In just a short amount of time the Call of Duty franchise rose from cult-favorite to sales juggernaut, raking in billions of dollars with each annual release. From Modern Warfare forward, Call of Duty has found new ways to top itself, with bombastic single player campaigns, feature-rich multiplayer, and all manner of co-op/side activities. However, in recent years the franchise has begun to slump, a byproduct both franchise fatigue and lack of innovation.
But before the Call of Duty franchise began its decline, Black Ops 2 set the new benchmark for franchise success, proving that Treyarch had replaced Infinity Ward as the premiere COD developer. So with Call of Duty: Black Ops 3 now available, the question becomes whether Treyarch could give the franchise the shot in the arm it needs.
Truthfully, Call of Duty: Black Ops 3 is up there with any iteration in terms of content. From top to bottom, Treyarch’s latest is packed to the brim with modes, features, and activities, all meant to keep players coming back to the well during this competitive holiday season. However, when looking at each component part it’s hard not to feel like Black Ops 3 is missing something essential – some sense of excitement that pushes it over the top. Sure, it’s more Call of Duty for those fans who crave it. But that doesn’t quite cut it anymore.
On the campaign front, Call of Duty: Black Ops 3 carries on the future warfare trend of prior COD titles by casting players as their own, blank canvas super soldier. Unlike last year’s Advanced Warfare, Black Ops 3’s super soldiers are more than just agile fighting machines. In fact, they’re more like super heroes, complete with special abilities called Core Abilities.
Because the super soldiers in Black Ops 3’s world are outfitted with a Direct Neural Interface (DNI), they can do everything from hack enemy equipment to spawn tiny nanobots capable of burning human skin. In total, there are about 21 core abilities available to players – spread out across three different “cores” – and each offers a different tactical advantage. More importantly, these core abilities add a new wrinkle to combat beyond the basic running and gunning.
For single players, the abilities present a huge advantage, but in 4-player co-op they become essential. With three teammates running around, and especially on higher difficulties, having access to a wealth of abilities helps create a dynamic rarely seen in a Call of Duty game. One player might hack a nearby enemy robot, while another will send out decoys, meanwhile their other two partners are laying down covering fire. It’s a bit silly when you think about it, but the abilities actually make the campaign fun to replay, as players try to find new ways to tackle enemy encounters.
From a story perspective, however, Black Ops 3 is pure Call of Duty fluff. As with any of these futuristic tales, there’s some business about keeping the peace through technology, and, of course, things don’t go according to plan. There’s also the usual double cross telegraphed the whole way through, and by the end it doesn’t feel like anything is truly gained. The one element the campaign does excel at is level design, with settings and scenarios that feel unique for a shooter. Thanks to the time period, Treyarch is able to craft levels that range from streamlined facilities to super storm-ravaged docks, with a heavy emphasis on combining futuristic designs with uncontrollable weather. The fact that the level design in Black Ops 3 stood out at all is saying something, even if it is still a non-stop, occasionally guided roller coaster of explosions and brutal violence.
When player’s are not killing enemy robots and taking down rogue paramilitary groups with their friends, they will likely be taking part in Black Ops 3’s multiplayer, which continues the futuristic themes. As mentioned in prior previews, Black Ops 3’s multiplayer “twist” revolves around Specialists, unique character classes each with two special abilities. Think of these like a more militarized version of a “super,” which can only be activated after charging up a meter (through either kills or simply over time). Some of these abilities offer tactical advantages, some are meant to boost a player’s kill count, and some help the team control the battlefield, but not all are particularly useful. After about 10 hours of playing online, we found that most players fluctuate between a small number of Specialists.
Outside of that, though, the multiplayer in Black Ops 3 will be familiar to any Call of Duty fan. Perks, scorestreaks, and loadouts still factor into the equation, and there is still a bevy of modes to choose from, including fan favorites like Gun Game. Players do have access to a boost jump and a boost slide, but those are not nearly as nuanced as the movement abilities in Advanced Warfare. Rather, the additional movement options in Black Ops 3 make for slightly more dynamic gun fights, but nothing too out of the ordinary. It’s a familiar experience covered with a flashier coat of paint and dressed up in a way that it might feel slightly different at first, but getting into the nuts and bolts reveals that multiplayer is still working with the same tried and true formula.
The same could be said about Zombies, which returns with the Shadows of Evil campaign for Call of Duty: Black Ops 3. With a new cast of celebrities, a new setting, and a new milieu, Shadows of Evil might look different, but it’s still the same Zombies mode Treyarch has been delivering for a while now. Yes, there’s a running narrative, tons of Easter Eggs, and endless hordes of zombies to kill, but again, if the mode didn’t do anything for you before that’s unlikely to change here.
Pulled together as a complete package, Call of Duty: Black Ops 3 is yet another fully featured entry in the best-selling franchise. From a surprisingly exciting and diverse (in terms of level design) campaign to multiplayer with a twist, this year’s entry hits all the requisite notes without exceeding expectations. But that’s been Call of Duty’s line for a while now, and therefore it’s hard to give Black Ops 3 the unequivocal recommendation. Those who must play the game are already doing so, but any who are on the fence might be better served waiting. It’s good but not great.
Call of Duty: Black Ops 3 is out now for PC, PS3, PS4, Xbox 360, and Xbox One. Game Rant was provided a PS4 copy for this review.