Let’s strip the Call of Duty name and stigma that comes with it from Black Ops 3 for a moment. Yes, it is a Call of Duty game, but more importantly, it’s a Treyarch game, and it’s the first Treyarch game under Call of Duty’s new three-year development cycle. Taking a look under the hood allows us an opportunity to see what the extra year afforded the developer as they created the next entry in the legendary franchise, and it’s more than anyone could have hoped for.
Black Ops 3 is advertised as three games in one: Campaign, Multiplayer, and Zombies. That’s a little misleading though. Including the hidden Dead Ops Arcade II and the unlockable Nightmares campaign, there are actually a stunning five ways to play, each one offering a distinct experience from the next. Taking a page from games multiplayer like Destiny and Borderlands, Call of Duty: Black Ops 3 now features four-player co-op across every one of its modes, and the unifying social overlay means never having to disband and reform a group if you want to switch what mode you’re playing. Treyarch didn’t forget the splitscreen couch co-op either, which is a dying trend. Let’s break down each mode.
Advancements in Technology
Treyarch — particularly their Black Ops games — have always been known for their gritty and dark narratives, offering unexpected twists and narrative points that keep the player thinking long after turning their console off. Their stories aren’t about the “bad guys versus the good guys.” Instead they explore perception and the vast gray expanse between those remote islands of right and wrong.
In Black Ops 3, we’ve come a long way as a human race, with technology advancing so rapidly that soldiers are willingly giving up limbs in favor of robotic enhancements. The entire system is controlled by something called the DNI, or Direct Neural Interface, which allows for soldiers to communicate more effectively on the battlefield and interface with other electronics. This stage is the rabbit hole that you will jump into when you play through Black Ops 3’s main story. I won’t say much more about the story here not only to keep from spoiling the experience, but also because I don’t fully understand it yet myself.
It’s not a simple and obvious summer blockbuster narrative. Treyarch has written a deep and multi-layered story that is sure to create discussion, and the apogee of the final mission had me thinking back to my entire experience — trying frantically to piece everything together. It’s not that everything is abstract, but certain revelations flip a basic understanding of the story upside down, and past that, everything is thrown into a surging black hole and you are left to question what it means exist and be you. Look at me droning on. I said I wouldn’t talk any more about it, but I just can’t help it. It’s a story that demands to be talked about. Let me know when you finish it, I really want to discuss it further, but for now, I’m going to talk about gameplay.
The campaign is designed from the ground up for the four-player cooperative experience. The old linear and scripted way of playing Call of Duty campaigns isn’t present in Black Ops 3. Level design is far more open, allowing for multiple strategies and varying enemy AI to adapt in real time and make each encounter feel unique. Adding in players exponentially increases the difficulty and the enemy continues to acclimate to any new strategies being used. It was refreshing to not just rely on knowing specific enemy spawn points, specifically when going back and playing the campaign cooperatively.
Player freedom is central to Black Ops 3, and the campaign design shows it. Certain previous games have limited the use of cool tech to specific levels or instances. Black Ops 3 gives you the ability to use cyber cores and cyber rigs on any mission, completely customizing the way that each mission can be played. Want to go back and try out that first mission after unlocking the ability to take control of robotic enemies? You’re free to do just that, and the mission feels entirely fresh with a new way to play. This works great when used in conjunction with the co-op play, giving players the opportunity to customize a loadout that compliments the people they’re playing with.
My biggest issue with the campaign was the lack of use of the new movement system that is so touted for multplayer, but some of these moves are optional cyber rigs that can be equipped. Treyarch wanted to do as much as they could to keep the campaign from feeling like it was on rails, so while some of the encounters have areas that can utilize wall runs and quick mantles, they wanted them to feel more like options than requirements.
Now I’m not a competitive FPS player. I typically get frustrated when playing games like Battlefield, or even other Call of Duty games. It’s not fun to feel like you aren’t doing well, and lacking any kind of reward or motivation to keep playing can be disheartening. Rather that stick around and get pummeled relentlessly until I get good, I move on to other things that I actually have fun playing. Treyarch has somehow balanced those scales and made Black Ops 3 feel rewarding and fun for the average players, while still providing the great twitch shooter gameplay expected from the shooter pros.
Specialists and their abilities/weapons add an extra layer, persisting upon death, they give everyone the chance to feel a rush of power at some point in the game. Scorestreaks are still here, and even these reward gaining points, and not just getting kills, though staying alive is compulsory to building up that scorestreak. There’s a risk and reward gameplay style, as better rewards require higher scorestreaks, which require staying alive for longer. One of my favorite aspects of the Black Ops 3 multiplayer is the carryover from past Black Ops games, the Pick 10 system. Pick 10 allows players to customize their ability and weapon set exactly how they want it using 10 points, or slots, on their loadout. If I’m not the type of person who ever uses grenades, I can drop those frags in favor of adding some stability or range to my favorite gun, or additional perks to my characters.
Player loadouts in Black Ops 3 are all about freedom and customization, both visually and in play style. The sheer number of unlockables that can be earned by leveling up your profile or getting kills with weapons consistently rewards playing. Even if you’re not winning matches or hitting the top of the leaderboards, the completion of each match seemed to unlock something new. A scope here, a player card there. Black Ops 3 makes me constantly feel rewarded and encourages me to become a better player rather than leaving me in the dust because I’m not in the upper tiers of the player base. Fortunately, even when I wasn’t doing so great, everything felt balanced to me, so I wasn’t complaining about some specialist or weapon being too overpowered. I’m sure that some will disagree with me and call me a “filthy casual” or some similar term, saying that the fire rate of the XM2 is off by a fraction of a second and the explosion radius of War Machine is far too large, but I think a large majority of the audience will find a healthy balance in their multiplayer experience.
The new flowing movement system keeps every match feeling like it’s moving. Wall runs, auto-mantling, swimming, sliding — each of these elements come together and are just fun to use while running around the maps. Treyarch even included a “Free Run” mode to get players used to the movement system and the possibilities that it offers. Through every movement your gun is aimed and ready to be fired, encouraging engaging combat and constant motion in Black Ops 3’s multiplayer.
The map design has been adjusted to account for the new system of movement, including wall-run corridors and more verticality. They may still be getting a handle on the expanded player motion when designing levels however, as I felt there were a few that unfairly blocked access where it felt like I should have been able to go, most often over the top of an object. While that’s not a critique on the movement system itself– which I personally love — it is indicative of needing to learn a few lessons for how players are going to be using it and how to design the maps in such a way that won’t feel cheaply limiting.
The Dead Shall Inherit the Earth
Shadows of Evil is the noire inspired zombies mode, plucking four characters from the 1940’s and dumping them in the terrifying Morg City, full of zombies are more secrets than most people will know what to do with. The draw of Zombies is hard to fully explain if you’ve never played it. First of all, it’s a roguelike. Progress is not saved upon death, so each new round starts you back at the beginning, with nothing but your starting gun and the knowledge you gained from your last run through. For the first time, Zombies mode now includes player XP progression that will unlock attachments for the various weapons that you can purchase using points in the game.
It’s not a simple horde mode though. There are a slew of secrets to discover in Morg City, such as new areas that can be reached by using the altar to turn into the monster. Yup, it’s just as crazy as it sounds, but ridiculously compelling and always begging for just one more round. The hidden weapons and secret areas make it more akin to a roguelike dungeon crawler than a standard zombie horde mode.
An all-star voice cast rounds out the mode, and you’ll be hearing commentary from Jeff Goldblum, Heather Graham, Neal McDonough, Ron Perlman and Robert Picardo. Their voice work provides a brilliant and dark meta story to underscore the plight that these characters have landed themselves in through significant misdeeds in each of their lives.
But Wait, There’s More!
I haven’t even talked about the two other games hidden within Black Ops 3 yet! There’s Dead Ops Arcade II: Cyber’s Avenging, which is a top down, twin stick zombie shooter that hides many secrets of its own. This isn’t just a silly minigame and actually took hours of my time during the review. It even has a racing minigame if you can make it far enough. That’s right, it’s a hidden minigame within a hidden game. I’ve heard that’s not all of the secrets that Dead Ops Arcade holds either, and yes, it’s entirely four-player cooperative compatible, just like the rest of the game.
Completing the campaign will also unlock Nightmares mode, an alternate campaign that reorganizes the same missions from the main game, adds zombies as enemies and makes the entire story about a zombie outbreak instead. It’s a little weird at times, as even the cutscenes from the standard campaign remain the same, but all in all, it’s a scintillating unlockable and quite an impressive amount of work went into the voice overs and making the story fit within the missions that you already played. As you ought to expect, this one supports four players as well.
Call of Duty: Black Ops 3 is an insanely full featured game. If code was a physical thing, this game disc would be bursting at the seams with how much Treyarch has packed onto one Blu-ray. There’s a little something for everyone here. Players looking for a dark, rich narrative have the campaign. Competitive players have a whole new way to play in multiplayer. Fans of roguelikes and horde modes have Shadows of Evil. Switching between all of these modes is extremely easy too, and it never felt like I was stuck playing one thing or another. Player freedom, customization, and choice are central to every element. Call of Duty: Black Ops 3 isn’t just a great Black Ops game. It isn’t just a great Call of Duty game. It’s a damn good game overall.
Call of Duty: Black Ops 3 review copy provided by publisher. Reviewer also attended a Black Ops 3 review event. For more information on scoring, please read our Review Policy here.
Please note that while the multiplayer aspects were reviewed on live servers, the experience was held at an Activision review event and the review is subject to change while we play the game with the general public and see how the servers hold up under pressure. As of this writing, our experience with the servers pre-release on our home consoles has been a positive one.