Call of Duty faces the same problem year after year: how do you keep an annual franchise from growing stale? Over the last couple of years the answer has been to take warfare to the future, and Treyarch's Call of Duty: Black Ops 3 follows that pattern. By taking the franchise further in the future than it's ever gone before, the game uses cyborg soldiers, drone hacking and thruster packs to deliver some fresh experiences that make Black Ops 3 stand out from previous entries in the franchise.
At its core, Call of Duty: Black Ops 3 is three games in one. As always, there is the loud, set-piece-driven story campaign. Then there is the addictive multiplayer, the feature that keeps players coming back year-after-year to this now annual franchise. And last but not least there is the relatively new zombies, which is quickly becoming a staple of the franchise.
As three separate experiences, we'll be looking at each mode individually, breaking down the pros and cons of each before offering our final conclusion.
Treyarch's Black Ops sub-series of Call of Duty titles has always been known for its crazy, conspiracy theory-laced plotlines and giant twists. Black Ops 3 tries to do much the same, but instead of "what just happened?" moments of shock or surprise, you're more often than not just trying to figure out what is going on.
This is in part because of the game's far future setting. The game takes place for the most part in the year 2070, where mechanically-augmented super soldiers roam the battlefield fighting against robotic armies and the world is in a constant state of upheaval. After one of the most brutal opening levels in the franchise's history - which includes several scenes of torture and the de-limbing of the main character - players join a team of cybernetic soldiers.
Thanks to the help of the DNI (Direct Neural Interface) installed in your brain and some robotic limbs, players can communicate with other Black Ops members around the world, hack drones, release swarms of nano-bots that light people on fire and use a number of other crazy abilities that sound like science fiction but could (maybe) one day be used in real-world military operations.
The potential is all there for a captivating story, but Treyarch simply can't deliver on its lofty ideas. Much of problem with the narrative derives from the fact that it's often unclear where you are, who you are fighting or why. Because the game takes place so far in the future, everything is unfamiliar.
The game constantly bombards players with fictional organization names like "The Winslow Accord" or "Nile River Coalition," yet Treyarch never bothers to explain the state of the world or why these various factions are at war with one another. The result is a narrative that attempts to deliver big ideas about A.I., immortality and what it means to be human, but falls flat on its face from lack of competent storytelling.
Gameplay-wise, Campaign fares better, though some design choices still hold it back. Players have more freedom than ever before to choose how they want to battle through environments, thanks to the game's new wall-running and thruster packs. The downside to this is that more freedom means fewer memorable action set-pieces that the series is known for, sacrificing these memorable moments for the ability to tackle objectives in a variety of ways. While Call of Duty has often been criticized for its linear gameplay, Black Ops 3 could have used more of it.
New enemy types also sound like a welcome addition in theory, but come off as more frustrating than fun. Heavily armored soldiers known as Warlords can take hundreds of bullets and dozens of explosives to kill, and robotic enemies absorb more bullets than the normal quick-kill humans. A number of late-game "simulation" levels feature enemies who can teleport around the battlefield and who spawn seemingly from nowhere, making these levels (especially on higher difficulties) needlessly infuriating.
It's a shame, because Black Op 3's campaign does a number of things right, many of them a first for the series. Players can now fully customize their character in single player, which includes personalizing weapons, accessories, cyber abilities, and character looks in the form of faces, helmets and outfits. This customization happens in the game's new Safe House hub, an in-between-missions area where players can view mission data, customize their character and prepare for their next battle.
This is also the first time that a Call of Duty campaign is playable with four people. It doesn't change the dynamics of the campaign much whether you play alone or with three friends, but it's nice to have the option to play with others. It should be noted that finishing the campaign unlocks a second, zombie-filled campaign that re-uses environments from the main story, but adds new dialogue and enemies. In some ways, the "extra" zombie campaign is more entertaining than the real one.
Competitive multiplayer is by far what the vast majority of Call of Duty fans pay money for, and it is in this department that Black Ops 3 soars. The tried-and-true loadout customization returns here, featuring new weapons, killstreaks, perks and more, but this time around Treyarch has fused the standard Call of Duty multiplayer experience with ideas pulled from class-based shooters like Destiny.
In addition to crafting your loadouts and killstreaks like usual, players can also choose from nine "Specialists", each equipped with two unique abilities. Think of these abilities as an additional killstreak of sorts. As you rack up kills and the match countdown clock ticks by, your special ability meter will fill up. Once your meter is full, you'll be able to activate a powerful ability that can give you a serious advantage in combat. Some specialists, like Seraph, gain a powerful one-hit kill weapon, while others, like Prophet, can turn back time.
While these may sound over-powered, in an average match a player may only have the opportunity to use their special two or three times. Players can easily be killed while using these abilities as well. Just because you activate your super doesn't mean you're invincible -- you still have to play well to take advantage of them.
Luckily, skilled players have more options than ever before thanks to new wall-running and thruster jump mechanics. Maps are designed with these navigational abilities in mind and using them is a blast. Whether it's sniping an unsuspecting foe while wall-running or boost jumping onto a platform and out of harm's way, Black Ops 3's multiplayer ranks among the best of the series. It's more fast-paced than ever before, but it's also deeper in its complexity than the entries that came before.
Fans of the franchise will have plenty to dig into here, and discovering how to best partner Specialist abilities with certain game modes and loadouts should keep players who love experimenting busy for a long, long time. Pile on near limitless customization features in the form of the new paint-job system for weapons and the gunsmith, and you have the richest Call of Duty multiplayer experience to date.
Compared to multiplayer and campaign, Zombies in many ways feels like the safest of the three modes. If you've played previous Zombie modes in the original Black Ops or Black Ops 2, you know what to expect here, albeit with a few new twists. Players unlock new areas of the map by spending points earned by killing zombies and completing rounds. You unlock weapons on the walls by spending credits, or you can spend credits to board up windows and barriers to slow down the undead hordes.
It's all a fun, if by the numbers, experience, but a few new abilities change it up from previous installments. A new "Gobblegum" station lets players spend credits for power-ups in the form of bubblegum, while ritual chalice's scattered throughout the map will transform players into a grotesque, super-powerful monster known as "The Beast".
The real charm of Zombies comes in the form of its various celebrity characters. Jeff Goldblum, Ron Perlman, Heather Graham and Neal McDonough are all brought to life in the game's "Shadows of Evil" map. Their comments while fighting the undead (or transforming into a tentacle monster) are often laugh out loud funny, adding to the overall sense of not-so-serious fun that Treyarch's zombie mode has always captured so well.
Whether or not you'll enjoy Black Ops 3 boils down to what modes you plan on playing the most, for each experience truly feels separate from each other. If you play Call of Duty for the single-player campaign, Black Ops 3 ranks among its worst, even with welcome additions like player customization, cooperative play, special abilities and the Safe House.
If, however, you've come for the game's signature multiplayer or addictive zombies mode, you won't be disappointed. The new ways of traversing maps and the addition of Specialists breathe new life into Call of Duty multiplayer, while zombies is gore-filled good time, making the game's more multiplayer centric modes among the best the franchise has ever offered.