There are too many Call of Duty games. Let me clarify that statement: There are too many Call of Duty games in Call of Duty: Black Ops III.
In my initial impressions of the single-player experience of the latest instalment of Activision's annual military shooter series, I celebrated what Treyarch had achieved with an extra year tacked on to its standard two-year development cycle.
Now that I've had a chance to participate in the competitive multiplayer experience and plumb the secrets of Zombies, I feel that extra year wasn't as helpful as I'd first thought. Rather than a single cohesive game, Call of Duty: Black Ops III -- more than any Call of Duty game before it -- feels like three separate experiences.
Black Ops III: Human Revolution
First we have the campaign, a relatively lengthy affair with its heavy metal feet planted firmly in the future, unlike previous entries in the sub-series that were either based fully or partially in the past. In 2065 the world has responded to the drone attacks from Black Ops II some 40 years earlier by creating sophisticated air defence, forcing warfare back to ground level. Science has developed advanced robotics and cybernetics to help make people killing each other more interesting, while dark science has begun tinkering with the human mind -- or has it?
After being nightmarishly beaten and dismembered by military robots, the player character finds him- or herself (there's a choice this time) fitted with cybernetic bits. On an assignment investigating a compromised CIA black site they uncover a plot to make players sick of the phrase "imagine yourself in a frozen forest."
Where the original Black Ops played with hallucinogens, Black Ops III's campaign involves directly interfacing with the human mind via direct neural interface for similar results. As the story progresses the player begins witnessing strange visions, culminating in a trippy sequence during one of the most entertaining Call of Duty campaign missions I've ever played.
Getting there can be a bit of a slog. The campaign's 11 missions are quite long by shooter standards, each lasting some 45 minutes to an hour and change, including cutscenes. Built to accommodate four-player cooperative play, the sprawling levels can feel a bit dull and repetitive to the solo player, especially with the game's heavy reliance on re-using the same set of robotic enemies. (What, one nigh-impenetrable giant robot walker wasn't enough? Try two! No? How about three?)
I was never bored during Black Ops III's campaign, thanks to my technology-spawned super powers. Before each story mission the player can choose one of three sets of Power Core abilities, each granting new and creative ways to make enemies' lives hell. The Control core allows players to hijack enemy tech and use it against them. The Martial one grants physical skills far beyond those of mortal men. My favourite of the three, Chaos, is home to the swarms of killer nanobots seen in the game's trailers, as well as the ability to cause mass hallucinations and make mechanical combatants explode with my mind.
These abilities are an important element of the Black Ops III campaign experience -- if you aren't using them, you might be bored to death. Rely on them and each massive level is a playground of destruction with a number of creative ways to approach each new encounter.
The Power Core abilities carry the campaign through its sloppy moments. They make up for the ultimately nonsensical storyline. They really sing in co-op when different players choose different ability sets. Utilised to their fullest, Power Core abilities are the best thing about Black Ops III.
Black Ops III: Advanced Warfare
There are no Power Core abilities in Black Ops III's competitive online multiplayer mode. I can see where the ability to overheat a robot would be useless against a team of human combatants, but I do miss them.
Instead, Black Ops III multiplayer is basically a slightly revised version of Advanced Warfare's multiplayer, only now everybody looks basically the same and has a pair of unlockable special abilities they can occasionally use to turn the tide of battle.
Rather than having players create their own custom character for multiplayer, online combatants pick one of nine Specialists -- uniquely modelled and voiced characters each possessing a utility skill and some sort of ultimate weapon or power that must be charged via time or point gain before being activated.
So we've got players running along walls, boost-jumping (a slightly different, more arcing boost jump than Advanced Warfare's), shooting while swimming and other crazy-go-nuts things, plus every now and then someone will pull out a bow with explosive arrows or a massive mini-gun and go to town. Black Ops III's competitive multiplayer might more like an extension of last year's entry than something fresh and new, but it has its moments.
I just find always being shot by the same set of faces annoying as hell.
Boom from a different player, looking exactly the same as the last one.
It's like going to a Halloween party where everyone chose to go as the same nine characters. The costumes players unlock and the weapons they select may vary, but it's still the same annoying dick with the beard.
Black Ops III: The Magical Zombie Mystery Caper
Why not a dick with a mustache?
Treyarch and Activision have touted Black Ops III's initial cooperative zombie-slaying romp as a completely separate experience, and it certainly is.
Nero Blackstone (Jeff Goldblum), Jessica Rose (Heather Graham), Jack Vincent (Neal McDonough) and Floyd Campbell (Ron Perlman) are a quartet of troubled individuals living in the fictional Morg City, way back in 1942. The hapless "heroes" find themselves embroiled in a battle against the supernatural as they try to gather the components to fuel a magical ritual and return Morg to its normal, horrible self.
"Shadows of Evil" features no Core Powers. There are no robots to battle. Jumps are non-boosted, single and short.
What "Shadows of Evil" does had, aside from some jazzy period music and several choice lines of dialogue from its stars, is a true test of a group of players' ability to work together. Not only do they have to deal with waves of increasingly powerful foes, they have to decipher clues and uncover the hidden secrets of the strange magical dimension they find themselves in while doing it.
It's a challenging task, mowing down zombies to earn cash to unlock new areas and more potent weapons, all the while keeping an eye out for magical artifacts. Compounding the complexity is the ability for players to temporarily transform into The Beast, a tentacled creature with the ability to see and manipulate forces beyond human understanding.
As with most Zombies modes, the early days are the exciting ones. Once players figure out all of its secrets, hopping into a match will become a mundane affair. For now however, exploring this dark and dangerous town with a party of curious souls is an exhilarating affair.
Are Three Games Better Than One?
Technically, sure, but it would be even better still if the three games felt at least somewhat connected. Last year's Advanced Warfare featured the same trio of elements -- campaign, multiplayer and zombies -- yet it tied all three together in a neat Exo-Suited package. Both the zombies mode and online multiplayer built on the campaign. They didn't feel like separate bits.
Perhaps if Treyarch had less time to work with, that's what we would have gotten with Black Ops III. Instead we get three very different experiences tied together by little more than a menu:
- A relatively lengthy single-player/co-op first person shooter with a weird sci-fi story, a selection of special abilities that give players plenty of options for tackling each encounter and the occasional spectacular set-piece.
- A competitive online first-person shooter with plenty of modes, a nice selection of very pretty maps on which a small selection of similar faces do battle in slightly-advanced Advanced Warfare style.
- A cooperative online supernatural first-person shooter with a wonderful period setting and a wealth of secrets to uncover.
Oh yeah, and there are a couple of Mirror's Edge-style free-running races tossed into the mix that feel as much an afterthought as this sentence.
I've had a good time with Call of Duty: Black Ops III, all three of them. If it weren't for the fact that each taken on their own are good enough to warrant a recommendation I might have felt compelled to write three different reviews. But that would be too much typing.
There are too many Call of Duty games. After playing through Black Ops III I feel it more than ever and think they're hurting the overall quality of the games as a result. If Activision is going to continue to release a new instalment every year, each needs its own strongly-defined identity or suffer the weird results of this year's release. Despite what maths says, one game with three distinct identities is not three times as good.