Call of Duty Black Ops III Review: 9/11's fears in 2054's skin

Black Ops III tries something different, but it's wrong headed approach ruins otherwise strong context.

As Call of Duty: Black Ops III falls into a bizarre, experimental sequence of mental instability – whereby a soldier is overcome by the faulty AI programming of his bio augmentation - it's hampered by the lone method of interactivity: shooting things. A soldier shoots at his delusions. A sensible solution is to spray the apparitions with bullets until they go away. Call of Duty knows no other solution from within in the usual rah-rah jingoism – there are no problems an American combatant cannot solve when firing ammunition.

Black Ops III appears convinced any tale can fit within the series' staid gun game origins. Weapons are a forever solution to mental illness as much as they are a rogue robot apocalypse. Despite building initial fear for machines who can rip off limbs, they turn into readily discarded targets by the hundreds later. 'Bots appear without tension after the unnamed player character becomes a generation's RoboCop (or RoboSoldier) in a search for clues.

Everything must be approached in a blockbuster, low attention span theater way.

Clues mean torture, which is okay because the results lead to more shoot-outs. In trying to convince an audience that torture is reasonable, dialog piles on eye-rolling commentary: “Besides, he's an f'n terrorist,” seconds before hemorrhaging the victim's brain. Everything must be approached in a blockbuster, low attention span theater way. Black Ops III turns itself sideways trying to expose the possible cost of not torturing – the loss of 300,000 people in a cataclysmic explosion could have been stopped if only we suffocated more people beforehand. 

Fear still works, only now instead of an inconvenience at the airport, people are paying $60 for the privilege of seeing their fears justified.

Info Wars

Black Ops III sways in allegiance for Edward Snowden-esque information leaks, but even if the CIA in 2054 is corrupt, guns will still save us all. The robbery of personal information is for safety, of course. The introduction of a central server process, DNI, pulls everyone together. They can share thoughts and those thoughts can be used for conviction without trial, a depiction of the cloud without reasonable oversight. Black Ops III is a world where 9/11's trauma has created connectivity is so great; there is no hope of ever escaping. Even in this 2054, 9/11's historical remnants still impact society's functions.

For the first act, Black Ops III keeps its quirks (explosions and this time, an unusual favoritism for burning, crumbling buildings) but swells with a multitude of potentially clever observations. It's being smart for its kind. This is unusual for a series which has recently put American soldiers in space station shoot outs and thought nothing of it. There is a smugness to the militaristic power on display and value in how people are exploited for a false idea of security.

The Frozen Forest and Why it Won't Let it Go

Then it descends into nonsense (still accompanied by collapsing buildings), bundled with languid voice performances and closing chapters so bonkers and repetitious as to leave any parable behind. Surreal imagery replaces bloated (if scenic) displays of metal-on-metal chaos. Paranoia becomes represented by flashing images of crows and enemies who dissipate into dust. A rogue AI scatters images of “the frozen forest,” a term meme-worthy in its saturation. Flashbacks ooze into World War II battlefields, hallucinations integrate a fragment of zombie play as a franchise in-joke. At some point there's a crying baby, a point of no return for Black Ops III's initial, promising attempts to legitimize blockbuster entertainment.

Treyarch's storytellers appear bewildered by the possibility of having social impact, or maybe there is market pressure against doing the same whether or not the same could deliver a thing of consequence. Make it new, fresh, even if the result is a tumbling narrative calamity. The shift to the surreal feels reckless after immediately establishing a plausible global scenario rocked by overpopulation and dynamic weather events.

Black Ops III is the result of letting the technology go wild without considering consequence, oddly what happens to the narrative as a whole.

With this background, a population needing bio augmentation and brain-infused Wi-Fi seems less preposterous. The internet became an escape hatch from reality in this world. Black Ops III is the result of letting the technology go wild without considering consequence, oddly what happens to the narrative as a whole. Too many of the plotting devices flash by – terrorists groups, rebels, government pacts, corporations, places; Black Ops III assumes we live in 2054, and this is all contextually normal.

Campaigns on the Defensive

It's naive – even defeatist – to think none of this should matter. Campaigns host the medium's power. Showy multiplayer won't take video games anywhere other than stadiums, plastered with corporate sponsorships. Certainly not this competitive play, with stiff unlock methods and a continuation of a personal power fantasy; the series remains about defining one's own self-worth with decorated guns and logos.

Call of Duty grows sedate as the overwhelming sea of first-person shooters grabs at the same core demographic. In some way, the process has reversed as Call of Duty soaks up knowledge from Titanfall and others. Black Ops is bloodier, though foolish in assuming that adds more impact. What Activision's behemoth needs is sensible traversal – a jet pack boost allows for brief upward thrust, yet artificial walls prevent access to the interesting portions of the maps.

If the whole of Black Ops III is reminiscent of anything specific, it's the vastly under-appreciated PlayStation 3 exclusive Haze. The latest Call of Duty makes passing references to injected medications, the core of Haze's voracious anti-propaganda nightmare. Visions and other kooky happenings make call backs too, albeit prettier with the advance in hardware strength. But Haze did it better, chunky as it was to play. There was more purpose, more clarity, and a heart of machismo. Black Ops III just wants to be a story about guns in spite of everything else.

Our Rating
Black Ops III tries something different, but it's wrong headed approach ruins otherwise strong context.
Reviewed On: Playstation 4

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Freelance critic seen on Playboy, GameSkinny, and others. Passionate vintage game collector. Fervent physical media supporter and consumerism devotee.

Published Nov. 9th 2015

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