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Modern Warfare 3 preview: Two heads are better than one

After a two-minute recap montage of everything that's happened thus far in the narratively impenetrable Modern Warfare saga -- wow, I barely remembered any of that! -- two people took the stage. On the left side, standing in front of a giant Infinity Ward logo was Robert Bowling, "creative strategist" at the troubled developer and, obviously, not one of the studio's now-fired founders. On the right side, standing in front of a giant Sledgehammer Games logo, was Glen Schofield, head of the newly formed studio that was originally slated to "extend the franchise into the action-adventure genre." Now, they were both on stage flanking an even larger Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 logo.

"For the last year we've been working together with Infinity Ward to deliver Modern Warfare 3," Schofield told the crowd in Los Angeles last week, forcing every games journalist there to wonder how things were going before Sledgehammer pitched in. "We came out of Modern Warfare 2 with a very strong vision of what we wanted for Modern Warfare 3," Bowling chimed in. "Things we wanted to add, things we wanted to polish, the payoff we wanted to deliver to our fans who've invested come November 8, 2011. Luckily, in the execution of that, we were looking for a team that had the same passion for the franchise, the creative skillset we could turn to, and we found that in the entire studio of Sledgehammer Games."

And that was all they had to say about the unusual circumstances that led to both men presenting what is arguably the highest-profile release of the year on stage with each other. "Like Infinity Ward, we believe the game should do the talking," Schofield said, effectively ending that portion of the presentation.

Gallery: Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 | 4 Photos

To prep us for the nearly 25-minute demo they were about to show, Bowling gave us the concept pitch: "In Modern Warfare 3, we're taking scale to an entirely new level. We're taking players from the outskirts into the heart of major cities around the world, delivering urban combat in places like Manhattan, London, both of which you'll see here tonight. We're also going all over Europe, parts of Africa, Russia, the Himalayas. It's a conflict that really covers the entire globe." Schofield then got us up to speed on the plot: "Modern Warfare 3 picks up right after Modern Warfare 2. DC is burning, Task Force 141 is either dead or on the run, and battles rage all along the eastern seaboard. It's in Manhattan that you join with the Delta team to help turn the tide against the Russians who've occupied New York City."

And with that, the demo begins in a level called "Black Tuesday." The goal is to get to the stock exchange. Normally that's a short walk down Wall St. but, in this case, Wall St. -- and the rest of lower Manhattan -- is inconveniently swarming with Russian soldiers. A Humvee crashes on its side and the player has to awkwardly exit vertically through the side (now top) door. The immense verticality of Manhattan is on display here, requiring a second to adjust oneself to terra firma. Heading down the street, he flips between scopes: one a 1x red dot scope, the other a zoom scope.

In order to make it to Wall St., our demo-er heads through a destroyed building. There's a crashed helicopter inside. Destruction is most definitely a major theme in Modern Warfare 3, though it's not clear how much destructibility there is in the environment. Coming up on some Russians, he throws out a 9 bang flash grenade, a new toy in your arsenal. Later, he uses a sniper rifle that appears to have some kind of explosive ammo, perhaps a nod to Black Ops' popular exploding crossbow rounds. Back out on the street, a full firefight awaits and, eventually he makes his way to the stock exchange.

After a trading floor shootout -- just like you always wanted to do! -- it's up to the roof where enemies on top of neighboring buildings need to be taken out. A gun isn't doing the trick, so our demo-er deploys a Reaper drone using a briefcase system, dropping missiles on them, and an enemy helicopter, instead. Finally, leaping from the building into a helicopter, the remainder of the scene has him playing peek-a-boo with another chopper while circling an under-construction skyscraper. After sinking enough ammo into it, it crashes, nearly taking the player's chopper down with it.

The next level, titled "Mind the Gap" takes us to London where our demo pilot begins following some targets, using stealth kills to sneak through. This, of course, eventually leads into a full-on firefight, but he's got an ace up his sleeve: air support from a chopper. At one point, a pile of concrete tubes collapses, offering some nice (though seemingly scripted) environmental interactivity.

From here, it's onto a new scene that has the player in the back of a pickup truck, racing through the city's tube system, firing at a train. If that sounds like a pretty terrible idea, you'd be right! Eventually, the train derails, flips sideways, crashing through support columns, and right into your truck.

"Epic scale and urban warfare are just a couple of the things we're working on," Schofield told the audience in between levels. "Over the next few months, we'll continue to dive deeper into all the things fans can experience in single-player, Spec-Ops, and multiplayer."

At the end of the presentation, the audience gives them a healthy round of applause, but the chatter outside the theater was the same: It looks like another Modern Warfare game. What does that mean? For this writer, that's easy: Massive setpieces, a cinematic presentation, a globe-trotting cast of characters, and enough explosions to make even Michael Bay blush, all locked at a smooth 60 frames per second. But what we saw was just a slice of the campaign in a product that's increasingly driven by its multiplayer component.

And it sounds like the developers know that too. "And later this year, when we reveal multiplayer with Elite, our fans will really see what innovation means with Call of Duty," Schofield said. "The opportunity to bring millions of Call of Duty gamers together in all new ways is something that we believe will change how people think of multiplayer." Unfortunately, that information is still classified.

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