All screenshots taken by the author
There are plenty of things that I have a love/hate relationship with: Star Wars, the craft beer "scene", those urinals that pop up out of the street at night. Call of Duty takes the crown, though. No contest. No matter how much these games frustrate me, no matter how tempting it is to smash my controller through the TV while playing them, I loyally return for each annual fix. And they're worried that cheese is as addictive as crack? Scientists are studying the wrong indulgences.
It's CoD's multiplayer modes that provide the sleepless nights, that "one more game" voice in the back of your head making you feel like some sort of faux-hardcore murder junkie complete with digital gun and claw-like fingers from too much caressing of your analogue sticks. It's a snacking-on-cheddar problem amped up to 11, and beyond.
No matter how many times I'm inexplicably killed from behind by a kindergartener who's worked out how to cross the map two seconds faster than everyone else, I still want more. That smart-arse kid needs to be taught a lesson, after all. What are parents even teaching their offspring now, if not the need to give your elders a chance to shoot you in the face online?
This year's CoD release, Black Ops III, provides the usual addiction but serves it through a slightly different set of pipes. Set it 2065, much of the window dressing here is of the futuristic, sci-fi variety. Autonomous robots, jet packs, optical camouflage and a sophisticated evolution of the Predator drone all make regular appearances. More significant than those new toys of war, though, is the trick of being able to run straight across vertical walls.
Its impact on multiplayer is impossible to overstate. Instead of having to plump for that oh-so-boring doorway, you can now just tuck your balls snugly up inside and run along the wall to reach a window that in previous CoDs would be inaccessible. The plan is to catch the enemy unawares, while they're trying to cover the obvious attack points. But naturally, as soon as your foes have been burned once by an unexpected breach, they'll not fall for the same trick again – against you or anyone else.
Very quickly, then, wall running ceases to become a match-winning move and instead becomes part of the overall mosaic that makes up all multiplayer contests. Its primary impact on is that it increases the speed and unpredictability of everything happening around you. With players clinging to walls, chucking grenades, using jet packs to boost up to impossibly high ledges, launching unmanned drones and tea-bagging the dead, there's rarely a moment to draw breath.
You want to sit back, pop a diazepam and pick off targets with your sniper rifle from a warm, furry bush? Forget about it. Black Ops III is for the wannabe John Rambos of tomorrow, not those with designs on being the next Léon Montana.
The frenetic, erratic nature of events is further buoyed by the introduction of "specialists". Essentially another loadout option, your choice of specialist determines what you look like and what unique move or ability you're bringing to the bloodbath. Some of these individuals excel in highlighting enemy positions, others in bolstering their own personal firepower, while some can set up traps for unsuspecting victims.
Which you choose is obviously a decision made in conjunction with your preferred playing style. Those with a taste for close-quarters action will benefit from being able to see nearby enemies through walls, while those that prefer to sneak up and penetrate from behind will likely favour an improved melee reach. These special abilities take some time to charge up, however, and once they're used you need to wait a while for them to come back online. Don't, therefore, expect to be able to rely on them to consistently get you out of awkward spots.
Their inclusion is welcome and they do a decent job of adding to the unpredictability of online matches, although it's that same unpredictability that provides as much irritation as it does satisfaction. As with so much in CoD, successful execution of abilities is incredibly satisfying when you're the beneficiary; but when you're the butt of the joke there's nothing more frustrating. Cue controller through television as a screeching "fuuuuck" stings the air.
Available game modes are fairly predictable, with all the favourites returning for another year. Domination, Hardpoint, Capture the Flag, Kill Confirmed and the staple Team Deathmatch are present and correct, their rules and structure the same but their nuances altered slightly given the jet-packing and wall-running options.
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New to the game is Safeguard, which sees one team trying to escort a robot across the map as the other attempts to disable and delay the thing until the designated time limit expires. Once the round is complete the two sides swap roles. Sadly, it's a bit of a non-starter and a sure-fire candidate for the least appealing mode on offer. It's not without its carnage-based highlights, but the fact that an already intense form of combat is further concentrated into a smaller area can get to be a bit much.
If you're fatigued with multiplayer you can jump into the campaign, Freerun or developer Treyarch's trademark Zombies mode. Freerun is essentially a series of four parkour courses of increasing complexity designed to educate you on the finer details of wall running, jetpack boosting and swimming. Yeah, you can swim (and shoot) underwater now – although not all maps offer the privilege.
The campaign tells a genuine duff of a narrative, its take on future war, human augmentation, human rights and AI sentiency having been done to death in a superior manner in everything from Ghost in the Shell to Neuromancer and even Source Code.
Related, on Motherboard: Why Buy 'Black Ops III' Maps When You Can Make Your Own?
Thankfully, you're given the freedom to dump the plot and tackle the campaign missions in any order you wish. It's an approach that brilliantly opens up the option to play through the story mode in four-player co-op, which is without question the best way to tackle it. Particularly on the higher difficulties (including the new sadistically challenging, one-shot-kills Realistic mode), there is great satisfaction to be garnered from positioning yourself and teammates intelligently to take out an enemy entourage without picking up a scratch.
It's a shame that the story isn't up to much, but the decision to allow you to complete missions in any order hints at a clear understanding from Treyarch as to what its CoD audience wants. Not being able to play in co-op with your friends because you've not unlocked the mission they're on would be cause for complaint.
Zombies is, as ever, a divisive mode: either you adore the pace and concept of killing wave after wave of the undead, or you dismiss it out of hand. I tend to fall into the latter camp, but there's no denying the depth of what's offered this time around. The real challenge is to uncover secrets dotted about the map, all the while worrying about staying alive and planning for the next onslaught of slavering horrors wanting to turn your face into their breakfast. It takes genuine teamwork to succeed, and only the most dedicated are going to unravel the mysteries in this year's Zombies mode without ducking out and looking up the answers online.
There's plenty here to get stuck into, then, and more than ever before CoD feels as though it's aimed very much at a certain kind of player. If a frantic pace and plenty of future tech conforms to your tastes, then you needn't waste a second thought: Black Ops III is the shooter you need. But if you crave a return to the days of Modern Warfare, with maps and weapons designed to allow for a more considered approach, then you're going to be left wanting by what Treyarch's achieved here.
Black Ops III is a game that knows exactly what it's trying to be, and in many ways it succeeds in meeting those ambitions. It's just up to you to decide whether that meets with your own CoD-related wants and needs.
Call of Duty: Black Ops III is released today, November 6th, for Windows, PlayStation 4 (version tested) and Xbox One, with a limited, multiplayer-only version available for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 (which we've not tested, but the footage we've seen isn't great).
This review made possible by NVIDIA SHIELD - check out the NVIDIA SHIELD library here.
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