When November comes round and you fire up, for the first time, yet another entry in Activision’s behemoth franchise, how can you not let out a sigh? “Call Of Duty”, nowadays, feels almost like a jab at the customer. These are games we play out of obligation, a sense of inevitability. You might not want to, or really care, but if you’re interested at all in gaming, it feels like it’s your duty to play COD.
Black Ops III is a slow burn, but give it three hours, maybe four and all your pessimism will start to disappear. On the surface it’s the loudest, dumbest Call Of Duty to date. Barely 30 seconds goes by in Black Ops III’s campaign where you’re not shooting at someone, or blowing something up, or mashing the grenade button – compared to some of the others, like the celebrated Modern Warfare, which switches gracefully between loud action and quiet stealth, the pacing in Black Ops III is a mess. Plus, there really aren’t many great, choreographed action sequences. In Modern Warfare 2, you had that fantastic level scaling the cliff and infiltrating the airfield. In Ghosts, you had the opener aboard the self-destructing space station. Black Ops III seems like it’s mainly just loud noises and blunt shootouts. You could be forgiven for getting bored with it, or writing it off as a repetitive sequel.
But a few hours in, that all starts to change. Instead of typical first-person shooter levels you find yourself in dreamscapes, surreal nightmare worlds and even a World War II battlefield. The story, originally some guff about AI and secret weapons research and terrorists becomes this strange, gross examination of identity and consciousness. It sounds impossible, right? It sounds like we’re exaggerating, or maybe a bit too easily impressed. But really. If you pay close enough attention to Black Ops III it genuinely has something to say. Spec Ops: The Line took to task the relationship between videogame, videogame developer and videogame player. Black Ops III is full of similar themes, questioning whether people – once they have access to so much information – can ever really have a unique personality. It’s a startling, surprising look at technology, much more personal than COD’s usual Tom Clancy-esque technophobia.
Of course it’s still made by Treyarch, and funded by Activision, so it’s massive and brash and full of men shouting at each other. But that’s a good thing. You won’t find another game that combines so uniquely enormous production values with sly, occasionally smart writing. Black Ops III is something new. If Modern Warfare changed shooters back in 2007, Black Ops III deserves to be as influential. It just depends whether people are too fed up with Call Of Duty these days to really pay attention.
Admittedly, their weariness could be partly justified by Black Ops III’s mulitplayer. It runs as flawlessly as you’d expect and the maps are designed to the usual production line perfection, but COD online is starting to feel tired. Yes there are tons of weapons and toys. Yes you can progress and customise your character. Yes you can Prestige and tinker to your heart’s content. But you could do that in Advanced Warfare, and Call Of Duty: Ghosts, and Modern Warfare 3. No doubt, some people prefer COD this way – it’s a reliable service, updated rather than overhauled year on year. But it doesn’t feel like something you can really get excited about any more. It is what it always is and does what it always does.
The new specialist classes change things a little, making it so, when you start up in multiplayer, you pick a character build and get a personalised special ability. The Outrider, for example, gets a silent but deadly bow and arrow, whereas Ruin, a big melee character, gets close-range area-of-effect attacks. Each of these abilities can be customised and improved alongside guns and armour, and add a little seasoning to COD’s usual online fare, but it’s not much. For better or worse, multiplayer is still almost exactly as you’d expect.
Zombies mode on the other hand is drastically expanded, pitting you against the undead in an entire city, lovingly designed like 1940s Chicago. As ever, it’s better played with friends, and the difficulty curve can be brutal, but Zombies has the same breadth and attention to detail as Black Ops III’s campaign – like the central single-player mode it constantly surprises you. And that’s a pretty big achievement for a COD game. Year on year they hit the shelves, and considering how old this series is getting, and how much it’s stooped in expectation, most of the time we find we were right to expect more of the same. But Black Ops III is truly an original. Not in eight years has Call Of Duty felt this alive.