- The good: Clever evolution of the series, excellent gunplay, thrilling action sequences
- The bad: Totally-quessed-it story, ho-hum dialogue
- Bottom line: This is, hands down, the best Call of Duty game in years
I'm darting along a wall midway through a Call of Duty: Black Ops III nighttime mission in Singapore, metallic plinks sounding from a futuristic sniper rifle as I drop bad guys like carnival targets. Those bad guys, anarchists of a sort, pay me no attention, preoccupied with pyromaniac fantasies. I superhumanly plummet dozens of feet to the ground, then slink beneath thrumming drones surveilling a guttering cyberpunk metropolis.
Yes cyberpunk, as in grim, industrial sci-fi where people jack into computers with their minds and virtual reality lives up to its billing. Black Ops III transpires both in our reality and others—a first for a Call of Duty game, and frankly a little weird. This is what happens when a series birthed in beach assaults, barbed wire and the Battle of the Bulge time warps to 2065.
We've seen this sort of dystopia before: Nations wage war covertly for turf or commercial advantage. International alliances buckle and balkanize. Superstorms wrack the globe and population overgrowth causes mass displacement from megacities. Super-soldiers pay lip service to high-minded principles before running roughshod over the law, human rights and whatever else gets in their way. The 21st century's gone to hell, and the West's answer is still quasi-narcissitic badasses with guns.
Didn't we play this last year? Sort of. 2014 Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare's also-futuristic campaign explored related ideas, outfitting players with exoskeletal suits extrapolated from existing military concepts. Those suits lent players superhuman abilities that occupied center stage in a tale of a private military contractor gone rogue. Black Ops III, by comparison, swerves darker and more existential, nudging us further forward in time toward a trans-human future in which soldiers involuntarily (though sometimes voluntarily) trade body parts for cybernetic limbs, and their private realities for wireless versions of the brain-stabbing prongs in The Matrix.
But where Advanced Warfare's soldiers might tolerate loose analogies with heavy-hitting superheroes like Iron Man, Black Ops III instead gives us lithe cyborgs that can chain daring maneuvers (like the wall-runs in Respawn's online shooter Titanfall) while manipulating or wreaking havoc on nearby electronic systems (like in Ubisoft's open-world hacking game Watch Dogs).
Imagine mantling up the side of a building, deploying a swarm of fire-spitting nano-bots to needle human combatants, spoofing the biometric lock on an enemy bazooka to pluck it from the battlefield, then lobbing rockets at robots while wall-dashing between platforms. Press another button and the battlefield becomes a shifting matrix of tactical math and color, an augmented reality overlay ever-warning you where not to be.
We've seen some of that before, just not in a Call of Duty game. And it's the novelty of seeing it in a Call of Duty game that defines its appeal, fully encapsulated within the series' preternaturally honed and hyperreal aim-and-pop controls. It's Call of Duty meets Ghost in the Shell, inflected by the same run-and-gun ideas these apex shooters flog harder and more deftly than anyone.
Into that, developer Treyarch pours a wealth of play choices. You now operate from safe houses between missions, where you can peruse details that inform what sort of heat you'll want to pack before deploying. Weapons and cybernetic stations let you spend points earned in battle to unlock special abilities in different disciplinary areas or augment weapons in myriad ways, each supporting meaningfully unique tactical approaches to a level's problems.
And levels are the most tactically open and vertically capacious they've ever been, providing ample room to flex your cyber-mojo while pursuing dozens of achievements and collectibles that dovetail with your character's developmental trajectory.
That's before delving into the overhauled "zombies" mode (completely self-contained and unrelated to the campaign), the "freerun" parkour courses (clearly inspired by DICE's Mirror's Edge), the ghoulish "nightmares" mode that unlocks once the story's finished and serves as a kind of survival horror coda, and of course the whole new eSports-friendly multiplayer-verse, unavailable to test during this review but which I'll be turning to once the game's in the wild tomorrow.
The campaign falters at points: Its grand question are boringly obvious. Its revealed-at-the-end big bad disappointingly hollow. Think about the thing that usually happens in cyberpunk stories and you'll probably guess both. And too much of the dialogue still leans on clichéd hoo-hah or apoplectic sputter. I'm talking about stuff that happens during cutscenes or other scripted sequences where you can't point to gameplay as the muddling culprit—where the characters say the boring things you'd expect action heroes to, not the weird humanizing things actual humans would.
(We badly need writing in these games that listens less to our Michael Bays and Roland Emmerichs, and more to our Harlan Ellisons, Thomas Pynchons and Neal Stephensons!)
By contrast, things I'd normally despise, like sequences where you're suddenly in a physics-be-damned vehicle with a bottomless bucket of bullets, were thrilling here. There's one in particular near the end, where you're flying a VTOL aircraft circling a giant industrial platform, your allies on the rig distantly represented by little green triangles as red hexagonal enemies encroach. Squint and the whole thing suddenly looks like an arcade shooter, the level designers embracing the series' slightly zany quarter-fed roots, all of it framed by an incoming sandstorm as vast and terrifying as a movable mountain range.
I guess what I'm saying is that I enjoyed connecting Black Ops III's wall runs and slides and paranormal cyber-abilities across just shy of a dozen enormous, immaculately crafted levels, far more than I didn't buy the narrative reasons the game gave me for doing so. And really, when have the Call of Dutys, steeped from the beginning in spectacle, ever been about telling plausible stories?
"Go ahead, hack in," teases a comrade during a training exercise, his tone disturbingly excited, the music waxing strange. I press two buttons and leap from my cyborg body to possess a weaponized drone. We float through a blue-gray factory thronged by enemies carefully positioned to showcase all the gonzo new stuff you can do. "You want to see something cool? Shoot down those vats," says my guide, referencing giant buckets of molten slag overhead. And I do, raking the sides with finger-long slugs, baptizing another cadre of virtual unfortunates in luminous obliteration, saving everything, and signifying nothing.
4.5 out of 5
Reviewed on PlayStation 4