09 November, 2015

Review – Call of Duty: Black Ops III

You know I was alright with wearing a strength boosting exosuit to wage war on behalf of my corporate overlords, but having my limbs replaced is maybe a little far. Call of Duty is back in the hands of Treyarch this year, so get ready to hear gruff military men bark on about ‘the keys’ and their abusive owners.

Call of Duty: Black Ops III review battery

Call of Duty: Black Ops III

In today’s first-person shooter space, videogames try to streamline their movement; perhaps quicken the pace, increase verticality, allowing sliding, climbing or wall running. Black Ops III does all of these things, but none of them as well as some other titles over the last two years or so, nor even Advanced Warfare  the last Call of Duty game. At its core Black Ops is still rooted firmly in the traditional, too firmly in my opinion. The game gives the impression it doesn’t want to be; there are tac-rigs (perks basically) and cyber core abilities with the sole purpose of heightening the mobility and increasing the combat options. However the environments, both in the campaign and competitive multiplayer fail to encourage or in some cases even allow the promised movement.

The campaign is now playable with up to four players. The game defaults to ‘online’, which isn’t a problem until the servers kick you out of a mission like they did me, and it turns out that campaign progress is stored server side too. Black Ops III has taken a remarkably similar approach to its campaign experience as last week’s Halo 5: Guardians, although this game ran a decent length, perhaps eight hours in total. Like Halo the environments have been broadened to allow for much larger battles and it isn’t just humans you’ll be fighting, Black Ops III features its own kind of sandbox. Though simpler and with fewer enemy types, the engagements are exponentially more interesting than others in the series; there are several types of drones, heavily armoured ‘warlords’, hardier robot soldiers, and a range of armoured walkers. Unlike Halo, the environments these fights take place in don’t encourage experimentation as well, and it is Call of Duty – try anything too fancy and you’ll be picked from the sky in seconds. It also lacks the weapon diversity, aside from a few conveniently placed missile launchers, I tended to pick a weapon before a mission and stick to it, in fact to use enemy weapons at all you need to first select a tac-rig to allow it.

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Between missions you can edit your loadout in a manner similar to the multiplayer, in missions there are weapon caches to restock and occasionally switch loadouts. I tried to sample a range of weapons but found myself drawn back to the Drakon semi-automatic sniper rifle, when loaded up with the appropriate attachments it transforms into what is effectively the most devastating one-hit-kill assault rifle. Cyber core abilities are the other half of your arsenal, they come in three trees; control, martial, and chaos. You can equip one of the three before starting each mission, the abilities maybe as mundane as a deployable smoke screen, or as awesome as a swarm of fiery bee drones. You activate whichever ability you have selected by hitting both shoulder buttons and change which is active by holding down on the d-pad and selecting from a radial menu. It is not that they are bad, some can be quite useful – waving your hand to disable a squad’s weapons as you reload your own, can save your life – but I spent way too much time cycling between them, and worse still holding the ability to target but failing to release it properly so nothing happens. At best you catch a whiff of the same kind of awesome that Starbreeze’s Syndicate revelled in, but it’s rare, usually it feels every bit as awkward as something like Crysis.

The tactical view is far more useful and agreeable however. There are two vision modes; a low light mode that is essential during certain sections of the campaign, and the tactical mode which draws a silhouette around enemies, paints warnings on the floor, and ensures you’ll never lose track of a grenade again. The tactical vision can be altered to hide certain information, or of course disabled entirely, but I found it not only extremely helpful but also awesome to look at. Enemies are highlighted even when behind cover, so you can make real use of wall piercing ammunition. Kill zones and areas of danger are painted onto the floor as a colourful mesh, also useful, but honestly just cool to see.

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The story the campaign tries to tell is most certainly more awkward than manipulating the cyber core abilities and frequently less comprehensible than the tactical vision. My opinion of its quality fluctuated tremendously over its course, there were times when I considered tearing it apart, labelling it childish or perhaps even pretentious, there were other times I took a step back and saw how unique and fascinating its very existence was. But I never once enjoyed it. When the story plays itself as a straight Call of Duty campaign it’s boring, with writing every bit as silly as the original Black Ops, but it ends up going so far off the rails to the point of becoming near nonsensical. It is a unique ‘showing’ let’s say, perhaps not the plot or some of the ways it is conveyed, yet the package is its own.  Ultimately I decided it is a boisterous grand experiment that I’m sure came from a place of vision, but I don’t believe it is successful or enjoyable.

The characters are all so inconsequential and flat, seeing and hearing your own custom character in cutscenes is fun but you don’t even get a name; you don’t type one in anywhere and you’re not assigned one. The subtitles label your character ‘player’, it’s bizarre.  Custom is a bit of a stretch too, there are less than a dozen faces to choose from per gender, and while you can play as male or female, you can only be white. Neither the characters nor the plot have anything what so ever to do with the previous two Black Ops games, although one dude did name drop Raul Menendez, Black Ops II’s excellent and memorable villain. Similarly, the decision making and side missions have been left out, the campaign is totally linear and worse off for it; branching paths would at least give you some reason to return to it. There are of course collectibles in missions, and while back at the base between outings you can change your gear, swap out costumes, read intelligence files, and even run wave-based simulations, all alongside any co-op buddies.

Call of Duty: Black Ops III shadows of evil detective zombies

Following the completion of the campaign a ‘Nightmares’ mode opens up, this mode features rehashed versions of the campaign levels where the majority of enemies have been replaced with zombies. The cutscenes still play and all the mission objectives remain unchanged but the entire experience is overlaid with a conversation between your character and a doctor from the campaign. More content is usually a good thing and I think this is a neat addition, but I do so very much dislike playing Call of Duty zombies. As if to compound my distaste you cannot select loadouts or cyber core abilities, all are handled in the traditional zombies manner through glowing power ups and magic boxes. Call of Duty offers my least favourite incarnation of zombies, I like horror not pulp, Treyarch’s juvenile portrayal continues to put me off. I’ve also never enjoyed the gameplay; backing way while kiting bullet-sponge enemies to line up economical headshots is boring. Getting clawed at from behind slows you down, it inhibits your ability to turn and respond, and that’s just frustrating . Call of Duty Zombies is the absolute worst and now its stench has managed to seep into the campaign, in more than one way I might add, a significant percentage of enemies just charge and club you to death.

There is of course the traditional zombies mode too, where weapons are bought from walls and windows need boarding up. This time around it features its own progression system, gumball loadouts in place of soda dispensers, and so on. The mode is at least initially wrapped in a bizarre and intriguing film noir setting, dipped of course in the occult; you can hit an altar and transform into a tentacle monster that appears pulled straight from Starbreeze’s The Darkness – because of course you can. I played only enough to know that it hasn’t changed enough for me to want to play more, and that didn’t take long. If you’re looking for an authority on the quality of this year’s zombies I’m afraid I can’t provide it, the zombies offering appears to be largest and most well fleshed-out it has ever been.

Call of Duty: Black Ops III battery theater mode multiplayer

And yes that pun was totally intentional. The competitive multiplayer is I would argue the most crucial part of the package. Both ranked and unranked play is offered and there is the usual broad selection of game modes too.  Safeguard is I believe, the one new objective mode; the attacking team escorts a robot across the map, while the defenders must prevent it from reaching their base. The robot advances only when an attacker is close by, moving along a prescribed path, it can be temporarily disabled by the defenders. It’s a pretty fun twist on the Demolition mode, there can be a really frantic almost sports-like feel to last minutes, with daring attacking rushes and intense defensive crossfires that you don’t get in a lot of other modes. The map selection is fine, though as I mentioned previously many of the maps fail to promote creative use of the movement systems as much as I might like, some have wall running paths between buildings but there’s not a lot of variability on offer. For some reason there is a small selection of timed free-running courses that do in fact make full use of the movement, it’s another thing to check out but I wouldn’t call it compelling content.

The single largest change to the multiplayer is the specialists system, which attempts to inject a dose of personality into the character models on screen. You pick a specialist and one of their two skills to bring into a match, either a weapon or a special ability, for example; selecting ‘Battery’, will allow you to use either a temporary skin of armour, or a War Machine grenade launcher. In matches the abilities must be charged, they do so automatically but scoring speeds it up, they are effectively another form of kill streak. You can customise the physical appearance of your specialist but not with any real granularity; honestly I prefer Advanced Warfare’s approach a whole lot more, I found its loot system exponentially more compelling.  There are still streaks, perks, and wildcards, the ‘pick 10’ system remains in place, there’s also weapon camos, paintjobs both inside and outside the new Gunsmith system. There’s tons of that stuff, in fact every mode has its own set of loadouts and menus, perhaps more than is advisable.

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Black Ops III is by and large a great looking game; I played on the Xbox One and was pleasantly surprised by the visual fidelity, but there was often very noticeable texture pop in; sometimes just single objects in the environment, other times entire buildings.  I suffered a handful of crashes to the Xbox dashboard; lobbies seized up, the theatre mode caused my whole machine to restart, and it crashed several times when I was away from the TV so who knows what caused those issues. As always, I say this is par for the course with the Xbox One and I certainly don’t do myself any favours by continuing to remain a member of the Preview Program, but I still have to put those issues out there.  

Call of Duty: Black Ops III review mediocreCall of Duty: Black Ops III is a massive game, with a wide and quite well varied offering of modes and experiences, all with their own progression systems and stacks upon stacks of menus to trawl through. It is wonderful to see a game so flush with content; my problem it is that I don’t think any of it is particularly good or even compelling. Even if I put aside the part where I thinking zombies is the worst gameplay experience possible in a Call of Duty title, the parts of the package I do want to play have been done better elsewhere in the series. For me Blacks Ops III amounted to a lot of disinterest.

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