Halfway through the Call Of Duty: Black Ops III campaign, your gruff partner Hendricks—a fellow CIA operative—gestures to some impossibly vast chasm in the foreground. “You know what they say about staring into the abyss…” he says shortly after expressing doubts about your assigned mission.
Why, yes, Mr. Soldier Man, I do know what “they” say. It’s a famous line from German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who warned that one could become a monster by fighting them (“for when you gaze long into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you”). It was an impressive reference, but that self-awareness disappeared a few scenes later, leaving your character and Kendrick to spout off brain-dead action hero boilerplate lines, like “Let’s do what we do best: kill bad guys,” before coolly striding toward your umpteenth firefight against armed terrorists and killer robots.
Being of two minds—one clever, one really dumb—is part of the DNA behind developer Treyarch’s takes on Call Of Duty. This sequel pushes that philosophy to ridiculous new extremes. To be clear, the thing we call Black Ops III is a grab bag of several games under the same bloated tent—a single-player story, a coda to the story that adds zombies, competitive multiplayer, parkour-based time trials, a wave-based survival mode, an H.P. Lovecraft meets film noir cooperative zombie-slaying mode, and, hey, is that Jeff Goldblum playing a murderous magician? In one game type, you might be defying gravity by sprinting along walls in a virtual-reality simulation. In the next, you’re activating a magical talisman and tossing lightning at the undead as Cthulhu incarnate. Much of it is certainly entertaining—especially the ever-trusty six-on-six multiplayer modes—even if there’s very little connective tissue beyond a certain breed of run-and-gun action and a love for unlocking minor upgrades.
At least there’s a self-contained logic in many of these modes: Shoot the other team for points; avoid the zombies; don’t fall off the cliff. The campaign, on the other hand, treats logic like the CIA treats its employees—something to be used, manipulated, or destroyed at will. It’s the year 2065, and you’re a bland military badass reborn as a cyborg after being brutalized by a killer robot. Five years later, you’ve become part of a covert black ops team betrayed from within while investigating a top-secret research facility. What should be a simple globetrotting game of cat-and-mouse is complicated by, oh well, let’s see: a Singapore gang called the 54 Immortals, the Egyptian army, climate change-ravaged weather, lab experiments gone wrong, an evil AI, Russians from World War II, direwolves that turn into flocks of crows when you shoot them, and—what the hell is this story exactly?
To its credit, Black Ops III also contains a messy, chaotic tale of technophobia. It presents an alternative view of the future that suggests what would happen if we grant computers and artificial intelligence an even bigger role in our lives. It also offers up a clue to why we might want to allow that in the first place. Flesh is ripped and blood is spilled easily and often (watching your limbs get ripped off like stalks of celery by a robot is just the first in a long line of gratuitous scenes of body horror) while bullets and shrapnel are shrugged off by metal limbs. Cybernetics grant you various superpowers like the ability to hack into robots or emit an invisible shockwave that causes enemy troops to double over and vomit while you easily dispatch them. Being purely human seems boring and self-defeating in comparison.
Then again, humanity keeps you firmly anchored to reality. Your agent can employ an augmented-reality view—one that turns the battlefield into a geometric grid. Enemies flash red and friendlies are green and icons pop over their heads to indicate what their strengths are. It’s useful, but also makes you feel disconnected from the action, like you’re stuck in a math problem rather than fighting for your life. Other questions persist: What happens to our privacy when everything is hyper-connected to the internet? What happens when the algorithms we depend on get corrupted?
But these concerns are pushed far to the margins of Black Ops III in favor of explosion porn and the crushing pressure of a forward momentum that propels you toward more things to see and do and shoot. You can almost feel the writers butting their heads against the constraints of a big-budget first-person shooter when it feels like they desperately want to write the next Philip K. Dick story. It’s hard to be smart when you’re mandated to deliver a violent thrill-ride that doesn’t stop to throw on the brakes. Maybe that explains why Hendricks displays enough intelligence to quote Nietzsche and question the principles of killing hundreds of people in service of the morally questionable CIA in one heartbeat, yet thoughtlessly guns down everything in sight in the next. In this case, Call Of Duty is the abyss that gazes also into you.