With a Call of Duty game, you can generally expect fast-paced boat chases, vehicle assaults, and an air-to-air combat segment packed into a Michael Bay-style cinematic experience. That’s all still here, as Treyarch’s campaign addition to the franchise this year starts off unnervingly similar to Sledgehammer’s Advanced Warfare from last year in many ways. Thankfully, that rote ride into future-tech doesn’t last long, and the plot diverts in the most wonderfully weird way. Black Ops III has the most mind-bending and bizarre Call of Duty plot yet, taking advantage of unique settings and scenarios that would feel absurdly out of place in the series’ traditional space.

Without going into the legion of spoilers and twists that make up the second half of the main campaign, the basic premise sets the player up with squad leader John Taylor (Christopher Meloni) and showcases a device called the DNI (Direct Neural Interface). The DNI highlights enemies behind barriers, shows danger zones, predicts angles of grenade bounces, and allows the player to remotely interface with things like turrets and robot foes. Players also pick up a set of special cooldown core skills that add variety to the campaign, but I found it easy to ignore most of the abilities in favor of an incendiary nanobot swarm and an explosive ignite ability. You’re able to switch out your weapon packages mid-level at mobile armories, so if your strategy needs some tweaking for an upcoming battle, popping in a new kit for the situation is easy.

While the campaign offers more open areas with the freedom to choose different paths, it does little to negate the feeling that much of the core experience is just big rooms full of targets to kill. You move from area to area doing much of the same routine, even if there are some decidedly interesting sections to be discovered once the narrative goes well off the beaten path. As always, the missions feature unique battles and setpiece sequences like using a bolt driver to keep heavy winds and water from blowing you off the map. These moments break things up over the course of the eight-hour jaunt, but they quickly lose their charm as you engage in the next generic open area full of 40 humans and a giant robot miniboss. I highly recommend taking advantage of the up-to four-player campaign co-op feature to move through the game, as taking a friend or two along makes the sometimes-slow adventure more palatable and entertaining. All that said, Treyarch’s ambitious play to take the standard Call of Duty plot and go completely off the rails with it is admirable, and it works for creating some genuinely interesting moments and fantastically weird settings.

The multiplayer is excellent and addictive, offering players a more dialed-back and controlled experience in comparison to last year’s frenzied foray into future-tech. The mobility options like wall-running and boosting are important, but they’re used to traverse certain chunks of map quickly rather than integral pieces of every run-and-gun shootout. I found the slight dip in the speed of the action refreshing; I had more influence in what was going on from game to game.

The staple game modes like Kill Confirmed and Team Deathmatch are as strong as ever, and there’s also stuff like Safeguard where teams escort a robot buddy to a checkpoint through opposing forces – modes like this are fun to play for a change of pace when you want more objective-based fare. The multiplayer experience is set up nicely, with unlocks drizzling out as you level up using the now-classic Pick-10 system to create highly customizable loadouts. In addition to these forms of customization, players can also unlock and select specialist characters, which add an additional layer of personality and flavor to your loadout. These all come with powerful cooldown abilities unique to the specialist, but they don’t get out of control since the abilities aren’t constantly available. Using the Battery’s War Machine grenade launcher worked wonderfully on Hardpoint maps, where I could clean out an interior space with a few well-placed bomb barrages. These specialists feel like a great addition to the already tried-and-true systems at play here, enhancing the strong core multiplayer gameplay of the series. Additional customization options can be acquired at the Black Market with currency acquired through multiplayer, so the player has multiple reward feedback loops going on simultaneously, giving players plenty of reasons to keep coming back for more.

The new Zombies mode is the most interesting offering, which places up to four players in a co-op survival experience against a legion of zombies and other nasties in a wave-based trek through a fictional film-noir city. With smooth jazz tones and a unlockable city full of secrets, your cast of characters with checkered pasts come together to try to escape the nightmare by acquiring new guns and gumball-fueled powers as they use currency to unlock new areas of the city and buy new weapons. 

This mode pulls no punches and is unabashedly difficult, so while I’m sure that four-person raid teams will begin dissecting the content and blowing it out of the water on launch, it’s quite serviceable as a quick pick-up game. Players unlock new options slowly over time as they attempt to make it just a little bit farther each time. Hearing Nero (Jeff Goldblum) remark on the status of an octopus-beast-transformed teammate is amusing – even as your group is inevitably overrun by zombies, bugs, and other horrifying nightmare creatures. This mode features strong co-op elements and tons of personality, and is my favorite of everything Call of Duty: Black Ops III has to offer. Zombies should definitely be experienced with groups of players – it’s available to play solo, but I wouldn’t recommend it.

There are additional secret games and even an alternate campaign to discover and unlock as well in Black Ops III, which is packed with so many different things to do that whatever your playstyle, you’re going to have something fun to play solo or with friends.

Despite a campaign that struggles with occasional mundane shootouts that bring the out-of-this-world story down to earth, the overall Call of Duty: Black Ops III package is incredibly strong, with something for everyone. Whether you’re into traditional multiplayer mayhem or zombie survival, you’ve got lots of choices that are fun solo and even better with friends.

Disclosure: Gameplay impressions for this review occurred at an Activision review event.


The Current Gen Advantage
Some features of Call of Duty: Black Ops III are limited or omitted (You’ll miss out on the campaign entirely) in the last-gen PS3 and Xbox 360 versions of the game, so make sure you understand that before purchase.