The way the Call of Duty franchise lurches back and forth between developers, universes, and storylines every year makes for an incredibly uneven experience. Sure, certain things about the games remain unchanged from year to year. But as each team puts their stamp on things, from the story found in its campaign to the weapon balance and, increasingly, movement options, the whole line has begun to feel astoundingly disjointed. Call of Duty: Black Ops III is a swing back to Treyarch's side of the series. At one point, it seemed like a safe bet that the Treyarch Call of Duty games were the best in the lot. Black Ops III takes an interesting approach to its setting and universe, but it gets too far away from the previous Black Ops games to feel like an actual sequel to those stories. It's... weird.
Back when Modern Warfare 2 came out, I could sort of sum up my excitement about the game's new options with one notion: that you could shoot down UAVs. That's an oversimplification, obviously, but it illustrated a new dimension in that game's multiplayer. No longer would you always have to burn one of your perks if you wanted to have a hard counter against the map pings of an enemy UAV. You could also just bring a rocket launcher and shoot them down. The rest of the game reflected that, and the series has tweaked and expanded on those sorts of options as the years have gone on. So, for Black Ops III, it's with no small amount of disappointment that I can reduce a lot of my feelings about the game down to a similarly short sentence.
Melee attacks are no longer a guaranteed one-hit kill.
I'm sure there's some long explanation about how that helps balance the game. Over the years the different studios that pass the Call of Duty franchise around have frequently altered the effective range of a melee attack in an attempt to keep things balanced. But now it doesn't reliably do the one thing that made the melee fun in the first place. Is it the end of the world? Nah. Some people might even like what it does to the game. I'm not one of those people. In the end, it ends up being one of the handful of things that ever-so-slightly pushes me away from this year's game.
But let's talk more about the competitive end of Black Ops III later. The campaign has a slightly different structure in that it allows for four-player co-op play. This means it has things like a lobby, where you can build your loadouts or use a fake web browser to check out in-universe wiki articles or read old emails, which is one of the very few ways that this story directly references to the events of the previous Black Ops games. Playing with other humans adds a standard incapacitated state and, naturally, a revival system to go along with it. This tends to mean fewer trips back to a checkpoint, which is nice. The gameplay is largely what you'd expect, though you're quickly granted a suite of various HUD modes and cyber abilities that give you new tools in the fight against your enemies.
The story largely deals with these cyber abilities and the Direct Neural Interface, a computer that gets bolted onto the brains of various soldiers. Like you, for example! You're a created character with no name (even the subtitles only refer to him or her as "Player") who begins the story as a relatively normal soldier in an extremely generic-feeling story. The first moments of the campaign almost feel like a parody of the standard military shooter, with angry-looking dudes yelling at each other and being all tough. It quickly takes a left turn, though, shortly after you get your own neural interface.
At that point, the game immediately dumps you into a bunch of virtual training missions that teach you how to do things like set robots on fire with your mind. Or send up a cloud of burning nanobots that distract and kill human combatants. As you spend points and unlock additional abilities over the course the campaign, you'll get special electric melee attacks, decoy abilities, and so on. You're also introduced to your new HUD, which shows enemies through cover, draws grids on the ground to denote places you might not want to stand, and other tactical info. The grids almost make the game look broken, like some textures are missing or something. You can customize which parts of the tactical overlay you want active, which is a nice touch. Lastly, you have jump jets. These quick boosts can be used for higher jumps and boosted slides. You can also wallrun. The ability set feels OK, but I constantly found myself trying to execute a boosted strafe, like you could in last year's Advanced Warfare. Without that, the toolset feels like it's missing a key piece.
The campaign has a couple of connections to the previous Black Ops games, but they're more acknowledgements that those games happened in this universe, rather than direct ties to the previous events. Also, Black Ops II's campaign felt ambitious thanks to its branching paths and potentially different outcomes. The Black Ops III story is linear and feels a little dull as a result. That said, the tale it tells has its moments. Its weird moments, mostly. The story goes places that Call of Duty has never gone before, and even if it doesn't really tie too deeply into the previous games, its focus on mind control and psychological trickery makes it feel right in line with the Cold War numbers stations and other head-trip moments from the franchise. It just does it in a futuristic, computer-strapped-to-your-brain sort of way. Many of the characters are boring, and the payoffs aren't always worth the trek, but the writers did, at least, find a neat way to tell the increasingly frequent "what happens when the technology we trust gets compromised" technofear tale that's worming its way into every single piece of military and cyber sci-fi these days. It's just a shame that the action, even with the ability to literally set people on fire with your mind, feels so plain. Also, some of the key moments in the story are practically a retelling of the events of RoboCop. But I like RoboCop, so let's just let that one slide.
Moving on down the menu, let's get back to competitive multiplayer. The tactical HUD elements and cybernetic core abilities don't make the leap over, but all the movement stuff does. You'll customize a class as you always do, but now you'll get one new ability that charges up on a timer. These are tied to the new specialist characters. At the outset, you unlock one character. Each character has a choice of two abilities, so you'll choose one of those, as well. By spending the unlock tokens you get each time you gain an experience level, you can choose to unlock a different character and ability combo, or use it on the standard perks, wildcards, weapons, and attachments.
The characters each have a specific look and voice, which when combined with the protects and bans system found in the game's eSports-focused arena mode, feels like Treyarch is attempting to force some MOBA-style metagame into its first-person shooter. The end result for everyone else is that you seem to see the same two or three characters running around the game, which is pretty lame. The abilities are varied. Some characters have powerful weapons that they pull out when you activate them. Another can opt to use stealth camo. The weirdest one I've seen so far is Glitch, which is an ability used by Prophet. Glitch rolls your character back to an earlier point in the match. It doesn't rewind time for everyone, though, so you can use it to sort of back out of a bad situation, potentially giving you the drop on an enemy, who might be wondering where you just vanished off to. It's a neat, weird idea on an ability list that contains a lot of fairly boring choices. Still, I'm not sure that the whole specialist system is a positive thing, since the end result is a lot of identical characters running around. Perhaps that will diversify as the playerbase unlocks more models.
Multiplayer is more than player models and unlocks, though. The map quality in Black Ops III also feels a little off. You can boost jumps, climb up, and run on walls, but where you can get to feels incredibly inconsistent. Invisible walls prevent you from getting on rooftops that you can easily reach with a good jump. It looks like you should be able to stand up on some surfaces and take aim at fools below, but you can't. Wallrunning is easy, and many of the maps have shortcuts that require you to chain a few runs together while trying not to fall to your death. You can also run on any wall... within reason. It seems like some walls that are above doors and some other surfaces that look like you should be able to run on them are, for whatever reason, off limits. Meanwhile you can run on the sides of trees and other smaller surfaces that don't seem like they should be "runnable" surfaces. The whole thing makes the tools you have at your disposal feel unreliable because the rules feel like they're applied inconsistently, and that's frustrating.
The zombies mode returns with gumball-based powerups, a full XP system with rewards for leveling up, and a noir style that you don't see in a lot of other zombie fiction. It again seems to be filled with inscrutable hidden tasks, some of which require you to turn into a beast at an altar, then smash up crates or smash through walls to find otherwise-hidden objects. The standard zombies mode is not for me. It never has been. From my time with it, it seems about as well-made as the rest of the game, but I'm simply not looking for that type of survival mode in a Call of Duty game. I was, however, a little more interested in the game's second, unlockable zombies mode. Dubbed "Nightmares," this is effectively a repackaging of the Black Ops III campaign, but with zombies instead of robots and weapon pick-ups instead of loadouts. Even the cutscenes are still there, but the voiceover is removed in favor of your player character talking to a doctor about fighting off an undead menace. It's like that Anchorman DVD-only special feature where they just kind of cobbled together something that resembled a second movie out of parts leftover or reworked from the first one or something. You can play that with other players, too. It's a neat bonus.
Stuff. This game has a ton of stuff in it. The modes are there, they're many, and they're relatively diverse for a Call of Duty game. On paper, it might be the biggest Call of Duty package yet. But the devil's in the details here, and various changes made to multiplayer feel like more wheel-spinning from a series that's had a little too much wheel-spinning over the last few years. The movement options are nice, but I'd rather play this game with the movement controls found in last year's game. Perhaps some pockets of the still-large Call of Duty fanbase will enjoy different parts of it more than I did, but as I add it all up, Black Ops III is a pretty even mix of positive and negatives. It's OK.