Developer: Infinity Ward / Publisher: Activision / Price: $59.99 / Played on: Xbox 360 / ESRB: Mature [Blood and Gore/Drug Reference/Intense Violence/Strong Language]
What are you expecting? It’s a fair, if not the only relevant question to ask about Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3. Hyped by Activision itself in its media campaigns as the most anticipated game in history it certainly has plenty to live up to, fall back on, defend, and celebrate. Is it any good? Well, of course it’s good…very, very good in fact. Whether that detail means you’ve already pre-ordered or are buying on day one, waiting and seeing, or dismissing it as another cash in by an evil corporation is a decision likely made long before this review hits. That’s the strange dichotomy of the Call of Duty franchise; it is in part revered and regaled by millions of players, and also reviled by a frothing, vocal contingent. Well, it’s here, it’s bold and brassy, familiar, and tightly wound. Get out your pitchforks and lanterns, this is the Machinima take on Modern Warfare 3.
I’ll start with the story because this section will be short. Makarov, the nationalist terrorist from the last game, is still at large and this time rather than significant but relatively small-scale attacks he’s managed to unleash World War III. Of course, it’s not some simple political stand-off that escalates in a tumultuous cacophony of rhetoric and brinksmanship. No, it’s nasty, painful… and oddly believable. It also allows for a globe-trotting adventure where regular protagonists like Price and Soap, along with SAS leader Burns and ex-Spetsnaz (and, possibly, Makarov henchman?) Yuri shoot up some of the world’s greatest cities (and Hamburg). New York gets it from a full-blown Russian invasion. The London attack is the game’s “controversial moment”–the one it teases you at the start to skip if you’re prone to complaining–but is far, far less discussion-worthy than the notorious airport scene in Modern Warfare 2. Not to spoil it, but that’s not because the scene doesn’t have narrative strength, but because it’s a passive moment, where your viewpoint is one of innocent bystander, not active participant.
Chasing down information and insurgents in the shanty towns of Sierra Leone shifts the pace and style of warfare, but it’s when prize monuments in Paris come crashing down that the popcorn blockbuster movie formula kicks in (but for a fraction of the cost… making the movie of Modern Warfare 3 would probably cost north of half a billion dollars). It’s brassy, outrageous, and bold, which fits the dynamic, and keeps the story pulsing throughout the 12-plus hours you’ll be playing through it.
What you’re no doubt expecting is significant advances on the multiplayer side. Fair expectation. And the MW3 experience is good, definitely refined from both Modern Warfare 2 and Black Ops, with the real difference maker encapsulated in Elite. Team Defender, where each team battles for a single flag, will clearly be a dominant mode online, while Kill Confirmed is likely the highlight. It’s team deathmatch with a twist, and that twist is gathering tags from the bodies of your team’s kills, or those of fallen teammates to deny your opponents the kill. It’s way simpler and way more compelling than it sounds. When you drop an enemy, he drops a tag. If one of your players captures that tag (or you do), it counts as a kill on the scoreboard. If an enemy captures it (they see opposing tags in red, you see yours in yellow), then the kill is essentially denied. While it’s different and therefore prominent, it’s also fun and adds a dynamic wrinkle to the team deathmatch format.
The 16 maps also display an evolution of apparent lessons learned from the previous games. In our extensive time in Team Deathmatch and Kill Confirmed games, the maps highlighted numerous routes through buildings and around landmarks that made it difficult to run set patterns, and provided players of all levels the opportunity to be involved in the action. In addition, there are also 12 maps designated for Spec Ops mode, which is basically a two-player horde-style format where you face increasingly daunting waves of enemies. It can be quite fun, the action intense as the heavily armored juggernauts are added as the waves progress, alongside helicopters, attack dogs, even suicide attack dogs! Kills in this mode earn you cash that you then spend on buying ammo or weapons, artillery, grenades, claymores, and also your own airstrikes and even a squad of Delta Force AI comrades to help you and a buddy survive. In a world where Gears 3 has notched Horde mode up a level with its strategic additions, Spec Ops is a relatively vanilla format. You can play it on your own for shooting practice, but its real purpose is as two-player co-op.
For all the multiplayer hoopla, the biggest difference maker is the addition of Elite. Regardless of your preference for the free version or the expanded premium edition, the fact that you can track your play to such a degree is huge. So much information is tracked it’s A) scary, and B) awesome, as it can teach you to run the maps better and illustrate the ideal weapon loadouts for your play style. It’s also available on multiple levels: play on console solely and the app will provide solid, core information about your play patterns; on a computer the software is incredibly powerful, helping you dissect every game, every kill, each location, and weapon performance; in the mobile format (which we saw fleetingly, but is promised for day of launch) you can create custom classes that upload to your account so you can tweak on the go, then use in-game… assuming it all works as advertised.
In the big Prestige chase, leveling now has more practical oomph behind its numbers. The level 80 cap raises the bar on what you need to achieve to level, but the benefit from Prestiging now has value. Each Prestige earns a token, and those tokens can be cashed in for specific benefits–a couple hours of double XP or weapon XP, or even resetting your stats. It’s certainly not significant boosts, but at least it’s something, and I hope those bonuses are increased over time for the most committed players.
True, there is an awful lot of game here. Most of you will dive straight in to multiplayer, which makes sense and defies logic at the same time. But you should be assured that the multiplayer is a cut above the rest, with a ton of options and the ability to customize a huge number of details on any of the maps you set up for Private Matches. The single-player evolves the story where you’d want, if you care for that aspect. It’s fair to say that there’s a clear formula at work here, so while some of the set piece moments are suitably epic in scale–racing in vehicles, breaching doors in dramatic slow-mo, or unleashing aerial hellfire–you can’t say it’s particularly unique or original. It’s not just rehashed, but finely polished, expertly executed examples of what’s made the Call of Duty franchise so hugely popular. And there’s nothing wrong with that at all.