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Call of Duty: Black Ops 3 Review

by William Schwartz

Call of Duty has had an interesting problem to solve in recent years.  On one hand, Activision’s stable of developers who make the games on a rotating basis have dedicated fans who love the series for its tight, high frame rate action.  On the other, there are those who want to see meaningful changes to the series in each iteration.  The solution has been that the last three games in the Call of Duty series have been remarkably different from one another, each having their own distinct traits from the developers working on them.  With Call of Duty: Black Ops 3, Treyarch returns as this year’s developer, and continues the trend of a series that is familiar, yet still evolving, while offering the most content-rich Call of Duty game to date.

The series could be called formulaic, but radical changes to movement in last year’s Advanced Warfare ushered in a new era for Call of Duty.  Players were no longer limited by gravity.  Exo-suits had players boosting around the map, and this freedom of movement is expanded by Treyarch with the addition of wall-running and sliding alongside boost jumps and special powers in both single player, cooperative, and multiplayer game modes.  The result is a shooter that plays at a breakneck pace with fast and fluid gameplay in any mode.  There’s also a focus on customization across the entirety of the game.  Whether that’s in selecting a specialist in multiplayer and outfitting them with unique cosmetic upgrades and abilities to take on to the competitive battlefield, or in the single player campaign where players can customize skills and looks as well.

Call of Duty: Black Ops 3 Video Review

Black Ops 3 as a whole is a good mix of old and new, but its single player campaign feels different than anything that’s been tried in the series before.  While it’s as bombastic as ever, Treyarch tells a different type of story in this go round, a narrative that gets, if anything, a bit weird at times.  Scientists have developed cybernetic abilities that link solider’s brains together, allowing them to communicate, becoming the perfect killing machines.  The small print being that you might hallucinate or lose touch with reality from time to time.  Artificial intelligence has been designed and brought to the point of self awareness.  Robotics have seen great advancements and are used extensively in the battlefield.  Black Ops 3 is far more science fiction than we’ve seen from the series in the past.  While we’ve visited some dystopian futures where scientific advancements have made incredible/terrible progress, Black Ops 3 goes all-in on this premise and pivots away from the traditional good guys must get bad guy approach.  At one point you’re storming through a battlefield in World War II, in others you’re fighting a rogue soldier in giant mech, get far enough and you’ll be coddling a toddler in a lucid dream state.

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Call of Duty: Black Ops 3 is still a first person shooter and a good one, but there have been some pretty significant changes to the gameplay as it also veers away from being a straight-laced shooter, and into something more RPG-like with character customization in terms of both looks and abilities.  Players can choose to fight as either a male or female solider, and that selection is represented in things like cut scenes and voice-overs. While that will certainly appease some, the new cybernetic abilities and movement systems, and the way that they change the game are what make it more fun to play.

Special abilities, customization options and cooperative modes give the campaign legs

The Cybernetic soldiers in Black Ops 3 have plenty of special abilities.  Their are visual aids for combat, like a tactical view that will highlight enemies and relay their locations.  When in darker areas, players can use an Enhanced Vision Mode that functions similarly to night vision from previous games.  The real game-changer is the Cyber Core abilities though.  These are three distinct abilities that change the way you approach any encounter depending on which you select before heading out on a mission.  Chaos, Control, and Martial are three trees which include a variety of upgrades for each path.  Chaos, for instance, can be used to do a number of things to enemies.  You can cause enemy cybernetic systems to overload, you can burst them into flames from afar, or even send a swarm of fireflies to kill or distract them.  Control is quite different.  This branch allows you to turn enemy emplacements against them.  Things like turrets or drones can be used to defeat enemies by simply highlighting and controlling them. Finally, Martial was the ability that I liked the best.  It gave you enhanced battle abilities like time slowing mechanics and invisibility that blended the first person shooting in the best way.  Regardless, Black Ops 3 doesn’t feel like a traditional Call of Duty campaign and it has a lot to do with these abilities and the freedom of customization.

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The campaign also features a Safe House.  Here players outfit themselves for any mission they are about to embark on.  The aforementioned Cyber Cores are accessible here.  But so are things like loadouts including Gunsmith and Paintshop features, costumes, a data vault, and even a training simulator that functions like a small scale Horde Mode set in a virtual reality settings.  Black Ops 3 is certainly more ambitious in its delivery for single player, relying not only on spectacle this time around to deliver a compelling single player experience.  It can all be done with a partner or partners as well.  Up to four players can play any Black Ops 3 campaign level at any time and enemy difficulty scales with the player count.  While it’s nice to see cooperative modes returning to Call of Duty that aren’t zombies modes, all of the new weapons and abilities can make for some of the most hectic action to date.  Whether in single player or cooperative, there’s a ton of stuff to do in Black Ops 3.  Complete the single player story and you’ll get to do it all again in a mode called Nightmare mode, which is a full-blown campaign that replaces both the narrative structure and enemy units with zombies similar to those found in the traditional cooperative zombies experience.

Speaking of which, Zombies in Black Ops 3 is a return to form for the series.  While Sledgehammer did their best to re-bottle that Treyarch magic from Black Ops and Black Ops 2, it wasn’t quite as engaging as we’ve seen in the past.  Treyarch’s take is one that is set in the 1940’s and feels like an entirely different stand-alone experience from the rest of Black Ops 3.  It’s got it’s own Hollywood talent attached to the mode, including Ron Perlman, Heather Graham and others.  It gets back to the secretive nature that we’ve seen from this mode in the past, that tasks players with not only outliving the zombie horde, but to also solve puzzles, complete quests and other cryptic activities that players must work together to uncover.

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The extra time Treyarch had to make this game clearly paid off

The three years that Treyarch had to make this game clearly paid off.  They were able to do so many different things on the single player and cooperative side of things, that this feels like an entirely different series at some points.  I didn’t even mention the unlockable Dead Ops mode or Free Run Time Trials that are entirely fun to play as stand-alone experiences as well.  The bottom line is that there is a wealth of things to do in this game, even if you could care less about competitive multiplayer.  For the first time in the series, Call of Duty offers an equally compelling set of modes and options for single player or cooperative players that stacks up to the game’s popular competitive features.

That said, competitive play in Black Ops 3 is as fun and sound as ever.  The familiar high frame rate action is mixed with both traditional systems and completely new things for Call of Duty, like revamped movement mechanics and Specialist characters with unique power-ups and abilities. The Specialists are nine playable hero types that each have their own look, personality, voice, weapons, abilities and customization options.  It changes the game in that it offers players another character-specific ability that can be used during a match.  Once unlocked, you can simply choose a specialist and whether you’d like to use their weapon or ability.  These have varying effects and endless combinations can compose a team’s roster. The Prophet, for instance, has a lighting gun that can kill enemies in one shot, if a second enemy gets close to that enemy while being shocked, they’ll get chained into the kill.  Choose his ability instead, and you’ll be able to warp around the map to get out of trouble quickly.  These weapons and abilities vary between the nine specialists, and are fun to try out.  It’s hard to pick a clear favorite as they’re all fun to experiment with, but different abilities like having active camo, flamethrower, quad-barrel mini-gun, bow with explosive arrows, or a swarm of nanobots, and others at your disposal, opens up some options to the gameplay and strategy.

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Once game developers opened up Pandora’s Box for alternative movement systems in shooters we’ve seen a strong trend towards greater freedom.  Advanced Warfare introduced Exo-suits, and Treyarch takes this idea and runs with it.  Certainly different than last year’s system, players can still use thrust jumps to get vertical, but power slides, fast-mantling, and wall-running have all been added to the game and the movement feels great on the tightly designed maps with these mechanics in mind.  The movement system makes this year’s game feel faster than ever, and despite having all these traversal options available, you’re always just a trigger press away from getting a kill.  The movement system has gotten more complex and opens many different options for how to use the environment, but competitive Black Ops 3 still relies on head to head action and the movement system doesn’t really take away from this in any of the games popular returning modes or new ones.  We tested a number of the traditional Call of Duty modes.  Search and Destroy, Capture the Flag, Kill Confirmed, Team Deathmatch, Hardpoint, Uplink, and others.  While there was one new one called Safeguard as well, that functioned something like a President mode that required teams to prevent or accompany a robot to predetermined location.

These modes can be played in public lobbies or in custom matches with bots.  Bot difficulty levels can be tweaked to skill level of the player, but experienced Call of Duty players won’t have much trouble with the bottom three tiers. The hardest tier, however, feels more like what you would experience in a live public match.  Custom Games does have more options than we’ve seen before.  Hosts can set and configure almost every rule in the game, including things like health regeneration, score streak requirements, and others.  The only thing really lacking from the competitive space in Call of Duty is more hardcore modes.  There are far less than we’ve seen in previous years, and it’s unclear if Treyarch will add some of those back in for fans of that playlist.

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Call of Duty has been getting less static in recent years by offering players loads of customization options.  Black Ops 2 introduced the Pick 10 system for creating custom classes, and it returns for Black Ops 3.  This essentially allows players to pick any ten items from their armory to take into battle.  This can be any combination of perks, primary and secondary weapons, attachments for weapons, or tactical and lethal grenades.  It wasn’t broken in Black Ops 2, but the only significant change to this is in being able to equip up to five attachments on a weapon.    Going hand in hand with the Pick 10 system are the Paintshop and Gunsmith aspects of customization.  Paintshop allows you to create custom gun skins, giving players a layer editor to make anything they can dream up.  While Gunsmith allows players to make different weapons and save them to load-up quickly into created classes.  Taking that customization further players can also customize specialists with cosmetic items that distinguish them on the battlefield.  This funnels all the way down to things like after-action screen taunts, if getting the kill cam wasn’t enough. Where Advanced Warfare offered Supply Drops as an added incentive built into the leveling systems for that game.  Black Ops 3 introduces the Black Market.  Crypto Currency is earned in-game to exchange at the Black Market vendor from the game’s single player story, who will sell normal and rare supply caches.  These caches include cosmetic upgrades and skins for weapons and outfits, as well as rare pieces which can be collected to form sets.   Again, another way to further enhance the customization aspect of the game.  Basically, customization in Black Ops 3 is the culmination of many of the features we’ve seen in recent entries into one of the most robust offerings to date.  Just about everything, in every aspect of this game can be customized as you see fit.  Codcasting tools, Theater Mode, and Arena must all be mentioned as well, since Call of Duty does have a very strong competitive community.  Arena in particular sees a brand new set of rules to the most competitive is multiplayer spaces.  Giving players pre-match tools to block and deny different specialists, weapons, or items from any match in a system that we’ve seen from popular competitive MOBAs.

It’s not a huge surprise that there’s this much depth to Black Ops 3 multiplayer.  Many still hold Black Ops 2 as the best game in the series when it comes to competitive online action.  Specialists, while they may be somewhat controversial, are integrated carefully.  Movement feels like a natural evolution, and there’s plenty to play, unlock, and customize.  Again, it all comes back to multiplayer being a portion of the game that feels refined and stocked full of content due to the developers getting more time to spend on the game.

The Verdict

Call of Duty: Black Ops 3 is absolutely stuffed to the brim with content on all fronts, and nearly none of it feels like filler.  Changes to single player and the addition of new cooperative modes make the campaign feel like less of an afterthought than it has in recent years, and gives players plenty of reasons to come back and play it again.  Treyarch stays at the head of the class with Black Ops 3 competitive multiplayer and zombies modes as well.  While three years has given us some time to possibly forget how masterfully crafted Black Ops 2 was, Black Ops 3 is both the biggest and best Call of Duty game we’ve seen since then.

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loved

Call of Duty: Black Ops 3

  • Available On: PS4, Xbox One, PC, PS3, X360
  • Published By: Activision
  • Developed By: Treyarch
  • Genre: First Person Shooter
  • US Release Date: November 6th, 2015
  • Reviewed On: PS4/PC
  • Quote: "While three years has given us some time to possibly forget how masterfully crafted Black Ops 2 was, Black Ops 3 is both the biggest and best Call of Duty game we’ve seen since then."
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