After the last three iterations progressively shed their now-tedious modern trappings I think we can say that, even without the recent announcement of the frankly ridiculously-titled Infinite Warfare1, the Call of Duty franchise has now fully committed itself to being a proper near-future sci-fi shooter. If there’s one thing I’ve taken away from Ghosts and Advanced Warfare it is that the supposed genre trend-setter is evolving in response to its competition – slowly and at times painfully, but the move to that sci-fi setting opens up a more interesting design space to the various developers involved, allowing them to introduce mechanics that should fundamentally change the way the game plays – at least in theory. I bought CODBLOPS 3 (I love that acronym) because I’d heard it had improved movement mechanics including wallrunning and double-jumping, which intrigued me since it appeared that this would be the franchise’s first real response to the unfortunately short-lived Titanfall. Having finished the single-player now I feel that it’s also the first CoD game I’ve played that’s really started to explore the possibilities of the sci-fi setting. But the catch here is that exploration always carries with it an element of risk, and Black Ops 3 is a long, long, way from being an unqualified improvement on what came before.
Black Ops 3 is set in the 2070s, and just like Ghosts it has two fake coalitions battling it out in a cold war; the Winslow Accord (American good guys) versus the NRC (seems to be mostly Africa and the Middle East). Just like Ghosts the side that isn’t you is almost comically evil, with the extended intro level showing you plenty of scenes of evil African soldiers torturing POWs2, and their evil-ness appears to extend to their battlebot programming as you get your arms and legs needlessly ripped off by one in a ridiculously graphic sequence at the end of the level. I understand that the game needed an excuse for you to get cybernetic replacements that would let you do all of the additional cool shit allowed by the sci-fi setting, but it didn’t even shock me, it just had me rolling my eyes at yet another attempt by the series to be all edgy and mature, much like the No Russian sequence in Modern Warfare 23. The intro level isn’t all bad, though; it’s the one part of the game where you play as a bog-standard unaugmented human being, and Black Ops 3 both previews the stuff you’re going to be doing later and brings your limitations into relief by pairing you up with a squad of bionic men (and one token woman) led by one Samuel Taylor, who proceed to cut the NRC to pieces using a variety of technological gimmicks.
While you’re in surgery getting your metal arms and legs stuck on you then get to go through a very cool VR training environment with Taylor and his team that teaches you how to use your new abilities – mostly this involves turning on your see-through-walls vision that helpfully tags all the enemies with little symbols over their heads (which are never explained) and pressing Q to fire off a cybernetic power (read: magic spell) whenever it’s off cooldown. These are actually pretty great! There’s a skill tree into which you can invest skill points (sorry, Fabrication Kits) to acquire new abilities and upgrade them in between missions; I went for the Control tree which let me hack robots, tear out their power cores and use them as EMP grenades, and hijack enemy cyber-soldiers’ augmentations to break all their limbs. There’s also a Chaos tree that focuses on less specific forms of sabotage, such as firing a cloud of nanobots at people to distract them and also set them on fire, as well as a more physical tree that I forgot the name of that basically involves punching people really, really hard; however my selection of what is basically the anti-robot tree paid off because there are a lot of robot enemies in this game, and being able to turn two of them to my side every twenty seconds was a great help in combat. You can also take direct control of the big robots if you can keep the crosshairs over them for a period of time, which struck me as a more natural way of doing the turret/vehicle sections that every CoD game flirts with without properly executing on. The abilities weren’t quite an unmitigated success – the ripping out power cores ability is activated using the grenade button when a robot is close enough, however since you’re usually backpedalling away from them what usually happens is that you end up dropping a grenade at your feet — but I thought that while they weren’t exactly game-changing, they did add a lot to it and made it feel suitably futuristic.
Of course since Taylor’s character model is a meticulously-rendered reproduction of the actor playing him that means he’s going to be the bad guy, and sure enough he goes rogue two missions into the game, breaking into a CIA safehouse in Singapore and stealing all of their precious data. Your “team” (consisting of you plus a very angry man with fantastic hair who is basically there to open any doors that might be concealing the loading of the next part of the level) is dispatched to Singapore to hunt him down and find out what happened — and it’s here that the dichotomy powering Black Ops 3 becomes painfully apparent, since the Singapore experience is flatly split into two sets of levels. One set is precisely the sort of fantastic near-future facilities I’d expect a game set in 2070 to have – the Solar Trees powering an enclave at the heart of the Singapore ruins and a wrecked corporate research facility that extended hundreds of metres underground (and under the ocean) were particular standouts. The other set was the same series of concrete boxes filled with waist-high cover that you can find in literally every other shooter in existence. The game continues in this vein throughout, constantly teasing you with the promise of exploring a glittering technological construct which upon further investigation turns out to just be a bunch of concrete and metal inside. Which is kind of a problem, because despite the added spice of the Q abilities the experience of shooting a bunch of guys who are poking their heads out from behind a concrete barricade is exactly the same one that I’ve had in every CoD game since at least Modern Warfare 1, and possibly since long before that.
That thematic incoherence carries through into the plot, which at first looks promisingly like it’s skirting the edge of being a decent-albeit-gritty cyberpunk thriller a la Richard Morgan, but which collapses into nonsense about halfway through the game. There are some great set pieces that really feel like they’re making full use of the setting, like the first bossfight with Diaz. On the other hand there are entire levels that baffled me as to why they were in the game, such as the awful Bastogne WW2 interlude that carries a definite whiff of “Well, we have these assets lying around and it’d be a shame to let them go to waste, so…” Black Ops 3 feels like it’s been stitched together from a variety of different sources that don’t match in the slightest – there’s definitely a fair whack of talent and imagination that’s gone into it, but using your imagination isn’t the same thing as having a good idea, and despite all the technological gewgaws surrounding you the whole premise is still firmly rooted in the idea that the player will want to iron-sights up and clear rooms by slicing the pie over and over and over again. The opportunities that the cybernetic enhancements provide are either treated as an optional bonus that makes your life easier but which are by no means an integral part of the game, or else as an afterthought; as I said I bought Black Ops 3 because I wanted to see what it did with the improved movement mechanics, and the answer is “Absolutely sod all”. I understand it’s better employed in multiplayer, but the single player levels are as conventional as they come and afford little opportunity to use that enhanced movement.
Honestly, it’s a little depressing that for a game where you’re supposed to be a cyborg super-soldier the new mechanics with the most impact on how the game actually plays are the ones that have been added outside of the missions themselves. After every mission you go back to a CIA safehouse that functions as a mission hub/lobby for co-op play and where you can upgrade your abilities and weapons; in 2070 all weapons are DNA-locked to the user (or something) and so you can only use the guns you physically cart into the mission with you. This is basically an excuse to port CoD’s multiplayer progression system into the single player campaign, where killing baddies gives you XP that is used to get fake ranks that grant access to new, shinier weapons. Said weapons can be customised with 10-12 different add-ons like scopes, suppressors etc., except you also have to level the guns up after unlocking them to be able to use the more interesting bolt-ons. Often this only takes one mission because of the absurd number of enemies the game throws at you (a typical misson’s kill count will be somewhere around the 250 mark), but it’s still a little disappointing to be forced to take what is essentially a crap version of the gun first if you want to eventually use the good one – the semi-auto marksman rifle is a great example of this, where it’s an absolutely godlike stealth weapon when you add a scope, a suppressor and a couple of other things, but a) you don’t unlock it until player level 15, which won’t happen until the last quarter of the campaign, and b) you have to use it in its bog-standard iron sights version first. The annoying thing is they actively trail how good this gun is by handing it to you during a stealth segment and get you all excited about using it – and then you realise that you’ll have to wait another 3 hours before you have enough experience points to even unlock it.
When put together all of these loadouts and unlocking mechanics have a single rather unfortunate downside: you only ever use one gun. You can’t pick up more guns from dead baddies, and you’re dissuaded from switching out loadouts by the fact that you’ll have to level the new gun up first. What this meant for me was that I found the gun that provided the best all-around performance — the Dingo LMG — and used that for about half the campaign. As the campaign clocks in at around 8 hours on Veteran, that is a long time to be using a single gun. I did occasionally experiment with other weapons, but as Veteran is a pretty demanding difficulty to play on (this is the installment where CoD has finally realised that simply multiplying enemy HP by a factor of two or three isn’t a great substitute for difficulty, so they’ve instead made the player much more fragile) this was actively handicapping myself and I always went back to the Dingo the next time I saw a magic loadout-changing box. I really did appreciate the options the weapons customisation gave me, but it’s implemented in such a cack-handed way that it’s only working at a fraction of its true potential.
Other additional points that don’t really fit elsewhere in the review: you can play as a female character for the first time in a CoD game (to my knowledge, anyway) and she’s even fully voiced! So that’s two steps forward for the franchise, but unfortunately it immediately then took one step back when it became apparent that they’d only recorded one set of dialogue for everyone else, and while they’ve clearly tried to avoid using gendered pronouns in the dialogue my protagonist was still referred to as “him” on several occasions. Also, there is a bit where an NPC character goes behind an unbreakable glass wall and immediately dies, which is cutscene design that I thought we’d left behind back in 2009. I guess if I had to sum up Black Ops 3 as compared to the other recent iterations of CoD I’ve played, it hits higher highs than something like Advanced Warfare — when it is firing on all cylinders it does manage to capture the creepy potential inherent in these near-future dystopias like nothing else I’ve played — but it has fewer of them, and thanks to its generally confused nature the lows are commensurately lower. Taken all together it works out to about the same: a very average FPS with some glimmers of promise, but nothing that’s going to halt the series’ slow fall from grace any time soon.
- Annoyingly this happened literally the day after I wrote the bulk of this review, meaning I’m now not so much making an observation as I am stating the bloody obvious. ↩
- The CoD series has never really been concerned with how their portrayal of the bad guys will play outside of the US. ↩
- Where the most cynical thing about it was the decreased polycount on the crowds of civilians you gun down, presumably so that they could cram more into the level. ↩