Call of Duty has become the infamous face of iterative design in games. Released every year without fail, this series has become loved by some and hated by others thanks to its lack of deviation from its core structure. Every year there’s a flashy campaign, a multiplayer mode that stays largely the same, and a third game mode that varies between developers. 2015’s entry into the Call of Duty pantheon doesn’t break any new ground in this regard, but certainly tries a number things to spice up the delivery. Not every new idea works, and some feel somewhat mishandled, but overall they add enough new layers to make this the most exciting Call of Duty has been in a while.
First up, the game’s story mode. You’re greeted with the first change as soon as you begin. You can now make your own character. This time you actually have a voice, so say goodbye to awkward one-way conversations and the feeling that you’re just playing as a floating gun. Not that the player character is especially interesting, and nor is any other character in the story for that matter. Your partner throughout the story, Hendricks, is easily the worst culprit of this. A complete meathead, even by Call of Duty standards, this guy is your door-opener. Your wait-for-me-to-trigger-this-scripted-event-before-we-can-continue escort throughout the campaign. The characters and dialogue may be pretty hard to bear at times and the story is basically just dumb action sci-fi fun, but it’s still a crazy, explosive rollercoaster of pretty awesome set pieces.
The structure of the campaign gets a slight shaking up, too. Co-op makes a return this year. There is a lobby in-between missions where you can customise your loadouts, read up about the game’s lore, take part in combat simulations, and more. Furthermore, there a number of sci-fi cyber powers at your disposal. These abilities range from ripping out a robot’s heart and tossing it like a grenade to simply making someone explode at a glance. They offer new and ridiculous ways to take down your foes and present a pretty fantastic spectacle. Along with an enhanced vision mode that provides a myriad of tactical information, including constant vision of enemies through walls, it kind of trivialises the difficulty of the campaign in rather comical way. But if difficulty is your thing, they’ve added a new “Realistic” difficulty mode where you are quite literally one-shot-kill at all times.
As for the game’s competitive end, this year’s title tries a number of interesting things. Firstly, the enhanced mobility and parkour-like movement of the previous CoD makes a return. This time, however, they’ve replaced the double jumps and side-dashes with a simplified boost jump and wallrun. At first, it feels like a fast and exciting way to traverse maps. A way to speed up the action and really take the fight to your enemy. But eventually you start to realise that the most of the maps don’t seem to have been designed with the game’s vertical mobility in mind. Sure, every map is filled to the brim with perfectly flat walls and 90-degree angles to wallrun on, but the boost jump and elevated height feels largely neglected. Each map is loaded with half a dozen or more examples of roofs restricted by invisible walls or walls that you arbitrarily cannot jump over. Large elements of the map design (at least for the game’s default, non-DLC maps) feel like they were made without consideration for the newfound verticality. As if the people who designed the maps weren’t told you could jump much higher this year, and it can all be frustrating at times.
Secondly, you are now given the choice of nine Specialist characters to play as. Each Specialist has two abilities to choose from, all of which are unlocked on a timer. The first ability unlocked is generally a powerful weapon, such as a one-shot-kill revolver or a bow that fires explosive arrows, and the second ability is a more dynamic skill. An example would be Prophet’s second skill, Glitch, which allows you to instantly teleport back to a previous position, allowing you to escape sticky situations or get the drop on an enemy. Although there are only a small handful of abilities that actually get used in games, the Specialists are a fun and interesting way to vary up the action and add an extra tactical layer.
Otherwise, everything is just about as you’d expect. Creating classes uses the “Pick Ten” system of previous games, allowing you to fill a class with any ten things, replacing a grenade for an extra attachment and so on. The same basic weapon archetypes are available. There are challenges. Perks. Emblems. Clan tags. All the things you’d expect to find in Call of Duty multiplayer.
Finally, there is the Zombies mode. The core zombies mode is Shadows of Evil. It introduces gumball powerups, an XP system of progression, and a noir style that gives it a unique charm separate from standard zombie fiction. I used to be into Zombies back in World at War and even the original Black Ops, before it all got a little too nutty. Going straight into a game of Shadows of Evil blind is a bewildering and dizzying experience. You are presented with a vague incentive to collect a handful of mysterious objects and turn into a beast to turn on the power… I think. You are surrounded by cool shit and unexplainable items with no clue of what to do with any of it. It’s confusing and exciting and fun to unravel the various mysteries that the huge map has to offer with friends, but on your own it can be a frustrating and unintuitive experience.
There is also a second, much goofier Zombies mode. “Nightmares”, as it is dubbed. It is essentially the campaign re-done to feature zombies instead of robots and weapon drops instead of loadouts. All of the story’s cutscenes persist but the dialogue is replaced by a weird conversation between you and a doctor trying to destroy the undead fiends. It all feels odd and out of place, but has a great B-movie quality that captures the feeling of the original Nazi Zombies maps perfectly.
Ultimately, Black Ops 3 tries a number of new things and hits more often than it misses. The mobility feels great but feels somewhat under-utilised, whilst the Specialist characters feel like a smart addition to the standard action. And that’s this year’s Call of Duty. Thick with content and refined in some interesting ways, CoD may not reinvent itself this time round but offers the traditional modes and experiences in a well-presented package that is still just so fun to play.