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Fried Take - "Call of Duty: Black Ops III" (2015)

It's November, so that means it's time for more Call of Duty. We've been doing this song and dance for almost a decade at this point, and it doesn't show any signs of slowing down. Treyarch's back in the saddle this time around, so that gives reason to be excited; the first Black Ops is one of the highest points of the franchise, and the follow-up introduced a remarkably fresh take on the single-player component of the series.

Five years after the initial entry in the sub-series, though, does Call of Duty: Black Ops III deliver the shot in the arm that last year's above-average Advanced Warfare did, or does it lazily slum it like 2013's embarrassing Ghosts?

The answer is to that question is another question: does Black Ops III really need to be a Call of Duty game at all?
That sounds rather negative, I'm aware, and that is sincerely not my intention. Honestly, I'm enjoying my time with Black Ops III, all told. It has a campaign that tries some new stuff. It has pretty stellar multiplayer. Its Zombie mode would be amazing if the online component wasn't functionally broken. As a package, it's a substantial one, and pretty much all of the stuff here is solid, some of it even exceptional.

But my larger question, I guess, is whether or not this needed to be a Call of Duty game in the first place. There are bits and pieces of this game that shine through and wow the player, and these are the components that are the most unconventional for the franchise. Let's take the campaign, for example. There's a whole intrigue narrative thread about "good guys gone rogue" and "political intrigue blah blah" that permeates the story. It's dully executed. I couldn't care less about it, in fact. It's something Call of Duty's done in virtually every "modern" game in the franchise.

And then you shoot robots. Or get torn limb by limb by robots. Or watch robots march out of the flames of a destroyed buildings. On top of that, there's a whole smattering of virtual reality, neural linking, and augmented reality stuff that plays a large part at the beginning and then in small helpings throughout the rest of the game. It's awesome. I love it, and want more of it. It's basically Terminator, in so many ways, and it's great.

Are you seeing the problem, then? One half of this game is the rote, boring, conspiracy thriller junk that's become a hallmark of all Call of Duty games. The other is a futuristic, post-apocalyptic techno-thriller blockbuster with robot armies and futuristic battleships. It's like two entirely different games have been smashed into each other, and that's just in one of the three modes. It's almost like Treyarch was a child in an art class, drawing a cool, beautiful, amazing thing, and then Activision, the state-appointed teacher, tapped them on the shoulder and said, "Mm-mm, Treyarch, remember, you still have to make this a Call of Duty campaign!"

As a consequence, what we have is part predictable junk, part exhilarating sci-fii action. It's entirely incongruous. Sometimes, I ended up walking away from the story feeling disappointed, jilted, and exasperated. Others, I didn't want to stop playing because, dang it, I really wanted to wreck some more robots. It never stopped swinging wildly between those two feelings, and I predict that many players won't have the patience to slog through the junk to get to the good stuff.

"But I never play the campaign," you might say. "Tell me about the multiplayer!"

Well, the good news is that this is probably the best that Call of Duty multiplayer has been since the original Black Ops. It's fast, furious, and full of an astonishing amount of customization... at least, as much as this series will let you be. You pick one of nine operatives, MOBA-style, each of whom have their own backstories, perks, appearances, so on, so forth. From there, it's the same sort of "play a lot, unlock stuff, specialize your character, max out your level, then prestige and do it all again, but differently this time."

Now, I actually do still like this system. It hasn't gotten old for me yet; it just has to be done well and tweaked, in a way that I wasn't entirely convinced Advanced Warfare pulled off, and in a way that Ghosts never came within striking distance of. But Treyarch has managed to make stuff interesting again. There is an impressive and astounding amount of freedom given to players when it comes to how they level up, how they want their loadouts, so on, so forth.

As far as the actual gameplay goes, Treyarch has done their best to perfect the formula while still adding in twists. Everything controls similarly to past games, and the same general strategies for success will carry you far. But it's the little things that make it count. Running on walls is in. Power slides are in. Class-exclusive perks are in. These additions to the formula, without diluting the basic core of what makes that formula work, make Black Ops III not only feel like a well-oiled machine, but one with plenty of bells and whistles to impress longtime players.

That said? Those bells and whistles are impossible to bring up without mentioning another game: Titanfall. Almost everything that Treyarch "introduces" here is lifted wholesale from Respawn's fantastic 2014 shooter, and frankly, that's really disappointing. The developer had an opportunity to try genuinely new things, in the same way that Sledgehammer did last year. Instead, they just cribbed something from another game, and honestly did it in a far more linear and restricted fashion than Respawn here. There's not nearly as much variety in terms of strategy and map selection in Black Ops III; it feels like a pared-down Titanfall shoved into Call of Duty maps. Your mileage may vary depending on how appealing that description sounds to you.

So, all-in-all, multiplayer is good. It's fun, I've put a lot of time into it, and I suspect that I'll put several more hours into it over the coming months. For the first time, I've even considered partaking in the Season Pass, as I definitely enjoy what's on tap here. While, yes, it's a tempered sort of enjoyment, and yes, I do think the cribbing of elements from Titanfall is pretty low, there's no denying that, as a whole, it's very fun and super addictive.

While I'd like to say some stuff about Zombies, I really can't. I've tooled around in single-player, and I liked that alright, but this mode shines with multiple people. Unfortunately, Activision didn't get the memo, because as of right now, matchmaking of any sort is functionally broken, preventing any sort of online multiplayer whatsoever in this mode. I have tried, quite literally, several dozen times to get games going or join other games to get an impression of how it worked (hence why this review is late,) before giving up in frustration. Launching a game in which one-third of the package just flatout doesn't work is kind of awful.

You'd think with Destiny's disaster of a launch, Activision would have learned its lesson, right?

But unlike that game, Black Ops III has a major saving grace that bumps it up above many, many games on the market right now: local multiplayer. Yes, every single mode in this game has couch co-cop, and it's wonderful. The campaign, Zombies, and the online multiplayer all have split-screen capability, meaning that there are literal hours upon hours of content here for you and your buddy/significant other/knitting club to dive into. In a marketplace where developers are prioritizing 60 FPS over fun with a friend, it's a godsend that Treyarch remembers what really matters when making a video game.

And I think, overall, that says it best about Call of Duty: Black Ops III. There are some flaws here, for sure, and some elements that hold the entire package back from perfection, not to mention bits that are cribbed from competition. But Treyarch, a veteran studio with almost two decades under their belt, has been around the block hundreds of times by now. They know what gaming enthusiasts care about, and it's all here. Fast action, lots of content, and a ton of stuff to do with friends, either online or on your couch.

Despite niggling imperfections, coupled with a desire to see Treyarch do something that isn't a game in this franchise, Call of Duty: Black Ops III is an average game in some areas, and an amazing one in others. When you throw it all together, though, you've got an overall very good game that's got something for nearly everyone.


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