“I don’t know what the hell is going on,” someone says in Call of Duty: Black Ops III. You said it, brother. You and me both. That’s about the only line of dialogue that makes sense in the whole game.
After the jump, here’s what the hell is going on
The previous Black Ops games spanned different time periods. But then someone at Activision’s Treyarch studio saw Inception and Source Code, so this Black Ops instead lapses into trippy cyber-dream alternate reality sequences in which you do the exact things you were doing in the regular reality sequences. That’s sort of like spanning different time periods. Which may or may not happen in this game. I don’t want to spoil anything, but it’s hard to know what’s a spoiler when you don’t understand anything in the first place.
It’s a short distance from trippy cyber-dream alternate realities to utter incoherence and Black Ops III covers that distance with ease. Eventually, your character yells a self-affirmation mantra at the bad guys she’s shooting. It gets more and more insistent. She starts yelling it the same way a character would yell stuff like “reloading!”, “on your right!”, or “grenade!” It’s like Stuart Smalley dropped into the first part of Saving Private Ryan.
There’s also something about a frozen forest. You know rogue AIs? I think there’s one in here. Cyber this and cyber that throughout. The regular reality stuff that sort of makes sense is entirely derivative of the usual Call of Duty stuff, which was already derivative itself. So it’s a bit like reheated leftovers. Not heated leftovers. Reheated leftovers. Leftover leftovers. The usual canned spectacles, but now taken from Tupperware instead of a can. A ship level. A train level. Work the gun in the turret while the jeep drives around. An underwater level. I don’t think you ever drive a snowmobile, though. They must have forgotten that one.
A big bowl of alphabet soup comes with Black Ops III. WA. CLS. PAWWS. RAPS. DNI. NRC. LNO. Those are all in there. The one I know is VTOL. How could I not? Every five minutes a VTOL comes crashing into the level. It’s raining VTOLs!
Your sidekick spends most of the game just yelling. Yelling. Lot’s of yelling. Someone told the motion capture actor that acting is yelling. Where is Steve Carell to yell “I don’t know what we’re yelling about” when you need him? An interrogation scene happens and the sidekick tries to yell like Batman interrogating the Joker. Sometimes characters yell back at him. On a couple of occasions, characters just punch each other to show they’re tough. War hard. You also know this from dialogue like “stay focused”, “keep it tight”, “we’re going in”, and “we’ve got a job to do”. Which makes the eventual affirmation yelling all the more weird. What kind of war hard soldier yells self-affirmations at the enemy?
If you opt to play a chick, the splash screen is your chick smoking a cigar. That wasn’t old as soon as Madonna did it on Letterman back in 1994. But, yes, you can be a chick. It doesn’t seem like it was very well thought out. Your chick may or may not be a lesbian. I’m putting my money on “may”, but it’s not clear. It’s only clumsily implied. And I have no idea how to square a female character with the final reveal. Black Ops III is either a progressive representation of gay and transexual characters, or Treyarch didn’t think the gender through to its logical conclusion. FemShep this ain’t.
One of the levels is on an oil platform. Big surprise, right? But what if I told you this was an oil platform in the desert? I have no idea why it’s in the desert. Out here you have to play Sega’s Afterburner several times. In another mission, you have to blow up the ground. The actual ground. Your objective is to just blow it up. The ground. That expanse you’re walking around on? Plant the charges to blow it up. I don’t think I’ve ever attacked the actual ground, at least not intentionally. You’ll get to see the ground blow up in a cutscene. It’s all so awkward, incoherent, and serious, but mostly incoherent. Is this a Call of Duty game or a Resident Evil?
It’s certainly got the gore of a Resident Evil. Black Ops III really wants to earn that graphic content warning in the front of a Call of Duty game. “Do you want to see the controversial stuff that Kotaku will write an editorial about?” the screen asks. Of course you do. You leave the box checked. You’re treated to tortured prisoners, a first-person view of getting dismembered by a robot, noses cut off, eyes gouged out, severed fingers, ears sliced off, a waiter getting stabbed for bad service, explosive slave collars popping heads like overfilled water balloons, a chick’s hand cut off while she’s still alive so you can use the hand on a biometric lock, bodies strung up Fallujah-style in a few separate uprisings, people getting gas poured over them and burned alive, someone impaled on rebar, someone else pinned to a wall with steel spikes, a couple of people thrown screaming off high buildings, a close-up of a face frying as it’s pushed into burning metal, and one dude who gets all four limbs ripped off. At the same time! I enjoy a good horror movie as much as the next guy. I even tried to play Manhunter, Hatred, and Postal. But there’s a such thing as trying too hard, Treyarch. Black Ops III is trying too hard.
After your character commits a particularly violent act against someone who probably totally deserves it, another character gives you a disapproving look.
“Got something to say?” you challenge. You are hard. You are war tough. The violence has made you who you are. All that abyss staring really does it to a gal. Did I mention you can be a chick in this Call of Duty?
“You’ve got a lot of blood on you,” the other character says softly because it’s not just metaphorical blood.
Aaaand…scene! Great work, other character. Great work not yelling that line. Black Ops III also stars Katee Sackhoff as someone who looks vaguely like Katee Sackhoff. Surprisingly, she’s not very good at it.
The story has no idea how to introduce a character. It’s like walking into a party where everyone knows each other and the host doesn’t bother to introduce you to anyone. Later the host ask you to go find Craig and get him to bring more ice. You have no idea who Craig is. “Defeat Sarah Hall,” the objective tells you. You have no idea who Sarah Hall is. Not that it really matters. This is a boss fight. Just hit the weak point a few times and then shoot one of the myriad provided boss-killing rockets at it. This being a boss fight, the level is lousy with them. You’ve done this a thousand times before, most of those times in a Call of Duty game.
It’s no surprise Treyarch also has no idea how to establish or develop a character. Which is an okay thing to have no idea how to do. Treyarch is making a shooter, not writing a Chekhov play. But Treyarch’s sin is not knowing this about themselves. Treyarch’s sin is shoving your face into a trough of narrative slop and holding your head down for minutes at a time. And furthermore thinking this is what you want. Long bouts of serious and seriously incoherent story. I have a suggestion for people who make games: if your storytelling skills aren’t up to par, if your game isn’t conducive to telling stories, don’t spend so much time on the story. That goes for Call of Duty, Halo, Gears of War, and Destiny, all of whom are guilty of holding heads down in troughs of narrative slop to varying degrees. You’re shooters, all of you. Above all else, know thyself.
Fortunately, the shooter part of the game isn’t bad. If there’s one thing a Call of Duty knows how to do, it’s shoot a bunch of people. Black Ops III’s campaign may be incoherent and dopey, but it can keep you wrapped up in the shooting. Earn experience points to level up and unlock new stuff. Then pick and choose among the stuff for any given mission. Add stuff to your stuff. It clips right on. The differences get a bit trivial after a while — oh, look, now I can put a thermal sight that I’ll never use on this gun — but who doesn’t like to unlock stuff?
Among the new stuff are magic spells you cast with your left hand. They’re mostly like the powers in a Bioshock game. Freeze your enemies, light them on fire, shoot them with bees, that sort of thing. You mostly commit to only using one spell at a time on account of it being a pain in the butt to call up the spell wheel while you’re shooting a bunch of people. Who has time to futz with a spell wheel in the heat of combat? Some of the spells only work on robots. There are lots of robots. They’re basically like humans, but generally slower and with more hit points, which means you have to shoot them more.
You can also replay the missions for a score. If there’s one thing to make me play a mission again, it’s a score. I’m not being the least bit facetious. It almost makes it worthwhile to sit through all the incoherent story again. Almost. Like Black Ops II, like Max Payne, revisiting this story stuff is a lot to ask of me if I just want to get to the shooting bits again. Almost too much to ask of me. Bulletstorm and The Club, shooters that you replay for a high score, didn’t make me sit through a lot of story stuff. There’s a mission in the last Black Ops where you have to go to someone’s house and hang out in his backyard and have a beer and a chat with him before you’re allowed to play the level. That part is mandatory. So I never replayed that mission. Black Ops III is full of these kinds of mandatory delays and unskippable interruptions. It insists on holding my head down in that trough of narrative slop. It’s the price I pay to play the campaign.
When you unlock the campaign’s zombie mode, the story plays without dialogue. Narrators pretend the level is about an entirely different story with zombies instead of people and robots and all that cyber-dream trippy stuff. It certainly solves the issue of that one sidekick who does nothing but yell. This mode combines the best of scoring and random weapons and power-ups. What will you get this time? What spell did you get? What gun are you stuck with? Do you dare trade this weapon for something else that you won’t know what it is until you get it? Did you get the sniper rifle, the most useless weapon of all against a zombie horde? I guess you won’t be getting a better score this time.
All of these ways to play also work cooperatively. All of them. Co-op makes everything better. I’ve always said I’d rather play a bad game with a friend than a good game by myself. And Call of Duty: Black Ops III actually isn’t even a bad game. It’s just drawn that way.
And of course for your traditional co-op needs, there’s zombie mode, with a progression system at long last! You can pick a set of magic gumballs, almost like building a deck for a card game. When you buy a gumball from the magic gumball machine, you’ll get one from your deck. You can even unlock specific weapons for those places on the wall where you buy weapons. Since these zombie modes require playing over and over to try and figure out what you’re supposed to do, the progression system makes it feel less futile. Zombie mode is also educational. It taught me that I want Jeff Goldblum talking in my ear while I play all videogames. Why couldn’t they have Jeff Goldblum just talk over the campaign? He could have talked about what he did that day. He could have reminisced about shooting The Fly with David Cronenberg. He could have told me about Apartments.com. He could have read from the telephone book if telephone books were still a thing. Thank you, zombie mode, for the Jeff Goldblum you’ve given me.
The multiplayer is the multiplayer, almost entirely the same it’s been all along, but in a brightly colored future pastel wrapper and with more jumping. Jet assisted jumping. If you’d rather play Halo, this is the Call of Duty for you. Now you can collect drops, so if you’d rather play Destiny, this is the Call of Duty for you. There is the same addicting progression there has always been, so if you’d rather play Call of Duty, you already are. Or you can just say never mind to all that and play against bots, which now support all the game modes. There is no need to ever go online again. Ahhh, how relaxing compared to the stress-inducing ordeal of playing against Call of Duty players. To show my gratitude to the bots, I am going to shout self-help affirmations as I shoot them because I don’t have Jeff Goldblum to do it for me. Maybe in the DLC you get when you bought the season’s pass for $50. I’ll leave the last word to Jeff Goldblum.
Call of Duty: Black Ops III
A dark future where a new breed of Black Ops soldier emerges and the lines are blurred between humanity and the technology we created to stay ahead. Did you see any movie ever where the word "cyber" was used? It's like that. Also, did you see Inception? It's like that, too.