Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 is here, globally increasing work and school absenteeism, disrupting the flow of world commerce and promoting sleep deprivation. There's little question that Call of Duty addicts and military shooter fans crave this game. It's more an issue of how loud and long they complain about perceived injustices in online multiplayer.
To find out, I blithely ignored the game's strong recommendation that I first play campaign and struck out for the team deathmatch lobbies.
At first blush, I found a game that's a whole lot like another similar game: Modern Warfare 2. I can't imagine that, "Hey, this is just a big map pack," won't be the initial response for most to theonline multiplayer. Well, yes, in a way. What do they expect? Certainly not a complete divergence from the formula for the most successful online shooter franchise in the history of gaming. Do they even want that? No, I don't think so.
Modern Warfare 3's online multiplayer is a mostly happy marriage of Modern Warfare 2's solid gameplay with many of Black Ops' finer features, repackaged with some changes specific to MW3. Unless you're a gamer who hasn't missed a day playing multiplayer Call of Duty since Modern Warfare 2, you'll quickly arrive at the same conclusion about MW3: Hey, they're right. I really should play the campaign first.
Even if you've dabbled in Call of Duty way back to the original, groundbreaking PC title, it requires practice to hold your own in multiplayer modes. If you were advanced in Black Ops six months ago and pretty damn good at Modern Warfare 2 more than a year back, you'll still need time to acclimate yourself to the multiplayer environment of MW3. The narrative single-player campaign is an excellent training ground for the multiplayer modes, where both casual fans and gamers new to the franchise can hone basic skills at an easier pace, without the frustration of learning the game at the bloody, twitchy hands of constant players.
This probably explains why the campaign is so short. It doesn't explain why it's so good.
Experienced but average shooter players selecting "regular" difficulty, taking their time and never rushing, can probably get six hours out of the campaign. Foolhardy players will get a bonus half-hour replaying some sequences. If you're any good, you can cut it down to a little over five hours. At any skill level, these are some of the finest hours of console shooter campaign in several years.
The MW3 campaign picks up right where the preceding Modern Warfare 2 left off, with the United States under heavy assault by Russian forces, a conflict initiated by sinister subterfuge that sparks outbreaks of factional violence around the world. Even with some favorite good guys and bad guys reprising roles from previous games, there's no emotional involvement with MW3's narrative. If you become emotionally entangled at any point in the campaign's story, there's probably something wrong with you.
There's no sophisticated puzzle-solving required to complete missions. The most complicated decision you ponder while playing is, "Should I hang onto this trusty assault rifle or drop it in favor of that spiffy-looking machine pistol?" Think about that too long, and you're dead, anyway. MW3 takes the shooter category as literally as possible: The objective is to shoot and keep shooting, as many rounds as you can for as long as you can, working your way through thickets of enemies.
MW3's campaign is the most refined and slickly paced to date. Cut scenes are exceptionally brief, and some are interleaved with the action. It's not much different than similar story elements of Modern Warfare 2, but in this third Modern Warfare game, they feel like carefully planned and integrated "breathers." MW3 goes fast and furious, so these passages help settle jangling nerves, allowing you to catch your breath.
Though thoroughly enjoyable, the campaign doesn't approach perfect. Sometimes you get killed because the squadmate you're assigned to follow has advanced far ahead, making you think it's safe to step in a few yards behind his position — only to discover he must be bulletproof, and you're not. There are also firefight segments — especially in shadow, at night or in dark interiors — where squad members advance so far ahead that you take them for enemies and kill them. In standard Call of Duty fashion, you get the penalty for friendly fire, starting again at the most recent checkpoint. Also as usual, the friendly fire penalty is erratically implemented. Sometimes you inadvertently winged a member of your squad, clearly just a flesh wound, yet you kill him and have to restart at a checkpoint. Other times, you unload an entire magazine of submachine gun ammo into a friendly's face, and he doesn't even blink.
Overall, the play balancing in the campaign is fair. I had plenty of, "What the hell? That's not right!" moments, but after restarting the checkpoint, I quickly discovered how to more easily clear the area. Subtle progression hinting is refined, as well. There were a couple of places in Black Ops where I swear I killed a thousand bad guys before I figured out the idea wasn't suppressing enemies, but reaching a certain position. For the most part, Modern Warfare 3's campaign does away with these frustrations. It's quickly evident whether the business at hand is clearing out enemy combatants or reaching a point on the map that triggers checkpoint saves and objective updates.
I was in the minority of players enamored with Black Ops' period style of art direction, but after playing MW3's campaign, I must admit that this game looks as slick and photorealistic as possible. The graphics, though not overwhelmingly advanced from the previous Modern Warfare game, are the best yet. You have to pay a lot of attention to blank walls and bland stairwells to notice MW3 isn't up to the graphical standards of a Killzone or Gears of War game. In normal gameplay, you're sprinting past these minor structures, reloading for the next combat encounter. Weapons, character models, vehicles, building exteriors and cityscapes all look great; in a fast-paced shooter like MW3, those things matter most.
Audio approaches the sublime. The voice acting is solid, accents are believable, and nothing in the script sounds too silly. Radio chatter is an especially immersive backdrop to missions, cut scenes and loading screens. The weapons and war machines are the real stars. Modern Warfare 3's audio production manages the booms, bangs and bursts of hellacious combat at some serious volume without splitting ears or harshly distorting. I can always ask for better sound in a military shooter, but I don't think I'll get it. Infinity Ward has the audio thing down.
As in previous Modern Warfare games, there is no co-op campaign, neither split-screen nor online. In the place of a fully cooperative campaign, MW3 provides single- or two-player Spec Ops missions and the all-new Survival mode. Co-op play is available via split-screen, online or LAN.
We all know that Survival mode is Horde mode from Gears of War 2. By now, many shooters of varying quality levels have implemented numerous of Horde mode-inspired options. MW3's Survival mode pits two cooperating soldiers against respawning waves of enemy combatants on the competitive multiplayer maps. The more waves cleared, the more maps are unlocked for Survival play. As players kill off enemies and complete waves, they earn money to buy weapons and equipment from the armory.
Everything about Survival mode is a solid addition, but for its two-player limit. For some reason, there's now online matchmaking for both Spec Ops missions and Survival mode. Two-player matchmaking. Hooking up with four PSN randoms for co-op play is often ugly, but two-player matchmaking is like a never-ending string of bad blind dates. I'm not lobbying for anything as grand as six- or eight-player Survival mode, but four would've been nice.
MW3's competitive multiplayer shines brighter than ever before, but it's slowly revealed for players who invest time in a substantial number of modes and sub-modes. Although I encountered a small number of jerky, lagging matches that were difficult to play, the majority of online games played smoothly from start to finish, with no perceptible connection issues. Matchmaking was usually fast, too.
Most of the game's multiplayer refinements are individually small, and a great many of the more noticeable enhancements are directed at making Modern Warfare 3 more accessible to casual players. It doesn't work, of course. The constant players still eat you alive. Now, at least, they feed you a handful of painkillers first.
Infinity Ward is trying to make its flagship franchise appeal to a broader range of gamers. The way killstreaks are handled has been modified. Once you've leveled up enough to customize classes — not very long, at any skill level — you can choose between assault and support killstreak styles. Assault killstreaks are the familiar sort, resetting to zero every time you die; at higher kill counts, it rewards you with an array of spectacularly lethal equipment and war machinery. Support killstreaks carry over across player deaths, doling out rewards to defensively assist the player and the whole team. For example, one of the Support killstreak rewards is an airdrop of several ballistic vests, which increase the amount of damage you can take before dying and clearly make a difference in one-on-one encounters.
Great arguments will ensue over "dumbing down" competitive modes for players. I make a lot of self-deprecating remarks about my skills in online multiplayer shooters, but if I put in the practice hours with these games, I can get consistently good at them. In this debate, I come down on the side of the casual player for three reasons. First, there are still plenty of challenging, difficult MW3 multiplayer modes for experienced, talented Call of Duty players. Next, it's not reasonable limiting to campaign those gamers who can't get good enough in no-holds-barred multiplayer to enjoy it. Finally, expanding Modern Warfare 3's appeal as an online and offline package to a broader audience benefits the shooter genre as a whole, therefore benefiting genre fans of all skill levels. It also makes more money for Infinity Ward and publisher Activision Blizzard, and that revenue funds the development of better games with shorter development cycles.
Modern Warfare 3 is available in standard and Hardened editions. The Hardened edition comes in an attractive slipcase, with the game packaged in a nicely designed Steelbook case. There's a collectible notebook of sketches and notes chronicling the Modern Warfare universe. The package also includes a code for a year of the new Call of Duty Elite Premium service, plus a sturdy ID card, with a code that grants Founder status on the service. While the basic Elite service is offered at no charge, accessible via the Web and a free PS3 app on the PSN Store, Premium features cost $50 per year. In addition to a wider range of services and content, Premium includes access to MW3's plentiful forthcoming DLC at no additional cost. The Hardened edition is $40 more than the standard edition, but even without the upscale packaging and collectibles, if you plan on signing up for Elite Premium or buying most of the game's DLC, the package is clearly a good deal.
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 is full of deep, engaging multiplayer and campaign military shooter gaming, so it's easy to recommend. It's the sort of game a dedicated genre fan can regularly play for a couple of years. There are as many arguments that can be made for tight storytelling with lots of action as can be made against short campaigns. To a large extent, MW3's multiplayer is more of the same that people loved about Modern Warfare 2. I'm all for wildly innovative gameplay mechanics underpinning sophisticated narrative elements, but there's nothing wrong with giving the people what they want, either.
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