Interconnected Mediocrity: Call of Duty: Black Ops 3 Review

Release Date: November 5, 2015
Rated: M for Mature
Publisher: Activision
Developer: Treyarch
Platform: Playstation 3, Xbox 360 ( Multiplayer Only), Playstation 4, Xbox One, PC

Please note: This game was played on the Xbox One, I have not played the Xbox 360 version

Call of Duty has a long history of being a stalwart franchise in the First Person Shooter (FPS for short) that was able to survive the transition from World War II to Modern Warfare. Infinity Ward, the studio synonymous with the franchise, created the game that transformed the series into the yearly behemoth the series has become with Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. From gameplay, level design, to the scaling difficulty of the campaign, the game provided hardcore FPS fans a challenge they enjoyed. The campaign was bolstered by a solid multiplayer experience that felt different from the king of consoles like Halo.

More importantly, Modern Warfare made the series relevant and impacting. It signaled the end of an era of wondering whether the FPS genre was saturated by the constant belief we hadn’t experienced the battles of Iwo Jima, D Day or Okinawa in video game form. Instead, it ushered an era where war was now the present. Unfortunately, the series would spawn two sequels that felt like products recycling Modern Warfare, just with a different aesthetic. Infinity Ward also tried to create moments meant to provoke thought about the impact of war like “No Russian”. Did it work? No, not really. In fact, many thought it was pointless and used as a marketing ploy.

While Infinity Ward is always the studio that comes to mind when you think of Call of Duty, my favorite one is the one that is always overshadowed; Treyarch. Sure, it’s easy to say that Infinity Ward’s games easily overshadow Treyarch’s games in almost every facet. However, what sets Treyarch apart from Infinity Ward is one major factor: Treyarch takes risks by emphasizing more story than gameplay.

Black Ops 2, I’d argue, is the strongest case for the best Call of Duty game in the modern console generation (Xbox 360, Xbox One, Playstation 3, Playstation 4). The decisions or actions a player took – i.e. not gathering all intel, failing objectives, not shooting someone, etc. – all had consequences that affected how the story played out and the ending garnered. The main antagonist wasn’t just someone who was evil just to give players someone to hate, but was given context to help players see how he got to where he was. In fact, there are moments where players might either agree with his actions. The emphasis on drone warfare and futuristic tech was surreal but plausible enough of concepts to be considered as what we might see in the future. It’s not a perfect game by any stretch of the imagination, but it does a lot of ambitious things that gave hope of what Call of Duty could evolve into.

I just wish Call of Duty: Black Ops 3 was a step forward, and not just a step. It had the potential to be able to build upon the solid base Black Ops 2 provided, but instead opts to try other new risks that make it a mediocre game. For Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 it’s not even worth the time since it’s multiplayer only and costs $49.99.

The Fear of AI and What it Can Mean

Blackops3_2

Prepare yourself, this is gonna be a long ride down.

The main character, who is literally named character according to subtitles, is sent in with their partner Jacob Hendricks, to infiltrate Ethiopia to rescue Lieutenant Khalil. Assisted by Commander John Taylor and his cyborg soldiers, the Black Ops, the player and Hendricks are able to get Khalil and his second in command out. However, the main player is left on the battlefield and suffers critical injuries, resulting in him getting the cybernetic enhancements Taylor’s crew have. Players are then introduced to the cybernetic abilities their Direct Neural Interface (DNI, for short) are able to do. Instant telepathic communication, abilities like AI hacking, or enhanced physical abilities, there are plenty of abilities to mess with.

Once the tutorial mission is over with, the story skips to five years later where players discover that not only is he part of the CIA Black Ops crew, but Hendricks has also undergone DNI surgery and joined the player as a partner again. When the story picks up, the player and Hendricks are sent to Singapore to uncover why a CIA site has gone dark. Working through a quarantine zone, and fighting against the gang 54 Immortals (who’ve taken over Singapore’s quarantine zone), what the player and Hendricks uncover leads to a discovery that only leads them further down a hole of government cover up, the ramifications of cybernetic interfacing, and the question of how much human life it’ll cost.

Black Ops III’s writing is effective in telling what it wants to tell not by the shock-and-awe treatment Modern Warfare 2 and 3 received, but by building the story around the topic. It also captures the paranoias of our current political climate – government cover ups on big experiments, secret AI development for warfare, and so on. This paranoia of what AI development can lead to can be seen in Hawking and Musk’s letter warning about the ramifications of an “artificial intelligence” arms race. Not to mention, the question of whether or not artificial life is considered a sentient being, something often explored in science fiction. This exploration is bolstered by what Hendricks and the player uncover in the CIA dark site:

Spoiler *skip to next paragraph if you don’t want it spoiled*

Before the DNI was invented, it came at the cost of human testing. The player and Hendricks uncover various pods with human skeleton remains connected together through wiring into a central computer that seems to be glitching, but functioning. What’s even worse are the ramifications of the that testing; the creation of the main antagonist AI Corvus, who releases confidential information that sparks social discord, and the release of toxic fumes that killed 300,000 people, and created a quarantine zone that left anyone inside stranded. The game no longer becomes just the cat and mouse game that seemed to be implied for Hendricks and the player, but a race against the clock of stopping further social discord from the mistakes of the few.

It also raises question about what are the priorities of the government in a given situation? Is it keeping quiet the mistake they made or helping those impacted by the mistake? Who then is really the villain, the creator or the created? Are the player and Hendricks the villain by association for trying to silence the truth? There’s no black and white view for the story, but rather a morally gray, complex viewpoint. Neither side is truly good nor truly evil.

End Spoilers

Originally, I wanted to say that the story was weak and doesn’t capture its full potential of exploring the themes it presents. However, revisiting the story reminded me of how strong the writing is. The main enemy, an AI named Corvus, is one unseen in the shadows, and leads to a great eventual final boss battle. Even then, what makes Corvus so remarkable is how little there is to despise of it. If anything, Corvus is painted as someone the player can sympathize with while also despise the actions it’s taking. Though his characterizations is cliche, it effectively builds a strong antagonist that really makes the player ask themselves the big question – is Corvus really the villain, or are the people who created him the real villain?

It makes for a very compelling story that gets bogged down by mediocre, linear gameplay.

Hello there Titanfall 2

Black Ops III tries to do too much in terms of gameplay and design that lets the game excel at nothing, resulting in a mediocre game. Even worse, it cuts out a lot of what went right for Black Ops II and feels like a step backwards for the franchise. This can be seen in several examples:

Every level feels big and expansive to allow players to approach any firefight in several different ways. Players can enter from the top and either pick off enemies or jump into the fray. Or, players can sweep the left or right side in hopes of ambushing the enemy while their guard is down. Of course, there’s always running straight into the fray guns blazing. The opening of levels for various forms of fighting feels like a cover up for Black Ops III’s jarring weakness; the mechanically boring linear gameplay. There’s only a point-A to point-B with one straight path, and no player agency to affect how they’ll get to Point-B. Level design feels utterly repetitive in most places and diminishes what Treyarch tries to accomplish with opening up the field or even with the cybernetic abilities.

Cybernetic abilities could be a lot of fun, but they feel imbalanced and gameplay feels like it favors the spamming of certain abilities. Throughout my whole campaign playthrough I only relied on two power ups to get through each level; AI hacking that would shut down x number of robots, or fireflies that would burn up the enemy or keep them distracted to let me gun them down. I relied on the Firefly Swarm abilities around 67% of my playthrough, and maybe the Hacking one by 30%. Granted, the reliance on abilities depends on a person’s play style and preference, but it feels like there’s a lack of pushing for players to explore all the cybernetic abilities offered.  The game’s influences are also very easy to spot, to the point where it’s obvious Black Ops III predecessors did it better; Mass Effect, Titanfall, and Halo.

While it’s awesome that the game allows for players to choose between a male or female character, it feels like it’s a tacked on, half-assed feature implemented into the game. If Treyarch was going to implement this into the game, it should’ve been something a little more…open that gave players a more personal problem.

Collectibles are spread out across the 11 campaign levels and can be collected by players if they want to. There’s no penalty to not collecting them all.

Last, and more importantly, is the fact that Black Ops introduces a newer difficulty that’s harsher than Veteran: Realistic. This setting has players facing enemies with the same health and amount of bullets needed to kill them, but one shot kills you. Initially, the allure of trying this experience was fun, refreshing and challenging. However, the initial curiosity wore off as it turned into a chore that took away from what made playing veteran fun. The difficulty spike also asserts a problem I’ve always had with shooters and their scaling difficulty; the enemy has the same or more health, but the player has less.

I feel like if Treyarch is to introduce a “realistic” difficulty, I propose a different type of challenge; the enemies and players have the same health and “accuracy”. If players or enemies are hit by gunshots or wounds, there’s a bleedout that happens while trying to traverse through the level. If a player is shot in the side, leg, etc, the severity of the wound alter the length of time a player has to bleed out and/or die. Same rule applies to enemies.

Otherwise, Realistic setting feels more like it’s stacked against the players and less like a realistic experience.

Multiplayer wise, Treyarch has done nothing but slapped on a new skin to Black Ops II multiplayer experience. There’s little motivation to play it, and little to dive into. Zombies unfortunately feels the same even with the story being introduced.  

In the end, that’s where the discord lies; the gameplay feels mechanic, stales and robotic while the story tries to capture some sort of humanistic tone. It’s dichotomous in nature, and whether or not it’s on purpose doesn’t deter the fact that the two tones don’t feel cohesive. It ends up leaving a bland, mediocre experience. Players have been down this road before, it just has a different look. It’s a road that can be travelled or not travelled, it feels like it’s just there.

I see skies of gray, clouds of brown, maybe some yellow, but covered in gray.

I see skies of gray, clouds of brown, maybe some yellow, but covered in gray.

The future is cold, dark, gray and brown

It’s funny how many shooters rely on a gray and brown color palette for their artistic aesthetic. Black Ops III is no exception; most levels are often doused unabashedly in black, gray or brown. Even the blue that is often a color trope for science fiction is overpowered by the black, gray or brown. Characters end up looking shiny or pristine like as if they’ve just gotten out of a shower or are covered in gel. It’s a darn shame because Black Ops III looks fantastic graphically speaking. Character animation looks a lot more fluid, the detail in clothes, skin and environment are sharp and pristine.

The voice acting also feels phoned in and one dimensional, detracting from the tone of the story. Player’s character is a bright example of this; the motivation and tone of their voice feels forced in delivery that feels very robotic. Even in the climactic scenes in what’s supposed to be an emotionally-driven finale comes off cold and bland. At least Commander Taylor’s (Christopher Meloni’s) phoned in voice acting matches the half-dead appearance.

Overall, the game’s visual and audio aesthetic looks fantastic but folds under the stereotypical color palette and bland voice acting.

And the prize for most looking dead in the eyes is a tie between Kevin Spacey and Christopher Meloni!

And the prize for most looking dead in the eyes is a tie between Kevin Spacey and Christopher Meloni!

Really, it’s Call of Duty: Black Ops 2.5

Overall, Call of Duty: Black Ops III is a solid concept packaged within a mediocre game. In fact, the game feels like a step back from the solid foundation and potential Black Ops II showed the franchise could take in terms of direction. The stories tropes and concepts it explores are more relevant than ever, encapsulating a lot of the paranoia we have of our current modern times. Unfortunately, the bland gameplay and even more bland visual and audio aesthetic really take away from what could have been a great game. The gameplay tries to do too much and excels in nothing and the multiplayer feels like it’s just a tacked on Black Ops II style with a new skin. The voice acting feels phoned in and fake, taking away from a lot of the humanistic elements in the story. That said, the game isn’t terrible, nor is it great, to the point where I can’t recommend buying it or staying away from it. While I feel like the story is great, I’m not sure if it’s worth the trouble of experiencing the bland game.

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About

The moment he was born, Terry Randolph knew he would play video games. Okay....not the exact moment he was born, but definitely at an early age. His affinity for video games was cemented in the multiple tantrums he threw while being dragged away from playing Sonic the Hedgehod at his daycare when his parents came to pick him up. Since then, Terry continues to enjoy all the experiences gaming provides. He also loves to write short stories and ambitious novel projects. Last Token Gaming was born from both his love of writing and video games. Twitter: @wanderinganbu Email: terry.r@lasttokengaming.com

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