A refreshing update or a stale sequel? We've put Treyarch's latest through its paces to find out what it's made of.
Throw as many "me too" accusations as you like at Call of Duty: Black Ops 3, but remember how near-future tech has been the spice of this series from the beginning. So let's get that 'T word' out of the way early: this is not a Titanfall experience, it is a spectacularly super-powered Call of Duty.
When Black Ops landed in 2010, the team at Treyarch enthusiastically introduced a 1960s Cold War tale in which US SAD/SOG operatives took prototype technology into battle. The odds were always against them, but superior firepower usually wins. In 2012 Black Ops 2 worked its concept of future war technology, with events taking place in 2025 where robots and unmanned vehicles turned tides. And so, rather than feeling as though anything is bolted on here to make Black Ops 3 relevant in a fast-moving FPS market, the latest 2065 premise feels patently COD. We belong here.
But after Blops 2 and last year's Advanced Warfare, the major question on most minds is whether Black Ops 3 can make a big enough statement. Not just visually owing to current generation consoles, but powered by noteworthy ideas to lift the campaign and support another solid twelve months of PvP. We are still investigating the latter, but it feels great to inform everyone that the Blops 3 campaign is incredibly ambitious - and that's not just stealing the comment out of Treyarch's mouth to explain the absence of a campaign on PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. There's just no other word to describe it.
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With stunning alacrity, Treyarch serves an 11-mission marathon of imaginatively constructed set-pieces that require strategic forethought to survive. Though experienced (Veteran) players should breeze through scenarios on anything below Hardened difficulty, the new toys for outfoxing enemies are so much fun that they urge experimentation. So, expect to revise your play-style several times.
The lengthy, tutorial-style narrative all hangs off your character - male or female - being the chance recipient of "cutting-edge military robotics" after a gruesome encounter leaves you limbless, left for dead. You are essentially Robocop; indeed, the fateful cut-scene direction is very Paul Verhoeven. The preceding mission in Ethiopia, a rescue attempt taking place within a prison complex, features graphic torture scenes viewed while browsing security cameras. It's not comfortable to watch.
As part human, part machine (all soldier) you have an onboard communications system dubbed Direct Neural Interface, DNI, that can drop you into virtual training scenarios that are impossible to differentiate from real life until the instructor 'freeze frames' the action to continue the briefing. Such missions are used in a similar way to the memory-assisted investigations as featured in the movie Minority Report, but closer to Jake Gyllenhaal's role in Source Code. It's a really neat device that provides players with mission context, reliving scenes in which the terrorists du jour are seen plotting and making their escape from past strikes, pointing to their locations in the present day.
On the physical side, the powered armour that comprises most of your new physique vastly improves strength and agility. This boosts traversal speed, which allows for lengthy wall-runs, providing numerous options when route finding across maps. Even before taking into account the Cyber enhancements that provide an even wider variety of options, navigation in Black Ops 3 lays the ghost of linearity to rest with its open-area approach to level design. While many locations do cater for all-rounder Assault Rifle tactics, the benefits of switching to sniper for open spaces and shotgun or SMG for close-quarters soon become clear, so that all missions feel less restrictive.
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But as one commanding officer puts it: "With DNI your mind truly is your greatest weapon." There are three main categories of Cyber Core, used to manipulate the battlefield beyond guns and ammo; all activated by simultaneously pressing the left and right shoulder buttons (usually your grenades).
The 'Control' Core is used to debilitate or hijack robotics, while the 'Chaos' Core induces panic in human foes or can cause devastating physical harm. Finally the 'Mortal' Core enhances stealth or conversely aggression, so are mostly benefits localised to your suit and melee focussed. With any of these on-board, the road ahead looks drastically different, and dealing with the enemy becomes much more fun. Defence turrets that line an otherwise treacherous route are enlisted to mow down all targets within sight. Robots overheat under immolation, while regular foot soldiers are cremated with a firefly swarm. There's a particularly awesome ground smash too. Targets must be in range, and abilities take a while to recharge, so this is not a 'win button' by any means. Instead, your focus changes from seeing all enemies as mere bullet sponges to analysing unique traits for exploitation.
It's surprising how quickly so much that's unusual begins to seem like the norm. Because each Core Ability has a clear and credible use, nothing feels gimmicky. You'll lie awake at night considering your options, it's that good. Your efforts for pushing boundaries are rewarded too, with 16 Accolades for each mission to aim for; kind of mini Achievements/Trophies such as 'multi-tasker' (kills while wall-running), 'make'em count' (multi-kills with explosives) and 'conservationist' (complete a specified sequence without reloading). All completion points unlock goodies for character customisation. Throw in four-player cooperative play and a second campaign in the form of the Nightmares Mode (it unlocks once you've completed the main story), and there's more potential depth here than we've ever seen before.
Black Ops 3 is the hardest working Call of Duty in series history and it's heartening to observe how so much of what it offers has been informed by the desires of the still-thriving community. Identity via personalisation is a huge consideration, such as amusing paint-jobs for weapons, but performance is the major focus and the Build a Weapon option allows for heavily nuanced tools of your own trade. The system for managing your profile throughout the Campaign is elegant too: a Safe House from which to examine your Collectibles, peruse the Data Vault of fact files and available Calling Cards in addition to the Armoury and Cyber Core Station for comparing all available load-outs. And if your activities out in the field aren't enough to satiate that desire for dropping enemies, the Safe House also provides a Combat Immersion facility - a virtual reality training ground for fine-tuning skills.
Put it this way: if Campaign mode was going out of fashion, somebody plain forgot to tell Treyarch.
But it doesn't end there, oh no. The new Zombies mode 'Shadows of Evil', is an entirely unexpected, dark comedic Film Noir escapade. It features the likenesses and voice talents of Jeff Goldblum, Heather Graham and Ron Perlman as Magician, Dancer and Boxer respectively. Each one of them puts in a top class, vaudeville style performance with terrific one-liners to spice the zombie killing spree. As ever in Zombies, the challenge is to survive as many rounds as possible, driven by score.
In addition to the retro city vibe, there's another cool twist - the ability to transform into a tentacled beast that zaps power-nodes to open new routes, grapple eagle-hooks to reach secret rooms and generally melee everything within reach to access further new areas or splatter multiple zombies that may have been stunned into a jiggering huddle. Even with a team of four players the going gets tough pretty fast, the streets and alleyways are narrow, with not so many wide-open areas to steer clear of the ghouls' grasps. Zombies Mode always has been kinda funny, but Shadows of Evil is a hoot by design. There's so much thought gone into it, great little touches and details. It's fantastic.
Without even touching the famous Multiplayer mode, Call of Duty: Black Ops 3 is already one hell of a value package. The production values are through the roof, but it's more than an expensive lick of paint. Treyarch has gone all out to prove that the franchise can feel fresh, even after all this time. Among all the so-called AAA games to have landed in this current generation of consoles, there's a case for Black Ops 3 as being the most polished and carefully considered with its suite of awesome game modes that feel fantastic 'out of the box'. There will, of course, be the DLC to come. But we wager it'll take you many, many hours to exhaust the depths of the new Campaign and survive until the bitter end of Shadows of Evil. You'd have to be the most miserable of cynics to deliberately start pulling this FPS masterclass to little pieces.
After Advanced Warfare, the enhanced-agility antics of Black Ops 3 PvP do seem kind of restrained. Take this as a sure sign of a creative team following its own path; Treyarch hasn't been tempted to crank the insanity levels up another notch. Instead, the journey toward mastering all nine Specialist classes - the last one stays locked until Level 46, approaching Prestige - is slow and steady. A better word for Black Ops 3 PvP progression would be measured: both in the sense that your actions are tracked for EXP gains, and that opportunity to sample every class quirk is locked behind a succession of EXP Level gates. Don't think about how long it'll take to earn the ultimate score-streak payoff, 'Mothership', just keep your head down while striving toward Lieutenant General III at Level 51.
The Specialists add a touch of zeitgeist to the COD class of 2015. Superhero drama is everywhere right now, and Black Ops 3 is duly offering costume-clad mega-dudes to bring the FPS genre up to speed. Their abilities are nowhere near as far-fetched as the Guardians in Destiny, but there is a lithe and stealthy archer for starters (Outrider) plus an electricity-infused creator of havoc (Prophet) and a gunslinger (Seraph) boasting a one-shot-kill capability. Their individual personalities are brought to life on the battlefield with some witty dialogue, just before rounds commence and sometimes during, depending on your performance. If this were Battlefield you'd be concerned. Since this is COD, and very much operating in the turbo-charged adrenaline zone, such characteristics work.
The learning curve may be slow and steady, but it's also incredibly deep. Each of the nine Specialists has two main 'specials' to choose from, unlocked using the same tokens you might otherwise spend on guns for their load-outs. Outrider may take her Sparrow bow-and-arrow into the field, or Vision Pulse radar to make a one-off sonar sweep of the area. Battery has a grenade launcher, or Kinetic Armour, the latter allowing for bullets to ricochet off her vest temporarily - much to the surprise of whoever is unloading a full clip of SMG rounds into her, soon to receive a casual shot to the head. They're all fun, potentially game-enhancing/game-breaking, and only time will tell. The fact that all nine characters feel so distinct is an achievement unto itself. You've your work cut out for you.
These special weapons and abilities combine with the regular style of perks encountered in COD, such as old favourites to keep you invisible from radar, and new varieties that provide a kind of Spidey-Sense to indicate the presence of enemies that are very close by. We're not going to even try to figure out the number of permutations. But when it boils down to it, the Black Ops 3 essential skills are wall-running and rocket-jumping, nailing those kills while free-running like a pro. You're still very much concentrated on the capabilities of your chosen, comparatively non-futuristic firearms.
And so, despite the near-future shenanigans kicking off all around, the most remarkable thing we can say about Black Ops 3 PvP is that it still feels very much like boots-on-the-ground, shit kicking Marines but with more reasons to watch their backs and every sliver of light between obstacles.
This is a fully-fledged super Call of Duty that we're honestly absolutely terrified of losing our lives to.
9 / 10
Easily the strongest Call of Duty since Modern Warfare 2, and a candidate for the most accomplished AAA title to arrive on the new consoles so far. An incredible, big value package.
The campaign only gets interesting if played on the higher difficulty settings, where strategy becomes a necessity. New PvP modes are good but not instantly great.