Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 review: Firing down the sights

The narrative around Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 is competing at this point for attention with the game's content itself. This is the title that Infinity Ward was working on when the famous split between Activision and studio heads Vince Zampella and Jason West went down. The game was subsequently developed by not one but three different studios from then on (and according to the game's credits, Neversoft and Treyarch helped out as well, which makes this practically an all-hands-on-deck effort for Activision).

And then there's Call of Duty Elite, and all of the questions about which of its online features would be placed behind the paywall. There are the comparisons to Battlefield 3, EA's similarly lauded shooter-blockbuster. This will undoubtedly be the biggest game release of 2011, following up two of the best-selling games of all-time, produced by some of the biggest traditional console developers around. All of that attention is distracting -- there's a lot going on with this game that has nothing to do with the game itself.

When you take away all of the sturm und drang of the franchise and its developers, what you've got left is just a video game. Just an experience, with a six-hour (or so) campaign, a deep and compelling multiplayer match system, and a set of co-op missions paired with a survival mode. The bombast which surrounds Modern Warfare 3 distracts from what's important about the game: It is, put simply, one of the best shooters around.%Gallery-138663%
Campaign

Modern Warfare 3's campaign does little to reinvent the wheel which propels the series' single-player fiction. Regulars Soap and Price return to play their usual gruff parts, and the storyline directly follows and connects the events of the last two Modern Warfare games. Unfortunately, Modern Warfare 3's story still doesn't hold much water -- even from a Tom Clancy perspective, these characters are hardly well-drawn, and the intricacies of global politics just boil down to whether the US is at war with Russia or not.

Where the campaign does succeed is in its setpieces. Modern Warfare 2 placed its firefights in the midst of familiar but faceless spaces like suburbs and airports, but Modern Warfare 3 brings the gunplay to six or seven world-famous locales. There is no level quite as shocking as "No Russian" (though, is that really a bad thing?), but there are some excellent sequences that stand out, including a showdown in Paris that ends with one of the biggest bangs of the series. For all of its bluster, however, the campaign never reaches the heights it's clambering for. It's exciting, but not any more so than the rest of the series.

The ending is surprisingly moving -- it closes the curtains on (what turned out to be) a trilogy with a quiet moment of confident peace. When you look back at the highlights of Modern Warfare, maybe the series could have used a little more of that, if only to break up all of the combustion. The fighting is fun, but moments like these serve as perfect reminders for what said fighting is for.

Multiplayer

There isn't a huge list of new multiplayer features to go around, but the few that are there really work hard to change the game. Gone is the frequent goofiness of Black Ops (no crossbow, no remote-controlled exploding cars, no zombies, no Nuketown); instead, the game offers a strong core-focused competitive game, designed to pit players against each other without a lot of fluff.

Okay, a few of the new tools could potentially be used for zany means, like the Bouncing Betty mines, grenade-launching drones, or a little helicopter you can fly around to remotely tag enemies. Despite all of the tech, the game wisely relies on the pure mechanics of seeing or being seen, and then shooting or being shot.

Most of the usual game modes are back and as enjoyable as ever, but the two new arrivals, Kill Confirmed and Team Defender, very nearly outshine them all

Individual guns level up alongside their users, earning experience towards Proficiencies -- weapon-specific upgrades to things like kickback -- with each shot fired. It helps to further define playstyle, though it's not going to upset your expectations for how each gun feels. Assault rifles are still very much assault rifles, as are SMGs, shotguns and the other tried-and-true castes of multiplayer weapons.

The biggest new wrinkle is the new Strike Package system, a complete reinvention of how killstreaks are earned. Assault is what most players are used to, rewarding one-shot weapons for consecutive kills without dying. The Support package allows you to keep your kills after death, and rewards more utilitarian killstreaks, like the Counter-UAV drone or bulletproof vests for your team. The Specialist package rewards you with perks instead of killstreak rewards: After just eight kills on the Specialist package, you can have all the perks unlocked, turning you into a super-powered soldier/assassin.

Of the three choices, Support is the most effective -- the option to keep your kills through death almost seems like cheating, so much so that even hardcore players will likely go Support from time to time. Specialist, on the other hand, is tough to get a grasp on, as getting those perks doesn't make for as clear a reward as missiles raining down from the sky. Specialist will definitely be the least popular choice for players, but it's unclear whether that's because it's underpowered, or such a challenge to use effectively. The strike package idea is excellent, however, and enough of step forward in gameplay that going back to MW2 will make you mourn its absence.


Most of the usual game modes are back and as enjoyable as ever, but the two new arrivals, Kill Confirmed and Team Defender, very nearly outshine them all. Kill Confirmed innovates by pushing players out of their comfort zones in pursuit of dog tags dropped by downed friends and foes. More than a few times those matches saw dog tags piling up, resulting in the last man standing getting to claim all of the spoils. Team Defender is much more manic, with lots of grenades and chaos all centered around a flag everyone's trying to grab and hold. After a few slower games of Headquarters or Search and Destroy, all that mindless destruction can be a nice palate cleanser.

Finally, Call of Duty Elite really shines with Modern Warfare 3 -- all of your kills are archived and tabulated in the service's various stat engines, and the system is seamlessly integrated into the console game, a separate console app, the web app, and even mobile apps. You can edit and sync loadouts and created game modes from web to console, and clan support is impressive, if not long overdue. Most of the service is completely free, too, so using Elite is a no-brainer for anyone playing Call of Duty, a nice bonus that even casual players will come to appreciate.

Co-op

While the additions to multiplayer are small but significant, it's in the Spec Ops mode where Modern Warfare 3 really earns its stripes. Modern Warfare 2's missions were interesting two-player takes on some of the campaign's mechanics, but MW3's missions are completely standalone, only occasionally and tangentially touching base with the main campaign.

All of the missions are complex and rewarding, whether you're collecting virus samples as Juggernauts or controlling remote turrets to escort your friend through a warehouse. It's a far more necessary component to the game than it was last time around -- the campaign mode even ends not with "The End," but with an entreaty to play through the Spec Ops missions and see the rest of the story.

Cooperative players can also crack open the impressive new Survival mode, and take on increasingly difficult waves of soldiers and attackers while buying weapons and gear from in-game terminals. This isn't just a re-skinned Horde mode -- it's a very Modern Warfare-specific setup, which has the added bonus of teaching you how to best use the maps and weapons available in the game. Even playing Survival alone is a rewarding prospect, and it feels different from anything else the game has to offer.

Unfortunately, progression in the game is mode-specific. It would be nice to not have to unlock things multiple times, but giving each mode its own rewards will push players to try new things.


Conclusion

The Modern Warfare franchise has twice set the bar for what this kind of blockbuster shooter should be, and Modern Warfare 3 doesn't break the streak. Still, the unbelievable amount of resources that went into the game can't help but give rise to an important question: Could Modern Warfare 3 have been even better? Activision clearly emptied the coffers on this one – could that justify just a bit more creativity? A bit more innovation? A bit more new?

It's an incredible game, to be sure, and it's undoubtedly another success for this franchise. Modern Warfare 3's multiplayer is some of the series' strongest, and the co-op offerings have been expanded tenfold. But the campaign will leave you yearning, wishing that the characters were differentiated by more than thick accents, or that the gameplay tried something more than aim, shoot, take cover, reload, rinse and repeat.

Modern Warfare 3 is a great Call of Duty game, just as every other entry in the franchise is a great Call of Duty game. However, it shares more than quality with its predecessors – it, like its forefathers, leaves you waiting for something perfect.



This review is based on final submission code for Xbox 360 and PS3 with the day one update applied, provided by Activision at a pre-release review event. Joystiq provided travel and hotel accommodations for the reviewer. Additional time was spent with a pre-release retail copy of the game on Xbox 360, provided by Activision. Read more on Joystiq's editorial ethics policy.

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