– Nick Palmisano
“We monitor many frequencies. We listen always. Came a voice, out of the babel of tongues, speaking to us. It played us a mighty dub.” – William Gibson, Neuromancer.
Rise of the machines
So mighty is the ‘dub’ of Call of Duty: Black Ops III that I barely have time to notice just how mindless a game about actual minds can be. The latest offering from publisher Activision and developer Treyarch strikes me as a haphazard love letter to better games that came before it, packed full of ideas you might consider novel, if they hadn’t already been explored tirelessly.
Our Editor Charlie previously discussed the homogenisation of first person shooters, and Black Ops III typifies the evolution, or should I say, regression, which we’ve come to see in the last few years. This numbing uniformity of core gameplay, be it traversal, abilities, or shooting mechanics. Luck over skill, specials over tactics. It’s been said, but when Call of Duty plays more like Destiny, Deus Ex Human Revolution, Titanfall, and Syndicate, does it still qualify as COD? Destiny Revolution: Fall of the Titan Syndicate is probably more appropriate.
I should be honest in saying that I myself don’t take massive issue with the gameplay of Black Ops III. What I consider important (and maybe I’m a non-traditional gamer in this sense) is the story. The plot. The narrative drive behind the scenes. I should disclose also that I am a massive Cyberpunk fan. Jam some artificial intelligence into a dystopian future slum with deadbeats and super technology and I will be there, waiting patiently in my trench coat. William Gibson is my favourite author. Period. Anything at all to do with artificial intelligence intrigues me, a curiosity I picked up from his 1984 novel, Neuromancer. If you haven’t read it, you should. Period.
This is where we get into Black Ops III. It is the distant future, 2065 to be precise. You are part of a secret operative team, assets totally deniable by your government should you end up in the hands of the enemy. You do whatever your government tells you, which means infiltrating Ethiopia to destabilize a powerful paramilitary group waging water wars in the Middle East. Technology in the year of 2065 is a lot more aggressive and pervasive than you might imagine; pretty soon the human carnage is replaced by a robotic uprising. Literally, they’re fucking everywhere.
The robots remind of me Loaders from Borderlands 2, but also they kind of look Chappie. It’s hard to shoot Chappie. Chappie just likes to read. Then Chappie rips of your arms and crushes your legs. He effortlessly bashes in your chest cavity before finally being retired by none other than the Blade Runner himself, Christopher Meloni.
Elliott Stabler AKA John Taylor is your cybernetic hero, a fully decked out super solider, complete with super soldier buddies, three of them in fact. Diaz, the wise-cracking Spaniard (wonderful trope), Maretti, the other token ethnic character, and Sarah Hall, just another pretty blonde badass. The whole team is just one big cyborg party. Victor Stone would be proud. They remind of me of the ‘Tyrants’ from Human Revolution. I’m glad Meloni’s character isn’t wearing that god awful flesh suit augmentation, like Namir, which made that boss battle super awkward.
Against the glorious backdrop of global geo-political instability, it’s clear that man is more machine than human. Your life is saved, but pretty much every limb you had has been replaced by cybernetic and mechanical augmentations. To be fair, when I compare the gameplay abilities of Adam Jensen and those of the Black Ops super soldier, I’d be crazy not to pick Adam. Ahem, moving on.
So now you too can be a cyborg, terminating your way through ridiculous set pieces and Michael Bay explosions on a quest to find out just who the fuck you are now that your brain and body have been rearranged. Cue ‘Berlin Foot Chase’ by John Powell. I’ve linked it for you to save you the time. Make sure while it’s playing you envision the words ‘conspiracy’, ‘memory’, ‘human’, and ‘control’. Also walk down your street at night imagining sinister men in suits are following you. Very important. Not that I do that.
Let’s talk about the direct neural interface
So Nick, tell us, what the fuck is a Direct Neural Interface? I can tell you the acronym is DNI. I can tell you that I don’t have any money, but what I do have is a very particular set of skills…relax, I’m not Liam Neeson. I don’t think. My DNI has been playing up lately. I could be Liam Neeson and have no idea. I could also not even have a DNI in my head at all, but just think I do because the government puts way too much fluoride in my water and I forget to wear my tinfoil hat. My basic understanding, and it is basic at best, is that the DNI is a string of processors implanted at the base of the neck running up through the brain stem. Don’t ask me how it all works, it’s a video game.
The DNI allows its user to interface (how clever) with all technology capable of being interfaced with, including other DNI users. A disaster recorded on a security feed can be downloaded and dissected. Even memories can be shared in real time, or played back and analysed. You can walk through the scene of a train explosion, before the train even explodes. It reminds me a lot of Source Code. The DNI was developed by a bullshit CIA black project in a secret lab beneath an apparently clueless corporation facility in Singapore.
Except they weren’t clueless, they were totally fucking in on it and sanctioned the hell out of it. Even more depressing, the project forcefully experimented on kidnapped Singaporeans. Disgraceful. Even better, the collectively damaged psyche of everybody in the room led to the creation of an unhinged artificial intelligence named Corvus. Corvus comes into the world all shiny and chrome, before being laced with a corrosive chemical agent left over from World War II. This leads to a massive explosion (because Michael Bay) which kills 300,000 people. Your job as a cybernetic CIA lapdog is to cover up this mistake in the name of freedom by killing Taylor and his team who expose the project to the world. Yes. You are the antagonist. Brofist!
The DNI is the reason for every catastrophe in Black Ops III. I’ve watched Ghost in the Shell multiple times. If you subscribe to the dystopian vision you’ll know that connecting man and machine on a neuropsychological level is extremely dangerous at worst, and reckless at best. Transcendence anyone? In this future, and the future of so many other creations before it, the technology of Black Ops III is out of hand, out of control. Out of touch with human beings. The pursuit of convergence has left man empty, and machine, unsupervised, the technology we created to protect us from ourselves is the very thing that seeks to destroy us. How ridiculously familiar.
Interface with some zombies
Black Ops III does have a few saving graces. Pretty much anything not directly related to the campaign is a lot of fun. I haven’t pushed through the entire Zombie mode yet, but it is an amazing ride. My favourite zombie mode is still COD: World at War, but Black Ops III really pushes the envelope on what a zombie mode can offer; we’ve got Jeff Goldblum, Heather Graham, Ron Perlman, and Neal McDonough making up the all-star cast of zombie killing heroes, and the four player co-op really does a great job of pitting you against the undead world.
You can play solo if you choose, but solo play never quite cuts the mustard compared to playing with your friends or teaming up with strangers. You’ve got to survive against hordes of zombies while performing sacrificial rituals using people from your past, guided by the mysterious ‘Shadowman’ who offers you a chance at redemption, and maybe penance. Sounds ominous, and not at all like it would lead to redeeming my wicked ways.
Finally having a plot and memorable characters with interesting backstories is a super cool addition to a mode that has always felt a little lacklustre besides just braining walking corpses. Although when you put it like that there’s really wrong with mindless zombie killing. Also Cthulhu is in it so, you know, play the damn thing!
Fists of havoc!
Regarding the Destiny esque elements of ‘specialists’, the multiplayer characters in Black Ops III, it is rather disconcerting to note that most of their abilities are eerily familiar, functioning in similar ways. You begin the game without your ‘special’, and it charges over time, but this charge can be increased if you kill enemies. The quicker your kills the quicker your charge. It lasts a limited amount of time, and all of them are ridiculously overpowered. The ‘fists of havoc’ refers to Ruin, one of the specialists, whose ability is Gravity Spikes, an AOE slam attack that functions just like Titan’s hulk smash. Overall I find multiplayer to be the most enjoyable aspect, and it has a ton of game modes to keep you occupied. Even the fondly regarded Nuk3town map is here, updated in all its cybernetic, radioactive glory.
I jumped on the game on the 6th of November, release date here in Australia. That day I logged onto the servers and was already competing with players as high as level 25. Today most of the strangers I play against are ranking low 40s high 50, of which the highest is 55 before Prestige. What the hell do these people do!? It’s always tough coming into a situation like this. Their guns are better. Their gear is better. They even seem to move faster. Some of them literally do, there’s one character whose special is a legitimate super speed boost. I would urge you not to be dissuaded and edged out by hard core players. There’s nothing for it but to grind your experience points and slowly upgrade your gear.
Even a casual player like me can find a way to win and have fun. Sometimes. Mostly I get blown up. Or shot by prone shooters because I mistook them for a rock and stepped over them. Seriously, character models blend like nobody’s business, you’d think you were playing a chameleon simulator. That is the frustrating part. You can be doing everything right and still get wasted by nothing more than lady luck. Lately I’ve been finding enemy players spawning in behind me after I killed them. Not even far away, like literally right behind me. Sometimes there’s server issues. I’ll get migrated a few times. Honestly though, it’s nothing to put me off, but it does make me lament for a time when these FPS titles valued skill over special abilities and boost jumps. I think Charlie was right. Don’t tell him I said that.
Take me away to the frozen forest
The frozen forest is some psychological happy place that dead DNI users go when their brains shut down, or when shit just gets to heavy and they’re gonna’ freak out. It’s something Taylor is obsessed with finding, this peace of mind, so to speak. It was an artificial memory implanted by an Egyptian doctor tasked with finding a way to soothe subjects who underwent DNI implant procedure, which was, as you understand, a traumatic and damaging experience.
This is how I feel about Black Ops III. The zombies, and the multiplayer, they are my ‘frozen forest’. My happy place. My escape from the mediocre campaign, its recycled plot elements and tired technology tropes. I never played Advanced Warfare, but I imagine if you did there would be no reason at all to play Black Ops III.
There’s something about the campaign that’s just not right. Maybe it is the way they force you, the character, to commit evil deeds in the name of utilitarianism, but it’s never really explained that way. In fact, nothing is really explained at all, especially not your own motivations. You sort of bumble along with terrible exposition that reveals nothing, no thanks in part to peculiar voice acting.
It’s a mix of murder and inexplicable decision making layered on a dystopian plot where your character’s own self-preservation seems to trump all else. The fact that 300,000 people died in an explosion because of a CIA black project just sort of fades away into memory. Except that you have a DNI so you could double check that shit and hold somebody accountable if you really wanted. Black Ops III falls down in the face of a bizarre solo campaign, but regains some favour thanks mostly to a kickass zombie mode and light-hearted multiplayer.
The version of Black Ops III we reviewed was on PlayStation 4.
Pros: Fun multiplayer and zombies. Jeff Goldblum.
Cons: Poor and convoluted campaign. Recycled ideas. Strange voice acting. Spawn kills are bullshit.