Call of Duty has become one of those series that seems nigh pointless to review. I’ve probably said that before in previous writings about the franchise, but the statement rings truer and truer with each installment. By the time I received my Hardened Edition copy of Modern Warfare 3 shortly after its November launch, the game had already sold a gajillion copies at retail, once again shattering day one sales records for a video game (or any entertainment medium). Whatever I have to say here will either be ignored by those who love the series or used as bait for a fanboy dispute that will get us nowhere. Hopefully it serves its intended purpose: to inform my fellow gamers and give feedback for future development.
There’s also the fact that the Call of Duty series as a whole has become a divisive force in the industry. The mainstream gushes over each new game like it’s the greatest thing ever, while the elitist sect of the gaming community loathes everything the words Modern Warfare have come to represent. Me? I’m somewhere in the middle. I understand why some folks don’t like Call of Duty, but I think it’s silly to hate on the franchise with the vigor that some people do, just because it doesn’t fit into their box of what makes a great game. It’s usually pretty obvious that the most vocal critics haven’t even played what their criticizing either.
When the first Modern Warfare came along, I was right there with the masses, shouting how awesome the game was. At the time, its adrenaline-charged campaign and expansive multiplayer features were revolutionary. Since then, Activision has pumped out new Call of Duties on a yearly basis, going well beyond the point of over-saturation. I enjoy the games a great deal and appreciate what they offer—Modern Warfare 3 included–but at the same time the cut-and-paste assembly line design approach Activision has adopted definitely rubs me the wrong way.
Modern Warfare 3 offers very little in the way of surprises and, like every other installment since Call of Duty 4, rehashes common level design, mission objective, and set piece concepts seen in those that came before it. Guided stealth levels following behind Price and Soap, doing exactly what they order and using coordinated attacks to snipe enemies, have become recurring mission staples since that original sniper stage in the first Modern Warfare. They’re back again, now more abundant and predictable than ever.
You can also expect to hop behind turrets in scripted, on-rails vehicle sequences, play as the deadly eye in the sky and unleash hell from a drone gunship, and control an RC mini-tank armed with a grenade launcher and chain gun. As usual, the developers push hard for shock value moments. You won’t see anything as controversial as the airport massacre from Modern Warfare 2, but (*Spoiler Alert*) there is one harrowing scene in which you are controlling the game from the perspective of a father filming a home video of his wife and daughter on vacation, when suddenly a terrorist event occurs. (*Spoiler End*)
The campaign isn’t without memorable moments, though. In fact, a few select missions stand out as highlights of the entire series. (*Spoiler Alert*) One mission I won’t soon forget takes place in Somalia during a sandstorm of near biblical proportions. You’re fleeing for your life as a massive swirling dust cloud chases behind, shredding wooden shacks and blowing debris all around you before plunging the village into complete darkness. Another standout level has you aboard the Russian Presidential airplane amidst a hijacking attempt tasked with protecting the President from being captured as the plane shakes and rips apart and eventually crashes down. The finale also puts an emphatic capper on the Modern Warfare story arc with a powerfully satisfying closing chapter that ends Price’s rivalry with Makarov in the perfect way. You get the rare opportunity to play as Price himself, assaulting Makarov’s stronghold in a suit of battle armor and gunning down enemies like a human tank, before finally taking out the terrorist S.O.B. via a vicious QTE sequence. Let’s just say Kratos would be very proud. (*Spoiler End*)
For solo soldiers, the customary ~5 hour campaign moves along at a breakneck pace that unfolds the continuing World War III conflict between Russia and the USA as the video game equivalent of a popcorn action movie. On lower difficulties, the campaign can be enjoyed as such in a single sitting. But for a more substantial experience, crank up that difficulty dial and take your time searching for all the intel collectibles, and you’ll easily extend the runtime by at least a couple hours.
Playing Modern Warfare 3 (or any Call of Duty) on the max difficulty is the only way to see the game for what it truly is. You get to see its strengths and weaknesses in plain sight. When the difficulty is set high, you have to think and play more tactically, not run and gun it like you can on the lesser settings. Cover is a life saver, and if you don’t use the stop and pop method, peeking out from cover to take a couple shots before ducking back to safety, you’ll be biting the dust like clockwork. I get frustrated a lot playing on Veteran, but that makes it more rewarding in the end because I feel like I overcame a steep but fair challenge and actually had to use some level of skill to succeed.
However, playing on Veteran also brings familiar flaws to the surface. Automated checkpoints that seem to save progress at random or outright fail to save even after the checkpoint text pops onto the screen. AI troopers running into your line of fire (friendly fire is a game over penalty) or shoving you out from behind cover to get shot and killed through no fault of your own. Enemy AI with crack aim capable of shooting you dead the second you move away from cover, before you even get a chance to see where the shots are coming from. On-rails vehicle sequences that you can only survive through sheer luck. Endless enemy respawns that occur until you alone manage to push forward enough to trip the invisible trigger that orders your squad to advance.
These have been problem spots throughout the franchise’s history, yet Modern Warfare 3 still fails to address any of them. Although I do have to say that this time the developers did do a better job with the level design. More of the environments now offer multiple pathways and opportunities to flank enemies. There are fewer scripted level sequences that penalize you for not strictly following the rigid path the developers have laid out. Modern Warfare 3’s level design is much improved from the obscene handholding used in Black Ops. Of course, Treyarch made that game. Infinity Ward and Sledgehammer Games made this one – and it shows!
Similar to the solo campaign, Modern Warfare 3’s multiplayer takes a few baby steps forward, but generally is more of the same with a few balance and progressions tweaks, a few extra modes, and a new selection of maps. The baby steps the game does make are important ones, though.
On the competitive side, the general flow of leveling up your avatar, creating custom classes and unlocking additional modes and other content is largely the same as it’s always been. However, a number of key changes do make a difference in balancing the playing field, and overall the multiplayer does feel faster, tighter and more well-rounded than the past couple iterations.
A new Weapon Proficiency unlock system has been introduced, for one. Each weapon now has its own progression, and as experience is earned and challenges are completed perks and attachments become unlocked for the gun being used. Not a drastic change, but it does pull things closer to that persistent MMO sensation of growing in power and developing abilities based on individual play style.
The killstreak system has been overhauled as well. Now instead of simply earning rewards for stacking up kills without dying, you build up a point streak to unlock bonuses depending on your chosen strike package. The Assault package, which functions similarly to the old killstreaks, offers offensive advantages such as predator missile strikes, sentry guns, attack choppers and so on. Equipping the Specialist package allows players to earn bonus perk drops that stack on top of existing perks, but will reset upon death. Last but not least is Support, which is a good starter package to run with since the point streak doesn’t reset when killed and even if you aren’t particularly skilled in combat you can still feel like you are contributing to the team by calling in ballistic vest drops for bonus armor, ordering recon drones reveal enemy positions, and setting off EMPs to knock out enemy radar.
Two match types are also new to this installment, and while that may not sound like a lot, if you’re like me they will become your go-to modes. Kill Confirmed is my new favorite (Team Defenders is the other). It’s a variant of Team Deathmatch in which killed players drop dog tags that must be collected by the opposing team to confirm the kill. This also works both ways, as teammates can collect dog tags from fallen brothers in arms to block the kill. This extra wrinkle takes things one step further than TDM by requiring greater tactical planning and teamwork. Having to collect dog tags builds suspense, too. Clever snipers will use dog tags as shiny bait, luring point-hungry soldiers into the open for easy headshots. Rushing out to pick up a tag always raises the heart rate another beat or two.
I do also like Modern Warfare 3’s map offerings. While there isn’t a whole lot of diversity to speak of, the urban, close-quarters map layouts, combined with the lightning-fast respawn times, keep the action hot and heavy. Never is there a dull moment spent trudging across a huge map to reach the next firefight or searching for other players to kill. The action is focused and intense, as it should be. The only problem with this is the occasional spawn point imbalance. With the speedy respawning, sometimes the game does a poor job spawning enemies on top of each other. It is super annoying to spawn, walk forward a few steps, and then get shot up from behind by a foe that revived through the same spawn point. Fortunately, this issue appears to be less prominent now than it was closer to launch. I’m not sure if one of the patches took care of it or not, but it’s been a while since it last happened to me.
Shifting to cooperative play for a moment, Modern Warfare 3 returns with more Special Ops missions for two players online or in split-screen (or you can take them on solo). These are the time trial style missions that reward players with stars based on how quickly they can clear a shooting range obstacle course, free and extract hostages, stop a nuclear meltdown aboard a submarine or collect nerve agent samples, among other objectives. In place of the Zombies mode made famous by Treyarch’s Call of Duty games, the Modern Warfare branch finally gets its co-op Survival mode in its third outing. Thankfully, the undead aren’t involved in any way. By yourself or with a friend, the objective is to survive increasingly difficult waves of enemies, earning cash rewards for kills, streaks and round performance to purchase gear and upgrades from armory stations located around each map. Survival missions are available for all 16 multiplayer maps spanning four difficulty tiers, and all co-op character and weapon progression is tracked separately from competitive play.
Another major component in Modern Warfare 3’s multiplayer package is Call of Duty Elite, the new social networking platform offering freemium and subscription-based services to dedicated Call of Duty veterans who want to track stats, customize loadouts, interact with other players, share videos and keep connected to their favorite game via browser or smartphone when they aren’t able to play. Unfortunately, Elite took a while to get off the ground on consoles and still isn’t fully operational for the PC version. Service was intermittent for nearly a month after launch and premium members are only just now starting to see what their $50 yearly membership is good for. Today marks the launch of nine consecutive months of downloadable content drops, available first to premium Xbox Live Elite subscribers (PSN Elite members have to wait for some reason, even though they’re paying for the service too). The DLC season begins with two new maps, and throughout the year content drops will expand multiplayer with brand new modes, maps, Special Ops missions, and more.
With this increased emphasis on social networking and multiplayer persistence, Modern Warfare 3 proves more than ever that Call of Duty has evolved into a sports-like franchise. Each installment is like a season in Madden or NBA 2K: you get a new yet familiar campaign and more of the same multiplayer content built upon the same core graphics and gameplay engine, with incremental tweaks and balances and maybe an extra mode or two. There’s no doubt that MW3 is bursting with quality content and loads of value. Between two tours through the campaign and extensive time in Spec Ops and competitive multiplayer, I’ve logged no less than 40 hours of play. However, a lot of that has to do with the fact that I took a break from heavy multiplayer in Modern Warfare 2 and Black Ops so I wasn’t burned out heading into Modern Warfare 3 (part of it was also obligation as a reviewer and part of it was a little personal trophy hunting on the side). That’s the way to play Call of Duty now – buy one game, chill out for a season or two, buy the next, rinse and repeat.
If you are dead set on buying in with a long-term commitment, the Hardened Edition, with a 1-year Elite membership and other extras right out of the box, is the way to go — and you will get your money’s worth. But like a sports franchise, your best bet is to rent the game or borrow a copy from a friend, play through the campaign and kill some time in multiplayer, then return it and wait to do the exact same thing all over again in a few months. At this point, until the series takes grander leaps forward and the yearly force feeding ends, you’re better off saving your cash.
+ Worthwhile additions and improvements to multiplayer
+ Thrilling solo campaign
+ Outstanding overall value between single player, co-op and competitive
- Familiar Modern Warfare experience with too few advancements
- Campaign repeats many flaws that have gone unaddressed since the original
- Call of Duty Elite not yet proven
Platform: Reviewed on PS3; also available for PC, Wii and Xbox 360
Developer: Infinity Ward and Sledgehammer Games
Release Date: 11/8/2011
ESRB Rating: Mature
Players: 1-18 (Spec Ops: 1-2 split-screen and online; Competitive: 4-player split-screen and up to 18 online)
Source: Hardened Edition review copy provided by publisher