Platforms: PC (reviewed), Xbox One, PS4

This review was written using pre-release review code provided by Treyarch

Few names in the gaming industry carry as much clout as Activision's venerable shooter franchise Call of Duty, especially when the name is followed by an additional two words: Black Ops. The Black Ops series, which serves as developer Treyarch's contribution to the overarching Call of Duty franchise, has only spanned two previous entries, but it's already as iconic (some might say more iconic) as the base Call of Duty brand.

With Call of Duty: Black Ops 3, Treyarch aims to follow in the footsteps of last year's Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare by bringing players into a future era which blends sci-fi and real-world elements. While, on the surface, Black Ops 3 may seem like a mere extension of Advanced Warfare's formula, Treyarch has worked hard to make sure that the similarities are only skin deep and that Black Ops 3 provides an even more dark and twisted journey than its two predecessors.

For the sake of clarity, this review will be split into separate parts which discuss its three core elements: the story campaign, the Shadows of Evil zombies experience, and the competitive multiplayer.

The Story Campaign

Black Ops 3's story campaign pulls the double duty of acting as both the game's core single-player and cooperative experience. For the first time in the series' history, players can create and customize their own protagonist and guide them through an action-packed narrative either solo or with up to three friends. The game's story, which touches on several surprisingly compelling themes such as the dangers of human-AI interfacing and the repercussions of events from past Black Ops games, is bolstered by solid performances from recognizable actors like Christopher Meloni and Katee Sackhoff. Black Ops fans who are hoping to see more of the series' darker, more twisted subject matter (including an appearance from a certain group of undead flesh-eaters) won't be disappointed either.

Each of the story campaign's levels have been designed with a party of players in mind (lots of open battle zones with multiple paths leading to the next checkpoint), though in-mission cinematics can feel a little awkward since only one copy of the main protagonist actually “exists” in the eyes of story NPC's. Some of the dialogue exchanges between the player's protagonist and their partner Hendricks also feel a bit hammy and over-the-top at times (lots of machismo yelling and whatnot), but the game's darker tone combined with your ability to create and customize your own protagonist are more than enough to help draw players in and keep them hooked.

Speaking of character creation, the mere fact that I was playing with a protagonist I had crafted myself had the surprising side-effect of making me more invested in Black Ops 3's campaign than any previous Call of Duty campaign before it, even if the character creation feature wasn't as robust as I would have liked (you pick your character's gender, head type and outfit, and that's about it). Treyarch also made it so that you can change all of these customization features whenever you visit your in-game safe house between missions, though, again, this can feel slightly goofy since your protagonist is technically always the same person (and yet major details like their face and gender can be swapped at will).

As for new gameplay features, the story campaign is bolstered by the inclusion of a dynamic new movement system (more on that later), two new HUD overlays (Tactical Vision and Enhanced Vision), and Cyber Cores which allow you to create a sort of “custom class” for your character. The three Cyber Core categories (Control, Chaos, and Martial) each contain six different abilities which allow you to approach combat encounters in different ways. They also help to bolster the cooperative element since a full team of players each sporting different Cyber Core powers is a truly awesome sight to behold. Players can also customize their standard weapon loadouts, picking which weapons, attachments, grenades, and tactical RIGs (passive powers like grenade deflection or a self-revive) they bring into battle.

Competitive Multiplayer

As engaging and fun as the story campaign is, the real meat of the Black Ops 3 experience is, unsurprisingly, found in its competitive multiplayer suite. Treyarch has done a great job of making the multiplayer more accessible through innovations like the new Freerun mode (a single-player series of time trials meant to acclimate players to the new acrobatic movement maneuvers) and the return of the “Pick 10” create-a-class system which balances freedom of choice with a smaller, more focused selection of different weapons, tactical tools, and perks.

Hardcore competitive players will find plenty of new features to love as well, including the optional eSports-oriented “Specialist Draft” and “Ban/Protect” systems which, when paired with the new roster of playable Specialists, make the competitive multiplayer function in a similar fashion to popular MOBA games like League of Legends. The Specialists themselves cover a wide range of playstyles, allowing players to pick a Specialist they feel is most suited for a given mode or simply pick the ones which are most aestheticly pleasing to them. Since each Specialist also has their own separate cosmetic unlock tree, there's also plenty of incentive to both try out different Specialists while also focusing on your favorites.

As for game modes, Black Ops 3 has plenty of familiar staples like Team Deathmatch, Search and Destroy, Hardpoint, Kill Confirmed, and Capture the Flag among others. Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare's Uplink mode also makes a return, and Black Ops 3 sees the debut of a brand new mode called Safeguard which tasks teams with taking turns defending and disabling a moving robot as it makes its way from one end of the map to the other.

Overall, I enjoyed my time with the many modes on offer in Black Ops 3, though I did notice that in certain modes (Safeguard and Hardpoint mainly) it's still a little too easy for one team to build up a significant advantage early on, making it virtually impossible for the opposing team to mount any sort of comeback. I was also disappointed to discover that many of the Specialist characters who were most aesthetically pleasing to me had to be unlocked first by reaching a rather high rank in the game's progression system. I understand this is meant to give more dedicated players something to work towards (and so newer players don't feel overwhelmed with choices), but it was still disheartening to realize I'd have to pour many hours into the game before the Specialists I really wanted to play as became available.

Shadows of Evil

Black Ops 3 just wouldn't be a Black Ops game without Zombies, and Treyarch has made sure to pull out all the stops for the newest Zombies experience, titled “Shadows of Evil.” In Shadows of Evil, players must battle hordes of zombies (and other horrifying creatures) while playing as a group of four characters: the dancer Jessica Rose (voiced by Heather Graham), the boxer Floyd Campbell (Ron Pearlman), the corrupt cop Jack Vincent (Neal McDonough), and the magician Nero (Jeff Goldblum).

In between rounds of zombie slaying, players must explore a sprawling locale called Morg City, utilize a special “Beast” power-up to find artifacts, and use those artifacts at hidden ritual sites in order to escape the city. To help battle the undead, players can use the points they earn from killing enemies and repairing barriers to purchase new firearms and special “Gobblegum” gumballs which grant temporary abilities and bonuses. While Shadows of Evil does technically have its own dedicated progression system, all you really unlock through play is new types of Gobblegum and “weapon kits” which let you cosmetically customize your Shadows of Evil weapons, making the progression feel mostly pointless.

Even though you can technically play Shadows of Evil by yourself, the mode's difficulty is clearly tuned for a full team of four players, and even then it's definitely no cakewalk. There is a certain thrill to be had in slowly piecing together just what exactly you have to do in order to escape the city, but it's also really hard to keep yourself motivated after making it to a very late stage in the game, having your group wiped out, and then having to start all over from the beginning. Combine that fact with the previously mentioned barebones progression system, and it's easy to see why only the most dedicated of Zombies fans will ever manage to escape Morg City.

Final Thoughts

As a complete package, Black Ops 3 has something for every kind of player, be they a competitive multiplayer enthusiast, a big-time Zombies fan, a solo gamer, or someone who just wants to play co-op with some friends. However, my one major gripe with the game is that all three of its central “pillars” (story campaign, Zombies, competitive multiplayer) felt like it had something missing.

The story campaign is great to play through once or twice, but its trimmed down progression track and somewhat shallow character creation system give it a much shorter shelf life for more casual players. Shadows of Evil has a great aesthetic and it can be a blast to play with friends, but unless you care greatly about min/maxing your Gobblegum loadout or blasting zombies with cosmetically customized guns, there's virtually no incentive to keep playing over the long term. The competitive multiplayer has a ton of variety when it comes to game modes, Specialists, weapon loadouts, and unlocks, but no amount of new features can change the fact that you'll likely be spending a lot more time suffering through strings of frustrating losses than you will pulling off decisive victories.

Many of the above complaints stem from my own personal tastes however, and I'm sure that if you enjoyed past Call of Duty games (especially the two previous Black Ops games), you'll find a lot to love in Black Ops 3. Treyarch's latest endeavor may not be the Call of Duty game of my dreams, but that doesn't change the fact that the studio has put a ton of effort into making it feel familiar, fresh and fun, and it definitely shows in all three of those regards.