By Jonathon Dornbush
Updated November 06, 2015 at 10:14 PM EST

There are only a few absolutes in life: death, taxes, and an annual Call of Duty. Yes, the franchise has been coming out like clockwork every year for over a decade. And while game developer Treyarch was developing what were once considered the “down” year entries, the studio has made its mark with the beloved Black Ops strain of the franchise. The studio returns with Call of Duty: Black Ops III, which sets the series in the near future at a time when humans and machines have become more intertwined than ever.

Warfare is largely fought by drones and covert human operations, including a class of hybrid super-soldiers. The game’s campaign stars Christopher Meloni and Katee Sackhoff, while the return of the Zombies mode features the likes of Jeff Goldblum, Ron Perlman, and more.

And of course, multiplayer returns with a new set of tweaks, the biggest of which includes a set of “Specialist” characters, each with their own unique weapons and abilities, from which players choose.

So do the new story, spin on the beloved Zombies mode, and multiplayer advances all make for a better experience? Or does the third in the series fail to live up to the Black Ops name? Read on below for a host of opinions from critics around the world.

“Without getting into spoilers, I’ll say that Black Ops 3 didn’t spend enough time making me care about its characters before it tried to cash them in for an emotional payoff. It’s disappointing, because Black Ops 3 begins to explore some genuinely interesting and taboo topics: What happens when people no longer own their thoughts, or when they don’t receive the mental health care they need? The answer: Kill more robots!”

“Any sense of continuation in the multiplayer, of maintaining a familiar franchise balance, evaporates completely in Black Ops III’s new Zombies map, Shadows of Evil. Imagine a fictional city in the 1940s populated by Cthulhu monsters and slipspace portals. The four characters — played by Jeff Goldblum, Ron Perlman, Heather Graham, and Neal McDonough — round out a hardboiled cast straight from the noir novels of Raymond Chandler. Picture them firing augmented weapons into a crowd of shambling corpses to the sound of a languid alto saxophone. Make no mistake: This new take on Zombies is bizarre. It’s also fantastic.”

“Multiplayer is more than player models and unlocks, though. The map quality in Black Ops III also feels a little off. You can boost jumps, climb up, and run on walls, but where you can get to feels incredibly inconsistent. Invisible walls prevent you from getting on rooftops that you can easily reach with a good jump. It looks like you should be able to stand up on some surfaces and take aim at fools below, but you can’t. Wallrunning is easy, and many of the maps have shortcuts that require you to chain a few runs together while trying not to fall to your death. You can also run on any wall… within reason. It seems like some walls that are above doors and some other surfaces that look like you should be able to run on them are, for whatever reason, off limits. Meanwhile you can run on the sides of trees and other smaller surfaces that don’t seem like they should be “runnable” surfaces. The whole thing makes the tools you have at your disposal feel unreliable because the rules feel like they’re applied inconsistently, and that’s frustrating.”

“This new release is the first Call of Duty to feature a playable female protagonist, on top of two badass female specialists, Seraph and Outrider. Seraph is a personal favorite for stacking score streaks and landing quick kills using her special weapon, the Annihilator, and her combat focus ability. All nine specialists have their own unique strengths and weaknesses, and it will take a few matches on the 12 different maps to decide which one works best for your playstyle.”

“Naturally, competitive multiplayer is where Black Ops 3 is at its most expressive and enjoyable. The new Specialist abilities — temporary power-ups like a short-range teleport and cluster grenade launcher — fold in nicely with the Pick 10 loadout and scorestreaks, providing ample opportunities for you to define your own play-style. And like scorestreaks, these abilities unlock as you fight, creating gleeful moments of unfair advantage that offer a brief rush of power, without disrupting the flow of the match.”

“One of the most interesting aspects of the future setting, though, is that some of the levels are set in the virtual realm. While you can still die and have to restart from a checkpoint, these virtual levels make it so that nearly anything and everything are possible, like the inclusion of zombies for the first time in a main campaign, and even a return to Treyarch’s roots a bit with a World War II simulation that will blow your mind, all while still finding a way to progress the story.”

“Players can also choose to control one of nine specialists, each with their own unique look and ability, such as shields, teleportation and compound arrows.

“Replacing the generic soldier archetypes from past games, the Specialists have a bit more personality about them, and the option to equip different abilities is a clever way of masking some of your deficiencies.”

“But the reality is that the abilities of each character are used so sparingly that they don’t really nudge the equation in any particular direction moment to moment. Sure, they can be good for a few kills. But in a game with as punishing a time-to-death counter as exists in the multiplayer space, they’re not, if you’ll pardon the expression, especially game-changing.

“I didn’t find the minimal importance of character classes a deal-breaker, because that’s not really what Call of Duty is about. The series since Modern Warfare has always been about granular character customization rather than emphasizing specific power moves from any one kind of character, and that customization is still present. The character system itself feels half-baked. It functions — it just doesn’t seem to matter.”

The new Zombies mode is the most interesting offering, which places up to four players in a co-op survival experience against a legion of zombies and other nasties in a wave-based trek through a fictional film-noir city. With smooth jazz tones and a unlockable city full of secrets, your cast of characters with checkered pasts come together to try to escape the nightmare by acquiring new guns and gumball-fueled powers as they use currency to unlock new areas of the city and buy new weapons. ”

“Best of all, though, is the option to play the included missions in any order you wish, mercifully ridding yourself of any pressure to stay abreast of the story. It’s an idea that more games that come equipped with co-op options should think about embracing as it rids groups of friends of having to match each other stride for stride in order to play a certain mission together. I might not have played the campaign at all, whereas you might have finished it, but that doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy one of the better late missions together.”

Call of Duty: Black Ops III is now available for the PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, and Windows PC. (Note: The single-player the campaign is not included in the 360 and PS3 versions.)

Call of Duty: Black Ops III

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