Call of Duty: Black Ops III (PlayStation 4) Review

By Gareth F 20.11.2015

Review for Call of Duty: Black Ops III on PlayStation 4

Call of Duty is one of those rare series that somehow manages to polarise the entire gaming community just by existing. It arrives once a year, regular as clockwork, and ploughs through the competition like a hot combat knife through butter. While some gamers just can't get enough of it, others consider it to be aimed at casuals and complain how releasing a similar game year in, year out stifles industry creativity. Supply and demand verses franchise burnout ... It's a fine line. As such, reviewing it feels like a pointless exercise to an extent, as no matter how great the end product, the chances are that gamers will already know months in advance if they'll be making that purchase or not. It's a real shame that it evokes such a strong emotional response from the gaming fraternity, as taking a step back from any residual COD prejudice and judging it objectively on its own merits reveals it to be a high quality, content heavy package that tends to work out of the box with minimal fuss. This year, Treyarch is in the developer's hot seat and follows Sledgehammer's futuristic take on Advanced Warfare with the highly anticipated Black Ops III.

Set in the year 2065, Black Ops III's campaign portrays a shadowy, dystopian future, where wars are fought by robots, and humans interfacing with machines via brain implants is common place. While Sledgehammer's entry to the series featured the mech-like Exo-suit, a technology that currently exists at a primitive level, Treyarch has gone to a far darker place here, where a man's private thoughts aren't safe and wars are fought by cybernetically enhanced super-soldiers operating behind enemy lines under deep cover.

The game starts off with a routine hostage rescue mission in Ethiopia, which, while successful, ends up with the main character being pummelled to a pulp by a robot just at the point of extraction. While recuperating in a hospital bed, the nameless protagonist is visited within his own sub-consciousness by Commander John Taylor (played by Oz/Law and Order actor Christopher Meloni) via the Direct Neural Interface (DNI) that had been newly installed in his brain, allowing communication between fellow DNI users, as well as interfacing with computers and robots. Taylor proceeds to explain how the DNI works via a mission that seems to have been lifted wholesale from the movie Source Code, setting the tone for what turns out to be a fairly mind-bending campaign.

In terms of storytelling, it follows a well-worn path of trust, betrayal, paranoia, control, sentient AI and… err robots. Lots and lots of robots. While it could be deemed as being a bit formulaic in its structure, it does at least remain consistent with past iterations of the series in that it features sections where it's totally unclear as to why the current mission is actually being carried out. There are also a few occasions where the pacing feels slightly off, but despite this, it still makes for an intriguing setting that paints a fairly depressing picture of potential things to come. It's fair to say that the inclusion of a chapter that involves fighting through the sub-consciousness mind of a soldier as they lie dying on the battlefield is a series first and definitely as trippy as it sounds.

Treyarch is no doubt aware that there are still a large percentage of players that buy Call of Duty, but never touch the campaign at all, so the developer has attempted to address this by adding the option to play through the whole thing co-operatively with up to an additional three players. This, of course, means that not only are the levels far larger in general, but they are also wider in scope with regard to tactical approach to progress - although the obvious downside is that it can occasionally be a lengthy slog for the single player.

Screenshot for Call of Duty: Black Ops III on PlayStation 4

The gold standard multiplayer options have been extended to the campaign, which means it can be played split-screen, online, or a combination of the two, with the handy addition of public matchmaking for those finding it difficult to find like-minded friends to play with. To further sweeten the deal, the inclusion of persistent levelling up and a challenges system rounds off a campaign that has far more replay value than any previous in the series.

Prior to mission attempts, time can be spent in the new hub base, which changes dependent on the country the next sortie is due to occur. Alongside customising weapon loadouts, there is also the opportunity to apply a number of passive and active cybernetic enhancements called Cyber Cores, which aid greatly with the task in hand. These are split into three distinct categories: Control, Martial Melee and Chaos, which drop a wide range of abilities at the protagonist's disposal, ranging from hacking enemy turrets/drones /robots, unleashing a swarm of nano-bots to blind and confuse, or ripping the cold, electronic heart from a robot and using it as an EMP grenade.

Also stashed away in the hub base is a computer, which has its own Wiki-like data vault full of information regarding the storyline; however, any interest in that quickly subsides when a quick sift on the desktop reveals a fully-fledged twin stick shooter called Dead Ops 2. Good to see procrastination is still a thing in the future. There are also a set of horde-like VR training missions that can accommodate up to four players, which can come in handy for trying out new weapons prior to attempting a mission.

As if that wasn't enough, upon completing the final mission, a new 'Nightmare' option becomes available on the title screen, which provides the opportunity to play through the main story again, but with all the robots replaced by zombies. Treyarch clearly likes to spoil fans!

Speaking of zombies, the shuffling Nazi corpses that have always played a prominent role in Treyarch's modus operandi have returned in a tense, film noir-inspired episode entitled 'Shadows of Evil.' This takes place in a fictional location called Morg City, which has the kind of literal name that suggests the streets are strewn with dead bodies waiting to be reanimated… and, to be fair, it's not too far off the truth. It throws together four troubled characters that are forced to deal with the ensuing nightmare, each burdened with a recent misdeed that will prominently feature as the story unfolds. As is now the 'Zombie Mode' norm, no expense has been spared, with some of Hollywood's finest donning the motion capture suit in a bid to mash up the undead population. Debt ridden magician Nero Blackstone (Jeff Goldblum), wannabe motion picture starlet Jessica Rose (Heather Graham), boxing cheat Floyd Campbell (Sons of Anarchy's Ron Perlman) and crooked cop Jack Vincent (played by Band of Brothers' Neal McDonough) make up the seemingly doomed quartet stranded in the wrong place at the wrong time.

As events unfold, the gang becomes aware that they are being watched by a mysterious stranger, known only as the Shadowman (played by Stargate regular Robert Picado), who proceeds to guide them through the chaos, encouraging each character to perform a sacrificial ritual to expunge previous misdeeds in return for redemption. However, it soon becomes apparent that the Shadowman is a manifestation of something far more sinister that ends up playing a fairly central role in this Cthulhu/Lovecraft-inspired journey.

Screenshot for Call of Duty: Black Ops III on PlayStation 4

In terms of gameplay, it's on a far larger scale than previous zombie chapters, thanks in no small part to the huge map that has multiple districts to unlock, with some only accessible via monorail. Much like its predecessors, it remains a fairly steep challenge with a lot of secrets waiting to be uncovered, and it should go without saying that success is largely dependent on sticking together as a team. Getting separated almost always results in being quickly overrun and killed. Building and repairing barriers can help to an extent; however, there are so many zombie spawn points that it sometimes feels like constant movement between areas is the best option.

Weapons of varying power can be purchased and enhanced via the 'Pack-a-Punch' machine (providing one of the party knows how to construct it), and temporary buffs to aid survival can be obtained from Gobblegum machines scattered about the city. Those familiar with the Darkness franchise should be delighted at the occasional opportunity to take control of a multi-tentacled beast, and although it tends to be quite a short-lived experience, it does come in handy for opening up access to previously out of reach areas to all the other players. The deep-soaked supernatural vibe that permeates to the core, combined with the 1940s era setting and smooth jazz soundtrack, gives 'Shadows of Evil' a remarkably fresh slant on the COD zombie slaying experience... It's still pretty darn tough, though.

While it's good to see Treyarch broadening the appeal of the campaign by making it a co-op experience, it's fair to say that the main meat and potatoes of Call of Duty has always been its multiplayer component. It's more of the same high octane, twitch-based gameplay that doesn't really deviate too far from the tried and trusted formula it's known for. Where Advanced Warfare played at a slightly faster tempo and incorporated the angular boosting of the Exo-suit, which added a level of verticality not previously seen in the series, Black Ops III reverts back to the more traditional pacing of previous iterations in the franchise.

That said, Treyarch has refined the movement somewhat, by developing the momentum system, which enables combatants to fluidly link together sprinting, jump thrusting, wall running and sliding when traversing the battlefield, adding a parkour element to the gameplay, similar to that found in Mirror's Edge. The game ships with twelve multiplayer maps out of the box, designed with this newfound agility in mind, as well as the inclusion of a new game mode called 'Freerun,' which is a fairly self-descriptive assault course, complete with high score tables. While it's an interesting aside, it's unlikely to see much use after the initial foray, but props to Treyarch for adding something a little unusual into the mix.

The inclusion of 19 different multiplayer game modes spread between Core, Hardcore and Bonus playlists would be the kiss of death for less densely populated online games; however, this is a massive plus point to Call of Duty's mainstream appeal, as it provides a lot of choice. An additional Arena playlist is also included, which caters more directly for the e-sports crowd, and is very much geared towards higher-skilled combatants, with a ranking system designed to promote fair play and to put an end to problematic reverse boosting.

As well as the classic game types that are standard to the franchise, there is also a new addition to the rotation called 'Safeguard,' which is similar to the excellent 'Payload' from Team Fortress 2. Both teams take turns to play offence and defence, with the aim of the game being to escort an explosive robot to the enemies' base through numerous choke points within the time limit. The catch? It will only walk when team members are in its immediate vicinity, and has a propensity to break down under persistent gun fire, which force a robot reboot. It's a fun addition to a multiplayer already bristling with options.

Screenshot for Call of Duty: Black Ops III on PlayStation 4

The new addition of Specialists to the multiplayer component gives the cyber soldiers access to an enhanced ability that will slowly charge up during play, which can be deployed once or twice during the course of a match. With a total of four characters available initially, and a further five unlockable via levelling up, there should be a specialisation that caters to all play styles. The first batch of Specialists comprise of 'Battery' (a War Machine grenade launcher), 'Ruin' (gravity spikes that perform a downward smash not dissimilar to Destiny's Titan), 'Prophet' (fires an electrical bolt that can chain kill enemies in close proximity) and 'Outrider' (a lethal, explosive-tipped bow). Continuous play with each character unlocks new gear, weapons can be levelled up and customised with camo/paintjobs, and player cards can be unlocked by hitting any one of the several hundred objectives, meaning there are numerous ways to stand out as an individual on the battlefield. Gotta collect 'em all.

Activision's recent implementation of a three-year development cycle for the series has given Treyarch the opportunity to really tweak, polish and hone the COD experience to deliver a package that hopefully exceeds the heavy expectations of its passionate fan base. While it's fair to say that the gameplay hasn't evolved a great deal, it doesn't really need to, as drastic changes would only detract from its essence and likely be met with hostility.

As expected from a franchise that has made a name for itself with ridiculously over-the-top Michael Bay-influenced action set-pieces, Black Ops III is a sharp looking entry to the series that takes full advantage of the new generation of hardware. The trademark 60fps is present and correct, with a level of detail in the environment, lighting and multiplayer map design maintained to a consistently high standard throughout. It's a given that even in the future, conflict is always going to be a noisy experience, and to this end, the sound design does a great job of capturing every last bullet fired. There's particularly good use of the DualShock 4's built-in speaker, too, as, for example, calling in a UAV during a multiplayer match results in radio chatter every time the enemy is spotted, which is a nice little detail.

Perhaps to capitalise on the fact that there are a lot of outlandishly-skilled COD fans out in the wild that enjoy making show reel videos, Treyarch has made the whole process a lot simpler by including a Theatre mode, which automatically saves every multiplayer/zombies match, so they can be enjoyed later. Games can be bookmarked at the summary screen, which makes relocating noteworthy performances a doddle. What's particularly good is that replays can be viewed from any other participant's viewpoint, making it easy to analyse map hot spots, work on tactics, watch other players' techniques and, finally, find out how that guy keeps getting those headshots from the other side of the map. It can prove to be an invaluable resource for the more serious competitors and educational for those looking to improve.

Screenshot for Call of Duty: Black Ops III on PlayStation 4

Cubed3 Rating

Rated 8 out of 10

Great - Silver Award

Rated 8 out of 10

Treyarch has shoehorned an almost overwhelming amount of content into Black Ops III, with two sizable co-op capable campaigns, a gothic horror-flavoured zombie mode and an e-sports-driven multiplayer component that should keep fans of the franchise occupied for quite some time. Constantly getting humiliated at the hands of superior players has never been so much fun (note to self: get good!).






First Person Shooter



C3 Score

Rated $score out of 10  8/10

Reader Score

Rated $score out of 10  0 (0 Votes)

European release date Out now   North America release date Out now   Japan release date Out now   Australian release date Out now   


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