This week, Zero Punctuation reviews Call of Duty: Black Ops 3.
Another year, another round of spunk to the gargle to the wee to the other wee. I can't help wondering if the Call of Duty people are losing their fiery, psychopathic, second-amendment drive now that they've been painting by the numbers for so long. I mean, Black Ops 3 is yet another string of barely-connected shootouts in various global locations, but it can't even summon the effort to be particularly racist.
Yeah, the heroes are all burly Americans who shout too much and there's a rather laughable character-customization menu wherein you pick from nine very, very slight variants on the same gormless white person, like you're trying to use Tinder in the middle of rural Kansas. But half the time you're fighting killer robots. That's not racist at all! Or give it about thirty years, and maybe it will be seen as insensitive towards AI-Americans who don't have the privilege of having been born rather than procedurally generated, but what bothers me is: why is it still called Black Ops? Deniability was always kind of a tall order when we were murdering roughly the entire cast of an early Charlton Heston film, but why do we need deniability to massacre killer robots? Who are you afraid of offending, the fucking smoothie maker?
Anyway, Black Ops 3 opens with our burly American heroes doing what they do best: widdling all over the sovereignty of an unstable foreign nation. Events unfold fairly predictably from there until the end of the prologue, when our hero gets torn up a treat and has to get cyber-augmented, which raises the usual slew of complex philosophical questions such as, "Isn't this blatantly the same plot as Advanced Warfare?" Except they couldn't get Kevin Spacey, so they got Robert Picardo instead, the next name on the smart-but-faintly-sinister-balding-corporate-types list. In fairness though, the plot gets bored of ripping off Advanced Warfare after a while and rips off Black Ops 1 instead, fucking about with brainwashing and altered perceptions, but with a kooky sci-fi twist.
Also the world-building is for dog shit. Exposition's always bad in Call of Duty since they routinely cut any scene that couldn't have a gun battle in it, but it feels worse than usual since among other reasons, I never figured out what the fuck branch of the military we were supposed to be part of. We do stuff for the CIA, but I think we were just seconded to them. And come to think of it, the enemy's just this nebulous, loose organization of quote "bad guys". The dialogue keeps throwing mysterious names and acronyms at me like a tech nerd trying to intimidate someone at a dinner party: "The CIA are compromised by the NRC in the CDP and they got a PAWS, what are you gonna do about it?" Find a glossary, apparently.
But fuck world-building as long as the characters are solid, and on that note, why are female soldiers always no-nonsense snipers? Says something about the writer I think, if they perceive women as mostly poking holes in things from a very long distance away. This game's no-nonsense sniper lady becomes a love interest eventually, the writer perhaps having heard that a romance is more satisfying if it occurs despite adversity, and I suppose a total lack of chemistry whatsoever could technically count as adversity. Besides everything else, I'm not sure I could ever fall in love with someone who responds to a grenade landing in her lap by staring at it until it explodes. I mean, I'm not sure I could leave her alone with the children. And a relationship should be give-and-take, so when she took no damage whatsoever, I wondered why she even needed me around.
Did you notice how I seamlessly transitioned there from criticizing the story to the AI? This is what earns me the big bucks. So I guess we're on the subject of technicals now, which is a shame, 'cause I'd have loved to mention that the main character's voice acting sounds like he's delivering it through a used teabag, but hey ho. Obviously your robot body has some special powers, wouldn't be much use otherwise, except for more efficiently setting off the elevator weight limit alarm.
For example, the tutorial shows you how to run along a wall. What it doesn't explain, of course, is that you can't do it outside the tutorial until you unlock the right bumper sticker to put across your chrome metallic buttocks, which led to some rather embarrassing moments when I hurled myself at a wall to follow my colleague and bounced gracefully off it into a skip.
There are also special combat powers, somewhat reminiscent of Syndicate, that's Syndicate Syndicate, not the Assassin's Creed Syndicate, and remake Syndicate Syndicate, as opposed to original Syndicate Syndicate. You point your magic gun-fingers and enemies get fucked up, but a lot of the available cyber-powers seem to be variations on a theme of 'make varying numbers of enemies stop shooting you for a bit', which all feels like a bit of a faff when you could just use the power that shoots killer cyber-bees out of your mouth, which makes several enemies stop shooting you for a bit and then obligingly die after a little song-and-dance routine.
The cyber-powers feel a little bit half-arsed, because a lot of them are marginally less useful than just firing a bunch of bullets at the thing you're already pointing at. It's not like there's any shortage of bullets, now every single gun uses the same type of ammo and resupply boxes are installed by all the fire extinguishers.
But if there's any half-arsedness about the main campaign, it's probably because going by the range of alternative game modes available, the Black Ops dev team have the attention span of a moth at a fireworks display. The weirdly elaborate zombie mode is now a given and has only gotten weirder and more elaborate, to the point that they actually hired Ron Perlman and Jeff Goldblum to be in it, which makes it all the more baffling that the protagonist of the main campaign had to make do with a random person they picked up from the bus shelter outside a brain-hemorrhage clinic. On top of that, there's a free-running race mode now as well, which is the most pointless feature of the lot because like most modern FPSes, your character runs like he's got his trousers around his ankles. "Fine," says the game, "Fuck me for trying, here's some more zombies, you sheep."
There's a second zombie mode where you play alternate versions of the campaign missions with zombies in. Props for including it as standard rather than flogging it separately six months down the line Red Dead Redemption-style, but if people are unwilling to go ten fucking minutes without fighting a zombie and refuse to take a job as an orderly at an retirement hospice, then it's on them to expand their fucking comfort zone. It's not helping to stick zombie modes in everything from games to classic literature, as one would add a subtitle option for the hearing-impaired.
One last point: you know I'm a placid, easy-going, kind-hearted, saintly sort of fellow, shut the fuck up, so I don't really care if a game's running in 30 or 60 FPS as long as I can see where the places to put the bullets are. It does, however, bother me when it keeps switching back and forth between 30 and 60 FPS as the in-engine cutscenes come and go; kinda breaks my immersion after we kick the door down and suddenly break pads are digging into my eyeballs. This was on the console version; I understand the framerate's a little bit more flexible on the PC port, so much so that they decide it with a random number generator, ha ha.
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