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.