A year on I still think about Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare. Like, a lot. I think about its great, diverse cast of characters, how nearly every level feels radically different from every other one in spite of it being a game that’s more or less about gunning down thousands of nameless dudes. I especially find myself thinking about the game’s surprisingly deft handling of disability. I wonder if once this review is done if I’ll ever spare another thought or word for Black Ops 3’s campaign outside of warning every curious person I meet away from it the way that park rangers tell tourists to steer clear of bear caves.
Black Ops 3’s singleplayer is an abomination. Easily the worst, most disappointing campaign in a first-person shooter since Aliens: Colonial Marines. Both Black Ops 2 and Advanced Warfare were rightly praised by critics for showing that Call of Duty still had life in it and was capable of doing great things with its story mode. By contrast, Black Ops 3 feels like several giant leaps backward. Nothing is entertaining here. Not the shooting. Not the weird progression system. Even navigating the environment is a chore thanks to clunky movement. The story, about a group of soldiers with cybernetic implants hunting one of their own (played by Christopher Meloni) after he betrays them, starts strong, hinting at a great thrill ride sprinkled with themes of transcendentalism and the bleak future, but falls flat on its face less than an hour after the intro and spends the rest of the campaign flailing in every direction. It’s the kind of game that does the impossible, making six hours feel like forty-five.
I hated it nearly every single moment of it. As someone who plays through and writes words about countless games, hatred is something I feel rarely for games, but I truly loathe the single-player portion of Black Ops 3. I detest its constant barrage of cringeworthy dialogue and its parade of clichés from every blockbuster movies I’ve ever seen. I resent that it expects me to care one iota for its characters, for whom “cardboard” would be a generous description, without ever bothering to try and develop them. I despise how stupidly violent it is. And please understand that when I say “stupidly violent,” I don’t mean that the fact that a game about shooting people is gruesome and that quality bothers me. No, when I say stupidly I mean that adverb specifically. There’s a scene about halfway through the game where I came across a woman being hanged in an alley. I killed the soldiers hanging her and then watched as she kicked and dangled and slowly died a horrible, agonizing death. I desperately searched for a way to cut or shoot the rope. When that failed, I tried to shoot her to put her out of her misery but the bullets phased right through her body. There was no option but to watch her die slowly and it made no sense because the game had already established, in the most gung ho way possible, that your character and their annoying scourge of a wingman Hendricks wouldn’t let something like that just happen. It’s awful. It’s dumb. It fits right in with the rest of the game’s attempts to shock you with its gruesome but also very tired violence, which include watching as someone’s face is burnt off in front of you in excruciating detail.
The progression system that grants you cybernetic soldier powers, including setting enemy drones against each other and sending nanomachines to set enemies on fire, makes them such a hassle to manage that it’s almost not worth using them in the first place. You’ll have levels where you fight against either mostly human enemies or robotic ones, and various powers will work on one but not the other, so you’ll choose your category and often charge into the beginning of a mission with powers that just don’t work on the type of foes you’re fighting. You can change your powers category by finding mobile armories, which are scattered throughout each level, but you often have to fight past waves of enemies with whatever you have on hand, meaning you’ll likely get to an armory, switch your power set and then have to fight a different kind of enemy with a set of powers that don’t work on them. The kicker? There is an option to use all three categories on the go and just switch them out but it’s only available once you reach level 20 in the game’s campaign mode. For reference: I reached level 12 by the time I finished the game, so I’d essentially have to play the game through twice on its normal mode to unlock that option. It’s all nonsense. Infuriating, poorly designed, poorly written nonsense, and I am overjoyed I don’t have to subject myself to anymore of it.
Of course, the thing about Call of Duty now is that Call of Duty isn’t ever just one game anymore. It’s a package of games. This particular one has a multiplayer mode, a continuation of the one-note joke zombie mode that somehow became a cash cow phenomenon, and a wallrunning distraction that seems to be there just to prove that movement in Call of Duty can be as compelling and fun as movement in Titanfall and Mirror’s Edge (spoiler: no, it really can’t). None of these separate installations come close to redeeming just how bad the single-player game is. The core multiplayer stuff is pretty much the same game it was in Advanced Warfare, the only big difference this time around being you select a class and occasionally gain access to that class’ special weaponry and powers (like arrows that cause enemies to explode in a shower of blood and meat) during the match. It’s enjoyable, not because any of the additions are that well thought out, but more because the addictive RPG-lite unlocking system that’s been around since Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, with you unlocking new gear and perks the more you play, is as strong as it ever was. The multiplayer component really is just more Call of Duty content with a capital C that doesn’t move the series forward in any discernable way.
Perhaps the biggest evolution in Black Ops 3 is that it attempts to flesh out zombie mode, a multiplayer horde mode where you survive for as long as possible while completing objectives and mowing down the undead, and make it more interesting than it’s been in earlier games. On that front, and probably only on that front, Black Ops 3 is successful. The combination of Lovecraftian fiction and noir is a particularly inspired choice for a setting, and the four characters you can play as, including a magician voiced by Jeff Goldlbum and a boxer voiced by Ron Perlman because why not, all have entertaining enough personalities that the little quips they utter while you play are amusing enough. The art direction for this section is gorgeous and puts everything else in the game to shame. It’s easily the best thing that Black Ops 3 has to offer, even to someone like me who’s not really into the whole zombie thing, and if there’s anything that’s going to make me boot up the game a few more times before I uninstall it from my machine forever it’s probably that weird little mode.
As fun as popping zombies in beautiful environments is, it’s not enough to save Black Ops 3 from being just a miserable little disappointment, a cobbled together version of Deus Ex and Syndicate that can’t do right by its pop sci-fi leanings or the series’ run & gun entertainment. As someone who’s always been an apologist for the series, it makes me a little sad to see that Call of Duty might finally be the creatively bankrupt game everyone believes it to be, unsalvageable even by the grace of Christopher Meloni himself.
Javy Gwaltney devotes his time to writing about these videogame things when he isn’t teaching or cobbling together a novel. You can follow the trail of pizza crumbs to his Twitter or his website.