Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 review

By Garnett Lee, Nov 08, 2011 12:01am PST

At its core, the Call of Duty franchise follows a distinct formula while maintaining its hold as the de facto representative of shooters within popular culture. Modern Warfare 3 follows a new path, with development split between multiple studios: series vets Infinity Ward with key members of its team gone, and newly-formed developer Slegehammer Games. As I grabbed the controller, the question at the front of my mind was whether the two studios could find a way to tap into the magic that separates Call of Duty from the ever crowded field of shooters vying for my time.

It didn't take long for me to start formulating my answer. Starting off with the campaign, I immediately found myself back in the thick of the fight, trying frantically to recall what the hell happened in the last two games. For dramatic effect, Modern Warfare 3 presumes I've committed the story to memory, and picks up seamlessly from the end of the prior game. That's a lot to ask after the frankly convoluted mess Modern Warfare 2's story spiraled into. Modern Warfare 3 does include a credit sequence that flashes sound clips and imagery from previous games in the series, but my primary recollection from Modern Warfare 2 was shooting my way to the end of the game without worrying about what was going on around me.

Modern Warfare 3 definitely learned from that experience. The story this time around is far more logical, and is more engaging as a result. The game similarly unleashes mayhem in New York, Paris, and Berlin along the way. Modern Warfare 3 is still steeped in action-movie flair, which may be part of the franchise's appeal. This approach seems to go against the grain of the games being realistic, but that's more of a surface veneer. I never found myself just a number among the many in the midst of large-scale warfare. Modern Warfare 3 is a heroic fantasy.

Besides its brevity (I completed the story in a couple minutes over five hours), the solo game focuses on cinematic experiences over the challenge of surviving a firefight. Whether by intent, the game's 'moving shooting gallery' invited me to play around with the different weapons, giving me a good idea of the arsenal I preferred for situations in Spec Ops and multiplayer modes.

Spec Ops was one of the highlights of Modern Warfare 2, where it debuted, and comes through strong again. Its two-man missions can be played solo, but the real action came when partnered up with a real player. Perhaps being fresh missions partly contributed, but the best of the co-op missions in Modern Warfare 3 felt better than those found in the last game. For instance, in one of my favorites I was perched on a high rooftop supporting my partner at ground level tasked with defusing bombs in the roadway. I had to juggle sniper support with using a UAV to spot the bombs and take out harder targets like tanks and choppers. The real thrill, though, was how I naturally got into a rhythm of calling out instructions for him of where to hide to avoid enemies and when to run so I could provide cover.

Modern Warfare 3 also introduces a survival mode. Like similar offerings in many recent shooters, it put me, and a partner if I wanted one, on a map to face wave after wave of enemies. Though the novelty of this mode is gone, it plays particularly well to the strengths of Modern Warfare 3. The variety of enemies in the game provided a good workout for my weapon handling skills. As it ramped up I needed to start thinking about which gun to use against which opponent, and how best to use my support tools. By the time I could last several waves I felt more confident about venturing onto the multiplayer battlefield.

And that's really what all of Modern Warfare 3 is leading up to. The true test of multiplayer will come over time but here's what I took away from an extended, intense first session with it. The maps continue to be a core strength for the game. Their combination of ample structures to get lost in and use for firing positions, environments filled with vegetation and objects to provide cover, and plenty of elevation changes to keep me guessing exactly where the last shot came from drives the fast-paced cat-and-mouse fights for which the series is known.

The new packages for kill streak rewards get more players engaged with playing for the team. By choosing to go with a support setup, kill streaks now carry over through death, making them a little easier to achieve. In practice I saw this translate into much heavier use of the UAV to spot enemies--one of the first tier support bonuses--and more team play as a result. And for those who want to go assault, there are still heavy attack packages that come at the risk of the kill streak being reset with each death.

As I set the controller down I realized that my initial impression moments after starting the campaign held true throughout the game with one minor adjustment. It wasn't so much that Modern Warfare 3 expected me to remember previous games in the series, but it was an extension of those titles. It's a formula that works. Call of Duty is the Duncan Hines cake mix of shooters, and though Modern Warfare 3 features a new set of cooks, they have no trouble following the recipe for success.


[The Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 review is based on the Xbox 360 version, played by the reviewer during a local, three-day, press-only review event.]

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