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Call of Duty: Black Ops III

Score: 80%
ESRB: Mature
Publisher: Activision
Developer: Treyarch
Media: Blu-ray/1
Players: 1 - 2 (Local); 2 - 18 (Online)
Genre: Action/ First Person Shooter/ Online

Graphics & Sound:

Call of Duty: Black Ops III takes more risks than weíre used to seeing from the long-running military first person shooter series. Some of them pay off, while others donít. This yearís Zombies Mode is so creative that it turns out to be, by far, the best it's ever been. On the flip side, the Single Player Campaign ranks among the worst of the core series. And comfortably in the middle is the competitive Multiplayer suite, which is largely content with the status quo.

Itís been a long time since weíve had nothing but neutral grays and browns in our annualized triple-A military first person shooters, and Call of Duty: Black Ops III does its best to get the series away from that reputation. It largely succeeds, too: it jumps at every opportunity to stand out from the crowd by embracing its science fiction aesthetic. Imagine the dystopian cityscapes of Deus Ex, but with a more diversified color palette, and you have a good idea of what this game looks like. Between the future guns, the cybernetic enhancements, and the legion of varied robotic infantry (friendly and otherwise), Black Ops III fully commits to its cyberpunk trappings. Technically, itís about par for the course. It runs fantastically smoothly and features some impressive motion capture work, though the faces retain some of that uncanny valley quality that keeps it from holding up to scrutiny.

Sound design is top notch across the board. While the gunfire and explosions donít really sound any different than they did since Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, the different setting and cybernetic enhancements mean youíre going to be hearing a lot of electronic noise. Despite what you may think, itís not all cacophony; in fact, the most subtle sounds are the most impressive. Jack Wall (Mass Effect) serves as composer, and while his work isnít as instantly identifiable or memorable as it is in BioWareís space epic, it gets the job done. Voice acting is good, considering the material the cast has to work with. The likes of Christopher Meloni (Law & Order: SVU, True Blood) and Katee Sackhoff (Battlestar Galactica) are your celebrity performances du jour for the campaign, but the choices for Zombies are truly inspired: Neal McDonough, Jeff Goldblum, Ron Perlman, and Heather Graham throw themselves into the silliness with hammy glee, and thereís a wonderful chemistry. And threaded throughout most of the modes is a mysterious character played by Robert Picardo (Star Trek: Voyager), who I sincerely hope returns.


Gameplay:

The year is 2065. Our world has changed, thanks to global scale climate change and the automation of almost everything weíve come to associate with work in general. War has changed, as well, with private militaries and robotic infantry units alike taking to the field of battle for whichever side owns them. You are one of these covert operatives, though you are flesh and blood. This changes, however, when a rescue mission in Ethiopia goes pear-shaped and an encounter with a robot leaves you mutilated. Cybernetic augmentation is your only hope for survival; you are given shiny new robotic appendages and a Direct Neural Interface (DNI), which allows you to communicate with machinery. In the aftermath of a devastating but mysterious explosion in Singapore, you are sent to investigate a CIA black site that has gone dead. The results of the investigation launch you and your buddy Hendricks into a global manhunt for former allies who appear to have gone rogueÖ

Letís get the bad out of the way first. Call of Duty: Black Ops IIIís Campaign is rubbish. The story starts at the middling sort of jingoistic "letís go get the bad guys, oorah!" attitude that most of the series has settled with over the last decade, takes a detour through conspiracy city, and ends with an agonizing onslaught of pseudo-intellectual, pretentious nonsense that had me and my co-op partner cringing and laughing hysterically. Donít get me wrong: it still has all the gameplay elements weíve come to expect. Rail shooting sequences break up the standard suppress-and-advance style of shooting, and you get your chance to pilot a deadly VTOL. Hell, you can even tackle it with up to three friends. But the inept storytelling and abysmal pace make this hands down the worst Call of Duty campaign in years.

If the vanilla Campaign wasnít weird enough for you, Nightmares will certainly fit the bill. This mode is a retelling of the main story that forgoes the geopolitical potboiler and science fiction hokum in favor of the occult. As if this series didnít already have enough of that. But more content is always welcome, and Nightmares definitely extends the life of the game.

Once you get past the Campaign, youíre in the clear; everything else Call of Duty: Black Ops III has to offer is great. Competitive play is as exciting and rewarding as itís ever been, though not much is new. It still offers a deep, customizable experience that has something to offer shooter fans of all kinds. Modes span the classic range of kill and objective-based game types, and every positive action you complete rewards you with experience. Level up, earn new gear, and complete the cycle several times over. And with the gameplay being as twitchy and challenging as itís ever been, it makes for an experience that, while not revolutionary in the slightest, remains powerfully addictive.

Zombies is the big surprise in Call of Duty: Black Ops III. Since World at War, nearly every core release in this franchise has featured some sort of Zombies variant Ė and Iíve found nearly all of them boring. This yearís release sees some drastic changes to the formula, and all of them are welcome. Letís start with the setting and theme, which is a Lovecraftian horror / film noir hybrid set in the 1940's. You read that right. Treyarch has left the Nazis and generic horror behind in favor of art deco and Cthulhu. Thereís a story woven into the madness, and it involves a curse befalling our four main survivors, but you have to really be paying attention. Not just for the benefit of the campy story, but to figure out just what the hell youíre supposed to do. This is a complicated, difficult gameplay experience that has you not only gunning down legions of the undead, but completing obscure objectives, collecting bizarre items, and opening new parts of the map (which is titled "Shadows of Evil"). I canít spoil any more than I already have. Just play it.


Difficulty:

This series has always stuck to its guns in terms of challenge factor Ė until now. Call of Duty: Black Ops III actually makes a change to its standard spread of difficulty levels, and itís one that should appeal to masochists. With the addition of Realistic difficulty, Treyarch has taken the phrase "you will not survive" to a completely different level. Fans who are used to plowing through each Campaign on Veteran will find an enhanced challenge that should put their twitch skills and tactical thinking to the test.

Competitive play is, of course, wildly different each time you get into a match; itís fire and ice all the time. You can go from the top of the world to lower than the lowest scrub within a matter of minutes. And thatís how it should be; this is Call of Duty, after all.

Thereís no mild way to put this: Zombies is incredibly brutal. Itís hard enough contending with the shambling masses, but when you consider the actual objectives scattered across Morg City and how theyíre barely explained, it becomes a completely different game entirely. A word of advice: play with someone who knows what theyíre doing. Your mind will be blown several times, but youíll have a better go of it than if you went in completely blind.


Game Mechanics:

For the most part, Call of Duty: Black Ops III plays just like any other Call of Duty game. Itís the same game of follow-the-waypoint and shoot-everything-that-moves that itís always been, but there are some new tools at your disposal. And weíre not just talking about the guns, though they are invariably fun to use.

No, weíre talking about cybernetics. Not so much the cybernetics defined by Norbert Wiener in the late 1940's. Black Ops III essentially defines cybernetics as "superpowers." Once you get past the prologue mission and undergo the cybernetic enhancement surgery, you are given three cybercores, each of which is a discipline of cybernetic abilities. There are three: Martial, Control, and Chaos. Each core contains a handful of special applications that, when utilized properly, can turn the tide of a battle or transform it into even more of a lopsided one than before. But you can only have one core equipped at a time; you canít enhance your speed and be capable of dispensing a swarm of fiery nanobots at the same time. You have to judge each engagement and be able to switch out at a nearby mobile armory if you need to.

Cybernetics arenít available in Competitive Play for balancing reasons, but everyone has an expanded suite of mobility options. While the incredible agility of the soldiers in Advanced Warfare is toned down a good bit, you can still slide and jetpack around with ease. Furthermore, you can wallrun to reach new places or get the drop on enemy ground forces. Wallrunning in Black Ops III is nowhere near as fast or as thrilling as it is in Titanfall, but the option is nice.

In Competitive Play, special abilities manifest themselves in the Specialist system. Each one has a specific callsign and a specific power weapon or ability (never both at once) that begins cooling down at the beginning of each match. Performing well shaves time off the cooldown, but you're guaranteed to be able to use it at least once each match. Abilities vary by specialist, and some are better than others, but this system definitely keeps things interesting.

Zombies retains several of the core mechanics established in games long past; youíll still be headshotting zombies and repairing barriers for points and grabbing dropped powerups, but thereís much more to it this time around. Silhouettes on the walls are still where you buy your guns and ammo, and gated areas can be opened by spending points, so the core is mostly unchanged. Perks can be unlocked by accessing special areas and buying Gobblegum (which awards you one of a customizable set of bonuses). But in order to progress through the self-contained story, youíll need to find a series of items and then complete a series of rituals. This often involves transforming into a monster and using its tentacles and electrical attacks to grapple to unreachable areas and power up dead generators. Itís super weird, but super awesome.

I donít think any Call of Duty game has left me so bitterly divided as this one. The ideas are good, if not innovative, and in many key ways it feels like a subtle evolution of the series. But the Campaign left such a bad taste in my mouth that it threatened to taint the rest of the game for me. Ultimately, my recommendation regarding Call of Duty: Black Ops III comes down to the question of what you want out of it.


-FenixDown, GameVortex Communications
AKA Jon Carlos

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