Wot I Think – Call of Duty: Black Ops 3 Singleplayer

Call of Duty: Black Ops III [official site] takes place in a future setting not quite close enough to describe as “near-future”. It’s somewhere in the middle distance, and while the concerns of military and intelligence organisations don’t appear to have changed very much, the cyber-modifications available to soldiers promise to make the battlefield a place of superpowered clashes between robots, humans, and operatives caught somewhere between the two. With an arm full of not-plasmids and a sniper scope at the ready, I plunged into the campaign.

The Black Ops III campaign has a ‘Realistic’ difficulty setting. Even back in the days when the series muddied its boots in the fields of occupied France, ‘realistic’ wasn’t the first word that came to mind. There was no simulation of the actual business of a battlefield; instead, most missions contained a series of spigots that released a steady flow of enemies until stopped. That it worked is testament to the thoughtful design, both of individual levels and the overall intensity of combat, which emulated the chaos and fear of battle. Call of Duty was sound and fury, a far cry from the considered approach of Arma, but it signified something. In recent years, everything has become louder but much of the meaning has been lost.

That said, Black Ops II, which I recently played during a marathon tour of Call of Duties past and present, was marching in the right direction. While most agree that the multiplayer showed the game at its best, as expected, the campaign was as enjoyable as any of these bloated blockbusters have been since the first Modern Warfare. While the multiple endings and settings were sprinklings of seasoning rather than signs of an entirely new recipe, the setpieces were more involving than in some previous entries, and there was a greater sense of agency in combat thanks to some neat abilities and gadgets.

Black Ops III would seem like a game in retreat if its defining characteristic weren’t a forward momentum that begins as a stumble and eventually becomes a headlong tumble. The opening, before the introduction of the player’s cybernetic enhancements that promise to introduce a more kinetic experience, is almost parodic. Anyone who has played Serious Sam 3 might well recall the anxious opening stage, which bled into the opening couple of hours. It seemed to be a joke at the expense of the modern military shooter – corridors, brown textures everywhere, small groups of enemies and very little freedom of movement. It was a joke that went on for far too long.

If Black Ops III has any intention of poking fun at its own heritage (and I very much doubt that it does), it swiftly becomes apparent that this is a campaign in search of a punchline. That opening scene contains all of the grimly predictable, restrictive nonsense that forms a punching bag for detractors of the series.

High tech military folk have a plan and when it goes wrong, all of their computers and guns are worthless in the face of prescripted explosions and mindless enemies. Then it’s time for a quick session of “Follow Hendricks” – which would be an apt subtitle for the game – as your partner leads your chosen character (you can be a man or woman, with several preset faces to pick from) into an NCR base to rescue hostages.

It’s an infiltration, I think, but there’s little urgency and no attempt to stay hidden. Hendricks walks past burning soldiers and vehicles, and calmly enters the facility. You follow. Once inside, he moves across walkways and through rooms moodily illuminated by fire and waves of emergency lighting. And then your superior tells you, via a radio that’s probably implanted in your neck, to use a computer. You follow Hendricks to the computer and then press a button.

Camera feeds appear on the screen and you can cycle through them to see various parts of the base. Rather than using the information to plan a defense of your position or a deeper delve into the building, you’re subjected to a parade of torture sequences, which range from waterboarding to blowtorch-based terror infliction. It’s a series of cutscenes, separated by button presses, that exists to show exactly how unpleasant the NCR are. They’re doing the sort of things that intelligence agencies around the world do, but they’re just so brazen about it.

Toward the end of that opening level, Hendricks orders you to breach a door. Beyond, there is a vantage point into a room where the key hostage is held. Hendricks finds another entrance and counts down – 3, 2, 1, GO GO GO – and then bursts into the room. I didn’t react immediately as the countdown entered, which left me shooting at a room devoid of life, apart from the crab-walking Hendricks who had immediately killed all hostiles. This was to be a theme throughout the remainder of the campaign – if you don’t get your shots in quickly, there’s not always anyone left to shoot.

Things pick up a little when the cybernetic powers have been introduced but even when you’re able to cause robots to immolate mid-combat while hacking into and controlling enemy drones, every firefight feels somewhat predictable. Almost every turn brings another reminder of Deus Ex: Human Revolution – from the initial wounding that necessitates your body modification to late-game plot developments – and Treyarch’s game is second best in every way. Even the magnificent detail of its world rarely has art direction to match the splendour of the technical achievements.

Of course, this is Call of Duty, not a sci-fi RPG/immersive-sim. It’s not trying to be Deus Ex but there is plenty of evidence that it’s trying to be something more than a straitjacketed on-rails shooter. There are imaginative and tightly constructed virtual reality sequences that teeter between computer simulation and military nightmare. When the game is firing on all cylinders with its visual flights of fancy, it seems ready to break out of the dull rhythm of its repetitive and weightless action, but even when you’re seemingly trapped within a figment of your own (digital?) imagination and memory, you’re still shooting conveniently placed explosives and enemies that are more interruption than threat.

The story they’re interrupting is neither a tale of grim Clancyisms nor the clash of military sci-fi and superheroics that some of the trailers suggest. It’s Johnny Got His Gun by way of Michael Bay, and is precisely as confused and incoherent as that combination suggests. What it isn’t, and this is to its credit, is the celebration of new ways of killing that all of that pseudo-magical future-tech suggests. While it isn’t as blatantly harrowed by the horrors of war as Spec Ops: The Line by a long shot, Black Ops III does concern itself with the trauma and shock of combat.

That it does so in a ham-fisted fashion, and via what sounds like a bizarrely misdirected voice cast who believe they’re starring in a shouty melodrama rather than a game about shooting robots, burns away most of the goodwill the effort generates, but there is at least something here other than cyberterror and political gung-ho. By the overwrought and unexpected finale, I wanted to mute every voice in the game and my reaction to the closing moments can be summed up by one word: “Incredible”. And it is. In the sense that I refuse to believe nobody took a hatchet to the script.

It’s possible that the wall-jumping and other superpowers will make Blops III multiplayer exciting and fresh, but the campaign doesn’t provide enough interesting spaces to play in. The shooting feels perfunctory and I was dismayed to find that one of the powers simply adds more icons and targets to a screen that is often made up of little more than orange buildings and sky, with a glowing objective marker right in the centre.

Everything important has a highlight. That is the advantage conferred by your magical cyberHUD. It’s always been the advantage a modern CoD player character has over the enemy forces though. Battlefields that are prescribed theme parks, with all of the attendant queues and rails. Once again, you’re guided from one place to the next, so often spending your time fixated on the rear of an NPC companion rather than on the layout of an area and the position of enemies.

By the time you’ve endured its rockets ‘n’ scopes bossfights, and an airborne section that would be one of the worst setpieces in the entire series were it not for Advanced Warfare’s canyon fighter jet blunder, Blops III feels exhausted and exhausting. A voice was screaming “CALM” and “AT PEACE” in my ear as the game came to an end, and the ridiculousness of shouting those things so loud felt like a good summary. But digging through my memory, I found a better one.

In ye olde days, Call of Duty games would throw a famous quote up on the screen whenever you died, to provide a moment of reflection between attempts. Now that I’ve laid Blops III to rest, I’ve found a quote that seems like an echo of my thoughts and feelings.

“The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.”

That’s Marxist theoretician Antonio Gramsci. He wasn’t talking about Treyarch’s attempt to move Call of Duty campaigns forward, both mechanically and thematically, but he might as well have been. The chaos, triumph and panic that the historical Call of Duty games occasionally captured is gone, and on this evidence, there is nothing but noise to stand in its place.

Call of Duty: Black Ops 3 is out now for Windows.

67 Comments

  1. Cloudiest Nights says:

    Sounds like what I thought it’d sound like. However, multi-player may save this. Hopefully. The jet packing, dashing, sliding, and shooting all seem more fun than the older run and gun Call of Duties. And then there’s the zombies which looks like a good romp with the setting.

    • Shadow says:

      But would the multiplayer really save this? I mean, the next CoD will surely come out in six months time. Just how alive will the MP scene be once that happens?

      Seriously, what do the CODBLOPS 1 and 2 MP servers look like right now? Genuine question. The Advanced Warfare scene might temporarily look brighter, but I’d assume BLOPS3 recently signed its death sentence.

      • funkstar says:

        CODBLOPS2 has an active playerbase of 12 million, according to something i read

      • Cloudiest Nights says:

        Good question, actually! I know that MW3 on my PS3 still has 1000s online (as of a few months ago). It seems that the consoles have more people still playing older iterations of the game than PC. For me, Blops3 is something I would rather buy a PS4 to play it on with friends on a couch. On PC I think the competition with Payday 2 and more importantly Battlefield and CS:GO probably cut into what could be the CoD playerbase.

        • Carnage says:

          Oh, PC players do play the older iteration of this game, you’re just looking in the wrong direction. According to GameTracker currently there are more than 15000 players and nearly 2500 servers for Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare (and it’s only became larger in the past 2 years).

          World at War and Call of Duty 2 have around 2000 players.

          Popularity of anything else that came out after Modern Warfare you can check on Steam, since every game after that was tied to it.

      • Ferno says:

        You might think it would die off but I played Blops2 (the last one to have a good multiplayer) for around a year and a half and thoroughly enjoyed my time. I found that was plenty for my investment. The campaigns have sadly been trash for a long time. I won’t be picking this one up until a free weekend though since the beta stuttered to hell and back on my more than capable PC.

  2. Premium User Badge

    Aerothorn says:

    It is likely this will be the best available review of the game, and for that I am very appreciative.

    (I just checked to see if my Game Informer rule – that they will never give less than an 8.5 to any game that is heavily marketed at Gamestop – would hold, and yep, they give it a 9!)

    • welverin says:

      A quick check of Metacritic will show that’s in line with most sites, so it’s a bit unfair to say that Game Informer is doing it solely because of their Gamestop ties.

  3. FurryLippedSquid says:

    Bombastic gash.

    GNFAB

  4. PopeRatzo says:

    Respect for including an Antonio Gramsci quote in a review of CODBLOPSIII.

  5. RedViv says:

    But how many Ellzees does it contain? What is their average temperature? And how many bogeys seem to be stuck in the game? Questions, questions, questions!

    • Prolar Bear says:

      Probably around 45,5 white-hot Ellzees. Spoiler: this is the one where Oscar Mike finally turns evil

      • ironman Tetsuo says:

        Juliet Bravo was totally wasted in her role as supporting eye candy…

        • Shadow says:

          I suppose they underestimated her talent. After all, it’s her brother, Johnny Bravo, the one who’s only good for eye candy roles.

    • emotionengine says:

      I don’t know about Ellzees, but there are over 16.8 million Tangoes in the game. It said so in the trailer.

  6. that_guy_strife says:

    Why is there no mentions of memory leaks, nothing about the Nightmares mode, the race tracks, or the zombie mode ?

    This article is as polished and brilliantly presented as the game it describes, and as empty too !

    Review within the review ?

    (I haven’t paid much attention to CoD since MW2, and all I know about BO3 is what I’ve seen around the web)

    • Capt. Bumchum McMerryweather says:

      Well, I hate to point out the bleedin orbvious, but here goes: THIS IS A REVIEW FOR THE SINGLE PLAYER ASPECT OF THE GAME. Those modes you mentioned are MULTIPLAYER ASPECTS OF THE GAME. If you’d read the title as well as you’d read the review you might’ve noticed that.

      • chuckles73 says:

        It is not obvious that memory leak, nightmares, race tracks and zombies are multiplayer.

        • Capt. Bumchum McMerryweather says:

          memory leaks perhaps not. But 5 seconds of Googling provided me with the answer, so posting a critique of a review without marshaling any facts whatsoever does wind me up somewhat.

          • that_guy_strife says:

            Your Google-fu is clearly lacking. Judging from your other post, I assume you enjoy bashing CoD, and didn’t much enjoy a comment questioning a review mocking it. Keep winding up ! That high pitch is hilarious.

          • Capt. Bumchum McMerryweather says:

            I’m not that into CoD bashing, to be honest. I like the multiplayer but the campaign is always super wank. That being said, I know that nightmares is a single player affair, but I’m pretty sure that has to be unlocked by something, so I expect the reviewers won’t have managed it yet. Also just because modes have the ability to be played on their own, it doesn’t mean that they are single player modes.

          • that_guy_strife says:

            I agree that this reads as a review of the singleplayer campaign, but even then there are a fair few bits missing. I still think that all the bits that can be played singleplayer like the zombies and the racetracks should be included, even if they’re aimed at multiplayer (playing coop for the former and leaderboards for the latter).

            I mostly disklike that this reads as an elitist rant. I’ve been disappointed with CoD for a long time and far from me the intention to defend it, but it’s the principle. I’m as disappointed to see this kind of uselessness on RPS than I am in the series.

        • that_guy_strife says:

          Spectacular idiocy, as EVERYTHING I mentionned IS single player.

          Nightmares is SPECIFICALLY a remake of the CAMPAIGN. And unless they changed it(which I doubt) you can play zombies by yourself. The race tracks are ALSO single player. The leaks happen MOSTLY in the campaign (something about the cinematics I heard).

      • cpt_freakout says:

        No, no, but what is FRAMES PER SECOND of CODBLOPS?? Without that, review is as hollow as the bullets of my MP3-DND ‘ChickyHawk’ 1.2 caliber DEVOLVER.

  7. Capt. Bumchum McMerryweather says:

    So it sucks barnacle-encrusted whale testicles then?

  8. yogibbear says:

    Does it finally have dedicated servers and not P2P BS? Is it even worth bothering to ask anymore or should we just wait for someone else to fill the void left by Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare.

    • that_guy_strife says:

      It does, but unranked. If you miss MW, I highly doubt you’ll find what you’re looking for in this. There’s an achievement for wallrunning 150 yards, and you can shoot bees from your arms.

      • simulant says:

        How’s it stack up against Titanfall which I’m belatedly enjoying? Most of the time anyway.

        • Shadow says:

          Is Titanfall still alive? I thought it had deflated at an alarming speed, not too long after launch.

          • simulant says:

            Yes… even a sequel in the works. It’s good fun if you like 15 minute games.

    • smisk says:

      Yeah, all servers are dedicated, I haven’t had any connection issues so far. They’re still using matchmaking though, which is annoying. Supposedly there will be a proper server browser somewhere down the line.

  9. simulant says:

    I can’t remember the last time I enjoyed, or even finished, a COD single player campaign. I’ve come to despise them much in the same way I despised the ridiculous & misogynist Kingsman The Secret Service movie I had the displeasure to watch the other night.

    If the multi-player is as good as they say, perhaps I’ll bite in a few months when it’s on sale but I will never, ever buy another COD game at full price.

    • that_guy_strife says:

      Did you mean, in a few dozen months ? Maybe look up G2A then.

    • Smuckers says:

      I know it’s not a popular opinion round these parts, but have you tried advanced warfare? It’s not the best thing in the world, but it seemed to capture a bit of the old cod4 feel, with a more or less coherent plot that actually made some sense. It’s still rediculous, but i did find it refreshing in sorta a b grade black hawk down kinda way.

  10. Radiant says:

    So… 7 out of 10.

    • Bugamn says:

      No, no, no. This will be at the Steam page:
      “Incredible”
      — Adam Smith, RPS

  11. Zaxwerks says:

    Well it’s good to know that stayed away from the heckneyed dark haired Nathan Drake clone look for the main character and went with a blond… oh no wait they didn’t…

    • funkstar says:

      seeing as you create a character (at least from a number of presets) who can be female, there is quite a possibility to avoid being nathan drake :)

  12. Renegade says:

    Funny how the now four year old Bulletstorm parody is still just as relevent today ‘War never changes… or does it?’ link to youtube.com

  13. Bull0 says:

    I enjoyed it, but it’s not the strongest of the campaigns. There’s so much else in the package though – the zombies offering is the biggest so far and for my money the most interesting. The whole nightmares mode of the campaign is really good fun too. But yeah, COD bad, is game for leetle kiddies, etc, etc.

  14. Punning Pundit says:

    Gramsci also talked about effective propaganda working on two levels. One of them is just the gut level repetitive noise that becomes unthink pablum. The other is the sort of quasi smart justification for those who consider themselves part of the intellegencia.

    Call of Duty is a masterwork of the first type of propaganda, obviously.

  15. smisk says:

    None of the COD campaigns I’ve played have been Amazing, but I’m having a particularly hard time caring about BLOPS 3’s so far. The powers are cool, but the setting is kinda bland and I don’t care about any of the characters.
    That being said, I’m having a lot of fun with the multiplayer and am looking forward to checking out the zombies mode. I think it was worth the $37 I spent overall.

  16. Turkey says:

    I’ll wait for the movie.

  17. drewski says:

    Yep, it’s a CoD game alright.

  18. Premium User Badge

    Bluerps says:

    “A voice was screaming “CALM” and “AT PEACE” in my ear as the game came to an end […]”

    Like this? link to youtube.com

  19. gabrieldlbien says:

    Hey, I have a bit of an issue with this review. I’m not an avid COD fan, though I will admit I rather like this one.
    But you didn’t once put in the actual strong parts of the campaign, the bits improved from older games. Like the open size of maps, and ability to actually use tactics for the first time in COD etc.
    This felt more like an insulting rant than a review.

    • malkav11 says:

      Oh, trust me, it isn’t any sort of rant. You want a rant about Call of Duty singleplayer campaigns, check out one of Walker’s reviews of prior installments. Now there’s someone who hates them (and often for weirdly spurious reasons). Adam may not ultimately have enjoyed this campaign, but I think he’s much more even-handed and thoughtful about his analysis.

    • GWOP says:

      “Insulting?” Really? Man, gamers have a thin skin. So easily offended.

  20. Premium User Badge

    garfieldsam says:

    Wow you just used Gramsci to make a legitimate commentary on a Call of Duty game. I can’t decide if this is my pick for Games Journalism Piece of The Year or a barely-disguised hipsterrunoff cross-promotion.

  21. Dug Briderider says:

    Had to look up “interregnum” as its a first for me, in language RPS users will understand; the couple of unproductive “anarchy” turns in Civ.

  22. haldolium says:

    That review reflects my view pretty much. Except 2050 is definitively near future. Although in this case as realistic as the near future of Back to the Future.

    I find it sad though, not for the franchise which simply is bad (and cultural damaging), but for the amount of great art design and technical tricks thats been wasted upon this game. It all goes by almost unnoticed, buried under way-too-extreme camera shakes, hit-markers and a game direction that at most celebrates character closeups (which at least look very nice) in cutscenes.

    And I hope this game will contribute towards the fact, that simply putting female characters in any game doesn’t make it better, gives women more rights or acceptance.

  23. Fropp says:

    I wouldn’t particularly disagree with this review, but the campaign is only one small part of the game and CoD is a multiplayer and co-op thing at the end of the day. Plus, for £40 you get a lot of content besides! Having said that, the campaign passes the time of day, nothing more or less. There are two or three really enjoyable levels, the rest is just walking for A to B killing everything in your way, but there’s a huge variety of weapons and adaptations, and every part of the game looks and sounds amazing (compare with Fallout’s 10 year old graphics for example).

  24. MaxMcG says:

    All I need to know is if it has three essential elements for an aweseome FPS – Quick Time Events, recharging health and unskippable cutscenes.

    • Bull0 says:

      No QTEs or unskippable cutscenes (they use them to mask loading but you can skip once everything’s loaded). It does have recharging health, I think that one might be here to stay :(

      • malkav11 says:

        Recharging health is the only thing I’m happy games have taken from Halo.

        • Bull0 says:

          I’m basically OK with it, just depends on the implementation. halo does it well because there’s a decent justification for it in the game and you can clearly see your shield status, etc. In CoD you usually just get the stupid “bloody screen” effect and that can be quite annoying.

  25. Bull0 says:

    ***SPOILER WARNING***

    There’s a lot more to the briefing text at the beginning of each mission than meets the eye, too. I don’t want to spoil too much for anyone but suffice it to say there’s more to the story than what is overtly stated through the campaign missions. Some of the moments that seem a little weird, particularly the odd romantic subplot between the player and Kane – yeah, there’s a reason for that.

  26. Razumen says:

    Actually I’m enjoying the SP a lot in this one, the nano powers or whatever and the increased mobility, plus the enhanced tactical view really opens up more tactical options within battles. Yes the game is still really linear, but at least the levels around most battles allow for multiple types of approaches.

    As for the story, it’s rather typical action-movie type schlock-not great, but not terrible either. I’m looking forward to playing the zombie campaign mode with my sister.