The duty of an enhanced super soldier.
Like other franchises, Call of Duty has had a bumpy transition from one generation to the next. Back in the day, Call of Duty 2 was the “you are there” WWII experience on the Xbox 360. Then Modern Warfare exceeded expectations, setting a new standard for immersion with tight gameplay, bombastic spectacle, killer graphics, and as a result, record game sales.
A decade later, CoD still has vets lining up for midnight launches alongside new recruits. (Or this year, thankfully, 9:01pm for those on the West coast.) Like clockwork, every November the newest iteration drops. Last year’s Advanced Warfare starred Kevin Spacey as a power-mad military industrial-complex CEO (is there any other kind in games?), but the real star was new developer Sledgehammer, who joined Infinity Ward and Treyarch as the third Call of Duty maker. A new engine was debuted (finally) and a tighter narrative was featured, as were new futuristic abilities like hacking, EMP grenades, and vertical boosts.
All of this was a necessary evolution of the series. Black Ops III sports co-op play, a female player option, more cool abilities, and the promise of more player control. Still, it’s hard to escape the feeling that this is no longer a series that wows with amazing visuals and spectacle. When was the last time a mission culminated with a set piece that just had to be seen to be believed? That’s the biggest hurdle for embracing the current-gen installments.
Both Advanced Warfare and Black Ops III look disappointingly older-gen. (Maybe a tad crisper.) Facial animations have that annoying rubbery look. Hallways and other structural staples look bland at times or, worse, like wallpaper patterns. There is no sense of wow factor. That era, at least for now, is gone. So with that out of the way, accepting that CoD is now more about options and content than a beautiful look is the key to just having fun. And fun is still on display with every bullet that leaves my assault rifle with a tremendous thud.
Set in the year 2065, the world is on the brink of a new Cold War. (Or the third one, after the actual historical Cold War and then in 2025 for Black Ops II.) After an accident leaves a soldier known only as “the player” near death, he (or she) is revived and enhanced. A host of new abilities can be accessed with a built-in Direct Neural Interface. At first, as I discussed in my review in progress, the potential for cool new abilities is terrific. What I didn’t realize until the later missions is that this was a case of giving players a taste of how it feels to be all-powerful. In the next mission, nearly all the cool abilities (like controlling nanobot bees) are gone, and you’ll need to earn them back. Further, acquiring everything will take nearly the entire first playthrough. This makes the beginning of the campaign a slog since you can’t really do much beyond moving faster for a short period of time by hitting the right button, which isn’t nearly as cool as nanobot bees.
The biggest change is subtle but effective. All the future weapons are tied to each soldier, so there’s no more picking up ammo or weapons. On the other hand, this does lead to a lot of conveniently placed loadouts. In fact, I don’t think I’ve held down the X button (on Xbox One) more in a CoD game. Whether it’s opening a door (a welcome change from always waiting for another soldier to open it) or dealing with ammo, the blue button was second only to the triggers.
The much-touted “play how you want” design is a step in the right direction, regardless of which way players actually choose. Instead of being limited to a forward-only path like most shooters, the levels have been opened to include sections above and below, as well as with paths to the right or left. This isn’t like some huge old-school Halo level (even Halo 5 isn’t like that anymore), but the attempt at choices is refreshing nonetheless. Tiny bits like your character exclaiming “I’m heading down below” is how you know you’ve activated an alternate way of doing things.
Being able to play as a female soldier (which I selected) is a first for the single-player mode and feels good, even if many other series have already done this. It’s also worth noting that while her skin and hair can be chosen from nine presets, her ethnicity looks the same (so it's up to you whether this bothers you). The voice acting of Abby Brammell or Farscape’s Ben Browder is effective, if not entirely memorable.
Still, the story and the characters are forgettable. Law & Order’s Christopher Meloni is your commander with questionable motives, but only in the most obvious ways. Typically, this means other members of your team argue about whether or not he’s up to no good. (Yawn.) Katee Sackoff (Longmire) is solid as your fellow soldier, but doesn't have much to do beyond acting overly concerned most of the time. This is where better visual clarity or cool scripted moments would have moved this fun but forgettable campaign into one with showstoppers. The upside is that the eleven missions can be done in less than six hours. And they are fun to replay especially considering all the abilities you will have earned by then.
There’s actually quite a bit of fun content for those who like their CoD solo. Once the first campaign is done, a second campaign is unlocked that is the same levels with zombies! It’s called Nightmares mode, which you can play through the single-player campaign in a new order, with a new story angle tweaked from the perspective of a zombie apocalypse. After you finish, there’s another fun addition for single-player: Dead Ops Arcade 2. As the name implies, it’s a top-down arcade-style zombie bonus. Another fun one is Freerun, which is a practice mode for wall runs, jumping, and boosts, all in a time trial structure.
As for the main campaign via 4-player co-op, it's quite entertaining. It’s not like Gears where you have four distinct personalities, but respawning is easier, which if anything means fewer tedious retries. For multiplayer, there are the de facto maps, etc., but the biggest tweak is playing as a Specialist. Like Killzone: Shadow Fall, there are a number of variations. Being a strong tank-like soldier or a hacker are standard nowadays, but playing as a robot called a Reaper with transforming arms is a hoot.
Call of Duty: Black Ops III continues the evolution that began in last year’s Advanced Warfare. The current-generation of the mega popular war shooter series impresses with (some) freedom of choice and fun abilities. So much so that most of the time, the rather pedestrian visuals and unmemorable story won’t be a deal breaker. Especially, when you consider all the extra content like a second zombie themed campaign.