There is something in our DNA that makes us love an underdog. There is also some perversion of that phenomenon that makes certain people hate the reigning champ. There are a lot of valid reasons to take a pass on the annual Call of Duty installment: you don’t like military shooters, you don’t like playing online, you like playing online but don’t want to hear pre-pubescent kids shouting obscenities and screaming for a chocolate milk (in this case, I would simply recommend the mute and harassment reporting options). However, if you like shooters, finely tuned competitive modes and one of the best two-player cooperative experiences available, walking away from Call of Duty just because its successful is silly. You’re missing out.
I’ve made no secret of the fact that I’m not a diehard Call of Duty fan. I typically play and enjoy the single player campaigns, invest a little bit of time in the competitive modes and spend a fair amount of time in the co-op experience (Zombies and Spec Ops). That said, when I’m playing a Call of Duty game, I always manage to have fun and, this year, I keep getting pulled back into game types that I typically don’t enjoy. Modern Warfare 3 is built on the same three pillars that were found in Modern Warfare 2: Single Player, Cooperative Spec Ops and Competitive Multiplayer. This year, with the addition of Call of Duty Elite, the package feels more complete than ever before.
Single Player Campaign
The Modern Warfare series has been a microcosm within the larger Call of Duty franchise, placing emphasis on an extended narrative that evidences that the single player experience is as important to the development team as Spec Ops and competitive multiplayer. It’s a shame that so many people consider the campaigns to be a throw away, because if you look past the summer blockbuster nature of the presentation, there are some very interesting storytelling devices.
Modern Warfare 3 is an immediate sequel to Infinity Ward’s last Call of Duty outing and, from the word “go,” the campaign is a nonstop thrill ride. At the outset you’ll be dropped into a war-torn lower Manhattan as America is under attack from Russian forces. It only gets worse from there, as you’ll travel across the globe as part of Delta Force, the Russian President’s protective detail and the now-disavowed Task Force 141.
Of course, the story is full of “holy shit!” moments and some stellar set pieces, but it wasn’t until this third outing that I realized that the narrative presentation of the Modern Warfare series is exactly opposite of what you find in most other games. In Modern Warfare, the player character isn’t most important to the story, he or she is along for the ride. The central characters in the story are those at your side. Sure, you’ll get to do all of the cool actions in the game like control a heavily armed remote drone, but the emotional pull comes from the outside.
In sequels, we usually see characters progress from non-player character to player character. Modern Warfare works in reverse. Soap started as the main PC in Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, but was important enough to elevate to NPC in Modern Warfare 2. I have to wonder if one of the problems people subconsciously have about the Modern Warfare campaigns is that its not all about them.
Beyond the storytelling, the gunplay and variety in the single player is fantastic. You’ll bounce from jungle to urban environment to the desert, keeping the scenery fresh. The engine might be the same as was used in Modern Warfare 2, but it looks stunning thanks to a firm 60 frames per second. The animations are largely realistic, but you’ll still glide up and down ladders.
The music is everything you would expect from a high action experience. Brian Tyler’s composition pounds when the action is heaviest, helping to create a sense if immediacy. The music, along with a more informative feedback system, helps minimize the frustration of the “monster closets” that still exist in the series. For the most part, I felt that this installment did a much better job of letting you know when you needed to push forward to stem the tide. There were very limited instances where I found myself having to retry multiple times because I just didn’t know what I was doing wrong, though. It’s better, but not perfect.
The sound effects feel very full, and playing with a good headset or surround system will provide the optimal play experience. Explosions sound meaty and the gunfire is different enough from weapon to weapon that you can start to pick out friendly and enemy fire. The soundscape meshes perfectly to create an epic environment of chaos that is extremely immersive.
Spec Ops has grown from a single bonus level in Modern Warfare to a full-fledged pillar of Infinity Ward’s development process. This year’s Spec Ops missions, of which there are 16, take cues from the single player campaign, and emphasize different roles for the two different players. There are more missions similar to the AC 130 mission from Modern Warfare 2 that had one player in the air and the other on the ground.
Additionally, Spec Ops now has a Survival mode that is similar enough to Treyarch’s Zombie mode that players will have no problem getting used to it. Unlike Zombies, though, upgrades are available from a few stations scattered around the maps, and those maps are the same ones found in competitive multiplayer. Spec Ops Survival is a great way to learn the maps and, with an upgrade system spanning both Spec Ops modes that opens up new tools for destruction, there are plenty of reasons to keep coming back.
For many, the competitive multiplayer is the only reason that Call of Duty is an annual purchase. It’s not terribly different than annual installments of sports franchises. More polish, a few tweaks and new modes offer enough to bring fans back year after year. This time, though, Infinity Ward and their partner, Sledgehammer Games, have decided to ensure a level of accessibility for new players that will provide a new infusion of fans. And, with 16 maps at launch, all playable in every mode, there is a lot of variety in the package.
As I mentioned when I reported from Call of Duty XP, the development team recognized that killstreaks were really only tuned for Deathmatch and Team Deathmatch. Now, with the shift to point streaks and the creation of Assault, Support and Specialist strike packages, there is more reward for new players and more incentive for developing play styles that fit the different modes. Additionally, each weapon levels up. The more you use it, the more options you have with it. There is more reason to find your favorite loadouts now than ever before.
The new modes that this year brings, Kill Confirmed and Team Defender, speak directly to that new emphasis on different play styles for different modes. As someone who typically doesn’t enjoy Team Deathmatch style games, Kill Confirmed is a breath of fresh air. Having to pick up tags to confirm or deny kills makes for ever-shifting hot spots on the battlefield. Instead of fighting over fixed real estate, you’ll find yourself fighting over the spot where one or two unlucky soldiers met their ends.
Team Defender takes the Domination mentality and has the two teams fighting over a flag instead of fixed territory. It’s a constant scramble, and the mode emphasizes communication to protect your flag carrier. If you end up with people talking on headset, it’s a very enjoyable experience.
Unfortunately, one of the areas where Call of Duty’s multiplayer continues to break down is the matchmaking. Yes, it’s quick, and with the number of people playing, you are going to find the game type you want. However, as a level 1 playing my first game, I was matched with people level 30 and higher. This simply should not happen. It isn’t fun to try to learn the ropes when everyone else in the game has already put in hours learning the maps and developing weapon proficiencies.
Thankfully, with Call of Duty Elite, Activision has made it easier than ever to find people to play with. The free version of Elite is similar to what Bungie did for Halo and what Blizzard did for Starcraft. You’ll be able to track stats, look at heat maps and even change your loadout from the web or mobile device- when the service is completely up and running and isn’t being crushed by registrations and launch period traffic. For those that got the Hardened Edition or decided to pony up for the premium version of the service, you’ll also get clan management, training videos and access to original programming. We can’t comment on these yet as they won’t be live and stable until things die down a bit.
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 is a refinement of the series that further evidences why, year after year, Activision puts it on a pedestal. If you enjoy shooters, you owe it to yourself to at least give Modern Warfare a chance. If you’ve been on the fence because of the die-hards, this is the year to dip your toe in the water. The steps that Infinity Ward and Sledgehammer Games have taken to make the multiplayer experience friendlier to newcomers open the door to a new audience without alienating the base. The only question that remains is, now that the Modern Warfare story has ended, what will we see in Infinity Ward’s next Call of Duty?
Review copy provided by publisher. Primary play on Xbox 360.