Ah, the sound of gunfire echoing through the houses of the First World. No, it’s not the revolution that the occupying protesters demand or the governments fear. It is simply that time of year again. With the release of that other first person warfare simulation barely disappearing over the horizon, we turn our heads back to the behemoth of the genre, the biggest selling entertainment product of all time, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3.
Having clearly taken the motto, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” to heart, developers Infinity Ward have made no huge bounds in attempting to progress the series. However it would be unfair to write this release off as a rehash of the previous Modern Warfare as the tweaks and twiddles they have implemented all combine to create, albeit unsurprisingly, the best Call of Duty release to date.
At this point, it would be tempting to simply sign-off the review, leaving with these comments: if you enjoyed the previous renditions then you should (if you have not already) purchase this game, but if you have never caught the CoD bug in the past then this game is not going to bring the fever down upon you. However, there are always people who sit on the fence or perhaps (however unlikely) have never played the series, and it is for you that I begrudgingly put down the sweaty controller, back away from the blood-splattered, war-torn screen, and devote the rest of the review.
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 is a game of three halves. Neatly split out from the introductory menu, you are given the choice of the single player Campaign, the cooperative Special Ops and Multiplayer. Each option offers endless hours of gameplay and for anyone worrying about the money they might be spending on this game, you will not find another first person shooter that offers more punch for the pound. Similarly to the game, this review shall be split into sections, since essentially they amount to very different games.
The campaign is the single player only option, the possibility of cooperative progression is still sadly lacking. Kicking off from the events immediately following on from Modern Warfare 2, we are thrown into a stylish introduction video quickly summarising how the world has ended up in a full scale war between America and Russia. Admittedly, anyone unfamiliar with the plot so far will be completely bamboozled by the stereotypical dominant alpha male war speech about heroism and greed and how this all ended up with Russia effectively destroying New York. The best bet is simply to accept that somehow, despite how implausible it all is, this has happened. You’re a soldier, your job is to simply get on with it.
Infinity Ward have pushed the bar up perhaps one small notch with this release. The set pieces are more incredible, the real world settings more spectacular and the variety of landscapes and battles more interesting. You find yourself flipping between gunning down Russian helicopters over New York, to donning a wetsuit and piloting DPV gear between mines in the Hudson. From disarming a chemical explosion in Paris, to acquiring a juggernaut suit and charging into a heavily defended building. Even London is included, controversially for some, as it harks back to the horrific real events of 7/7.
The CoD campaign is always an incredibly exhilarating experience. The problem is that the issues that scarred the previous release are still just as present here. Often with the set pieces, it feels less like playing a game and more like viewing a very intense movie. You find yourself, often literally, blasted back and forth, between scenarios and environments that you never really get to take it all in. There is, almost without exception, only one direction for you to travel, diminishing the possibility of choice and strategic planning. Also, because of the constant switch between characters, it is hard to identify with who you are and what the purpose of your mission is. It all takes away from the reality that the game is clearly trying so hard to create.
The artificial intelligence of both your allies and enemies further hampers this cause. Enemies still lack that fundamental desire to stay alive, even on the hardest difficulty, often sticking their head back out in the exact position you last saw them, or worse bizarrely straying from cover. This makes the cover based shooting segments a game of waiting for your foes to make an idiotic mistake. Perhaps worse, allies still seem like snivelling cowards, waiting for you to wipe out the entire area while they feebly make blind shots from cover. In the end it comes down to yourself fighting like a one man army through, often sometimes continually respawning, hoards of whomever stands in your way. Admittedly, Call of Duty was always meant to be a heavily action orientated military first person shooter, however a little more realism in this department is desperately needed.
With around 6 hours of game time the campaign, despite these constant niggles, is still excellent fun, filled with some of the most exciting and entertaining sequences in any game ever. But as anyone familiar with guns knows, playing with others is always more fun...
The events in the Special Ops missions are meant to follow alongside that of the campaign, and slightly dispel that feeling that you single-handedly ended World War Three in the campaign.
The addition of another player at your side (online or local split-screen), to help you shoot through to your goal adds that much needed depth and companionship that feels missing in the single player campaign, although the ability to add more players would have been appreciated.
While, in my opinion, Special Ops was one of the beacons of light to be found in Modern Warfare 2, Black Ops substituted this for a Zombie survival mode which, while entertaining, was ultimately frustrating and repetitive. Modern Warfare 3 has fortunately revived this mode and also here made what is possibly the largest development. While there are actually less missions to choose from (16 compared to MW2s 23), each one feels more developed and less like a cheap recycling trick of maps taken from single player. Many of the maps can be over 15 minutes in length and since the death of both players ends the whole mission, with no option of saving, there is a tremendous amount of pressure on both to succeed. Fortunately, there is still that confusingly miraculous ability to help out a downed soldier simply by standing over their body, as if the bullet holes are just a few insect bites that a rub of a lotion can easily relieve.
The Special Ops mode, on the hardest difficulty setting, is also the area where even the most formidable player will find a challenge. A couple of stray bullets can easily bring you down, leaving you screaming for your partner to come help you. As such there is really no other thrill, in this genre, like completing a Special Ops mission with a friend on the hardest difficulty setting after a meticulously detailed plan has finally come together.
Credit must be given to Infinity Ward for not simply stopping there. Also bundled into the Special Ops area is Survival mode. Similar to the Zombie mode from Black Ops or Horde mode from Gears of War, this finds you and a friend facing off against rounds of ever improving numbers of enemies charging towards your position. Each kill, as well as completing certain tasks such as kill-streaks and rampages, secures money. This can be spent on better guns, as well as a huge range of other equipment and abilities such as body armour, air-strikes and Delta Force drops.
The key to survival is to manage your money and equipment at the same time as finding a position that can be defended from all sides, as well as having a team mate you can trust to hold the line for you.
To help reduce the repetitive nature of this mode, most of the equipment, abilities and maps are locked until you improve your character’s level. Each time you play you will gain experience and find you unlock better gear which will help you survive the unrelenting opposition ever longer. With 16 survival maps (many of which are admittedly, stolen from the single and multiplayer world), there is a lot of time that could be invested here, without ever venturing online.
Online, however, is where all Call of Duty addicts will eventually while away their time. Here you face off against online human opponents (gratefully a friend can also join you split-screen) in a variety of game modes. Similar to the special ops mode (as well as previous releases), the more you play the more experience points you gain, which unlocks new guns and abilities as you level up. Unlike Black Ops this time you do not have to purchase the guns, as well as unlock them with experience.
I have always had a rather secret grudge against this form of elite favouritism in online multiplayer. While it obviously increases longevity, and drives players to continue playing for days on end, it also completely isolates and discourages new players who are not only facing off against more experienced and skillful players but also foes armed with far superior guns and perks. Fortunately, a new player can still kill with any gun if they are lucky enough to fire a few rounds in the right direction. So after some time they will receive the advantageous equipment.
Anyone familiar with the mechanics of the previous release will be automatically at home in Modern Warfare 3 multiplayer, almost to the point of frustrating familiarity. Obviously there is a whole new plethora of maps provided, 16 in total, and with the inevitable DLC this will only increase. These maps range in location, as with the single player campaign, varying from shopping arcades, to snow isolated factories, to desert stricken villages. Compared to previous maps in the series, in general they feel more detailed, sometimes to the level of distraction. For example one map has a series of hauntingly disturbing hanging soldiers which one cannot help but morbidly stare at. This detail also can play a role in masking enemy positions, making them difficult (for better or for worse) to spot before they put a bullet in your head. Levels also have more intricate and joining pathways allowing for more flanking tactics, and somewhat countering players camping in static positions. However this has also resulted in increasing that constant annoyance (sometimes through inopportune spawning) of enemies appearing from behind. Similarly, verticality has also increased, which drives soldiers to be more aware of their surroundings, including the windows and balconies above.
In terms of game modes, all those found in the previous Modern Warfare return but this time we also have the addition of two more modes, Kill Confirmed and Team Defender. Kill Confirmed is possibly the more interesting of the two: to score you must not only kill your enemies, but then reach the fallen body to grab their dogtag, meanwhile another foe may steal this dogtag first, rendering the kill worthless. This adds to the level of intensity and action since enemies will know where their comrade fell and will be looking for the killer as well as trying to take the tag back themselves. It requires a cunning use of skill, luck and tactics to ensure that you get to the body first. The problem is that it is also highly frustrating, as no matter how well you are perceivably doing, it could all be completely worthless in terms of the score if you have not managed to grab any dog tags.
Team defender is rather less pointful, and I imagine the people involved in this playlist will drop off sharply once the novelty wears off. In what is rather similar to Halo’s oddball (also a rather unpopular version of its own), teams must race for a single flag and cling on to it for as long as possible, to build up the team’s score. Unfortunately, unless one team happens to be a very strategic group, this inevitably results in a mass convergence on the flag, a huge spray of bullets, death, and then repeat. It is simply not very entertaining, unless you manage to gather a clan of your own and take on a similarly skilled team.
The only other change of note that players will find is within the kill-streaks. Here, Infinity Ward have tried to stir things up a little. There are now three kill-streak choices available to choose, once unlocked, Assault, Support and Strike.
Assault is essentially the original Modern Warfare style, where building up kills without dying is rewarded with equipment and abilities (such as a deadly Predator drone missile strike or a devastating Hind attack helicopter flyover).
Unlike Assault, Support soldier’s streaks do not end when they die, but continue to build. Which means the player is more likely to receive the package they desire eventually, even if they do continually die. However support equipment is never as aggressive or powerful as the Assault, and only includes team assisting tools such as UAV’s (Unmanned aerial vehicles that reveal enemy positions) or EMPs (which destroy enemy equipment).
Strike players are a different kettle of fish entirely. Instead of equipment being made available, perks are unlocked. This means that a skilled player can eventually become a fearsome warrior with fast reloading times, lightning quick aiming and a running sprint to rival a leopard. Designed possibly for the more experienced players (it does not unlock until level 19) it is not necessarily as destructive as the Assault package, or as practical as Support, however used correctly a player could swing the tide of a battle.
I am glad the developers have taken some time over altering the design of the killing streaks. It waters down the effects slightly and makes team matches more tactical with more players using support roles. Personally, with reasons similar perhaps to levelling system, I have never been a fan of kill streaks. In previous incarnations, Modern Warfare multiplayer battles resulted in the constant threat of a helicopter overhead or a missile exploding at your feet or a pack of dogs at your throat. While it rewards feats of skill in killing men without dying and is admittedly very entertaining if you are on the fortunate end, it also can completely overbalance a game in one team’s favour as dozens of men are gunned down by a single mini-gun. This is one of the reasons why you will generally find me playing the hardcore play-lists where kill steaks are far more unlikely as death is generally just a single bullet away.
While the resulting game is certainly brilliant, the uninitiated will be hard pressed to find any discernible changes between this third Modern Warfare, and the second release 2 years ago. The main difference will be the haunted empty servers of the previous incarnations, left to rot, as the droves move on to newer greener pastures. Effectively, Call of Duty has become a machine to create vast amounts of money each year, for very little original or experimental input. Perhaps we are being a little unfair, it is certainly not a new phenomenon: the EA sporting franchises have been churning out effectively the same game year upon year for over a decade. The problem is that Activision, and the development houses that create the games could endanger their fans if they were to step outside their fastidiously created boundaries. When the amount of dollars being thrown around is so enormous, the risk is simply too great.
Moving aside from this little rant, the end result analysed as a stand alone product is fantastic. The amount of hours anyone could pour into all the various versions of this game is well beyond the standard for any AAA release. The improvement to the Special Ops mode, turning it into a fully formed idea, as well as adding the survival mode, is warmly welcomed. And, while the campaign does feel a little stagnant and something the average gamer may only run through once, the multiplayer is still possibly the best experience, of its kind, in the gaming world.
What it all really comes down to is that if you need your Call of Duty fix, then I’m certainly not going to stop you.