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Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 Review (360)

Modern Warfare 3 may be seen as the biggest release of the year, the current king of the console FPS’s and the game that everyone else needs to beat, but its champions crown was not assured by any means. Following the strife at Infinity Ward after the release of the second game in the Modern Warfare series and the departure of Zampella and West, there were real questions asked about the future of the series and the quality of this new instalment. Industry murmurs suggested that the game was struggling to meet the standards set by Modern Warfare 2 and the addition of Sledgehammer games to the development process heightened suspicion that Modern Warfare 3 was in crisis. As the highest profile games release of the year, there was confidence in the retail space by casuals that Modern Warfare 3 would be a world beater, but those in the know were far more sceptical. The naysayers have been proved wrong though, and for all EA’s bluster about the quality of Battlefield 3’s singelplayer experience, Modern Warfare 3 has blown away its competitors in the modern military shooter genre. Its not perfect, and its certainly not revolutionary, but it is a high quality release; polished and confident and most importantly, much better than its competitors this holiday.

I confess I was not a fan of Modern Warfare 2. Its campaign had a certain gung-ho casualness to human life and a right-wing sensibility that I struggled with. Fresh from images of reporters massacred by helicopter gunships in real life, I found it hard to stomach doing something similar in a videogame. Worse, in-game death being presented with quotes from Donald “waterboarding’s not torture” Rumsfeld on the ends justifying the means was something I just couldn’t stomach. Many would say that games reviewers and politics have no place in the same article, and while I broadly agree I still feel its good to say why I felt animosity towards the series. I play games to escape reality; to be a hero, save galaxies and explore places I could never go and have adventures I could never otherwise have. It’s a personal preference, and the line we won’t cross is different for each individual, but some of the scenes in MW2 were too similar to real world tragedies while at the same time having nothing to say about them. I was never offended, but I very quickly lost interest in the game as I realised I was playing through a badly told episode of the reprehensible TV series 24.

That ill-defined moral unease did not subtract from the fact that Modern Warfare 2 was a well made game that was polished and full of spectacular set pieces. The interstitial Call of Duty game by Infinity Ward’s allies/rivals, Black Ops, turned out to be far better than anyone else expected it to be and was one of the most generous, feature packed games ever released. How could Modern Warfare 3 improve on these titles?

The answer is simple. They could wrap up the story of Price, Shepherd and Soap – and the villainous Marakov – in a spectacular finale, and improve on a multiplayer game that is already the most popular online FPS game available. For the most part they have been successful.

It may have been the fact that I had just trudged my way through the fantastically average Battlefield 3 singleplayer campaign, but Modern Warfare 3’s story compelled me throughout. The gameplay is exactly what you would expect. Moving from one arena to another, you clear out an area of enemies while following a man with a giant floating “Follow” above his head. At some point you will get to a door (or a gate, or an air vent, or a sewer cover) which you will need to wait for an NPC to come and open before you can continue. These general combat missions are interspersed with tense sniper missions where you are told who to shoot, suspenseful sneaking missions where you are told where to hide and Michael Bay style chase sequences where everything explodes and you are told where to run to. The level of control that the developers extort over where you go and what you see allows them to craft some astonishing sights and experiences at the expense of player liberty. While this is something that bothered me in titles like Uncharted 2 or Battlefield 3 though, in MW3 its so well done you don’t mind. You certainly feel manipulated and forced down a narrow path, but the lack of freedom is mitigated by the quality of the things you see and do on that path. There are moments of action here that I have never seen in the cinema or in any other game. In particular, a moment where the tank you ride in falls though the floor of a multi-story carpark, only for a car from above to also fall and almost crush your character was genuinely thrilling. I sat back from my screen as I grudgingly admitted, “Ok, that was cool”.

The scenario I described above was the moment Modern Warfare 3 won me over. From that moment on I was happy to go with the game, globe trotting and seeing some astonishing sites on the way. I would comment though that the game started a little slow for me. Perhaps it was because I had just been all over New York in Crysis 2, but going back there wasn’t an appealing locale to fight through. As a setting, New York is the last bastion of the unimaginative developer or film director and this sequence felt tired. The strength of Modern Warfare 3 is that it moves along at a brisk pace though. No one location or activity outstays its welcome and the occasional misstep is over as soon as it arrives.

The best sequences of the game were the ones where the story goals were clear and you were with a small team. The missions that featured a combination of Yuri, Nikolai, Soap and Price were generally great. You had an idea of where you were and why, the story is relayed through dialogue and character interaction rather than cut scene and the set pieces work better. These missions are set in a very compelling, fantasy version of reality filled with spontaneous explosion, skydiving and other James Bond style action scenes. In truth, I more often felt like the tuxedo-wearing super-spy than a hardened spec ops troop as I travelled all over the world engaging in espionage and being double-crossed.

With Modern Warfare 3, the developers had a goal of making a bug free, perfect experience. To an extent they have succeeded. There’s a sense that for this type of game, there’s not much more they could do. The story is told better than it ever has been (as evidence of this, I can actually remember the main characters names unlike in BF3), and the game looks amazing. Certainly one of the best looking game of this hardware generation, its graphical prowess is matched by the audio and in particular the gun sound effects. The feel of the weapons in Modern Warfare is unmatched in any other FPS and the thudding, percussive audio is a big part of that.

When it comes to multiplayer, Modern Warfare was a surprising pleasure for me to rejoin. I haven’t played that style of multiplayer since COD4, but the adjustment was not difficult. Never a particularly good player, the matchmaking must have been doing its job as I performed well in all the games I played. Some of the advances from Black Ops are missing like the diving prone option, and other fan-favourite gametypes like one in the chamber and gun game are now not part of the main playlist rotation. This means you need to set them up and invite people, and even then you miss out on the special overlays those games previously had. Despite these omissions there are a great deal of very clever additions. In particular, the changes to kill streaks means that certain character types can carry them across even when they die. This means poorer players can still help their team; a very clever addition. The maps meanwhile are well designed if not always visually spectacular. In the long term balance will be more important than spectacle though, and on that count they seem good so far.

Away from the standard competitive multiplayer, Special Ops returns and its a highlight. There’s something uniquely satisfying about the way the scores appear above the heads of your killed targets, and the design of these mini-campaigns is exemplary. My current favourite involves one player moving to disarm things on the ground while another on a high building snipes enemies who try to stop them. Another mission featuring a helicopter gunner is great fun too. Its a shame there’s no four player mode, but even two is great fun. The Survival mode meanwhile is similar to Horde in Gears and is fine, but I found it less appealing than the other modes.

At the start of this review I (probably unwisely) delved into politics in relation to games. Despite the wealth of modes, gameplay features and polish in the game, it was the relative mellowing of its aggressive, pro-military story that meant I managed to enjoy Modern Warfare 3. With the possible exception of the needless destruction of the Eifel Tower, there’s much less that’s pointlessly offensive and the whole thing no longer feels like a recruitment ad for the army. Indeed, the greater spectacle and ridiculous action grounds the whole thing in a near-future fantasy world that’s easier to accept and enjoy. Most importantly though, the whole story focuses on a cast of believable characters trying to stop a genuinely hateful antagonist rather than simply showcasing how badass the American military machine is. Even the supposed “shocking moment” is mitigated with the knowledge that its a Bond-esque super villains plot rather than a  more realistic terrorist scheme. Modern Warfare 3 finishes the story and provides it with a sense of closure that most games are unwilling to do. There WILL be more Modern Warfare games, but for now this particular story is done.

The next game in this series, whether it goes with the Call of Duty name or the Modern Warfare branding, will have to try something new. Short, tightly focused and closely scripted games short on player liberty and full of spectacle are beginning to wear out their welcome and if the next game doesn’t make substantive updates to the formula it will suffer in review scores and subsequently public opinion too. Derisevely called “asset tours”, these games take you on a roller-coaster ride that’s short, fun and forgettable. For this one last time though, I still want to ride this rollercoaster. Its well worth the price of admission for one last trip. Enjoy it!

8 kills, streaking all over the place out of 10

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