Call of Duty Black Ops III Mini-Review + Thoughts

Call of Duty: Black Ops III’s existence is hedged around the multiplayer. There are multiple constructs that exist to further that mode. This is fine, but the game tries to do too much within the story to justify it’s existence, and it struggles as a result.

Players are able to select from any of the game’s 10 story missions without having played the missions that preceded them, in a step away from the franchise’s tradition. If the story wasn’t a loosely tied together mess, I would have an easier time seeing this as a “feature”, but I am struggling to do so. I can’t help but think that the reason the player can drop in and out of missions in this game is because Treyarch is fully aware of how weak of a story BO3 has. Obfuscating the campaign with the illusion of choice merely distracts the player from a poorly written and paced story.

The game’s website says that the game has a “story unlike anything before it”, which just comes off as disingenuous.

Treyarch’s not “elevating” the experience of anything. Regardless of what Treyarch’s promotional material may say, the campaign doesn’t feel like it’s specifically designed around four player co-op — it feels like it just so happens to have four player co-op. Calling the player character “completely customizable” is also a stretch. The campaign exists purely to give an (admittedly half-assed) explanation as to why the player can double jump and wall run, using the future, robots, and “grittiness” as conceits. The story reads as unfocused and rushed, and all of the major developments/twists feel contrived and forced.

Multiplayer is truly the lifeblood of this game and of the franchise, then. This fact just happens to be more pronounced in this game than in past titles. Treyarch is good at making first person shooters, and they made a solid first person shooter that plays and feels very much like a Call of Duty game.

This is not surprising.

At its core, Call of Duty is like Madden. Activision could continue to turn out the same game every year with updated/different maps, and they’d still continue to make hundreds of millions of dollars, but they don’t. Activision added Sledgehammer Studios into the Call of Duty manufacturing machine to ensure that each game gets a full 3 year development cycle, and there are surely sections of the game where this shows.

At it’s best, this allows for things like BO3’s Zombies mode. At it’s worst, we get uninspired “innovation” that directly cribs from titles like Titanfall. The fact that BO3 looks, plays, and feels like a Call of Duty game is because the formula has been honed to such a science that the constraints limit any sort of experimentation.

The racial/gender marginalization in this game is also extremely prevalent, partially because the story is so poorly written, and also because I don’t think there were many different viewpoints on the writing staff. Part of the campaign’s subplot involves white (Americans) saving literal Africans from the robots that the Americans helped create. There are three characters of color, but all of them are (or turn into) antagonistic roles. There are three (four, if you count the selectable player character) female characters in the game. All of them are killed once the story is finished with them and they are no longer useful. And while the player character is, in fact, “customizable”, all of the race options are slightly different looking white people.

As such, I am struggling to decide whether I should applaud Treyarch for finally taking the step and including a playable female character, or deride them for doing it in a way that still manages to shut out a historically disenfranchised group of players. (Not to mention that gender selection was something that Nintendo/Game Freak figured out 16 years ago with the release of Pokémon Crystal.)

Black Ops III exists for no other reason than to make money off of the series’ entrenched fanbase. Despite what Activision/Treyarch says, it’s not trying to tell a story or provide an experience that gamers couldn’t get from a title like Titanfall, Halo 5: Guardians, or the other big, Activision-published title, Destiny. The target audience for these games begs for change but doesn’t actually want it, so there isn’t much wiggle room as far as what that change can be. It’s why we get such incremental and safe alterations to games like this. Fans of the series are going to continue to eat up what Activision/Treyarch has served them, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t ask for more or, frankly, for better from one of the biggest franchises in the medium.

At it’s core, Black Ops III still a Call of Duty game, and that’s OK! I just don’t think it’s for me. There are so many other games that provide more interesting and involved gameplay, better and more thoughtful design, and more rewarding feedback loops than this, and I don’t know why I would be compelled to play this game instead of those.

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