The story mode of “Black Ops 3” follows an unnamed CIA operative in 2065 who’s maimed on a covert mission to free a foreign minister from an Ethiopian military base. The only option for saving his life is robotic reconstruction, which leaves him with a spinal implant that connects him to a massive computer network that allows his vision to be filled with a variety of augmented reality information. Icons disclosing location and weapon types hang above enemies’ heads like ripe fruit, while a colored grid is overlaid on the ground to indicate where he’ll be most vulnerable to enemy fire.
After being reconstructed, he’s sent out to investigate a top secret CIA site in a quarantined part of Singapore and discovers that the operative (voiced by Christopher Meloni) who saved his life in Ethiopia has apparently gone rogue and killed a number of test subjects in pursuit of a mysterious place called the “frozen forest.”
The 11 missions that play this story out can be unlocked from the start and played in any order. Though conceived of as a linear chain of events, I took Treyarch up on its offer to play in any order I wanted. I started with the game’s ending and worked my way back toward the introductory tutorial mission that’s meant to set everything in motion.
Beginning with the final answers to the game’s questions about rogue operatives and the “frozen forest” put them in the best possible light. Unlike last year’s “Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare,” which told a tedious parable about a private military corporation trying to profit from endless war, “Black Ops 3” dives into the metaphysics of paranoia. The game’s plot builds around the artificial intelligence which controls the CIA operatives with spinal implants. It is a conspiratorial vehicle under no one’s control.
As the plot nears conclusion, reality dissolves into a series of hallucinatory visions, attributable either to our protagonist losing his mind or glitches in his spinal implant. In “Black Ops 3,” saving the world depends on trying to tell the difference between the two. Is the world crazy, or am I? As long as there’s nothing to do but shoot, both possibilities lead back to the same maddening outcome.
The game’s competitive multiplayer mode feels like it’s been pulled out of a completely separate universe. In the first few games of the series, multiplayer was built around open and ponderous spaces which encouraged patience and tactical positioning, but 2007’s “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare” radically rewrote this formula by shrinking levels and adding a massive leveling system that inched players toward new ranks and abilities with each kill.
“Black Ops 3” offers the deepest and most complex version of this system, with players sprinting in laps through cramped levels engaging in split-second duels slowly filling up their XP bars to get another unlock key or gun scope. Most levels have been designed around three parallel lanes with nooks and connecting paths that add a maze-like level of complexity. Players can wall run across open gaps and double jump to reach rooftops.
Playing feels like surviving a series of micro-shocks — a jolt of opportunistic alarm arising when you see another player, snap your gun into aim mode, attempt to keep them in your sites and get off enough shots to kill them before they can do the same to you — all of which can take place in about a second.
To this formula, “Black Ops 3” introduces new superpowers tied to a handful of personas, which increase over time and can typically be used one or two times during a match. One character can perform a giant ground slam that kills anyone around him, another can generate a number of identical clones to soak up bullets, and another gets a grenade launcher that rapidly shoots out bouncing explosives for a short period of time. There are so many abilities, upgrades, and bonuses in the multiplayer economy that the addition of a few dramatically animated powers only underscores how superfluous and wasteful most of the items and abilities are.
Alongside the main story and competitive multiplayer, “Black Ops 3” is overflowing with pastimes and distractions, each with their own separate upgrade economy. There’s a wave-based survival mode that drops players into a neon noir metropolis, where they earn points by shooting zombies. There’s a freerun obstacle course mode that encourages players to master wall running while shooting. There’s a hidden arcade game in the story mode, and after finishing the story a new mode called Nightmares opens, telling an entirely new story about a zombie outbreak using the same levels and settings from the main campaign with new enemies.
The only thing these disparate pieces have in common is a frantic sense of movement that’s rhythmically punctuated by gunfire, and, after a while, the game begins to feel like a carnival of guns. In a way, “Black Ops 3’s” landscape of weaponry and corpses and layers of upgrades and economics signal the game’s disposability, something meant as kindling in a bonfire of collective obsession and forgetting. Nothing this big and loud is meant to last, but nothing meant to last could bring this many people together.
Michael Thomsen is a writer in New York. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Slate, The New Republic, The Daily Beast, The New Inquiry, Kill Screen, Edge, and Gamasutra. Follow him on Twitter @mike_thomsen.
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