It's easy to be cynical about Call of Duty: the first-person shooter franchise has become the very epitome of the modern games industry. Its annual arrival in the run-up to Christmas is as proverbially inevitable as death and, in this day and age, far more so than taxes. The debate about how long a yearly franchise can possibly last before the public loses interest has raged around Call of Duty for years, yet it rumbles on oblivious, generating vast amounts of cash for publisher Activision.
Once again, Black Ops 3 - perhaps better known as BLOPS - is officially the year's biggest entertainment launch, bringing in $550 million in global sales in the space of just three days. But setting all that aside, is it any good as a game?
To be fair to Activision, it has worked assiduously to preserve Call of Duty's exalted position in the games market: whereas once, two developers alternated on a tight two-year schedule, three now share the load. Treyarch, which made Black Ops 3, is generally regarded as the best of that bunch, and that extra development year ought to make a significant amount of difference.
Not that "difference" is generally a word you would associate with Call of Duty games – why change a winning formula? However, Treyarch has done its best to differentiate BLOPS3 from its predecessors. It is set in 2065, in a dystopian yet still recognisable world in which cyber-implants have become commonplace and, in a narrative initiated by Black Ops 2, private military companies hold sway.
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CoD Black Ops 3 review: Futuristic twists
For once, you can choose to control a female character (in addition to the male option), and a brief prologue sees you having various limbs ripped off by a robot, after which you re-emerge as a cyborg soldier, working for an alliance of nations called the Winslow Accord. You're equipped with a so-called DNI, which lets you interface with machines and brings a raft of abilities such as seeing enemies highlighted in orange, taking control of enemy turrets and mechs, temporarily crippling robots and cyborgs plus much more.
As you progress, you earn points to add and upgrade such Cybercore abilities (there are three separate progression trees), and working out which ones best suit different situations goes a long way towards creating the impression that Black Ops 3 isn't just the same old Call of Duty in new clothes. Plus your cyborg nature brings enhanced mobility, including wall-running, huge jumps and devastating melee attacks, all of which carry over from the campaign into the multiplayer. And feel a bit Titanfall-esque.
Black Ops 3's single-player storyline is a bit of an odd one, frankly. It kicks off in a pretty surreal manner, as you re-run a simulation of an attack, and towards the end of the narrative it goes completely off the rails. The general theme of artificially intelligent brain implants that run amok, creating a discontinuity between what is real and imagined, is flogged to death.
There are plenty of memorable sequences – for example, when you take on hordes of robots whose power cores you can rip out and use as grenades that temporarily halt the advances of the others – and some decent boss battles. But for our tastes, it all gets a bit too metaphysical and self-consciously weird at times. However, at least you won't mistake it for the campaign of any other Call of Duty game, and it's much longer than recent peremptory efforts.
Call of Duty BLOPS3 review: Multiplayer change-up
But there's no doubt that the core of any Call of Duty game these days is its multiplayer, and that's where Black Ops 3 scores highly – although die-hard traditionalists may disagree. The enhanced movement (everyone has rocket-jump-style thrusters) adds a fresh new dimension to the otherwise familiar gameplay. However, this new freedom of movement reportedly hasn't gone down brilliantly with semi-pro players who hate seeing anything new in CoD's multiplayer – and especially those who like to camp out and snipe.
Now you really have to master the knee-slides, wall-runs and mantles in order to prosper, and the online battles become considerably more spectacular as a result. You can choose a specialist ability, most of which are defensive rather than offensive, and the popular Pick-10 weapon enhancement system is back. In our book, that all works in Black Ops 3's favour. Overall, we reckon Treyarch has got the crucial multiplayer side of the game absolutely spot-on.
The most popular modes like Team Deathmatch and Capture The Flag are present and correct, along with an intriguing new one called Uplink, which resembles heavily armed basketball. Kill Confirmed, which is essentially Team Deathmatch except dead soldiers leave dog tags behind which can be collected, should prove popular with those feeling their way in Black Ops 3's multiplayer, as it lets you feed off the spectacular gunplay of others.
And there's more: the glorious Zombie mode, in which you survive as long as possible against waves of zombified assailants, opening up new play-areas as you go along, is back, and better than ever before. It has two storylines, both with a satisfyingly louche 1940s ambience, and in one you can briefly transform into a bizarre glowing octopus-like monster in order to acquire hidden items. Zombies is fantastically addictive, and adds a real meatiness to BLOPS3 even if you find the multiplayer side of the game a bit overwhelming.
With Black Ops 3, developer Treyarch has done a pretty good job of arresting the perception that Call of Duty is a franchise which is running out of ideas and approaching the end of its natural life.
The campaign and multiplayer elements feel fresher and more original than we expected – although the storyline tries a bit too hard at times – and the Zombies addition is simply irresistible.
Whether the other two CoD developers will continue the momentum remains to be seen. But for now Call of Duty still has the chops to take on the cynics predicting its demise – even if it couldn't be called the most original game ever.