Wondering what to expect from Modern Warfare 3? Look no further than the opening logo. As the first letter of “MW3” dramatically flips to reveal a bright and blatant “WW3” instead, the game both promises and warns you: This won’t be realistic, this won’t make complete sense, but this will always be epic. What little restraint the first two had managed to maintain is now gone in favor of an extremely wild and, yes, occasionally wacky sendoff for the trilogy. If you’re willing to suspend disbelief and go along for that ride, however, Modern Warfare 3 is more spectacularly scripted, unapologetically over-the-top fun than ever.
Around the world in 6 hours
Despite their linearity, despite their ludicrousness and despite their length (or oft-maligned lack thereof), the Modern Warfare franchise’s single player campaigns are famous for a reason: each mission is uniquely designed and uniquely memorable. That sounds obvious, but can you honestly remember or distinguish every level from the last Halo, the last Battlefield, even the last non-Infinity Ward-developed Call of Duty, Black Ops? We can’t. Yet phrases like “ghillie suit” and “sinking ship” and “AC-130” are all we need to instantly flash back to our favorite moments in Modern Warfare 1, while “airport” and “gulag” and “burger town” all hold a special, shared meaning to those who experienced Modern Warfare 2.
That strength is particularly exemplified by Modern Warfare 3, in which the open conflict between Russia and the United States depicted by the second game spreads to encompass and engulf the entire globe, pulling the player into unforgettable battles set in unmistakable locations. Rather than fight through some vaguely European countryside or generically South American shanty town like before, you’re gunning down enemies on the streets of New York City, London, Paris, Prague and Berlin. Not just New York City, but the immediately recognizable floor of the New York Stock Exchange. Not just London, but the very iconic London metro system. Not just Paris, but – what else – the base of the goddamn Eiffel Tower. After straying far from reality in Modern Warfare 2, the developers have detached completely here. Believable? Not really. Clichéd? Maybe. Thrilling? Oh yeah.
Still confident, still controversial
True to Modern Warfare tradition, the stunts and sequences pulled off in each mission are as extreme and exhilarating as the settings. One takes place in a crashing passenger jet, with both you and the hijackers attempting to aim at each other through turbulence and temporary anti-gravity as the plane plummets to the ground. Another starts with you scuba swimming through a flooded commuter tunnel past dead bodies and drowned cars, then sneaking onto a submarine for close-quarters combat, then racing past the Statue of Liberty in a boat as the whole harbor burns and explodes around you. That’s a single mission! Sure, these games are only shooters, but the variety of action that Infinity Ward invents within the genre continues to amaze.
Notice we say Infinity Ward, not Sledgehammer or Treyarch – although Modern Warfare 3 required a collaboration from multiple developers after many of the franchise’s original creators left to launch their own company, this entry still seems like an authentic, Infinity Ward-style Modern Warfare game. Surprisingly, even the story and characters are handled with confidence, so much so that this campaign succeeds in tying together the confusing plotlines of the previous two campaigns, making a lot more retrospective sense of them in the process.
Of course, sticking to the series formula leads to a few predictable flaws as well. At 5-7 hours on Normal difficulty, Modern Warfare 3’s single player is just as short as you’ve come to expect – though, with this degree of popcorn movie insanity unfolding from minute to minute, you shouldn’t feel cheated. Minus the usual breathless cliffhanger, the ending is a bit anticlimactic – though the final fade-to-black scene is close to perfect. And yeah, there’s a totally transparent (also: maudlin, manipulative) attempt to drum up controversy less than halfway through the game – though its inclusion is easier to justify than the massacre from Modern Warfare 2.
Next page: Enough on the campaign already! What about the multiplayer?
More, more (and more) multiplayer
Reviewing Modern Warfare 3’s multiplayer is simple. Not a fan of the online in Call of Duty? This is more of the same. Enjoy the online in Call of Duty? This is a lot more of the same. Rather than risk a reinvention – or even a major evolution – of the most popular competitive gaming of the current generation, Modern Warfare 3 wisely stays with what’s working, then adds and adds and adds. We won’t say this is the absolute best the multiplayer has ever been, as the maps left us slightly underwhelmed and many of the features are carried over from previous entries, but this is by far the most.
All the weapons, modes, perks and packages made classic by Modern Warfare 1? Check. The superb cooperative play introduced by Spec Ops in Modern Warfare 2? Yes, and with missions that cast you as an evil plane hijacker or an artificially intelligent camera turret, particularly inspired this time around. Everything worth copying from Treyarch and Black Ops? No Zombies or currency system, but Gun Game (every kill earns you a new weapon), One in the Chamber (a single bullet, three lives) and Theater Mode are back.
Truly new additions include modes like Kill Confirmed, in which a downed enemy’s dog tag must be collected before the kill counts (encouraging domination through scavenging as well as shooting); Team Defender, in which the side holding a flag earns double points per kill (combining the rules of Deathmatch, Capture the Flag and Assassination into one); and most significantly, Spec Ops Survival, a wave-based co-op siege battle that clearly takes cues from Gears of War’s Horde, but throws in airstrikes and suicide bomber dogs. If none of those sound appealing, create your own mode with Private Matches – of the custom brews we sampled, a zombie infection with Juggernaut suits and a Gun Game with ever-worsening weapons stand out.
Leveling the field
Don’t mistake the size and scope of Modern Warfare 3’s multiplayer, however, for some kind of bloated, overstuffed “everything and the kitchen sink” approach. This is refined, with developers keeping what fans loved and losing what fans loathed. Gone are game-ending nukes, gone are dual-wielded shotguns and gone are overpowered ninja perks.
Replacing these imbalances is clear support and appreciation for those of us who suffer from such winner’s cheats – the 99% who play Call of Duty casually and occasionally, but eventually lose interest as the competition becomes harder and harder to keep up with. For us, Modern Warfare 3 provides “pointstreaks” instead of “killstreaks” so that we can earn rewards even if we die. For us, the game offers “support” packages like deployable turrets instead of “assault” packages like predator drones. For us, there’s Call of Duty Elite, the new social service full of interactive maps, match statistics, weapon suggestions and overall strategy – while hardcore players will surely use it to get better, we can use it to overcome the learning curve and become hardcore someday ourselves.
Is it better than…?
Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare? No. While Modern Warfare 3 features double to triple the amount of multiplayer that Modern Warfare 1 did, it’s still adding bricks to the groundbreaking foundation laid by the original. And while the campaign is a wilder adventure, it’s also way, way wackier – we miss the quiet and restrained mastery of “Ghillies in the Mist.”
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2? Maybe. The missions are bigger and slightly better in Modern Warfare 2, but more memorable and cohesive in Modern Warfare 3. We prefer the multiplayer map design in Modern Warfare 2, but the variety of modes and features is clearly superior in Modern Warfare 3. A tie, then… which considering the development bumps this entry faced, is really a victory.
Call of Duty: Black Ops? Yes. Fightin’ around the world with Price and Soap trumps slogging through the clichéd jungles of Vietnam with Reznov any day – the setpieces made possible by the fictional, futuristic World War III of the former blow away what’s allowed by the historical constraints of the latter. And unless you’re obsessed with Zombies or tomahawks, the multiplayer in Modern Warfare 3 offers more.
For those who skipped straight to the end
If you’re looking for a new kind of shooter, look elsewhere. Modern Warfare 3 succeeds by doing more – much, much, much more – of what’s always worked spectacularly for the series. We still can’t get enough.
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