It is difficult to recall now how innovative the original Call of Duty was when it blasted on to the first-person shooter scene in 2003.
Dropping players into a series of vast and chaotic World War II battles, it combined cinematic verve with a new sense of being part of a much wider offensive – a small cog in a massive machine rather than the solo gun-toting hero of Doom or Duke Nukem. When Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare arrived four years later, it revolutionised the mainstream multiplayer component, adding killstreaks and XP points, bringing a sense of progression to the previously transitory online experience.
Now in 2015, after a decade of annual iterations, Call of Duty has come to symbolise the deadening cycle of the Triple A video game industry. Every year, a few new features, a graphical overhaul, some extravagant claims. It’s the same story from Assassin’s Creed to Fifa.
Certainly, Call of Duty: Black Ops III, the latest title in the conspiracy-laden side-series formulated by LA-based studio Treyarch, fulfils a lot of the promises that were made for it pre-release. This is indeed, a thoroughly modernised Call of Duty offering, with slick, swift visuals, astonishing production values and a wealth of content. Before launch, the team expressed its fascination with the sorts of nightmarish military technologies that may be available in 2065, and true enough, there are sentient battle robots and drone swarms aplenty. But what there isn’t is any sense of a truly game-changing shift away from the series archetypes. Black Ops III tries to give fans everything they want and more, but it does so under serious restrictions that drag it back down into the industrial production line this once thrilling series has become.
We’ve already written about the campaign mode, a woozy 10-hour trip through CIA conspiracies, mega explosions and the sort of “artificial intelligence gone mad” narrative that Hollywood studios have been bashing out for the past five years. Although the addition of co-op elements is welcome, there are no surprises, no wild new ideas, no moments of future shock: even the visually engrossing hallucinatory sequences are borrowed from the original Black Ops. Instead there is bombast, destruction and narrative obfuscation – it’s like the whole game is shouting “look over there, a monster!” while sneaking a chain of mundane levels past you. It is drama by numbers. Or rather, numbness.
Multiplayer is much, much better – indeed, pro gamers and YouTubers are already saying it’s the best multiplayer since Black Ops 2. Treyarch has created a glorious movement system which gives you seamless mastery of your environment. Running along walls, sliding across the floor, spinning in mid-air, shooting all the time – you can tell that this is the studio that produced one of the best Spider-Man games of all time. Weapons are feisty too from the basic KN-44 assault rifle (skittish but easily stabilised with Quickdraw and Grip attachments) to the furious Vesper SMG with its lightening fire rate and the elegant Sheiva, a one-shot kill rifle that will no doubt be the cause of many unexpected long distance kills.
The 12 initially available maps are compact and exciting, mostly providing variations on the horizontal three-lane system. Standouts like Evac, Exodus, Stronghold and Breach, provide a challenging combination of long sight lines and claustrophobic choke point chambers, often with gruesome central courtyards where multiple overlook positions guarantee tense, explosive stand-offs.
Then you have the specialists – nine selectable characters that provide either a defensive or offensive boost, which players can unlock through each match. The idea, perhaps, is to add extra variety to encounters and to give average players access to the sorts of super powers usually confined to killstreak pros. And they certainly are entertaining, especially stuff like Ruin’s barnstorming gravity spikes and, later, Reaper’s Scythe – basically an arm-mounted mini-gun.
But again, the many tweaks and additions, even the improved dynamics, are there for confirmed fans. Newcomers will be bullet fodder for weeks. Others will find that beneath the shiny surface, the familiar logistics of this series remain untouched. Largely, the stuff you’ve always done to stay alive will be the stuff you do here. Once again, there are no “wow” moments, nothing to make you stop in your tracks. Many hated the gimmicks of recent titles – the scenic shifts, the sudden weather changes – but at least they mixed things up. We’re entering into an era of fully destructible environments, multiple physics objects, advanced AI, pervasive social connection – these are barely registered. Black Ops III multiplayer is a purist experience – a gift to eSports.
Alongside this, we have the much enlarged Zombie mode, now taking place in a beautifully realised 1940s slum town, complete with sleazy jazz soundtrack and wisecracking performances from Jeff Goldblum and Ron Perlman. It’s diverting fun, especially with friends, and the addition of multiple progression, perk and power-up systems adds longevity to what is essentially another Horde mode. Add in the unlockable Nightmare option, which humorously replays the campaign as an undead apocalypse, and you have a lot of rotting bad guys to shoot at.
But ultimately, all of this stuff is exactly what you’d expect from a talented team working on one of modern entertainment’s biggest franchises. You expect slick visuals, you expect plenty of content, you expect systems that offer spirals of tactical depth to proficient players. This is the base level. And Call of Duty has been operating at this level – or thereabouts – for more than 10 years.
To this reasonably experienced CoD trooper, to someone who has completed at least five of the games on Veteran and played hundreds of hours of online multiplayer, Black Ops III is a decent continuation. It does what it needs to, and sometimes it does it with a flourish. But I won’t be talking about Black Ops III, I won’t be itching to level up, or replay the campaign. I was excited at the outset, but the action rolls past like an over familiar war film propping up the Christmas TV schedule.
Soon, new games will be coming to the shooter genre. Tom Clancy’s The Division, Superhot, Overwatch, Battleborn … Meanwhile, old timers are returning with fresh features. Crackdown 3 has totally destructible cities; the Doom reboot comes with an accessible and powerful level editor. Call of Duty, with its static sets, its follow-the-soldier narrative devices, its stubborn twitchcore multiplayer, is something of a relic; it’s a vast corporation struggling to keep pace with smaller, more agile start-ups.
And because of this, Black Ops III is the classic fan game: if you still love the series, you’ll love this one. But if the relationship is fading into routine, if the spark has gone, those old habits and nervous tics are really going to nag at you. You will go through the motions, but quietly – guiltily – you will already be looking elsewhere.
This article was written by Keith Stuart, for theguardian.com on Monday 9th November 2015 11.26 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010