Call Of Duty: Black Ops III

EDGE - - PLAY - Tre­yarch Ac­tivi­sion 360, PC, PS3, PS4 (version tested), Xbox One Out now

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.

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