Into the valley of Death rode the six hundred.
Truth be told, I didn’t want to do this. There were tons of more interesting games piling up in front of me, like The MISSING, Mega Man 11, My Memory of Us, but sometimes you have to face facts. You can’t stay independent for too long, and sometimes you just need to embrace the mainstream again. Something manufactured by a committee for IRL NPCs could be good, and has nothing to do with the fact that I was the only one who was available for this. Not at all!
Anyway, for those not paying attention to this stagnant franchise (which is a life I consider my own personal heaven), this is the fourteenth game in the long-running Call of Duty series, Black Ops IIII. Since Black Ops 2 came out six years ago and rocked everyone’s socks off, the fumbling trio of tired developers Treyarch, Sledgehammer, and Infinity Ward have been trying to keep a consistent track record. It hasn’t worked out well.
Since Activision believe that no one cares about stories anymore (Maybe they get in the way of premium currencies), I’m not going to bother with a plot synopsis, and instead look at that track record. 2013 was the beginning of the end for Call of Duty, as CoD: Ghosts was vilified by everyone who played it, despite its inoffensive gameplay being the most weighed down of the series.
Nevertheless, we then turn to Advanced Warfare, Sledgehammer’s now-cursed spin on the series, which defied expectation by making white men jump. It wasn’t an awful experience, but it signified a point where Activision got a bit too fast and loose with how much money they could make off of people, as loot boxes and locked-off content made its debut. People weren’t happy with the product, and that was before Kevin Spacey turned out to be a piece of shit.
Between Black Ops 3, Infinite Warfare, Modern Warfare: Remastered,and WWII, you could see the crows feet emerging from a mile away, as life was sucked out of the series more and more, until one of those Husks from Mass Effect remained. Out of all of them, Black Ops 3 was the only one that managed to have an identity and sense of humour, and even though Infinite Warfare was a good game, the scornful public made fickle by years of intentional confusion chose to hate it because “Space shooters were cool only in 2015!!!”.
However, that was then, and this is now! Treyarch have always been considered the best studio behind the Call of Duty series, revered by all to be the team with all the talent, and you’d be mostly right. The first three Black Ops titles are objectively fantastic in one way or another, and you know what? I’m going to be honest, Black Ops IIII might have been fighting against the odds here, but I have to give them credit.
They defied expectations to make a decent game. Not bad, but not good either.
Alright, let’s snap back to reality, because I was excited for this game. Call of Duty has always been my go-to game for multiplayer fun, with Call of Duty 4 and World at War being in a tag-team for Top 10 Favourite Games Ever. Hell, I even gave entries like CoD: Ghosts a pass, because it’s the archaic arcade glory that made the series so prevalent in the first place, and it’s still there in Ghosts. However, as stated above, the identity crisis that Call of Duty is going through is visible to everyone, which is why Black Ops IIII is stitched of various other games, as opposed to being proud of its own status.
First, there’s the multiplayer, which is employing various ideas and design choices similar to Rainbow Six: Siege, from game pacing to tactical opportunities to complete removal of aim assist. Truth be told, it works well, and is easily Black Ops IIII’s best aspect, as always. While Blackout is obviously the biggest focus for Activision’s demographic of edgy teenagers, the multiplayer is probably the tightest it has been in years… although that’s not saying much.
You’re told to do a tutorial for it almost immediately, which is baffling considering that this was stitched up from previous games and other titles, with the Specialist selection being somewhat similar. Six of the, err, “loved” operators of Black Ops III have returned, with those being Ruin, Battery, Firebreak, Seraph, Nomad and Prophet, with their offensive weapons from the previous game returning, except Nomad now has an OP dog. The other four new Specialists have more defensive abilities than the six retreads, which explains why absolutely nobody uses them, other than in the tutorial.
Speaking of said tutorials, this is where your single shred of story exists. Between origin story cutscenes and Woods from Black Ops 1 returning to be the single most annoying person in the fucking galaxy, you’ll see a shadowy woman talking to people off-camera and on the phone, implying there’s bigger stakes at play. It doesn’t lead to anything, unfortunately, as it seems to exist only because Black Ops stories are required to have some batshit crazy narrative.
It is during the tutorials that you’ll be introduced to the gameplay and gunplay, with the gameplay being stiff and the gunplay being good. It’s just your usual “point your gun at shit and fire” type of stuff, with a lack of any verticality to it, unless you count the one Specialist with a grapple gun which allows you to slowly fly across maps. Gunplay, however, is great, even though a lot of the guns either sound good and feel crap, or vice versa, but nevertheless, a lot of the weapons do have weight behind them, which hasn’t been present since Ghosts.
The only huge difference that Black Ops IIII has in its gameplay proceedings, is that health is no longer regenerative… well, it is, it just takes a long ass time. Instead, after every gunfight, you can stab yourself in the neck with a stimpack and watch your health slowly go back up. It’s a decent system, but it doesn’t make a lick of difference to previous titles, since the charge time on it is pretty much the same as normal regenerating health. What’s the point, honestly?
As for the maps, “Firing Range”, “Slums”, “Summit”, and “Jungle” are returning, and all except Summit have survived the test of time. New maps like “Payload”, “Gridlock”, and “Hacienda” tower above older competition with better design choices and manipulation of paths, and the only problem comes from the fact that there’s not enough of it. Black Ops IIII is big on lifting ideas, and low on originality and content.
Out of all of the games in the vast library of Call of Duty, there is a lack of anything original or fresh, unless you count Blackout, which we’ll get to. Less guns, less new maps (instead pining to use maps from older titles), less modes, and less new Specialists that don’t seek to exercise the ambitions Treyarch believes they have by crowbarring elements from better competitive shooters.
Let’s take the Specialists for example, with all of them having set weapons or devices that charge incredibly slowly over time, and equipment that’s a bit quicker to charge. What Treyarch believe should happen is that because you can only have a maximum of one or two Specialists on each team, then you have to work together and find a team of Specialists that work well together. The truth is much more benign, as there is absolutely no synergy coming from teamwork.
If you band together and attempt to use your abilities in some form of co-operative manner, then you’re a bigger target for other abilities that charge quicker and ruin your plans more often. You go lone wolf however, and suddenly you’re dropping shit kids and stoners from every angle, although that still won’t save you from defeat. I’m sure we’ve all been there, when you’ve been reincarnated as John Wick in a multiplayer game, but you still lose because it turns out the rest of your team are victims of John Wick.
Spawn placement is now a bigger mess than before, and it’s all because of one of the Specialists– The best Specialist, that is– Seraph. Her stupid ability is the power to place down a beacon wherever on the map for her teammates to spawn from, and because of this, spawn switching rarely ever happens. You’re going to get guys sniffing your arse as soon you jump into the game, and it’s all because of this asinine ability that not only buggers up spawn places, but it could bugger up a lead you had on the enemy team.
As for modes, there isn’t much, save for the usual Team/Deathmatch, Domination, Search ‘n’ Destroy, and King of The Hill. There’s no Sabotage, there’s no Demolition, and there’s no Old-School or Barebones modes. One of the two new modes, “Control”, is just Domination with a lives limit, nipping a page from Battlefield‘s book, and feels lifeless. Since it’s just Domination, you know exactly how to play it, and this “innovation” of adding lives doesn’t feel innovative when games are won via killing only, and never flag capturing.
“Heist” is an interesting mix of CS:GO‘s buy-with-cash elements and Siege-style takedowns, but again, this stuff is only won by exorcising the lives from the other team, as opposed to the objective of capturing the “flag” in the middle. Fair enough if it gets the job done, but what’s the point in trying to be original when no one is going to consider the prime objective? No one plays objectively in Call of Duty, and I wish the trio of developers under Activision’s wing would stop with those delusions.
Kill Confirmed is still the best mode to play, even though I’m apparently one of the Sacred Seven Samurai who know the long forgotten technique of picking up the dog tags after you’ve killed a bloody enemy. While it’s still a game mode with a primary objective that isn’t just killing, it’s essentially an extended TDM with tags being fruitful if you’re mobile. If only 95 percent of the Call of Duty playerbase knew, eh?
Finally, as always, there’s the One Gun That Will Have To Be Nerfed Immediately. This year’s winner is a tie between the Swordfish, a four-round burst AR that you can use straight away with one of the default classes given to newbies, and the HADES, an LMG with zero recoil. Don’t be surprised if you find some fat scrub using the Swordfish default class at Level 30-odd, it just means that you’re more creative than him.
That’s the Multiplayer component of Black Ops IIII in a nutshell denser than a dying star. It’s just more of what we expect, and what ideas Treyarch brought to the table have been robbed from other tables without the same grace, or finesse. Speaking of robbing ideas, it only makes sense to talk about Blackout now, and a fun little factoid about me is that in some capacity, I remember saying that the combat style and flow of Call of Duty wouldn’t work in a Battle Royale.
Lo and behold, I was right.
It’s not all terrible, I mean, it’s certainly not to the same pathetic standards of PUBG, but the thing about Call of Duty is that the gunfight always goes to the guy that shoots first. In Fortnite, you have the chance to retaliate and fortify before the final blow. In PUBG, the game is designed so poorly that you’re confident in the fact that your adversary is going to miss. Call of Duty is silky smooth though, and as stated above, non-regenerating health doesn’t change the fact that whoever shoots first wins.
The map is primarily made up of aesthetics and assets from previous Call of Duty maps. The all-too-overblown “Nuketown”, “Stronghold”, “Raid”, and some parts of previous Zombies maps return and some are slightly re-aligned, just to name a few. It’s neat that they’re there, but it’s all the same visually, and only exists for hardcore Call of Duty vets go “Oh, that’s neat. Huh.”
Inventory space is limited, but you’ll never find yourself too terribly overburdened with multiple items. There are tens of different things you can pick, like different grenades, med kits and temporary perks, but a lot of these items are going to fly over your head. The only temporary perk that matters is “Awareness”, as sound design is everything in these Battle Royale games, and the rest are either gimmicky or provide no advantage to the player.
As for gameplay? You’ll be lucky if you can even properly play the thing, because on Xbox One, half of your matches will be unplayable messes. Frightening frame rate drops that turn your console into a Viewmaster, stutter lag that will cause you to consistently fall off the same building until the fall damage takes you, and good ol’ Chris Console Crashes. Talk about dedicated servers, they’re as dedicated as Theresa May is to her job.
The beginning of every Blackout match is a terrifying pain in the ass. Because Call of Duty was never a game that managed anything competently over twelve-player combat, with Ground War matches being infamous for their connectivity issues, a lot of people dropping in one area can be hell. Players can ghost and walk through doors to kill players, and guns can actually change their rate of fire randomly with you being none the wiser, in what I can only assume is a bug in the engine. Blackout is a mess, to say the least.
When the stars align and the game works properly for all of one match, combat can be fun if you’re actually good at Call of Duty. It’s all in first person, but because 12-year olds will Floss all the way to the ends of the Earth, of course Treyarch are trying their hardest to satisfy you with similar emotes and sprays. What they didn’t realise however, is that because the camera switches to third-person when you execute the emote, you can constantly squat like a Slavic sinner, and see the enemies coming from a mile away. Good job, Treyarch.
Winning matches does offer more elation than Fortnite could ever provide, but final circle scenarios are forced to be tense, as opposed to just letting the general flow of events take over. PUBG still remains the supreme champion for endgame tension, despite it being generally bad, as there’s no ambience or pressure to the gunfights in Black Ops IIII, especially if you have a gun that is OP in multiplayer.
Other than that, there’s not much else to say about Blackout. It’s mechanically similar in almost every way, and as always, the new ideas Treyarch bring to the table are half-baked. After winning ten matches for my gamerscore clout, it didn’t feel like there was anything new to do, and went back to PUBG for a higher shot of adrenaline. It feels like Treyarch should’ve been more forceful with the changes, instead of just saying “We can get by with doing nothing spectacular because we made Call of Duty!”.
Finally, Zombies, a mode that I vaguely care for, but not when Treyarch are behind the helm. For too long, they’ve gotten away with making everything so stupidly obscure and a headless goose chase, replacing actual replay value with intentional confusion. Once again, that’s the case here, but have also participated in self-sabotage.
Another tutorial graces you, although God knows why since the additions they’re trying to teach you about were already in Black Ops 3. The only new addition added is the “Kill-Everything-In-The-Room” machine, which you activate with a combined tap of both your bumper buttons. I also feel sorry for any poor bastard who decides to choose this as their starting-off point for Zombies, because this is possibly the most inaccessible Zombies experience yet.
“Juggernog”, “Speed Cola”, and “Double Tap” have all been removed, in an effort to streamline the gameplay with something much more cumbersome. Now you have sixteen perks to choose from, or fifteen if you don’t count the perk that gives you one of the other perks instead. Out of all the perks available, the only useful ones are Mule Kick, which grants you another weapon slot, and Victorious Tortoise, which gives you all-around protection while equipping a shield. The rest fall between “specific” and “useless”.
There are varying difficulties now, which as far as I’m aware, simply lowers your health at each difficulty. The zombies are still going to be as aggressive as always, they’re still going to spawn more special sub-classes of Zombies, so it’s not even that fair, it’s just a stupid design choice disguised as “deep customization”. You can also play with bots as teammates, a neat feature in and of itself, but they’re just going to steal your kills and get in your way for the most part. Maybe there is a demographic for this type of stuff; loners who think asking bots to revive them because they have Ray Gun is funny. Who knows?
To Black Ops IIII’s credit, there is slightly more to offer this time around. You’ve got “Voyage of Despair”, a slaughterhouse epic taking place on the Titanic or something, you’ve got “IX”, a slaughterhouse epic taking place in Egypt or Rome or something, and a slight re-imagining of “Mob of The Dead” from Black Ops 2. I say “slight re-imagining” because instead of the four BADA-BING-BADA-BOOM gangsters from before, we’ve now got those stupid stereotypes who’ve been present in every single Call of Duty game developed by Treyarch. Richtofen, Dempsey, Nikolai, and Takeo are back to exist and be annoying.
The new characters that are available in IX and Voyage of Despair are business as usual for Treyarch. You’ve got the archetypical heartthrob Diego, who’s Hispanic and cute, you’ve got the archetypical big brute Bruno, who’s white and cute, you’ve got the archetypical sexy dame Scarlett, who has big breasts and is annoying, and Shaw. Shaw is someone so unbelievably annoying that I’d rather listen to Nikolai talk about vodka and ex-wives for ten hours straight. Together, they will never cease to be quiet with their incessant lines about being mean to zombies and— Oh my God, they never shut up. They never. Shut. Up.
While I’d love to actually comment on the structure of these maps, the only one that’s tolerable to play in its generic format is Voyage of Despair, as IX seems poorly constructed from the get-go. It’s a visual filter being placed over a normal Zombies map, except we’re supposed to act like zombie tigers replacing Hellhounds is impressive. Blood of The Dead also suffers from being mostly a retread; a retread of a map that wasn’t even the best of Black Ops 2 in the first place.
There is a shining beacon throughout the whole Zombies ordeal however, and that’s in “Zombie Rush”. The basic gist is that you’re stuck in the same ordeal as always, but now you have to defend certain areas of the map, and all the guns, perks and upgrade stations are free. It’s a simple high-score mode to say the least, as you have some lives, the zombies never actually take a break from spawning, it’s fast, it’s frantic, and most importantly, it’s fun.
It’s fun to just disregard stupid goose-chasing objectives and kill zombies in an uproarious and gallivanting fashion. I’d much rather brag about the time that I got 500k on Blood of The Dead Zombie Rush, than I would brag about wasting two hours of my bloody life trying to do the “Gorod Krovi” Easter egg with a bunch of randoms. Go for scores, not endless bores.
Unfortunately, it feels like the only map designed for this experience was Blood of The Dead. Voyage of Despair’s mostly claustrophobic and tight corridors don’t allow for much freedom of movement, and the placement of some of the defence points in IX were poorly thought-out and too small. Blood of The Dead is just right, as most of the defence points are the right size, and are varied in tactical opportunities and size. Not too small, but not too big, like a Ploughman’s Lunch… what, you’ve never had a Ploughman’s Lunch? Shame on thee.
Black Ops IIII eludes me. It’s quite clear that Treyarch are embarrassed of their legacy, which is why they’re looking to change and rip off whatever’s popular at the moment, but they haven’t put a single ounce of thought into it. From tactical Multiplayer still playing the exact same even with all of these unnecessary additions, a Battle Royale mode that visually and mechanically plays and looks like everything else except Fortnite, it’s all a half-arsed effort.
Is Black Ops IIII worth sixty bucks? Absolutely not, there is nowhere near enough content to justify such an extortionate price point. The Zombies Easter eggs you’ll do once as soon as it’s been figured out by the Zombies community, the multiplayer drags on like most of my metaphors, and the Battle Royale mode is something you’ll play in apathy rather than excitement. You don’t proudly win games, you just win them.
In the end, Black Ops IIII is a game you have to force sixty bucks worth of enjoyment out of, as opposed to letting it flow out naturally. It’s without the doubt the most lifeless Call of Duty title since Advanced Warfare, and somehow has less content than WWII. A pity to see the prince of FPS’s become the pauper, but that’s the issue when you become self-aware, isn’t it?
You don’t adapt, you copy.
This review of Call of Duty: Black Ops IIII is based on the Xbox One version of the game.
While it's nice to see Treyarch "change-up" the formula, in the largest quotations possible, this is still a limp-wristed attempt. It's a pathetic husk of the once-great Call of Duty series that fails to be worth the money or time.
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