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While Call of Duty games tend to blur together, the Treyarch-developed titles in the series always stood apart for me. The team took interesting risks with each game. World at War brought zombie co-op, Black Ops introduced the experimental "Wager Match" modes, and Black Ops 2 introduced real-time strategy battles along with a branching storyline. These experiments were hit-and-miss but at least Treyarch was trying to push the series outside its comfort zone with these games.
Unfortunately, I can't say the same for Black Ops 3. It feels more like a limp sequel to last year's Advanced Warfare than anything.
It's easy to line up Black Ops 3 and Advanced Warfare even if they aren't part of the same universe. Both take place in the mid-21st century, an era where robots are commonplace on the battlefield and new technology lets ordinary soldiers perform superhuman feats. Each game even starts in the same way. The player is an average grunt that gets crippled in battle but then gets the opportunity to become a cybernetic supersoldier.
Advanced Warfare benefited greatly from the inclusion of Kevin Spacey, a compelling villain with clear motives that anchored the campaign. The plot of that game was very conventional but the player had a clear sense of the stakes and the world they existed in. Black Ops 3's almost-cyberpunk setting is more intriguing but the narrative is much harder to follow. Most of the plot and basic background information on this world is hurriedly thrown at you during loading screens. I already remember the campaign less clearly than Advanced Warfare's, in spite of playing that game a year ago.
It seems like a campaign better played with friends rather than alone. Messing around with a few friends (the game supports 4-player online co-op) would help you focus on the action and not worry so much about the disjointed story. Plus, it seems like the quantity of enemies you'll face was determined with multiple players in mind.
The cybernetic enhancements do make the typical linear shootfest more interesting than usual. You can vault over obstacles, power slide and wall run with a press of a button and learning how to do that while actually hitting enemies is enjoyable. That said, I do wish that the unlockable cybernetic abilities you can purchase between missions were more interesting. There are well over a dozen of these abilities to choose but most boil down to simply aiming at the enemy and pushing a button so you can incapacitate or kill them. These finishers even get dull to watch after the first couple times so they don't add much to the gameplay.
While Black Ops 3's campaign is a slightly worse version of Advanced Warfare's, it's thankfully balanced by a slightly better multiplayer. The maps for this game feel like they were better designed to take advantage of player's superhuman agility. You're really rewarded for the time that you put into learning how to parkour and shoot at the same time. The only downside is that if you're a newbie facing off against veterans, you're going to feel a bit like you're fighting agents from The Matrix.
For multiplayer matches, players can now choose between various Specialist characters. You can then opt to use their unique weapon or ability for the match. For example, Ruin can slam two gravity spikes into the ground to hit nearby enemies with a shockwave while Reaper creates clones to confuse opponents. These special abilities and weapons can only be used sporadically but they still improve the online experience by giving players more options on top of the abundant customization features already offered by Call of Duty.
My big disappointment with Black Ops 3 is that they didn't really try anything new in terms of game modes. The only new addition seems to be Safeguard, in which one team escorts a non-combat NPC robot from one end of the map to the next while the others try to destroy the bot. The escorting team needs to be near the robot for it to move - essentially leaving them out in the open to be attacked. The defenders can choose to kill the robot's escorts to stop him in his tracks or focus on whittling his health down from afar. It's a fun, quick match type that funnels all of the players into one spot on the map. I do wish that we had other new match types to choose from, though. I envy the PC gamers, who will get access to modding tools in the months ahead.
Zombie co-op, once a fun Easter egg in World at War, is promoted as a full-fledged third pillar of the Call of Duty series these days. I still feel like it's caught in this no-man's-land between being a cute minigame and being an official mode, though. In Black Ops 3, Zombie has its own progression system and a fascinating 1940s map but the experience feels unpolished. Players are dumped in the middle of the with no clue as to what they're supposed to do or why they do it. What the hell is this gumball machine? Should I ride this tram? Why did that player just turn into a squid?
The core of the experience - killing waves of zombies and other monsters - suffers from uneven pacing. You'll be bored in the opening minutes, racing against your teammates to take shots at the handful of zombies that appear. Once you get to the later stages, things pick up dramatically but if you die you end up going back to the start to endure the slow opening again. There are so many shooters out there with better Horde mode experiences that I can't see myself revisiting the Zombies mode anytime soon. Treyarch deserves credit for helping popularize these kinds of game modes but Zombies is in sore need of a rework.
Advanced Warfare surpassed many people's expectations for Call of Duty but Black Ops 3 feels like regression towards the mean. The game rehashes so much of what you've played before. It's not as bad as Ghosts but it doesn't bring enough new ideas to the table to be memorable.
Platforms: PS4 (reviewed), Xbox One, PC, PS3, Xbox 360