Review: Call of Duty: Black Ops III (PS4)

cod-black-ops-3-review-banner

Title: Call of Duty: Black Ops III
Format: Blu-ray Disc / PlayStation Network Download (49 GB)
Release Date: November 6, 2015
Publisher: Activision
Developer: Treyarch, Beenox, Mercenary Technology
Original MSRP: $59.99
ESRB Rating: M
Call of Duty: Black Ops III is also available on PlayStation 3, Xbox One, Xbox 360, and PC.
The PlayStation 4 download version was used for this review.
A copy of this game was provided by the publisher for review purposes.
PS Nation Review Policy

Audio Review:
The audio review for this game is available on Episode 449 of the podcast.

Another year, another Call of Duty. That’s what you’ll hear from just about everyone when you bring the series up in conversation. Some might say that the series is becoming diluted with the now yearly releases while others might want to discuss the differences in quality and direction now that three separate studios are making them – all on a three year cycle, so at least they’re not rushed.

I’m someone that falls into the latter argument, and as we’ve seen in the last few years, you just don’t know what you can expect when a new Call of Duty hits the shelves. In my opinion, Advanced Warfare was a pretty good multiplayer experience, but way too “twitchy” for my tastes, and Ghosts, well that was just a bad game no matter how you slice it.

I’m also one of those people that, at least over the last four to five years likes to focus more on the multiplayer than any campaign in the series, but Treyarch are making an effort to change that mentality in this case.

In Black Ops III though, generally speaking for everything that’s good, there’s also something equally bad. The biggest difference from the last two to three CoD games though is that they’ve made a concerted effort to not just shoehorn a minimal campaign into the mix, and that’s where we’ll start.

Call of Duty®: Black Ops III_20151110211026

Gameplay:
Once again, Black Ops III takes place in “the future”. Soldiers are now being replaced by robots in many situations, so now human soldiers have mechanical augments available to level the playing field a bit. That’s as far as I’ll go as not not possibly spoil anything.

See, we always make it a point to not spoil the story in a game, but this time, the mushroom-consuming writers have done that for me because quite frankly, the story is a pretentiously convoluted mess. The performances by actors that you will surely recognize are excellent and the motion capture technology they’ve used to capture those performances is top-notch, but the story itself skips around time more than Rick and Morty.

But now the “good” when it comes to the campaign, it’s actually pretty long. Playing on “Normal” it took me roughly six to seven hours. I played the first half on my own, and in a rare occurrence nowadays, the second half I played with two to three friends in co-op. When you’re playing alone, you’re joined by AI-controlled teammates, and if you have a friend that wants to play with you, joining the session by all accounts is very easy to do.

… it almost felt like the campaign was actually designed for co-op …
As soon as friends joined my session, I quickly noticed that the game scaled to accommodate the extra firepower. It threw more enemies at us and it also seemed to take a bit more effort to take them down, so color me impressed. Cooperative gameplay is quite fun, and honestly, I’d say that’s the best way to play through the story.

We simply set up a party on the PS4, allowing them to join on my session straight from there, which also gave us an easy way to communicate as well. Coordination is key in many of the larger battles that we came across, and despite the ridiculous story, we all enjoyed ourselves quite a bit.

After playing the first half alone, it almost felt like the campaign was actually designed for co-op, which is rare but refreshing. It takes a lot for a game like this to work well with more than one person, but we didn’t have any issues with performance or level design.

Call of Duty®: Black Ops III_20151112184151

New this year is the way in which you handle your special abilities, called Cyber Cores. You’ll have three categories (Control, Martial, and Chaos) to choose from. Each category contains six cores which need to be unlocked via Fabrication Kits, and after being unlocked they can also be upgraded.

You won’t be able to unlock and upgrade every one in a single playthrough, so you’ll need to develop a plan depending on your specific play style. You then apply one of those Cyber Core categories to your character before each mission, with each containing a set of abilities that adhere to the overall aim of the category. Basically there’s one for defense/stealth, one that focuses on abilities that affect humans, and the last has abilities that affect electronics and your robot foes.

To switch between your chosen abilities, all you have to do is hold ‘down’ on the D-pad, bringing the abilities wheel up on the screen which allows you to quickly switch between them. What I don’t like is that the only way to switch to a different category in the middle of a mission is to find a crate that allows you to switch your loadout.

… there’s a lot that’s good in the campaign, but there’s a lot that can be improved on …
Since you don’t know what you may need during a specific mission, your choice can be a complete waste until you find one of these crates, and it’s not like they litter the landscape. My favorite skills are primarily those that affect machines and electronics, especially the one that makes a robot’s power core overload.

The resulting explosion can even take a out a couple more if they’re close enough. Also, don’t expect these abilities to work in the last portion of the campaign, something that got frustrating after using them as part of my strategy throughout most of the game.

Between missions, you’ll have many options in your “Safehouse”. You can take a look at any commendations or gear that you’ve earned, you can participate in “virtual missions”, you can manage your Cyber Cores, edit your pre-made loadouts, and visit the Gunsmith to build and/or customize weapons.

Call of Duty®: Black Ops III_20151112175106

It’s a nice way to bring you into the experience, and at the same time reinforces the “make it yours” mentality that the Call of Duty games have focused on in the last few years. Luckily, some of these items will even carry-over to the multiplayer.

So as I said at the top of the review, there’s a lot that’s good in the campaign, but there’s a lot that can be improved on. Fans of the series will definitely crack a smile at the multitude of Easter Eggs throughout, and the action and the actual shooting is very good. Unfortunately though, I don’t have any ambition to play through it again, not even cooperatively, and the story itself was a waste of my time.

… Treyarch pulled all the stops …
Visuals:
It’s not even close, Black Ops III is definitely the best that Call of Duty has ever looked. For the first time, it doesn’t feel like it’s using a retrofitted engine, and Treyarch pulled all the stops when it comes to effects and depth.

Everything from textures to lighting to detail are all fantastic, and all running at a very solid 60FPS. This new engine is a big leap from even the feature-rich one they used in Advanced Warfare, and it definitely helps to immerse you into the experience, both in the campaign and when playing online.

Animation of the characters is definitely the best it’s ever been, especially when displaying the performances of the actors portraying the main characters. You’ll immediately recognize most of the main players like Christopher Meloni and Katee Sackhoff, and even the most subtle facial expression is captured and shown in great detail.

You’re going to see a good amount of effects surrounding the battlefields as you play, and coupled with the fantastic lighting engine and outstanding color palette, Black Ops III joins a handful of other games that offer visuals this good. It’s not at the level of the newest Frostbite engine, but it’s the closest they’ve ever come.

Call of Duty®: Black Ops III_20151110213425

Audio:
Sound design in Black Ops III is mostly well done, but at the same time it feels uneven in places, mainly in the multiplayer. Explosions can sometimes sound a bit muted, and environmental clips sometimes seem to cut in and out. In general the audio is well done, it just feels like the overall mix could be tweaked a bit more.

Voice work on the other hand, is very well done throughout all modes. Part of that is the high caliber of talent used, but the vocal portion of the overall mix uses the directional aspects of the design to full effect. Of course, the best example of the surround encoding is when you’re dealing with zombies, since they always seem to sneak up on you when you’re not looking. It doesn’t matter if you’re using headphones or your home theater surround, everything moves around you flawlessly.

… definitely a bit slower paced than last year …
Online/Multiplayer:
This is the reason that nearly everyone buys the Call of Duty games year-after-year – I don’t remember seeing anyone having CoD Campaign competitions in Major League Gaming. Again, the multiplayer is a dichotomy to me just as the campaign was.

The maps seem bigger than they are in Advanced Warfare, and the layouts all seem much tighter. Also, there are still Jump Packs as in Advanced Warfare, but they’re less effective and don’t allow you to boost in any direction other than Up.

The action is definitely a bit slower paced than last year, which for me is a welcome change. But, for some unknown reason I am finding it impossible to be consistently effective from match to match. I can go back and play Advanced Warfare with good results, but with Black Ops III I just can’t seem to get a rhythm going. I’m sure that it’s my problem, but something about it just feels “off”.

It’s weird too, because the overly-twitchy gameplay in Advanced Warfare was my biggest complaint. With the slower pace, I expected to like this much more and oddly enough, I do for the most part. Now though, with the less directional Jump Packs, Treyarch have now added wall running which just flat-out annoys me.

Call of Duty®: Black Ops III_20151112185438

On occasion, you’ll jump away from a grenade only to stick to a wall and start automatically running, which will usually result in your untimely demise. Another disappointment is that once again, the developers rely heavily on gadgets to make the game feel more action-packed and visceral.

The series’ reliance on Scorestreaks, Killstreaks, and whatever else-streaks has been a growing annoyance for a while now, and unless they finally go back to WWII, I don’t see an end in sight for this crutch.

At least they’ve simplified the Scorestreak system this year, which last year was so overly complex that I just didn’t feel like dealing with it since even the Scorestreaks had modifiers to apply. The setup in Black Ops III is back to basics mostly, with a very linear system for unlocking and applying.

… I doubt that any Call of Duty fan has much to complain about …
Also new this year is the use of a “Specialist”. Instead of simply choosing a player model, now you choose an operator based on their special ability. Each has two available, with one available for use at a time.

If you think this sounds like Destiny, well, you’re not alone in that. Abilities include anything from using a grenade launcher, to “active armor”, to a ground pound. There are plenty of options to suit your play style, and all of them can be effective if used correctly.

Loadout management is predictably well done and again seems less complex than the past couple of years. They still seem to be relying heavily on slot points to handle balance and sometimes that just makes it feel like you’re being held-back a bit too much.

Call of Duty®: Black Ops III_20151110204200

Wild Cards feel less effective and almost useless to a certain extent and upgrade options for your guns feel old and familiar. I still haven’t found a gun that I feel particularly comfortable with, and I still haven’t found a weapon that equals the effectiveness of the G3 from Call of Duty 4, and I probably never will.

In terms of modes, there are a plethora – yes, I know what that means. I usually gravitate to Domination, but I’ve forced myself to play most of the other modes for this review, and I doubt that any Call of Duty fan has much to complain about.

Fan favorite ‘Nuketown’ makes its third appearance in the series, offering the same fast-paced gameplay with a new, updated visual style bringing it into the future, but it’s only available as a preorder bonus – for now.

… Call of Duty: Black Ops III only supports one hundred people on your friends list …
Zombies are obviously back, with all new maps available. I personally am not a fan of horde modes like this, but the friends of mine that are have speaking pretty highly of this year’s entry, so take that for what it is. This year, Zombie mode has its own XP system though, but I haven’t been able to find a good explanation of what that actually means.

Local play has also been included, which allows split-screen local play (four-player offline, two-player online) and it also supports LAN play, which is rare but appreciated.

So now that I’ve gotten all of that out of the way, let me tell you what has essentially ruined the online experience. For some reason, two years after the launch of the PS4, Call of Duty: Black Ops III only supports one hundred people on your friends list. I have over eight hundred people on my friends list currently, so this is a problem for me. The decision as to which people from you list appear in the lobby is seemingly random.

Call of Duty®: Black Ops III_20151115091757

There’s no way to filter your friends list by who’s actually online in the game, so unless you’re in a PS4 party with your online friend, it’s a roll of the dice if you’ll ever be able to partner with anyone that you know. Furthermore, connecting via the PS4 party system only works occasionally, with multitudes of connection errors.

To not allow someone to effectively use their PS4 friends list in the online lobby, especially for a game that people primarily play online, essentially breaks the core of the entire experience. I’ve even got a few friends that got rid of the game because hooking-up online has been such a frustration, and it’s kept my online play to a minimum as well. Quite frankly, it’s unacceptable in this day and age and exudes an air of laziness to all affected.

… a lot that’s good here …
Conclusion:
It’s been awhile since I’ve seen a game completely contradict itself at almost every turn, so to appreciate the good will take some patience. There’s a lot that’s good here, but some of the bad parts really can sour the overall experience.

If you do play the campaign bring three friends along, it really does make the experience much better. In multiplayer there’s a lot to like but there’s no excuse for the broken friends and lobby system. There are some ways around it but you just shouldn’t have to figure that out. Hopefully this stuff is fixed in Black Ops IV when it hits in 2018.

Score:
8.0

* All screenshots used in this review were taken directly from the game using the Share functionality on the PlayStation 4.

Flag_of_the_United_States.svg
Flag_of_the_United_Kingdom.svg
Flag_of_Canada.svg

 

Written by Glenn Percival

Glenn Percival

Just a guy that loves games, movies, Golf, Football, and Baseball.

Podcast Co-Host, Editor-in-Chief, Video Producer, and whipping-boy

Twitter Digg Delicious Stumbleupon Technorati Facebook