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?