
Call of Duty has slowly moved cross-century during its tenure, depending on peoples’ remaining tolerance for the current setting. Even spanning World War II to 2060, this series has only a semblance of change. Ultimately you’re just shooting things with different looking guns...that do the same thing. Call of Duty has never really been about artistic refinement, but bigger spectacle.
Having very little to do with prior Black Ops games, Black Ops III carries the futuristic mantle of Advance Warfare - probably so the propulsion system and other sci-fi tech can be continued. Your character rather viscerally gets his limbs pulled off, and so gets cybernetic replacements that allow these abilities. While Call of Duty: Human Revolution touts this as one of the defining bullet points, there’s little interactive impact. I played on hardened, and scarcely had any need of these abilities; bar hijacking an enemy mini-gun or mech, it’s usually easier to cut-out the middle man and shoot them classically.
Which set of abilities you have is selectable both pre- and mid-mission, and the multiplayer’s token customisation has also been translated to single-player. Likewise, you’ll be creating classes and modifying weapons between missions in your safehouse, and it’s here that Call of Duty’s unflinching hyper-action finally allows a time of recess and much needed juxtaposition. Epic set-pieces are only so if we’re not doing them all the time.
The longer-than-average narrative that frames these scenarios is almost illegible, however. What started as semi-interesting wetwork resorts to preposterous leaps in convenient logic, over-eager imperatives, and cerebral mumblings that bring to mind the creative writings of a younger time. The story is seemingly trying to make some form of social criticism, but doesn’t end up saying much of anything. It falls short of the Call of Duty 4 landmark that cemented this series as an annual ritual, and for all its psychedelic ambitions, the most intriguing part was all but a self-referential nod to Treyarch trademarks.
Black Ops III does make an interesting choice in character - it doesn’t body-swap you from one to another, and your partner is more-or-less constant. This could have yielded some great moments, but neither you nor your partner are interesting enough to make use of the quality time. Just two yelling-men, in their own little world on yelling island.
Call of Duty has never really been about artistic refinement, but bigger spectacle.
The co-op is as you’d expect; the same thing but co-op. It’s got ‘that co-op problem’ of using a story meant for one player and pretending everyone else isn’t there. Albeit, I can also appreciate the constraints of development time and the monstrous task of creating two entirely different campaigns just to appease gadflies like me.
Areas of the single-player are designed with co-op in mind, with open areas to allow flanking. Others not as much; claustrophobic solo moments become even more so when four bouncing bunnies are competing for door space.
What pleasantly surprised me was Black Ops III’s version of a new game plus. Instead of simply doing the campaign over (which you can still do), there’s a zombie rendition using the same missions, but with undead. Evidently it’s just a cloned version of the campaign with zombies, but I won’t complain about more stuff. They even bothered to make a dead ops sequel.
The first time World at War pioneered the zombie trend, it became the go-to for my multiplayer shenanigans. Now it’s just another mode, although the opening map looks like the love-child between Treyarch and Take Two’s BioShock. The premise remains the same, with a few minor changes: perks are now randomly obtained from the well-phrased ‘gobble-gum’, weapons can be tailored, and you can transform into a weird tentacle monster. Supposedly that’s part of the mystery to solve, but I’m yet to meet someone who plays zombies for the story.
All of the above can be played solo, couch or online co-op. Familiar as many of these are, you’re certainly spoiled for options.
It’s always been the multiplayer that congregates many to Activision’s shooter, and I’m happy to report it’s nigh-unchanged and everything you have always expected. The biggest differentiators are the new specialists, who add more abilities, but are also meant to further achieve a sense of identity and expression for each player as per Call of Duty’s thorough customisation. These games have always been about twitch-shooting and grand feats of reflex, and shooting a guy mid-air with a bow ‘n arrow always had me in the Call of Duty mood, as would a headshot while jumping or wall-running, Titanfall-style.
Long-term, your amusement will be determined by the depth of your acquaintance with this series (which goes both ways) and your fancy for its caffeinated pacing. It’s got the bevy of maps and modes for all who’ll have them. After so many years, that may or may not still appeal to you.
Ultimately, the strength of Call of Duty: Blacks Ops III is how much there is. I wouldn’t want to change much either if people kept giving me a billion dollars - but despite it’s unconcerned inertia for changing as little as possible, it does at least provide more than anyone else. It’s going to depend how recently you’ve played previous games and whether enough time has passed for it to feel fresh again.
Call of Duty is the Coca Cola of the game industry. Popular, unchanging, and tastes good to most, but it’s still the same stuff.