Call of Duty, like Star Trek movies, abides by an even/odd rule. Even years mean a great experience, with a well-told story and a handful of new features for player-versus-player combat. Odd-numbered years are a bit like The Search for Spock — unwieldy and goofy, but unmistakably the franchise you're invested in.
Treyarch's Call of Duty: Black Ops 3 is still the Call of Duty you love to frag 12-year-olds in, but its single-player campaign is so dismal it leaves a stank on the entire franchise. Thankfully, that campaign is just one small component of the game. (If you buy the PS3 or Xbox 360 version, you won't get the single-player campaign at all.)
Most people don't buy Call of Duty for the campaign mode; they buy it for the multiplayer, which continues to be one of the most refined and competitive multiplayer experiences in gaming today.
Multiplayer: All Twitch, No Strategy
For the past year, most of my first-person-shooter player-versus-player combat was limited to Destiny's Crucible mode. I do reasonably well there, and end most matches at the top of the heap while maintaining a solid kill-death ratio. I was sure that a year of playing Destiny every other day would mean I could hop right back into Call of Duty and be OK.
This was a very, very stupid thing to assume.
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Call of Duty is the "twitchiest" multiplayer experience around, meaning the person with the best reflexes will win — every time. All the cool powers introduced in this game (including invisibility, wall running and a sweet cluster-bomb launcher) mean nothing in Call of Duty multiplayer. As good as you think you are, there will be someone with better reflexes, and they will kill you again, and again, and again.
This twitch-style multiplayer feels outdated. I've grown to love how laconic Destiny appears in comparison, and I like its necessity for strategy. It's a problem when all of Black Ops 3's new abilities don't really alter the distinctive Call of Duty play style.
There are two things you can always expect when Treyarch, opposed to Infinity Ward or Sledgehammer Games, has its turn in the Call of Duty sandbox. The developer will feature a single-player campaign that borders on nonsensical, and there will be zombies.
Zombies: Scary Good
While the primary single-player campaign story is atrocious, the zombie-mode story is actually kind of … fun. The four playable characters all have distinctive personalities, and their slaughtering of the undead is downright stylish.
This is why it's such a shame that the zombie component of Black Ops 3 is only a small portion of the overall game. I'd much rather spend my days playing through the cooperative zombie mode with a friend than slogging through the single-player campaign.
A Terrible Story
The single-player campaign (which can also be played with up to three friends without altering the story) doesn't mean to be as bad as it is, and it's exciting to see a franchise known for its "oo-rah" chest-thumping militarism take a hard left turn into cyberpunk with cyborgs, AIs and characters' growing disillusion with their own humanity.
The story even takes neat stabs at experimental storytelling by periodically putting your player in the nightmares (really) of other characters. Yet the overall plot's cool ideas are poorly strung together and show off over-the-top violence, including the graphic dismemberment of the playable character by robots. It's as if those dudes who used to hang out behind the high-school gym getting high decided to brainstorm "the coolest Call of Duty ever, maaaaan" — and then forgot to make sure it made any sense.
You're playing as a black-ops grunt who gruesomely loses all his (or her) limbs to robots when an "op" goes bad. Like the Six Million Dollar Man, the government figures it can make you faster, stronger, better. So the scientists cyborg the heck out of your character, train you in all your new cyborg powers and send you and your best friend (who conveniently undergoes the exact same operation, because he's your best pal) out into the world to do Big Government's bidding.
So Many Famous People
Your character, and your best pal, Hendricks, aren't the only cyborgs in the game. Your mentors-turned-enemies are played by a whole slew of actors familiar to anyone with a TV. There's Christopher Meloni (Stabler from Law and Order: SVU), Katee Sackhoff (Kara Thrace from Battlestar Galactica), and Robert Picardo (the Doctor from Star Trek: Voyager). Other famous folks show up in the zombie co-op mode, including Heather Graham, Ron Perlman and even Jeff Goldblum. It's like a casting couch from the late 90s or early 2000s. The only thing missing are a few girls rocking too-dark lipstick and belly shirts.
While I'm normally delighted by the sight of a famous person in my video game, it starts to get a little distracting in Black Ops 3. I found myself less worried about the robots and evil cyborgs and zombies, and more worried about when the next poorly rendered B-lister would show up.
None of these actors is especially bad, and the actors in the zombie mode are downright charming. It's just that all these famous people are very distracting.
There's a Girl in My CoD
After more than 15 entries in the franchise, Black Ops 3 tries something pretty different for Call of Duty — at least beyond the whole cyborg thing. Black Ops 3 is the first time that Call of Duty players have been able to play through the campaign as a woman. To the more hirsute readers of this review, that might not seem like a revolutionary sort thing. But as a woman playing this series for the past decade, this is huge.
Call of Duty has long been under fire for its exclusion of female characters. There was even a time when a major developer infamously claimed that women were too time-consuming to program in the games. (They were in on that fad before Ubisoft said the same about the Assassin's Creed franchise.) Adding women not just to the multiplayer component, but as playable characters in the storyline, is a big deal.
Unfortunately, the woman you play as generally feels like a reskinned version of the male playable character, right down to the huge cigar she's chomping on in the selection screen. This isn't the first game to just reskin the playable character and make no effort to alter the story based on gender. The Saints Row series is pretty notorious for doing this, too, but what comes off as charming and purposeful in that game feels lazy in Black Ops 3.
The female player's cartoonish embrace of masculinity isn't the real head-scratcher, though. I'm reserving that for the lack of choice in the playable character's ethnicity. You're offered the choice of nine different playable character faces with a whole range of hair colors, yet skin colors range from "Have you seen the sun at all this year?" to "really tan." Having nine options for a face and yet not one expressly dark-skinned option is a major problem.
This particular entry in the Call of Duty franchise is absolutely maddening. Its single-player campaign is laughable in its awfulness, but the multiplayer aspect is absolutely bang-on. If you're twitching to headshot Call of Duty bros or devastate zombies, then, by all means, pick up Call of Duty: Black Ops 3. Otherwise, check out Destiny: The Taken King, which has a better story and more forgiving multiplayer combat.