By Kyle Holmer. This is LOAD FILE, where we proudly pump a billion rounds of live ammunition into an endless ocean of robots (and near-robot humans) that would do America harm. This week, Kyle sets cyborgs on fire with his mind in ‘Call of Duty: Black Ops 3’ developed by Treyarch and published by Activision for Xbox One, Playstation 4, and Personal Computer.
I should probably get this out of the way up front: I love Call of Duty. It took me a while to get to this point, as I largely ignored the games for many years. My first proper experience with the series was Black Ops 2, and despite not playing the game until that point I criticized the living hell out of the series for years; I was a pretentious video game nerd that ripped the series apart every chance I could until I eventually decided to play the damn games. I’m sure a lot of my adoration for the series is due in large part to Black Ops 2 being my first point of entry, as the introduction of RTS elements and a branching narrative was infinitely more sophisticated than I had ever given the series credit for.
I assumed Call of Duty was the Michael Bay of video games, and while there is an element of truth to that, there’s no denying its incredibly tight gameplay and engaging campaign; I thought people were wasting their time on the most generic of shooters when in actuality, the level of accessibility Call of Duty provides was actually introducing millions of people to a medium they’d have otherwise never seen.
I’ve since gone back and played every entry since Modern Warfare, but (and maybe it’s because Black Ops was my first) I’ve always preferred the Treyarch entries. Historically, they’ve been the developers who put more of a priority on the campaign, pushing the series forward mechanically. While Infinity Ward (and now Sledge Hammer) spent their time making the biggest, most explosive set pieces, Treyarch pushed a weaving, involved narrative, and for me, that’s always been infinitely more compelling. So obviously, when Activision announced Black Ops 3, I had assumed Treyarch would be building on the ideas introduced in their previous entry, and unfortunately, that isn’t at all the case; they’re definitely pushing the series forward, but there’s been a dramatic shift in direction since we’ve last checked in with Black Ops.
AT LEAST THERE’S NO DINGUS RUNNING AROUND WITH A ‘FOLLOW’ SIGN ON HIS HEAD
The story starts off almost identically to Advanced Warfare, which has the protagonist undergoing some serious harm only to be rebuilt with sophisticated, near-future weaponry. You’ll then go on a series of missions where your assumed allies become villains and, just like in every other Call of Duty, you’ll be singularly responsible for saving the world. It’s alarmingly generic given Treyarch’s track record, but once you get over that initial disappointment, the number of changes to the core mechanics will easily satisfy any longing the weak story has created.
Starting nearly from scratch narratively, the campaign introduces a brand new family of characters that have no immediate ties to those in Black Ops 1 or 2. While thematically building on its predecessors, there’s clearly not as much focus put on the story in this year’s outing. Concepts like the dangers of becoming technologically dependent, and the psychological damage of being a soldier are still touched upon, but mostly the story takes a back seat to the mechanics, which would be really upsetting if the gameplay wasn’t so damn good.
There are now three new ability trees, each focusing on a specific gameplay style that are included along with the already excellent gunplay. While not completely unique from one another, choosing a specific path will definitely inform how you approach your weapon selection and play style during any given mission. The abilities can range anywhere from stealth camouflage to hacking enemy robots into allies, and as such, you’ll be spending less and less time just shooting as you progress through the main campaign. The environments aren’t as linear as they’ve been in previous outings, allowing players a moment to breathe and strategize a bit before engaging, although all in all, the gameplay still moves unbelievably fast.
There’s also an increased emphasis on replaying the campaign in Black Ops 3. The entire story can be played co-operatively, and along with the ability to fully customize both your cyber core abilities and your weapons, you can easily spend double or triple the amount of time in the campaign as you might have in previous Call of Duty games. Ultimately I was a bit disappointed with the lack of story, but I’ve already spent nearly 20 hours just on the campaign, which is significantly higher than I have in any other game in this series.
DID I MENTION YOU CAN SET ROBOTS ON FIRE WITH YOUR MIND?
Beyond the campaign, both the multiplayer and the Zombies mode have received a pretty dramatic update. While the basics of the multiplayer from Treyarch’s previous entries remain the same (specifically the Pick 10 system), you’ll now be given the option of one of 9 unique classes (called “specialists”) when first booting up the multiplayer suite. While the difference between specialists isn’t immediately apparent, as you’re still given the option to customize your loadout, each one has a unique weapon and ability that has dramatic implications for how you approach the game. (Somewhat reminiscent of perks, you’re only allowed to select one before entering a match, and it requires charging before use.) The weapons and abilities can be both offensive and defensive, and while they don’t completely revolutionize the multiplayer, it’s a welcome new addition that doesn’t interfere with the fundamentals of the Call of Duty multiplayer. Clearly inspired by the renaissance of MOBAs, specialists introduce a new level of strategy and teamwork that hasn’t really been seen before in the series.
As previously mentioned, Treyarch’s trademark Zombie mode has also received a significant update. Bearing little immediate resemblance to the rest of the game, there is now a sci-fi/noir story that introduces this newest iteration, and unlike past entries this undead horde mode has only one available map at the outset that’s at least five times larger than anything seen before it (which I suppose is a necessity given that it’s the only one available at launch).
You’re given the option of playing as one of four characters (each voiced by a known celebrity) and there is now the ability to customize your weapons and abilities that you’ll unlock throughout any given match, which introduces a level of progression never before seen in Zombies. Despite the scale of the map there are Easter eggs, power ups, and unlockables tucked into every inch of the map that will take players quite a while to dig through. While at first it seems a little sparse, Black Ops 3’s version of zombies is easily the most involved and complex version of this mode seen to date, and the departure from the near-future setting of the campaign and multiplayer is an unbelievably welcome one.
MORE THINGS TO SHOOT IN THE FACE THAN ANY GAME IN SERIES HISTORY
I was initially a bit upset when I started playing Black Ops 3. I really can’t overstate how impressed I was the first time I played Black Ops 2, and to see that Treyarch’s latest beared little resemblance to that game was disappointing, as it was that level of unexpected ingenuity that had originally drawn me towards the series. After a few hours however, I realized that while Black Ops 3 may not immediately feel as original and unique as the developer’s previous games, there are more new ideas introduced in this game than at any other point in the entire history of the series, and amazingly, they all work.
Yes, if you’re one of the few that just follows a specific Call of Duty developer, there’s going to be a dramatic learning curve, specifically in multiplayer, but it will only take a few hours until you’ve mastered all of the new systems introduced. Despite my first impressions, Treyarch is leading the pack when it comes to Call of Duty development and, maybe more than anyone else, they have a clear idea of the changes this series needs to make in order to keep it alive for years to come.