If there’s one thing that stands out about Black Ops 3, it’s just how pervasively cooperative the game is. You can play almost everything in split screen, blend that functionality with four player co-op online and dip in and out of content as you see fit. It helps that there’s just such a wealth of different game modes, as Treyarch drop in little secrets and pleasant asides to go alongside the main campaign, Zombies and their latest revision of the ever-popular multiplayer.
In the campaign, that beating heart of cooperative play means that, while still a driven and linear experience, there’s more expansive battles to fight through, with different levels and different paths you can take through the gunfight. Of course, much of that is enabled by the abilities leant to you by being a cybernetically augmented human being.
You can boost jump to reach the second floor with ease, passively push grenades away from yourself, emit a sound wave to make enemies retch and throw up, commandeer enemy robots, send swarms of fire bees to rove in front of you, and much, much more. The thing is that you can’t do all of this at once.
Your safe house features several stations at which you can quite extensively customise your character’s loadouts – in addition to being able to pick a gender and choose from one of several variants of how they actually look. You’ve got five slots for Create-A-Class styled loadouts, letting you cater to your own style of play, but this also means you need to unlock and then equip your augmented abilities. Even the boost jump is not a part of your capabilities by default, but you’ll also be switching between trees of Cyber Cores, which focus on different types of powers. Even within a tree there are contrasting abilities which you can switch between on the fly and activate by pressing both shoulder buttons.
They complement each other quite nicely though, allowing you to play with a friend and each be able to target and impede different types of enemies. You’re also able to turn on a visual overlay that highlights the often difficult to pinpoint enemies, assuming they are in view of your buddies or friendly AI.
Though there are certain set pieces that can test a group of four even on regular difficulty – and which will represent a serious and perhaps unfair challenge for solo players – there are also points that feel unnecessarily easy. The handful of on-rails shooting sections require next to no human input for explosive and bombastic victory.
Co-op feels like the best way to play the game by far, but contrasting players can come to hinder the enjoyment for others in the group. A player reaching a checkpoint or a cutscene will trigger a jarring and ugly visual effect for those lagging too far behind, whether they’re simply dawdling or have been in a support role as a sniper. It compounds the fact that, as with all story-based co-op games, it’s easy to miss key moments in the narrative, and so it’s important to try and get a group of likeminded players if playing the story for the first time.
Black Ops 3’s story plays on some very current fears and concerns with regard to the rapid advancement of technology, the hold it has over our lives and the control its pervasive presence can give to others. Yet we don’t really see the effect that the ability to have cybernetic alterations made to the human body has on the wider populace, only the aftermath of natural and human disasters that have grown in scale over the 40 year gap between Black Ops 2 and 3. It’s the year 2065, and everything’s going to hell in a hand basket.
Except that to truly grasp much of what’s happened during that time, you have to dive into the safe house computer terminal and the fiction’s historical files, which I felt compelled to do in order to understand simple facts like who the Winslow Accord is. The story comes across as being unbalanced, as the main antagonist feels as though they’ve been conjured out of thin air, and though there’s a strong cast of actors – albeit nowhere near as engaging as Kevin Spacey’s charismatic megalomaniac from Advanced Warfare – they’re underused in the story’s middle act, before reappearing for some lengthy moments of exposition later on.
That’s not to say that the story is bad, and it certainly takes Call of Duty in a new and rather interesting direction, with bombastic set pieces that lean heavily on science fiction and give little nods and winks to movies across the genre. It also feels like it will reward replaying certain missions, in order to piece together some of the story beats and let you try to resolve the deliberately ambiguous ending.
Once you’ve finished, the game gives you more than enough reasons to return to the campaign, by tucking the Dead Ops Arcade II minigame away in the safe house – playable cooperatively – as well as both Realism mode, which forces you to play closely with teammates as a single bullet hit will down you, and the Nightmare mode, which twists the campaign into something quite different that will no doubt please long term fans of Treyarch’s games.
It’s that fanbase which has helped them to justify a much grander prominence for the Zombies mode. The traditional gameplay returns, as you fight off wave after wave of zombies, barricading windows and racking up points to spend on weapons, opening new areas and more, but Treyarch back it up with some great production values and new ideas.
Set in the film-noir styled Morg City, a cast of four characters voiced by Hollywood stars Jeff Goldblum, Heather Graham, Ron Pearlman and Neal McDonough, and their interactions start to build the story, alongside the ominous voice that talks to you and nudges you in the right direction. However, it’s really the Beast which will differentiate this from what went before.
Players can transform themselves into a tentacled creature for roughly 30 seconds at a time, using certain points on the map. It’s the Beast who can drive the level forward, beyond simply opening up doors, as one tentacle allows them to shoot electricity and activate a crane, for example, they can break down certain doors or grapple up to particular points.
There’s an awful lot of exploration and learning to do in order to progress, but it happens to the backdrop of an imposing level of difficulty. You need to work as a team to manage the time you have between the ever growing waves of zombies, learn to tackle the more powerful creatures that can be summoned, and so on. Death sees you have to start all over, and it says a lot that, over the course of a few hours of play and with pointers as to what to do, I never got past the seventh wave and didn’t manage to see much of the map in any great detail. With determination and skill, there’s a lot more to discover.
After the transformative addition of jet packs in Advanced Warfare, Black Ops 3 comes to a similar feeling brand of fast paced gameplay from a slightly different angle. Rather than having clearly defined jumps and dashes, you drain a boost meter which takes time to recharge, and rewards skilful play as a consequence – a Free Run mode in the Multiplayer menu helps you learn the basics and hone more advanced skills.
It’s a shame that some of the maps don’t quite have the flexibility to match the feeling of freedom that the jumping and wall running can give you. It doesn’t quite feel natural to have a wall that’s just ever-so-conveniently tall enough to prevent you from jumping over it, or a rocky outcrop that features invisible walls to prevent you trying to clamber over the top of them. It presumably done to keep the right flow and balance to the map layouts, and there are plenty of opportunities to take full advantage of your movement, but it can occasionally be a little jarring.
The Pick 10 loadout system and a fairly standard unlock progression returns – loot drops in the Black Market are restricted to cosmetic changes – but they come with the added layer of having you pick from nine Specialists to play as. Each has two variants slanted toward more offensive or defensive play, such as the Spectre who can either chain together brutal melee attacks or engage active camouflage. They bring a more accessible form of special ability for those who are rarely able to reach the score streaks. While most of these are relatively subdued and require skill to use effectively, they do take the gameplay another step away from the established formula from previous, more grounded entries in the series.
The usual array of game modes make themselves known, from Team Deathmatch to Search & Destroy, Gun Game and Uplink. There’s also a new addition called Safeguard, in which you must escort or prevent a robot from reaching an objective point. However, the most intriguing new twist on these modes stems from eSports-styled competitive play, in the Arena.
It takes modes like Search & Destroy or Hardpoint and plays them out on a smaller scale, with 4v4. However, each match is preceded by a meta game, of sorts, in which you take turns to ban or protect various abilities, weapons, characters, and so on. That is then followed by the Specialist Draft, which removes the ability to have two or more of the same variant on the same team. It’s a simple idea, but for competitive team play adds a certain extra nuance and a layer of mind games to a match.
From the big marquee features to the small touches and hidden modes, Black Ops 3 features an awful lot of content, and every aspect of it is designed with cooperative play in mind. It can feel a bit disjointed in places, but it’s a broad and expansive game with plenty to enjoy, especially so when playing with friends.
Version tested: PlayStation 4
This review and recent video features were create by attending a dedicated two day review event. Accommodation was provided by Activision, with access to the pre-release game code and servers for this purpose.