Screenshot: News Ledge

I’d never played a Call of Duty game until yesterday. It seems about right that the only way to get me to play it was for it to be free. Even then, however, I couldn’t play more than two or three hours of the main campaign.

It’s not as if the game is poorly designed. There are these huge, elaborate setpieces with explosions and helicopters and tanks (oh my!), and while “grab gun; shoot guys” is the main go-to, you’re gradually introduced to different specials you can pull off such as hacking robots to use or just explode, an attack that destroys everything within a certain radius of you (much like a special in Splatoon), and releasing nanobots that go around killing enemies. You can also run across walls and punch robots!

And even at its grittiest, the world here is strikingly beautiful. The train especially has all of these surprisingly colorful lights, with the skyline of buildings towering over it. And when you go above it in all of the billowing snow, it’s really a sight to behold. The facial animations are equally impressive, possibly being the best I’ve seen outside of cutscenes. And the way the controller rumbles when you’re shooting a gun makes you feel the impact.

So, why don’t I like this game again? Above all else, it’s the pacing. From what I’ve played, Call of Duty seems terrified to put you in any sequence where there isn’t constant action, and thus gives you no time to breathe or take in your surroundings. You know how I heaped praise on some of the game’s environments? You’re rushed through each and every one of them.

From what I played of the game, most of it seems to take place inside a simulation, although a lot of it is lost on me, possibly because I haven’t played the previous two games in the series. You’re tasked with going back through records (but somehow still beating up dudes in them?) and discovering how a terrorist group managed to explode a train carrying civilians and cutting-edge AI technology. It’s weird, and I definitely got the impression that the story was almost meant to be brushed aside.

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In-game characters are keen to always heap praise in your ear with many expletives, and this combined with mowing down legions of enemies attempts to create a somewhat uncomfortable power fantasy for the player. Whereas in The Last of Us you saw the effect this violence had on Joel, Ellie, and others, in Call of Duty, there’s a consistent fist-pumping, hollering and joking vibe that creates dissonance with the vivid war imagery. I won’t claim that Call of Duty is inherently immoral if you’re mature enough to be aware of this, nor am I saying that every shooter even should be brooding and serious, but it made me roll my eyes more than a few times.

I should also mention that I was playing through the entire game on the easiest setting, as I 1) suck at shooters and 2) didn’t want to spend too much time in any one battle. It’s possible that this messed with the game’s pacing, but I doubt it. Regardless of how fast it takes for you to clear a room, the next room is guaranteed to just have more enemies in it. Granted, I didn’t expect nuanced conversations with complex characters to be a main feature of Call of Duty, but I would have appreciated something, anything, to break up the constant string of battles, whether that be a puzzle, the aforementioned conversation, or at least a freaking hallway where you can spend five seconds not shooting something. After a while, doing the same thing over and over again just gets draining.

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Call of Duty: Black Ops III is available for free through PS+ for the rest of today, because I can’t seem to stop reviewing free games.