The high-tech battlefields of 2065 may be dominated by cybernetic implants, but your greatest weapon is still the soldier by your side. Call of Duty: Black Ops 3 is a bombastic shooter that perfectly preserves the split-second, hair-trigger gunplay of its predecessors. What's different this time around is that every aspect of this game - from the techno-babble campaign to the burlesque Zombies mode - is fine-tuned for co-op play. Having a fancy scope or underbarrel attachment is nice, but in the end it'll be your buddy who pulls your ass out of the fire.
With a friend in tow, Black Ops 3 becomes one of the most varied and enjoyable shooters on current-gen hardware. But this emphasis on co-op cuts both ways. Parts that feel great when played together become tedious when tackled alone. And the diverse selection of modes - enjoyable as they are - make the game feel disjointed at times, diminishing the thruster pack and other excellent designs.
Naturally, competitive multiplayer is where Black Ops 3 is at its most expressive and enjoyable. The new Specialist abilities - temporary power-ups like a short-range teleport and cluster grenade launcher - fold in nicely with the Pick 10 loadout and scorestreaks, providing ample opportunities for you to define your own play-style. And like scorestreaks, these abilities unlock as you fight, creating gleeful moments of unfair advantage that offer a brief rush of power, without disrupting the flow of the match.
But the real star is your thruster pack. This high-tech backpack lets players perform the sorts of high-flying parkour stunts found in Titanfall. Whether you're power-sliding into someone for that perfect shotgun blast, or zipping along walls for a quick escape, it's a wonderfully fluid and simple device to use. And because all of its inputs are handled with a single button, you're free to focus on your enemies and not the controls.
Most online maps capitalize on this freedom of movement by including lots of vertical elements - billboards, narrow gaps between buildings, high balconies - for players to exploit. Discovering creative angles of attack is part of the fun with each new arena, and they help make these battlefields feel larger than their physical size as you fight both on and off the ground. But the packs can also be your downfall, as they emit a specific sound when used. If you stop and listen, you can hear another player blasting off and turn their own surprise against them.
In addition to the new storyline, Black Ops 3 also features an all-new protagonist. Your quest sends you on a globetrotting adventure to hunt down a group of rogue cybernetic soldiers and unreal the mystery of the "frozen forest." The whole thing plays out pretty predictably, but you can customize your hero - male or female - and see those changes reflected in the cinematics, which is a nice touch.
The thruster pack is a fun, versatile toy that blends nicely with the action, yet multiplayer is the only mode that uses it properly. In the campaign, it's a completely optional accessory rendered all but useless by the mode's flat level design. Zombies - being set in the 1940s and all - doesn't allow thruster packs at all. Including a feature so gratifying, but limiting it to only a fraction of the game, is a waste. The whole game could've been anchored around this mechanic; instead, a time trial mode (buried in the multiplayer menu) is the only alternative that puts it to good use.
Thursters aside, campaign is where Black Ops 3 is at its most inconsistent. If you skimmed our gallery recapping Call of Duty Black Ops: The story so far and felt you were on the wrong end of a Tom Clancy novel, fear not. This may be a continuation of the Black Ops timeline, but it's a standalone tale. Knowing about Raul Menendez (who I heard mentioned once) and his exploits in the previous game is not required. This is a simpler tale for a simpler campaign. Most missions are extended shooting galleries against waves of grunts, broken up by trips to the safehouse to customize your loadout. An overarching mystery unfolds concerning "the frozen forest," but its twists and turns are as predictable as, well, a Tom Clancy novel.
Played alone, the campaign is a grind. It doesn't feel that way when you're rolling four deep with your buddies, turning robots into walking fireballs and making human combatants vomit up their breakfast with your techno-magic abilities. But when you're playing solo, it's a chore. A steady stream of military jargon and big explosions try to obfuscate the feeling of emptiness native to these giant, mostly flat arenas built for four... but it's there. You feel the repetition set in as you headshot one doltish robot after another, those once-entertaining techno-spells reduced to basic crowd control.
With a colorful cast of inglourious bastards, richly detailed mid-century backdrop, and punishing difficulty, Zombies really comes into its own this time around. Its strong emphasis on cooperative survival tactics is reminiscent of Left 4 Dead, only the zombies will cut you down much quicker this time around. Surviving any enemy wave demands communication between the team, making it all the more satisfying when you emerge unscathed. And if you're thinking of playing this mode solo, just don't. It's tantamount to suicide.
Together, these three modes comprise the bulk of Black Ops 3, each one packing enough content and unlockables to make it feel like a standalone game. On top of all that there's Dead Ops Arcade - which plays like a reimagined Smash T.V. or Ikari Warriors - the thruster pack-centric time trials mode, and a remixed, zombie-filled version of the campaign that's unlocked after the credits roll. The extras just keep piling on, which all but guarantees you'll find at least one mode here that'll eat up a few dozen hours of free time.
Two breakout missions in the final act disrupt the monotony. One makes you alternate between dogfighting in a jet and battling enemies on foot. The other involves hacking into someone's mind and fighting the memories of a long-past battle. Both represent Call of Duty at its best: big showpiece missions that feel distinct both in style and in the challenges you face. But they're ultimately stones striking a pond, their ripples lost to the stillness. On the whole, this campaign is very one-note, albeit one that sounds better in concert.
After multiplayer and the rudimentary campaign, fending off the undead in Zombies mode is a welcome palate cleanser. This 1940s mashup of pulp-meets-Lovecraft puts an amusing spin on the gunplay by mixing it with a tabletop dungeon crawler. You and three teammates collect artifacts, earn money, and explore an ever-expanding labyrinth of rooms, giving this mode a refreshingly distinct feel from the rest of the game. But be warned, Zombies is tough. Your party may include a crooked cop and two-bit magician voiced by Jeff Goldblum, but they are all glass cannons. When one falls, things quickly spiral out of control.
Call of Duty: Black Ops 3 is a massive, varied game, but your satisfaction will depend heavily on whether you have friends to play with either locally or online. Zombies finally comes into its own here with a play-style and design all its own, while the blockbuster campaign ends up feeling more Michael Bay than James Cameron. Multiplayer is the main attraction here, and the highly customizable loadouts and Specialist abilities combine to make it one of the most varied and enjoyable in the series. Just make sure you have someone you trust watching your back.
This game was reviewed on PlayStation 4 at a review event.