Infinity Ward has a lot to prove. Hounded by a ferociously capable competitor, still smarting from the scandalous dark days of early 2010 and surrounded by an unprecedented amount of expectation and hype, the stakes have never been higher. Modern Warfare 3 is one of the most anticipated titles of all time... yet over the last few months and years, a growing segment of the gaming community has started to question whether Call Of Duty has gotten too big and too popular for its own good.
But in the grand scheme of things, franchises tend to become popular for one reason and one reason alone: because they're great. Rest easy, FPS fans, because Modern Warfare 3 takes care of business. Activision's holiday blockbuster is essentially three games in one, resulting in an inclusive tripartite experience that offers something for everyone.
Modern Warfare 3's singleplayer campaign picks up almost immediately after the events of Modern Warfare 2. The world is embroiled in a horrific total war between Russia, Europe and the United States, and with the enigmatic puppet master Makarov in his sights, Captain Price sets out to enact his well-deserved vengeance. Players assume the role of a Delta Force operative, an SAS trooper and a new honorary recruit into the disavowed Task Force 141 as they jet-set around the globe and gorge themselves on an unapologetically insane selection of set pieces. One moment you'll be thumping grenades into massed enemy troops as New York collapses around you, sparks and dust thick on the air. The next, you'll be piloting a Sea-Doo through a minefield and hijacking a submarine, smashing a tank through a multi storey car park or engaging in a zero gravity firefight on a jet liner as it careens towards the ground. Exceptional art direction, sound design and effects make for an adrenaline-soaked, white-knuckle roller coaster ride that manages to match - and occasionally even surpass - its predecessors in terms of intensity. QTEs are also refreshingly absent... until the very end. Shame.
Of course, these outrageous set pieces are sandwiched between a number of corridor shooting galleries and frantic arenas, featuring multiple foes that are just smart enough to use cover and fall back effectively. It's standard series fare, but pleasingly, these sections last just long enough to be satisfying but never drag on long enough to become staid and uninteresting. Black Ops' miserable Vietnam slogs are but a distant memory. A continually-changing selection of beefy weapons and objectives also conspire to deliver a decent sense of pacing.
Exciting, yes. Visceral, doubly so. However, the singleplayer experience is certainly not perfect. It's crushingly linear even by Call Of Duty standards, with obvious funnels and bottlenecks usually making you feel like a passenger on the aforementioned roller coaster as opposed to the driver of a runaway train (something that the original Modern Warfare and, more recently, Uncharted 3 managed to absolutely nail). More disappointing, though, is the fact that Infinity Ward tends to fall back into their comfort zone with alarming regularity. I lost count of the number of times your character blacks out and subsequently gets pulled to his feet by a fellow soldier. Slow-motion breaching sections abound. And for reasons I cannot comprehend, the AC-130 makes a truly unwelcome return. This section was absolutely incredible several years ago, but now, it feels like lazy padding and an excuse to pull you out of the action.
Nevertheless, you'll still plough through it with a rictus grin on your face - and probably return for a second helping. Partly since the gunplay is satisfyingly good fun, partly out of a sense of patriotic duty, but mainly because you'll want to discover what brutal madcap insanity Infinity Ward has lined up around the next corner.
Exciting though it is, the campaign is over in the blink of an eye. You'll blast through the story in between five to seven hours depending on the difficulty setting and your personal skill level, and its feels much shorter than it actually is thanks to the constant adrenaline overload. Thankfully, this is where the cooperative suite deploys, rolls in and completely steals the show. Modern Warfare's teamwork modes are much more than a mere afterthought or sideline, providing meaningful and rewarding thrills for two players or even dedicated lone wolves.
Ranked Special Ops missions are back in force; a tense and refreshing set of challenges that offer thought-provoking 'what-if?' scenarios based on the events of the singleplayer campaign. Experiencing some of the biggest set pieces from a new perspective is an absolute blast, and working together with a partner in split-screen or online adds a compelling new layer of strategy to the proceedings.
Most of the flavour, however, is to be found in the new Survival mode. Two players have to work together to repel waves of increasingly powerful randomised foes; with each kill granting them money to purchase better weaponry, turrets, explosives and air support. Dogs, exploding troops, helicopters, juggernauts and all manner of ferocious enemies pour into the arenas, which are deceptively complex and provide plenty of scope for flanking, tight tactics and desperate last stands. It's a shame that more than two players aren't supported - especially since Treyarch's Zombie mode stands as proof of concept - but there's a certain streamlined elegance about a duo in perfect synchrony that you just can't get from a larger team. I'd advise you to play with friends or trusted online acquaintances for the best experience (get a headset!). If you're a fan of cooperative shenanigans, this mode is probably worth the price of admission by itself.
Each and every kill and completed objective (in both Spec Ops missions and survival arenas) also translate into persistent experience that unlocks new survival mode gear, weapons, missions and ranks. It's the best cooperative Call Of Duty experience yet, and an addictive compulsion that's even enjoyable in solo runs on the easier difficulty settings. Replayability and value have increased exponentially.
Many of you probably won't care, though, because Modern Warfare has long been synonymous with competitive online mayhem. It's time to grab the bull by the horns and get stuck into the multiplayer suite. Speaking of time, I thought it would be an interesting experiment to study just how long it takes to enter a team deathmatch from the main menu... which clocked in at an effortless one minute and sixteen seconds. And thanks to the helpfully-provided red dot M4A1, I confirmed my first kill within one minute thirty five. Activision have their netcode and servers sewn up tight, with years of practice allowing them to fully support their multiplayer from day one, minute one.
In raw gameplay terms, the multiplayer is definitely business as usual. Modern Warfare 3 is superficially identical to its predecessors... which is to say that it's polished, fast, slick, accessible, brutal and effortlessly brilliant. The mechanics have been honed to responsive perfection, and the thoughtfully-designed selection of new maps allow players to get involved and assume their combat roles with little or no learning curve. Snipers skulk and strike. Shotgunners prowl and hunt. Assault rifles dominate the mid-range, while SMGs spew out a hail of point blank lead that rewards firing from the hip. Bottlenecks and choke points evolve dynamically throughout each match, while an insane amount of grenades, air support and streaks turn the battlefield into an orgy of visceral carnage. And all the while, players are constantly earning experience that unlocks a steady stream of new gear, perks and ranks.
The heady mix of free-for-all furballs, team deathmatches, hardcore modes and big team objective gametypes are back in force, but it's worth noting that the new Kill Confirmed gametype delivers an interesting breath of fresh air. Kills only count if you collect the downed player's dog tags, leading to an experience that I can only describe as being utterly bonkers. Enormous pitched battles and tense bottlenecks erupt over these hauls, and as the grenades, Semtex and bullets fly, it frequently challenges the most exciting moments of the campaign. The new sense of risk vs reward works very well indeed, though it might well ding your K/D ratio somewhat.
Modern Warfare 3's major improvements come in the form of rebalanced perks, some new killstreaks and the Strike Packages system. Players can now opt to deck themselves out with aggressive killstreaks that reset upon death, or more passive support buffs that continue clocking up even after respawning. And, of course, a massive hidden bomb that functions much like a Tactical Nuke but without the instant end of the match. This allows the more ruthless contingent to mete out Pave Lows and Predators with merry abandon, while receiving logistical support from their more tactical peers who aren't penalised for their focus on teamwork. Advancing through the ranks eventually unlocks the Specialist package that's designed for hardcore lone wolves - adding new perks instead of new killstreaks. By letting players tailor the experience to their own preferences, it's a thoroughly worthwhile addition to the series.
Weapon Proficiencies are another powerful new feature. As well as rising through the ranks with each kill and experience hit, you'll also level up your firearms simply by using them. Concentrating on a particular boomstick unlocks a swathe of new scopes, underbarrel attachments and even minor statistical increases (such as decreased kickback). It's as addictive as any RPG, and gives you yet another reason to play just one more round.
Call Of Duty Elite is currently undergoing a few teething problems thanks to the massive slew of new subscribers (and has been held back on PC due to a disappointing vulnerability to hacking and exploits), but it's set to deliver an incredibly detailed and solid statistics portal. If you're the sort of hardcore accomplishment-driven gamer who desperately craves high K/D ratios and the ability to analyse your own performance for future improvement, Elite provides the most feature-rich free effort since Bungie.net. You can optionally subscribe for extra video content and DLC packs down the line... but the fact is that Modern Warfare 3 feels like a complete package. Nothing has been held back. Nothing has been obviously squirrelled away for a subsequent downloadable debut. If you decide to buy into the inevitable slew of map packs, it will only be to enhance an experience that already provides a well-rounded and meaty amount of content, and frankly, I'm convinced that you'll be able to happily play for months without ever needing to purchase a single one.
And all without an online pass. If you don't mind missing that magic period where everyone's getting used to the maps, there'll be millions of players waiting for you down the line.
Ultimately, however, we have to end this review on a foreboding note. Modern Warfare 3 has effectively taken the franchise as far as it can go without a radical reinvention. Infinity Ward's engine is smooth as silk, but betrays its age with weak facial animations and occasional hilarious glitches. The multiplayer is polished and perfect, the singleplayer is impressively visceral, but it falls back on its past glories rather than forging ahead with new ideas. For now, all is rosy... but the future is far from certain. My advice is to make merry while the sun shines.
- Polished multiplayer
- Phenomenal cooperative modes
- Rambunctious singleplayer campaign...
- ... that's a bit too derivative at times
- Incremental multiplayer upgrades rather than sweeping innovation
- Where can the franchise go from here?
The Short Version: Modern Warfare 3 takes care of business. Whether you're in need of bombastic singleplayer thrills, tactical cooperative teamwork or insane multiplayer mayhem, Infinity Ward's holiday blockbuster has got you covered. Battlefield may offer a truly next-gen multiplayer experience - and we will doubtlessly compare the two very soon - but Modern Warfare 3 is the complete package.