E3 2011 Preview: Modern Warfare 3
Activision is at a crucial crossroads right now, as they're pushing forward despite a lot of risk in their fall release schedule. Sure, much of Call of Duty's fanbase probably doesn't care about the name of the company making the game; as long as Call of Duty is on the box, that's all they need, and Activision has done a great job in getting players to trust that name. But experienced gamers and industry people know that a game can become a blockbuster or an utter bomb based on the talent of the people that made it, and a franchise can be made - or fall apart - with the commercial success or failure of one game. Right now, Activision's doubling down on Call of Duty, sticking to the grueling yearly release schedule (two years for each game, split between two major studios) and hoping that the loss of many of the people that spawned the franchise - key staff at Infinity Ward have left to start another developer - won't hurt their billion-dollar baby.
And from what we're seeing, Call of Duty does look like it's on track, and it's at least in part because Activision has called in a lot of extra staff help make it what it is. After the loss of senior-level talent gutted Infinity Ward, the publisher brought in developers Sledgehammer Games and Raven Software to bolster the manpower going into the project. Modern Warfare 2's plot had Russia invading the United States, and this third game in the trilogy shows us a true World War III being played out in major Western cities in America and Europe, but you'll also head to Asia and Africa during the course of the campaign. You'll take part in these urban wars in Berlin, New York, and Paris as buildings burn, jets fly overhead, and explosions break stuff all around you. If after MW2 you thought Call of Duty couldn't be more like a Michael Bay flick, well, you were wrong, because they've now met that challenge, and then blown right past it. This re-made and reformulated Infinity Ward's mettle hasn't been tested yet when it comes to delivering the years' worth of longevity required for their online modes, but they do know how to come out swinging in the cinematic action department, that's for sure.
The two missions we saw included one that you might have caught at the Xbox press conference at E3. The mission is called Hunter Killer, and it involved going underwater, planting a mine on the tail end of an enemy submarine to force it to the surface, and then boarding it and breaching your way into the command center so that you could use its missiles and fire them at enemy targets. The end of the mission was pretty rough, too, because the speedboat the player was driving was barely better than a dinghy with an overclocked outboard motor on it, even as the enemy was putting up a big chase and huge warships were bumping around in the harbor as well. With a battle happening at nearly every area of the visible map, I very much got the vibe of the Star Wars prequel movies' strategy of filling every camera shot with a ton of things to see; it was very intense and maybe just a little too densely laid on, but the strategy certainly works better for games than I think it does for movies.
The other mission involved something just a tad quieter. This was a more stealthy operation involving the SAS and the apprehension of some kind of major enemy weapon; it appeared to take place in New York, out in some industrial area, and while some of the scenes in Modern Warfare 2 were slow and ponderous with only the odd kill - the first half of the mission up at that base in the snowstorm come to mind - this one heated up very quickly. Before long, it was all open firefights with surprisingly capable (for Call of Duty, I mean) AI squadmates, and a thrilling pace that I'm sure works well for an E3 demo, but I hope that not every mission goes "hot" so early on.
I also got the chance to go hands-on for the new Spec Ops Survival mode that's made for two players, and it plays a little like Treyarch's zombies mode, but with actual enemy soldiers. Everything here takes place on MW3's standard multiplayer maps, so that's a pretty good library of maps right at the beginning of the game. You're not defending a particular stronghold, but you do get money with which to buy ammo, guns, upgrades for those guns, grenades, special weapons, and finally, perk-like bonuses to use. Soldiers come in with shotguns early on while you only have pistols, but making short work of them allows you to take those shotguns and then kill enough dudes in subsequent waves to get some more impressive gear. We got to wave 9 and were doing fine when my demo ended, but during that time I saw helicopters, dogs, dudes with bombs on their chests, dogs with bombs strapped to them (!), dudes in heavier armor, and a few little surprises thrown at us by way of the AI hitting multiple entries to the area we were trying to defend all at once. We were able to use automated turrets, claymores, and more, and even call in Delta Force for some AI-powered buddies to help us. Spec Ops mode has a level progression here that's separate from the competitive modes, so if you want to avoid the fast pace and intense competition of the online mode, you can feel like you're accomplishing things and compare yourself against your friends just in Spec Ops mode.
I was surprised to see that while Modern Warfare 3 uses the same tried and true engine we've gotten very used to in this generation, they've still managed to tweak things and really turn up the overall detail while maintaining a satisfying 60fps smoothness. We saw it on Xbox 360, but it's easy to imagine what the PC version will entail given past performance. Activision has been very quiet about particular features on PC like dedicated servers, Steam support, mod support, player counts, and more, but that will surely be coming as we move forwards.
I've been skeptical in the past about Modern Warfare 3's viability this holiday season, but after having seen it and the Elite program, I'm fully confident that they're bringing a really solid package of features to gamers this year. There's not much info on whether anything's changing with the perks and killstreaks, but it seems likely, and I'm hoping they scale things back from Black Ops and MW2 as well, but opinions do differ on that topic. Anyway, more info on multiplayer will surely be coming out before the release date (which is set for November 8th on PC, PS3, and 360) as well.
Finally, a word about Call of Duty Elite, the new stats and social program that has been much maligned by the press (including me) as well as fans. Now, a lot of this was Activision's fault in its initial announcement and press release that made it seem like past, free features were being moved to a pay model. At E3, develoeprs were on hand to go through a bunch of stuff about Elite and how most of the program is entirely free, and if you want to buy map packs a la carte (instead of "renting" them like Elite subscribers could do), then you can do that as well. Elite subscribers will have the chance to win prizes and do some of the more serious pro-gaming and group/clan stuff, and Activision isn't expecting the more casual Call of Duty players (and we're still talk about the people that still play for an hour or more a day, but just not at the highest level of play) to actually spend money on the Elite subscription. They kept repeating the word free, and yeah, that's mostly true - most of the features they've announced, and most of the features I expect your average (or even above-average) gamer to care about are going to be free. Because the paid subscription allows access to MW3's post-release DLC, they were reluctant to say what all that entails, but we'll find out more this summer, I'm sure.
Some of the interesting stuff they showed was the Group system, where you can add a hashtag to your userid/Gamertag and become a part of that group. You can join as many groups as you want, and you can make your own groups all day if you like, but the idea here is that you could set up a match between, say, fans of opposing sports teams or fans of AMD and Intel or something. Then there are clans, which Activision wasn't really ready to talk too much about, but they did say that not being a subscriber in no way limits what clans you can join. You can only be a member of one clan at a time, and that clan has a unique identifier and membership circle, so it's impossible to be an impostor with that exact tag.
Beyond this, Elite includes a schedule of competitions and challenges 'round the clock on every day, not all of which are oriented towards pro-gamer, twitch aim play (for example: there are kill/death ratio challenges, but there are also screenshot competitions, most flag captures in an hour, things like that). You can see visually where you killed and died most on every map, see tons of stats on gear, kills, deaths, and more, and keep a store of replay recordings of your recent games (and make Youtube clips to upload). Many of these features will be available on smartphones and tablets via Android/iPhone apps and a mobile site. Anyway, Elite does seem to be much more of a good thing than a bad thing, and while Activision still hasn't finalized every piece of it, I am actually pretty impressed with what they showed. The nice part is that all of this will work with Black Ops starting this fall, too, as Activision has been collecting all of the player data required for the program since the game launched last November. (And no, personal data has not and will not be collected or shared, nor will there be any advertising in Elite or its various pages.) The Elite program does look impressive, and as long as most of its features remain free, it'll be a big plus for the Call of Duty franchise.