McMillan’s Codex #17 By Charles McMillan
Call of Duty: Black Ops 3
When judging a series, we almost never consider the whole. We pick out the installments we find exceptional, and discarding the rest. Everyone says the Godfather movies are fantastic, but Part 2 will always be better than the first, and Part 3 is so bad most people politely pretend it doesn’t exist. The cultural significance of Star Wars needs no introduction, yet the entire prequel-half of the saga is given little to no regard when measured against the original trilogy.
The same could be said about video games where any Silent Hill game after 3 is considered refuse, and Call of Duty is no different. Since Modern Warfare 2, the franchise has struggled to find it’s footing and stay fresh. Standing apart from the core, however, the Black Ops games have explored broader themes in story over gameplay. Black Ops 3 is the most unique, but it is inevitably subject to comparison with the previous two.
Describing gameplay in any Call of Duty game is redundant because they are so simple. You point and shoot at whatever you want to die, follow the waypoint to where the game needs you to go, and press a bottom prompt that appears on screen. Advanced Warfare was the first to introduce mechanics centered on the exo-suit, a mechanical apparatus that gave users enhanced speed and strength. In the grand scheme of things, the change was nothing special, but it indeed shook up the formula of a very standard series.
Like the former, Black Ops 3’s additions were also done in other games like Deus Ex and Crackdown. One of these changes is the Cyber Core, special attacks and enhancements you can perform in gameplay. They include the ability to hack robot enemies, explode grenades, and unleash a flurry of nano drones. The abilities are tailored to suit whatever play style the player desires. Martial enhancements make you a better fighter, while Chaos is for group-oriented damage, and Control is exactly that. The Cyber Core adds a new dimension to gameplay that helps set it apart and keep it within the game’s cyber-punk feel.
The aesthetic was the main draw for me when I saw the first trailer. Cyber-punk has always interested me. Its basic incarnation is a near-dystopia where technology has taken over all facets of life. A strong bleak tone permeates throughout many stories of the genre. Black Ops 3 images a world where over population and worsening weather conditions have wreaked havoc on the planet and its people, not to mention countless wars your character has a hand in fighting. It presents a setting where cyborg-soldiers and drone warfare is necessary in combatting new threats that rise from the chaos.
One of these technologies is the direct neural interface (DNI), an implant in your character’s brain that allows you remote access to information, computers, and the Cyber Core. It is also the basis for the game’s strange and rather peculiar story that many traditional players will find disconcerting. Further explanation requires spoilers, so please skip to the third-to-last paragraph if you do not want to find out what happens.
The DNI is essentially an open port to the user’s memories, vision, and emotions. After an Operator team goes missing and sensitive CIA intelligence leaks to the world, you find out the team’s members were infected with a false-memory virus, a trope in cyber-punk that makes people forget or remember things that may or may never have happened. The game cleverly associates the phenomenon with PTSD.
The virus developed by accident during CIA-sponsored human experiments that would lead to the creation of the DNI. The subjects were linked to the laboratory’s artificial intelligence, which evolved to a self destructive state that not only destroyed the lab, but a large portion of Singapore. One component of the AI’s delusion is the concept of the Frozen Forest, a mythical place that those infected are constantly seeking. In reality, it was an element of hypnosis that a therapist in the lab used on the subjects to keep them relaxed. The subjects’ anguish and the AI’s naiveté formed the basis of the false memory virus.
Infected characters are faced with the constant realization they have done wrong, used by governments agencies and companies to kill and spread chaos. It opens their eyes to the truth while presenting a seemingly unattainable solution to coping with their anxiety. It makes for some interesting and strange moments where characters and the player hallucinate being in the Forest or a delusion created by the AI. They come to obsess over it, asking each other if they know what it means as they drive themselves toward oblivion. Strange does not begin to describe how the story turns out and for a Call of Duty game, it is more than welcome.
Stacked up against the rest of Black Ops, 3 has more in common with the first game in that its plot is linear. The only real agency the player has to affect the narrative is your choice of character gender. It is an interesting addition, but the lack of real involvement in how the story turns out was disappointing. I would assume the developers took to heart what they learned in the second game with choice and apply it better in the follow up. It would have set it more apart from Call of Duty and bring it into a realm of its own.
Another issue I find is that the world is never entirely fleshed out. The most you get is at the very beginning in the form of a montage of faux-news broadcasts talking about various crisies. There are no real visuals that tell you the history of the world or the state of its nations, which ought to play a big part when you are a clandestine wet-works team of the CIA. You are forced to make your own assumptions and I fear many players will not understand what is going on if they are not already familiar with the cyber-punk genre.
On the fact it is the most otherworldly of the series, Black Ops 3 succeeds. Though not wholly original, the game is original in the context of Call of Duty, and strives to be as different as possible from the mainstream and achieves that in most unique way possible. If you are a fan of the series, prepare yourself for something unlike other.
Still, I wish the element of choice translated more to how the story played out.