Sitting rather ruggedly alongside family staples like Mario or Tetris, Call of Duty is one of those games almost everybody's heard of. A first person shooter that started out as a WW2 game, before moving on to the present day, and now a somewhat sci-fi take on a dystopian "near future", it's a game that's reinvented itself with every new instalment, with each trying to bring something new to the table. And Black Ops 3 is no different.
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With more sci-fi than before, Call of Duty Black Ops 3 is one of the most unique Call of Duties yet, set in a world where the line between humanity and technology has been blurred. Divided up into three similar - yet also very different - modes, you're given the choice of playing through the game's campaign (or "story mode") either in solo, or co-op (with support for both online and two player split-screen); taking on the world in the competitive online multiplayer; or facing off against waves of undead foes in the series perennial Zombies mode - so there's really something for everyone. So long as you're a fan of shooting things!
Seeing as it's the meat of the non-competitive side of things, we'll start with the campaign first. With a whole new feel, the story mode on average provides around six hours' worth of gameplay, which isn't too bad for a shooter - especially one as adrenaline fuelled and packed with explosives as this. The game begins in traditional blockbuster style, as you and your team of companions infiltrate a base in Ethiopia. Soon enough, things go horribly, horribly wrong, and you find your team of hunters quickly becoming the hunted, in a stand-off that ends in disaster... What follows is a traditionally spectacular collection of levels that see you facing off against everything, from humans to cyberkinetic robot soldiers, alongside your team of companions.
With team-based play in mind, the campaign in Black Ops 3 has been designed from the ground up to be played in co-op, and while there's nothing stopping you playing through on your own (alongside some computer controlled team-mates), there's plenty of ways for you to get your friends involved here. Whether you're playing in four player online, or two player split-screen co-op, at a time when other games (*cough cough* Halo) are unceremoniously ditching their split-screen modes, Call of Duty: Black Ops really shines through, as the team have obviously put a lot of effort into providing ways for people to play together.
As we mentioned before, a large part of the game's plot is to do with blurring the lines between man and machine, with a new piece of technology known as the Direct Neural Interface allowing soldiers control of cyberkinetics - and the ability to read peoples' minds. What this means in practice is that you'll have a whole host of crazy abilities available to you - with two in particular that stand out as a lot of fun to play with. The first is the nano bees, which you can send in to the air to distract your enemies before they start biting and killing them off for you. The other is the use of mind control, which gives you a heck of a lot of options when it comes to tackling tricky situations - especially as it lets you control more than just humans. With mind control, you have the ability to take over enemy weapons, such as turrets and drones, and remotely to kill off your enemies - and don't forget to look around your surroundings to see if the environment can help you succeed, like by tipping over barrels of a fiery substance.
If controlling enemy weapons isn't your thing, then you can go ahead and control the minds of your opponents instead, forcing them to start taking down their own allies. It's a nice and fresh idea that really helps add a lot of variety to the game, and gives you something to break up the constant running and gunning (but don't get me wrong, that can always be fun too!). Sometimes, it can be fun to just see how inventively you can clear an area.
There are so many different abilities to explore, upgrade and unlock throughout the game, too, with something to suit every play style. The powers and abilities you choose can change the way you approach battle, as you may want to play as the standard COD player and fight from afar, or you may want to choose abilities that allow you to get up close and personal with your enemy, something which isn't often explored in Call of Duty games. Want to control the minds of your enemies and the technology around you? Do it! Want to focus on invisibility to give yourself more time to be stealthy and revive your teammates? Do it! Want to be able to run across the battlefield at lightening speeds and use ground pounds? Do it! *insert picture of Shia LeBeouf saying 'just do it' here*.
Whichever you choose, it's certain to be a whole lot more fun when you team up with a friend or three who use different abilities - take the battlefield by storm! Just be sure you only unlock the things you really want, as you won't have enough points available to get everything.
However, Call of Duty's campaign doesn't get everything right, and one of the bigger issues is the story - or rather, its pacing. With so much going on, the story can seem to whizz by a little bit too quickly at times - a criticism we've levelled at the series before. Both your own character, as well as those around seem to get barely anything in the way of an introduction or background in regard to their relationships, so you don't really "know" them. Because of this, it makes it difficult to be able to get emotionally attached to any character, and when limbs get ripped off and screams and cries are heard, it's not as if you really feel any sort of emotional heartache. In fact, a lot of the campaign focuses on your character's flashbacks, which would be a whole lot easier to sympathise with had we been given more time to connect with our character, or even customise to add a personal touch.
Still, for the most part, the campaign is a genuinely impressive ride - which is why it's unfortunate that for the people playing on the Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3, the campaign option isn't available, as the "last gen" versions are effectively just online multiplayer modes. A ploy to get people to buy a next-gen console? Perhaps - but the last gen players are certainly missing out.
Of course, there's more than just the campaign to Call of Duty, and it's the multiplayer and zombies section of Call of Duty that many people get excited about. While most of the Black Ops 3 multiplayer mode is pretty much the same as those that have come before, with a similar selection of modes (deathmatch, team deathmatch, capture the flag, etc) there are a few new additions.
Truthfully, the online side of the game is home to a lot of younger people, around 13-15 years old, and that does affect the experience you get. Not only are the kids too young to be playing the game legally, but one of the most frustrating parts about it is that a lot of them are 'campers' - essentially these are players who sit in one spot for the duration of the game (usually near a spawn point) and shoot anybody they can see. And that's kind of not how the game's meant to be played. While they may clock up the points, it can't be much fun for them (as they're sitting perfectly still), and it's not much fun for you, either. Get in to the action and start running around and bouncing off the walls!
On the other hand, another highly frustrating part about online is that the game makes no effort to pair you with people of a similar ability. Instead, while you may just be starting out, you'll find yourself coming up against people who spend a lot of time on the game, and have unlocked almost everything available. Making it very difficult for new players to get into the game and learn the ropes, as all they'll do is spawn and get instantly killed, this really isn't the best new player experience.
What makes things even more difficult is the introduction of the new Specialist classes, with fully customisable characters and armour. Upon starting an online game you have to pick a specialist to be, and each specialist has a unique perk - some better than others. In order to unlock different specialists and abilities, you need to play a fair few games to rank up and earn XP, so the best classes are the domain of the higher level players. But as Call of Duty doesn't try to match players by experience/level, and as some specialists and their abilities appear to be a whole lot more powerful than others, you'll end up going against the most experienced players, with the best weapons, best perks, and best classes, while you're just starting out. And that's not much fun.
The Zombies section of the game, meanwhile, is more of a co-operative affair, and comes complete with its own eerie name - "Shadows of Evil". The name itself is creepy enough, but it's nice to see that even the Zombies get their own story to go along with the game. The story here is set in the fictional locale of Morg City, a setting straight out of a 1940s horror film, where four troubled individuals - a femme fatal, a boxer, a cop and a magician - find themselves in a world overrun by the undead. Facing off against wave upon wave of zombies in a game of survival, each have to fight their way towards uncover what happened to them, how they ended up in this twisted world, and why they have so much amnesia and confusion - as if they didn't have enough to worry about already… Before you feel too sorry for them though, each of them is a lying, manipulative, conniving, selfish berk, and each has their own rather nasty history of wrong-doings - so could being stuck in this zombie hell-hole be karma for how they lived their lives? Playable in up to four-player split-screen co-op, or four player online, the Zombies mode also has an XP-Based progression system, allowing your experience to become personalised, add depth to the game and be as repayable as ever - now all the hours put in to playing the Zombies mode will feel all that more worthwhile.
As with all Call of Duty games, it's worth noting that not all content is released with the game, and there's a season pass available that'll let you have access to the inevitable progression of new map packs and tweaks that'll be released over the next twelve months. Unfortunately, we can't really say how good these maps are going to be until they launch, but we still thought it'd be worth flagging up that, if you plan on playing Call of Duty online, expect to have to pay more than just the cost of the disc alone...
To summarise, Call of Duty Black Ops 3 takes the series in a different direction to previous Call of Duty games, bundling a great campaign and Zombies mode with an OK, if sometimes frustrating competitive multiplayer mode. Fresh and new, while sticking true to its roots, Black Ops 3 is pretty good, if not a must buy.
Format Reviewed: Xbox 360