Call Of Duty: Black Ops III
Wait, you mean Call Of Duty hasn’t always had robots? Those brainless automatons we’ve been fighting for a decade – the ones that spawn from the ether, firing guns they never need to reload, pausing only to sprint guilelessly across open ground or throw a grenade right onto your toenails? They were supposed to be humans? The gags write themselves, but adding actual robots to a singleplayer game that has always felt robotic is, on first inspection, a curious decision indeed, one that suggests a certain lack of self-awareness on the part of the developer. Later, you realise Treyarch knows exactly what it’s doing, the robots feeling like a knowing wink from a studio unafraid to acknowledge Call Of Duty’s problems.
Yet it is not the references to a game being played, the narrative justification of your superpowers and HUD elements, or the reskinning of robotic enemies as robots that most accurately define what Black Ops III is. Instead, it’s the way Treyarch has attempted to mend Call Of Duty’s split personality, to harmonise its vastly different component parts: a weekend-long singleplayer campaign, and endless competitive multiplayer.
Treyarch’s been doing it for a while, really, with Zombies mode, which has grown from World At War’s fourplayer distraction into something many now consider to be the headline act. It’s easy to see why. Its campaign has real star power, with Jeff Goldblum, Ron Perlman, Heather Graham and Neal McDonough lending their voices and faces to the four protagonists. It is packed with systems and secrets – perks to find and unlock, loot chests to plunder, rituals to perform, a crafting mechanic. And it has a setting all of its own, a film-noir ’50s city with a corkscrewing layout and plenty of Dark Souls- esque shortcuts. This is lavish, deep, thoroughly enjoyable stuff, and it’s little surprise to see its influence creeping into the campaign itself.
Sadly, results here are mixed. There are times when the new fourplayer co-op works brilliantly, but the opportunity to widen COD’s signature corridors is too often squandered. One large semicircular arena with a big tank plopped in the middle is much like any other, and you’ll be seeing these a lot. Your cybernetic abilities, meanwhile, are split into three trees, only one of which can be equipped at a time. It allows for variety and synergy in co-op, but frustrates when you’re playing alone and take a suboptimal skillset into battle (preping for robot enemies before fighting a room of humans, say). Loadouts can be changed at weapon crates, but they’re placed before gunfights, not during them – once you make a choice, you’re stuck with it.
Still, the abilities themselves liven up COD’s annual six-hour procession of destruction, letting you hack, disorient and blow up the enemy with a suite of upgradeable powers bound to a single cooldown. They still can’t save one of the weakest COD campaigns in years, a drab procession of familiar beats that, despite the short runtime, outstays its welcome. Showy powers, co-op and broader level design are all well and good, but the game beneath all that is much the same every year, and isn’t ripening with age. It says a lot that you can deploy a swarm of exploding robot flies while running across a billboard and still feel like you’ve seen it all before. Ideas from a weathered template – turrets, cockpits, breach-and-clears – are cut out and slapped into place. Elsewhere you shoot static, brainless foes until none are left, then walk forward to do it again. When it’s over, Treyarch’s zombification effort continues with Nightmares mode, which takes levels from the campaign, replaces dialogue with narration and swaps normal enemies with undead that spawn under your feet and kill you in two hits. Buried within a submenu, meanwhile, is Dead Ops Arcade 2, a top-down twin-stick shooter. There is certainly plenty to do.
Most will ignore all that and head straight to multiplayer, of course, and this year COD’s signature mode bears a distinct whiff of Destiny. Treyarch’s Specialists are essentially Bungie’s subclasses. Super moves borrow Destiny’s button mapping and, in many cases, functionality (a one-hit-kill pistol, a ground pound, a self-resurrection). Traditional killstreak rewards remain, but are harder to come by – a ruinous source of frustration in any previous COD, but much easier to stomach when you’re guaranteed a super or two each match. There’s even RNG, with black-market loot chests that yield random gun and gear skins.
Sadly, it has also borrowed the grind. Level up your character or a gun and you receive a token to spend on a new attachment, perk or toy – providing you satisfy the level requirement. Reaching the level cap of 55 will solve the latter hitch, but you stop gaining tokens as soon as you reach it. If you want everything, you’re going to have to Prestige (hit max level, then reset to level one) ten times. Thankfully, even the starter guns are punchy enough to make you feel competitive. Weapons are well balanced, maps are intelligently designed around wallrunning and double-jumping, and once you acclimatise to the pace, it’s tremendously satisfying.
For many, that will be more than enough. But as a package, Black Ops III is a muddle. It is packed to the gills with things, certainly, but none of it joins up. Weapons must be individually levelled up in the campaign, multiplayer and Zombies modes; movement options and skillset vary wildly across the different strands. It’s generous, yes, and there is a tremendous amount to like, but Black Ops III does not mend COD’s split personality, it makes it worse. Treyarch’s attempt to harmonise campaign and multiplayer yields some fine work in isolation, but when you put all the parts together, there’s more discord than ever.