For the past four years the Call of Duty franchise has remained somewhat "review proof" due to the fact that their inexplicable quality and incremental evolution were always enough to impress the millions of fans. Every year, the mantra has been, "It's a lot like the last game BUT…" and that has been sufficient to satisfy gamers worldwide. Modern Warfare 3, however, is devoid of a "BUT" in its staid and outdated offerings.
Modern Warfare 3 picks up directly after the ridiculous conclusion/cliffhanger of Modern Warfare 2, chucking you into the fray without even the characteristic Modern Warfare tutorial to remind gamers of the best controls in recent FPS history. To say Modern Warfare 3's campaign is similar to that of its predecessor would be a gross understatement; Modern Warfare 2 went the Michael Bay levels of insanity route, and MW3 just turns the dial from 10 to 11.
The campaign offers neither the peaks of absolute chaos to the troughs of quiet intensity that made Call of Duty 4 so memorable, nor the freshness of relentlessly dumb action found in MW2. It's just always on, never relenting enough to build any tension or try something less loud or unpredictable.
There are definitely some set pieces worth experiencing; the opening sections in New York and a particular plane sequence are quite impressive, but by and large, Modern Warfare 3's campaign feels overly familiar and by-the-numbers. It's difficult to recall anything about the single-player beyond the time spent behind a fixed gun with endless terrorists running at you and the ridiculous amount of hand-holding funneling players from encounter to encounter.
Even the storytelling techniques of no cutscenes, green war room visuals, and intense voice overs have worn out their stead, throwing the imaginative structure of Black Ops' framed narrative into sharper relief. At least Price, Soap, and Makarov's tale is wrapped up nicely, providing the closure one expects from a trilogy. Admittedly, the story was so contrived and nonsensical from Modern Warfare 2 onwards, but the conclusion is handled well.
The brief flight aboard Air Force One plays host to one of MW3's grander set pieces.
As with all Call of Duty games, the production values are exceptional throughout the campaign's entirety. Voice acting is competent, the sound design is well done (if inferior to the last three years of work from DICE), and the music lends the right amount of cheesy drama to proceedings.
Modern Warfare 3 does fall down in its graphical presentation as it perfectly recreates the lighting, texture detail, and particle effects of a game we played 2 years ago. MW3 looks nothing short of dated, especially when compared to the crisper and more colorful presentation of Black Ops. Only the typical, solid 60 frames per second saves MW3 from graphical ignominy. In an age where Epic can squeeze phenomenal visuals from the aging Unreal Engine 3 in Gears of War 3 and id Software can wrangle both 60 frames and PC levels of detail out of current consoles, MW3 is a comparatively dull, khaki-colored game that verges on the ugly.
Being a Modern Warfare title in a post-Call of Duty 4 world, multiplayer is the predominant focus. As with every Call of Duty, the design philosophy here is "leave the basics, fiddle with the minutiae" and most of the changes have been smart. Sniper Rifles have been given a new lease on life after being cut off at the knee in Black Ops, explosives aren't as easy to abuse as they were in MW2, and the shotguns are no longer overpowered to the point where they break the engagements. It's the most refined and well-thought-out version of this multiplayer formula so far, but you have to be down for an almost identical experience compared you shared with Black Ops and MW2. Modern Warfare 3 makes no effort to disguise that you're still filling up progress bars and unlocking numerous firearms/attachments.
The handful of studios backing the multiplayer have also, intelligently, added support bonuses to allow incompetents like myself to contribute to the team effort even if they are unable to rack up massive killstreaks. The support bonuses are persistent during each match, regardless of death, meaning you will have an opportunity to aid your teammates at some point. The addition makes the multiplayer experience a better team game than previous iterations, but other than the standard game types and obligatory new maps, weapons and customization have just been expanded rather than renovated. If you're a hardcore fanatic when it comes to Call of Duty's multiplayer, then these changes will be appreciated. For everyone else, the alterations such as "Kill Confirmed" feel like a developer grasping at straws to come up with something original.
There's an element of organized chaos to the multiplayer.
Probably the most interesting and noticeable changes to Modern Warfare 3 lie in what IW/Sledgehammer have cribbed from other games. The wager match modes, the highlight of the Black Ops multiplayer experience, have all been included in customizable form in the "Private Match" mode. However, this mode lacks matchmaking, which basically means most people won't play it. As the wager match game types are still some of the most imaginative in the Call of Duty multiplayer repertoire, being forced to find enough players to populate a single game is nothing short of a painful chore. It's a profound absence of common sense on the part of the developers.
Infinity Ward/Sledgehammer have also realized that Horde mode is pretty popular, and thus created an enjoyable copy to the co-op Spec Ops mode. Like Gears, you can purchase support bonuses, gun emplacements, and the bread and butter airstrikes and care packages to survive against an ever-increasing onslaught of foes. Shooting C4 laden dogs with a friend is probably the most fun you can have in MW3, but the player count stops at two when other games manage four at the minimum.
The Spec Ops missions provide enjoyable distractions from the multiplayer core if you like infinitely spawning enemies. The developers have added some interesting co-op scenarios, such as a back-alley skirmish where one player is one the ground while the other operates cameras to provide support. There's plenty of missions to choose from as well, ensuring Spec Ops maintains its place as one of the most interesting facets of the Modern Warfare formula.
In the past, one could safely say that if you like Call of Duty, then buy the latest Call of Duty. Infinity Ward ensured enough new elements to feel like something fresh and exciting for a devoted fan. Modern Warfare 3 is the turning point; the brilliant production values and quality gameplay do little to make MW3 feel anything more than a rehashed product running on the fumes of its predecessor's successful ideas and those taken from better games. There's no denying its competency, just as there's no denying its lack of inspiration and evolution.
Developers: Infinity Ward, Sledgehammer Games, Raven Software
Release Date: November 8, 2011
Number of Players: 1 (Campaign), 2 (Cooperative), 2-18 (Multiplayer)
Platforms: Xbox 360 (Reviewed), PlayStation 3, PC, Wii