Call of Duty developer Treyarch is ‘back in black,’ looking to repeat another resonating success with one of gaming’s most animated communities. In 2012, the Santa Monica-based studio surprised us with what was perhaps the boldest step forward for the series since the original Modern Warfare. Black Ops 2 not only brought Call of Duty to new heights, it also became the franchise’s new standard-bearer for content, packing in a multi-layered single-player campaign, a bigger-than-ever zombies mode, and the most feature-rich multiplayer experience of its time.
With an extra year of development time and a jump to more powerful hardware, it’s perhaps no surprise that Black Ops 3 out-does its predecessor in almost every way. Though not all of its innovations might be seen as forward-moving, Treyarch’s latest is easily the series’ most complete and fulfilling Call of Duty package to-date.
For starters, the campaign has been re-worked to take advantage of four-player online co-op or two-player split-screen, which has a noticeable impact on the flow of the traditionally linear Call of Duty story mode. Black Ops 3’s campaign isn’t open-world by any means, but combat spaces now provide more room to maneuver and more options to take advantage of, breaking the corridor shooter stereotype. You’ll often find the extra firepower from co-op partners quite helpful, too. Some enemies will put up a tougher fight than you might imagine, though I wish it were because of more complex mechanics, rather than an overabundance of hit points.
Instead, the complexity lies in Black Ops 3’s new movement and ability systems. As you progress through the campaign’s ranks and earn Fabrication Kits, you’ll unlock a wide range of Cybercore Abilities organized into three different skill trees: Control, Martial, and Chaos. Think Crysis’ Nanosuit abilities, but for more specific scenarios. While some moves will wreak havoc on robotic systems, others will seriously mess up a human enemy’s day.
Wall running and boost jumping also open up more options, though I often found surfing walls more valuable in getting to places quickly, rather than finding new angles of attack. Oddly, the ability to boost jump is also hidden away as an upgrade option that can be quite hard to find. Believe it or not, it took me up until the second last campaign level to figure out that I needed to push Triangle on the “Traversal Enhancement” Tac-Rig module in order to unlock it.
Black Ops 3’s campaign doesn’t stop at the credits, however. Completing it will unlock an ‘almost’ well-kept secret called Nightmares mode, also playable with four players online or with two players on the same console. It takes you through the same levels but in a different order and with all new dialogue, telling an alternate story that revolves around the undead. As you can imagine, enemies are replaced with zombies and your character is tasked with figuring out how it all went down. It’s absurd and seems a little out of place at first, but it’s a heck-of-a-lot of fun.
Other distractions include customization of your loadout and exploration of the time and setting in which Black Ops 3 takes place while kicking back in the Safehouse. Once you’re through with all that, why not try for a high score in the top-down, twin-stick zombies shooter, Dead Ops Arcade 2?
The story will leave you scratching your head, but, overall, Black Ops 3’s campaign makes meaningful changes to the formula and does a great job exploring new territory.
Between Nightmares and Dead Ops Arcade 2, we’ve already counted two modes dedicated to the undead without even mentioning the main course, Shadows of Evil.
Set in an alternate, film-noire-inspired 1940’s, the map itself is overwhelmingly large at first, but can eventually be traversed quickly via train. Strewn throughout the busy environments are plenty of items to find, traps to initiate, and weapons to buy. New enemy types make it one of the series’ most challenging zombies mode yet while a bigger emphasis on puzzle-solving and easter eggs will make it one of the series’ most intricate.
Support for zombies has also stepped up a notch. Theater mode now records all zombies matches and weapon pick-ups can be customized via the main menu. In addition, new “Gobblegum” perks can be unlocked or created in Dr. Monty’s Factory and then transferred into a customizable set that your player can equip in-game. Best of all, four-player split-screen is back.
The care and production quality, including new voice acting talents and awesome cinematic movies, that went into this year’s offering makes Zombies an even more important element to Treyarch’s formula and will definitely leave fans craving more.
Throughout the campaign, zombies, and multiplayer, Black Ops 3 adopts a new party system that lets groups jump from mode to mode, eliminating the need to break up and wait for the party leader to invite everyone to a new session. It’s a slick behind-the-scenes feature that saves time and headaches.
Playing co-operatively, for the most part, works well in online and offline modes. In one play-through of the campaign with a partner over 1,500 miles away, I occasionally suffered a few counts of connection issues and severe “rubber-banding.” Things only improved a little with someone much closer to my geographical location. Offline modes faired better, but I wasn’t surprised to run into a few instances where the frame rate would drop noticeably during split-screen, which inevitably lead to some screen tearing. Unfortunately, things get even uglier when taking a split-screen partner into online multiplayer. Even while playing alone, on PlayStation 4, graphically intense situations in the campaign dragged the frame rate down at times and I’m hearing similar stories from the Xbox One crowd as well.
I’d normally consider it unforgivable for Call of Duty, a series that built its name on a foundation of unflinching 60fps gameplay, to waver in this regard. But because I fancy me some pretty visuals every now and then, I can let it slide. Treyarch’s games looks fantastic with some of the most impressive lighting I’ve seen in a first-person shooter. It’s not just the campaign either. Multiplayer, which benefits from a more stable frame rate, also presents fantastic visuals and highly detailed environments. I particularly enjoy the way parts of your weapon casts shadows on itself, which makes the whole first-person experience that much more immersive.
In the grand scheme of things, I suppose the performance hits Black Ops 3 does take during co-op sessions are worth the trouble if fixing it meant cutting the feature all together. The ability to play with friends across all modes is a game-changer for the series, and helps turn it into a piece of entertainment that satisfies any mood the room might find itself in, online or offline.
Black Ops 3 isn’t short on things to do during the downtime in between multiplayer sessions either. If you’re not busy reviewing clips in Theater mode or exploring the new and improved CODcaster mode in Custom Games, you can put your creativity to work in the new Gunsmith and Paintshop additions.
You’ll need to acquire a good assortment of weapon attachment variants from the Black Market in order to really make use of Gunsmith, which allows you to swap out parts for others you’ve unlocked randomly via Cryptokeys. I expected there to be more options with parts that could be unlocked the same way weapon skins are, but that’s not the case here. Once you’re happy with your creation, after mixing and matching camos and paint jobs, you can save it as a Create-a-Class option, though you’ll need to be at the appropriate rank to actually equip the unlocked parts.
Over in Paintshop, you can let your imagination run wild with up to 64 layers of paint decals. Just take a trip to the Popular section in the Media menu and you’ll get a pretty good picture of the sort of possibilities at your finger tips. The more artistically inclined will likely sink hours creating designs for an assortment of weapons. The same goes for player-created Emblems, which also enjoys a boost in available layers. As of this writing, neither Paintjobs nor Emblems can be downloaded and applied to your own weapons, but here’s to hoping it happens, as there are already some masterpieces up there.
In Custom Games, Black Ops 3’s e-sports broadcasting tool, CODcaster, has been overhauled with a lot of really great options. Xray vision can be toggled on or off so audiences have a better awareness of player locations, the UI has been improved to include more information like Loadout details, and Team Identities can be customized by name and color. All of these options are neatly presented in-game as well and are certain to make Black Ops 3 tournaments this year and next a real pleasure to watch.
Of the many new features supporting it, two of the more notable additions to Black Ops 3’s multiplayer are the brand new movement mechanics and new Specialist characters.
Coming off of last year’s Advanced Warfare, which received mixed reactions to its brave adoption of new player abilities, I think Treyarch has found a sweet spot with Black Ops 3. Designers have managed to keep all of the action in frame while giving players plenty of enhanced mobility options. The boost jump, for example, is now less jerky and more floaty, making players easier to track. It feels really great, especially when changing direction mid-flight, and transitions seamlessly into the wall run or the boost slide. The magic, however, lies in Treyarch’s new “guns up” mentality. Whether jumping, wall running, sliding, or mantling over objects, the ability to fire is never taken away from the player. You can even reload and aim during some of those actions, which just feels ‘right.’ Imagine Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon with a sniper rifles and flying tomahawks and you’ll get the idea.
At first, I was a little apprehensive over what affect the introduction of wall running and boost jumping might have on flow, but it turns out that a slight increase in map size while retaining the tried-and-true three-lane layout for most arenas is all it really took to keep things in order. Even the latest iteration of Nuk3town, Black Ops’ tiniest map, fairs surprisingly well. In general, the potential to chain long strings of movements together with the mix of underwater swim routes makes Black Ops 3’s maps some of the series’ most creative, not to mention the fantastic artwork.
Specialists are characters with their own unique ability or weapon that can be called upon by building ‘meter’ over time during a match. Progress is saved even through death, which puts their benefits in a tier somewhere between your standard loadout items and Scorestreak rewards — powerful enough to offer a major advantage for a brief period of time, but not powerful enough to disrupt balance. You can swap between Specialists at any time, except during a match. In the more competitive, 4v4 Arena game type, only one Specialist ability or weapon can be chosen per team, making that player responsible for filling a certain role.
I like that the nine characters give personality to Black Ops 3’s multiplayer. You might find yourself basing your pick off their looks alone, or perhaps because their backstory appeals to you. Their appearances can also be customized as they level up, too. You can even set end-of-match gestures that will be seen by all players if you place in the top three, though a lot of them come across as pretty awkward or just plain cheesy. They can get pretty repetitive as well, considering how slowly new ones are unlocked.
Gestures, along with unique player emblems, calling cards, paint decals, weapon camos, and attachment variants can be unlocked as random rewards through the Black Market, a new economy in Black Ops 3 multiplayer that runs off a currency called Cryptokeys. 10 will earn you a Common Supply Drop with the chance for a Rare item or better while 30 will buy a Rare Supply drop with a guaranteed Rare item or better. Each case unlocks three rewards.
The Black Market is quite clearly set up to monetize cosmetic items, which is fine because they’re cosmetic, but I’m not certain that they’ll be worth it in the end. The chances of finding exactly what you’re looking for can be incredibly slim. Not only will you get repeats, but unlocking a weapon skin, for example, only unlocks that skin for one weapon. Cryptokeys from match completion don’t come all that quickly either. Whether you choose to ignore it or not, there are still plenty of ways to unlock standard cosmetic goods, as there has aways been.
Interestingly, for all that’s new, which is a lot, Black Ops 3 still feels oddly familiar. Many of the guns and maps can be directly compared to some of the guns and maps from Black Ops 2, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But if it wasn’t for the sheer amount of stuff you can do in this game, I’d argue that Black Ops 3 does better at progressing the series sideways than it does forward — offering something fun and different, but with a lack of true innovation. For instance, I don’t particularly feel that the studio has done everything it could have to improve on some of the things that matter most, like network connection.
Black Ops 3 feels a little tighter than in predecessor, but the so-called ‘lag compensation’ can get really rough at times. It’s as if there’s a constant inconsistency in the way the game is telling me how many times I’ve been shot while I’m in a gunfight, leading to frustrating moments like getting hitmarker after hitmaker, only to be gunned down in what feels like two bullets. I know that’s not what’s actually happening; you can see it in the Killcam, but there’s often a clear discrepancy between what I and my opponents see. Lag is also fairly present in certain playlists. Chaos Moshpit, in particular, has been the most punishing for my party and I. If Call of Duty wasn’t so fast-paced, I’d be a little more lenient, but having enjoyed hours of true dedicated server-supported multiplayer in Halo 5: Guardians earlier this month, it can be hard to ignore at times.
One area that has me pleasantly impressed, however, is the work the studio has done on Black Ops 3’s sound design. The audio team really nailed it this year with a crystal clear, directional audio design mixed with some bad ass sound effects for weapons and explosives. Score streaks sound scary again, as they should, and the sound of being shot at by a sniper almost makes you want to duck for cover in real life. The way sound is occluded makes it easy to tell how far away you are from the action while pinpointing enemy footsteps is as easy as it has ever been. With the Awareness perk equipped and a good set of headphones on, you’ll be unstoppable in game modes like Free-For-All and Search-And-Destroy. Some moments are ruined by the corny dialogue, however, and I really miss the more informative and realistic call-outs from Call of Duty: Ghosts. But, overall, Black Ops 3 is a real treat to listen to.
With the amount of content built for this game, it’s as if Black Ops 3 was crafted to last more than a year or two. Should its popularity reach the same levels Black Ops 2 enjoyed, It’d be a shame to launch another Call of Duty game at the same time next year and expect fans to forget about this one. With the usual offering of map packs and zombies experiences to come, I foresee Black Ops 3 keeping Call of Duty fans busy for a long time coming.
If only the quality of the online and co-op experiences matched the quantity of impactful new features and activities, Black Ops 3 might have been the near-perfect shooter Call of Duty fans were waiting for. Though it falls just short of it, that won’t stop it from satisfying your FPS cravings this year and next while offering the best bang for your buck this holiday.
Treyarch, we’re glad to have you back.
This review was based on a retail version of Call of Duty: Black Ops 3, courtesy of Activision, on a personal PlayStation 4.