Call of Duty: Black Ops III Review

By Brandon Fusco,
Please Note:This review is for the PS4 version of Call of Duty: Black Ops III. At the very least, the PS3 version of the game doesn't feature a campaign at all, so this review likely won't apply to that game.

Back in 2005, Treyarch was brought on to be the second developer of the Call of Duty franchise. For quite some time they lived in the shadow of Infinity Ward, but that all changed with the release of Call of Duty: Black Ops in 2010. The developer was catapulted into the spotlight with a title that maintained the great action characteristics of the series while creating an engrossing personal narrative, refining the multiplayer mode, and doubling down on the zombies mode that put World at War on the map. Call of Duty: Black Ops III is finally upon us, and it's time to see if Treyarch retains its title as the top developer in the Call of Duty stable.

More like Call of Duty: Chasing Black Ops IIIMore like "Call of Duty: Chasing Black Ops III

The most recent entry in the series has managed a varying degree of success across its play modes, but what was hopefully going to be the most prominent, the campaign, is by far the weakest. The story is messy and disorganized at best, and formulaic, unpleasant, and boring at worst. Information is very rarely passed on to the player in a timely manner, if at all. During the first few minutes alone, references are made to the Winslow Accord, the NRC, and the D.E.A.D. system. While the Winslow Accord and D.E.A.D. system come from Black Ops II, the game doesn't bother to refresh players in any way. There is a complete failure to clarify what the acronym NRC stands for, let alone this new group's ideals, before you mow them down in droves. It isn't until later missions when you can find a tiny United States flag on the uniforms that it even becomes clear from where the main characters originate.

This extends beyond the logistics of the story. What effort is put into making an emotional connection is ham-fisted. Characters appear to form bonds and emotional connections almost out of nowhere. Almost the entire campaign follows your team as they chase down a renegade black ops team. The game frequently tries to draw parallels between that team and yourself to instill sympathy for their plight, but your character is never sympathetic despite the team's understandably unfortunate circumstances. Following the story of a group that is trying to hold it together while being hunted down does sound like it could have been an enthralling tale that is in line with the original Black Ops' story. However, the way that the story is told means that it instead feels like the main character is an ancillary regular soldier chasing down a far more interesting and mysterious black ops team. The late game has some more interesting elements to it, but the stakes felt higher for future game installments than it did for the current story or its poorly formed characters.

Would you rather go on missions with this man, or chase after him?Would you rather go on missions with this man, or chase after him?

While there are clearly intentions towards developing emotion, more often these attempts appear to revolve around particularly gruesome moments that are equally unearned. The witnessing of prisoners being tortured leaves you with no reason to be concerned about their wellbeing since you know nothing about these people. In a later instance, a particularly gruesome kill draws a lot of rage from the voice actor. Ironically, this sounds appropriate out of context, but there's no building of that rage in the events that lead up to that point. The game is riddled with brutal instances like this where your attention is intentionally drawn to the gore, but where the game completely fails to justify them, resulting in scenes that are unaware and cringe-worthy in the worst kind of way.

The gameplay in the campaign doesn't fare any better. While the tools you are given are interesting and fun to use, the nature of the loadout system means that, aside from the tutorial section, no part of the game can require you to use a particular ability. Similarly, enemy encounters can't require any one piece of equipment and largely revolve around mowing down swarms of enemies. Worst of all is a section where you fly in a VTOL fighter jet, but you are restricted to on rails shooting for most of the combat. While the shooting mechanics are fun, the clear promise present in the mechanics and game play spaces only serve to reinforce the disappointment that there isn't something more here.

Wall running is fun, but it is rare after the tutorial.Wall running is fun, but it is rare after the tutorial.

These play spaces, which are open and have verticality to them allowing for a little more flexibility to encounters, are a highlight, however. This variety is a welcome change, especially considering the four player cooperative mode, but it also highlights just how mundane these encounters are. By contrast, the levels themselves are filled with colorful, vibrant locations. The few instances that take place in a VR type environment are exceptional, putting the player in situations that play with the bounds of reality.

Similarly entertaining is the revamped zombies mode. Aside from the most basic of mechanics, such as boarding up windows, unlocking doors, and buying weapons, most of the mode has had an overhaul. When starting a match of zombies, a cinematic lays the ground work for the four people as whom you can play. A new "Shadowman" talks to the team throughout the adventure and creates a bit of a mythos around the events that are unfolding. The atmosphere is fantastic and the voice acting that is lent by Ron Perlman and Jeff Goldblum helps make the world compelling.

Zombies has a gorgeous setting.Zombies has a gorgeous setting.

Revamped mechanics are also on display, including a new "Beast Mode" drawing from the Afterlife system in Black Ops II, which allows players to change into a grotesque creature with special abilities for a short period of time by using special altars scattered throughout the level. Unlike Afterlife, this doesn't trigger upon death, and the zombies will still attack the beast, but a new set of abilities offset these changes. While the beast retains an electrifying attack that can be used to charge electrical objects, a new grapple ability can draw enemies to you and offers the ability to scale buildings to certain points of interest. Coupling these skills with a devastating melee attack that can break through certain barriers is necessary for finding the summoning artifacts that serve as the primary objective in this mode.

Zombies now has its own player level and custom class system allowing players to set builds before the match, and a new flying enemy type appeared early on in place of the usual dogs which was a nice surprise. There are other aspects to Zombies that seemed promising, but a bug with connecting online meant that a successful connection only happened once. What lies beyond the first ten rounds or so is hard to say, but hopefully this problem will be rectified soon.

Can you survive the creatures of darkness?Can you survive the creatures of darkness?

Multiplayer has also received a little love, though not as much as it first appears. Custom Loadouts are available right from the start allowing you to jump right in, although your choices are painfully limited at first. The newest method of customization is the specialist. There are nine specialists in the game, although only four are available until you reach level 21 and the starting characters still have to be unlocked using tokens that are earned from leveling up before they can all be tried. These specialists allow you to take one of two special abilities into battle, which charge over time before they can be unleashed. Using them can be empowering but, before long, they wind up feeling like an extension of the score streak system than a mechanic in their own right.

Aside from this, the rest of multiplayer is pretty standard Call of Duty fare. While the inclusion of wall running appears useful, balancing its value against the dangers of its conspicuous use tend to relegate it to non-combat applications such as shortcuts. The clambering and scaling that is carried over from Advanced Warfare is more useful, allowing for quick sneak attacks or entrance into less active parts of buildings.

Shooting people with exploding arrows is fun, but it isn't a special experienceShooting people with exploding arrows is fun, but it isn't a special experience

This isn't a bad thing, since Call of Duty's particular brand of multiplayer is still solid. The map selection is pretty good, with a set of maps that are less sprawling, denser, and more vertical than prior entries, qualities which make gameplay a little more tense while rewarding tactical awareness. Score streaks are largely the same, although a few interesting additions that are based on drone technology are present, such as a swarm of rolling mines that seem to take the place of the dog pack from previous games. Custom classes are largely the same, building on the "pick 10" system that has now become standard in one form or another throughout the series. There are 13 different modes to play; some of them are tweaked and most of them are enjoyable, but none of them new. Even though the mobility of the game isn't quite up to par with front-runner Titanfall, it's still as fun and entertaining as it ever was provided you haven't already played it into the ground at some point in the past ten years.

The trophy list for Black Ops 3 is made up mostly from campaign and Zombies goals, with only four multiplayer specific trophies, two of which are based in leveling up and two that require you to earn as many as five Specialist medals in a match. Within the campaign and zombies are trophies of all sorts. Some simply require completion of a certain mission or area, while others require a task be performed under certain circumstances. These can range from the difficult to the humorous. Compared to previous games, the campaign trophies may be a little more time consuming than normal because it has a separate level system, and attaining certain upgrades may be necessary. The toughest test by far is likely to be completing the game on Realistic mode in which a single direct shot can kill.

Does this feel familiar? So does the trophy list.Does this feel familiar? So does the trophy list.

It's also important to note that a save glitch was experienced that only partially recorded mission completion and permanently set a checkpoint on a particular mission. This may or may not glitch trophies associated with completing missions. Leaving a mission meant losing all progress within that mission, so this could be problematic for completing missions on higher difficulties since they may have to be played in a single sitting.

Summary

Call of Duty: Black Ops III is potentially the densest in the series when measured in numbers, but the quality of that content isn't up to par. Multiplayer still packs a quality competitive experience and the few additions do add some variety, but it does little to freshen things up for experienced players. Zombies appears to have a lot of promise, but a matchmaking bug hobbles the enjoyment unless you always have four friends available. By far the worst mode, the campaign is a disjointed disaster punctuated by interesting visual design and is certainly not worth the 8-10 hours to complete it, especially when potentially losing level progress due to a save bug. Campaign fans should avoid this, multiplayer fans could enjoy this, and zombies fans should be cautious. For those who haven't kept up with Call of Duty, this is the wrong entry with which to begin.
2.5 / 5
Call of Duty: Black Ops III
Positives
  • Multiplayer is still good fun
  • Fleshed out zombies
Negatives
  • Hollow, boring campaign
  • No big changes to multiplayer
  • Matchmaking bug hobbles Zombies experience
Ethics
The review was written using Playstation 4 copy that was personally purchased by the reviewer. Brandon spent roughly ten hours playing campaign, five hours in multiplayer, and a little over an hour playing Zombies. During this time, he only unlocked 9 of the game's 48 trophies. Aside from trophy hunting, there's little drawing him back to this game.
Brandon Fusco
Written by Brandon Fusco
Brandon is an Editor and TGN's Host with the Most. The most what? The most opinions, the most understanding wife, and the most *funny cat videos. Previously Host of the Trophy Talk Podcast. (*Not Verified)