Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 Hands-On Preview
You've been buying every Call of Duty game since the fourth. Or go even further back: you've been buying since COD2 came out when the Xbox 360 launched. Hell, maybe you played the original Call of Duty - maybe you even were a fan of Infinity Ward back when they were called 2015 Studios, making the Medal of Honor games for EA. It seems pretty likely that, despite the series' minor dips and peaks, you're probably going to pick up Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 when it comes out on November 8th. What you're looking for is just some kind of affirmation that at least in multiplayer, they're not just sitting on gameplay from MW2 or maybe Black Ops - that even with all of these "Elite" announcements, even with the totally over-the-top single player mode, that online play is at least going to have some productive, fun-filled changes. Luckily for you, it does - and then some.
Modern Warfare 3, according to Infinity Ward's Robert Bowling, is the "most balanced Call of Duty" yet, but that doesn't really fully describe the scope of everything. From the removal of unpopular perks and killstreaks (like Last Stand, Nuke, and Commando), to the introduction of three separate sets of killstreak rewards and on to the teamplay-focused change away from "kill"-based streaks and towards "point"-based streaks, Infinity Ward has seen holes in their games over the years and is making efforts to plug them. Yes, this development team lost a whole hell of a lot of their high-level talent, but the guys at Sledgehammer Games and the new hires at IW have made it seem - at least from where we're sitting, two months before the game comes out - that the development of this game hasn't skipped a beat and never lost anyone key to its creation.
I'm not convinced that will seem that way a month after the game is out - after all, even with all of this support through the Elite system of turning Call of Duty into a very unique and fun-filled social network (based around using video game guns to shoot people in the face, that is), a game that just doesn't feel as fun as previous entries in the series is not going to be redeemed in the eyes of its fans just because it's well-supported by the publisher and developers. I can't say for sure whether this is the case, and my gut still tells me that Modern Warfare 3 can't possibly be as good as IW's last few efforts due to the loss of key staff, but all of that went out the window once I got my hands on the game; the heart-pounding multiplayer matches I participated in convinced me that MW3 has a very, very bright future ahead of it. The developers are doing what I thought to be rather unlikely considering everything that Infinity Ward has been through: they're making what looks like the most fun entry in the Modern Warfare saga yet.
The Call of Duty XP event where we got to play the game focused entirely around multiplayer, so I got a couple hours' worth of time invested into a few modes: Capture the Flag, Team Deathmatch, Domination, and the new Kill Confirm mode. All of the maps are interesting to look at, easy to navigate but with multiple paths to any location, and tight enough that the action's fast and furious with anything more than twelve players. Sure, other games this fall will command the, ahem, battlefield advantage when it comes to mixed warfare between ground troops and vehicles on large maps, but there's just nothing that has that smooth, crisp feel of Call of Duty in small-arms combat.
Just as you'd expect out of any new game with this name on it, everything runs perfectly at a blistering 60 frames per second on PS3 and 360, and presumably just as fast on even a mildly decent PC - although since the CoD XP event was partially sponsored by Microsoft, all gameplay was on the 360. Still, when I ask young gamers what makes Call of Duty's multiplayer better (or at least, for the nearly every single one of them that has a
preference between this and other shooters), they always tell me that it feels right, that it's just fast. "Fast or smooth"? I ask them, and the answer is "both". Of course, in a game that's all about instant gratification - the speed of kills, the constant stream of points, levels, perks, and killstreaks with nearly every pull of the trigger, it turns out that we're talking about gratification on the level of milliseconds, too - like when a gun fires at most about 20-25 milliseconds after pulling a controller's trigger. That's only possible when a game's running at 60fps, because at 30fps, the amount of input lag is effectively doubled. This absolutely makes a difference when teenagers and college kids go to the store to choose which big bad FPS they want to buy this fall.
Of course, it's true that Call of Duty isn't exactly the most amazing-looking game coming out this year; titles running on newer technology have more detailed textures, better animations, larger maps, and amazing displays of physics - and some, like RAGE, will even do it at 60fps - but none of them have the kind of frenetic multiplayer that, even in its eighth major entry since the franchise launched in 2004, no one has really been able to reproduce. Oh, sure, devs around the world have stolen all kinds of stuff from Call of Duty for their own online modes: killstreaks, perks, killcams, level progression, and more have almost become the standard for online play now, but putting it all together in such a way to keep people playing just one more match? No one else has done that.
Let's get into some of the new content. First, there's a new two-player Spec Ops mode that has moved away from campaign-style missions and taken more of a multiplayer-like route, as it's placed on the online modes' maps and includes both level progression systems as well as money made in each match that can be spent, Zombie Mode-style, on new gear to help you survive tougher later waves. Yep, enemies do come in waves like you'd see in Firefight or Horde modes, which for me is getting kind of played out, but I think we can survive at least another good six months or so of it before it goes the way of colored lighting or Quick Time Events.
The big new thing in competitive multiplayer has to be the new Assault, Strike, and Support Specializations. This does not mean class-based multiplayer, as any class can still use and level up any weapon, but it gives players access to unique sets of perks which they can then choose from. Assault plays just like you'd get in previous games, with big rewards and big risks for losing your killstreak when you die. The Support specialization gives you access to gear that's less lethal, but it's still handy to have for a teamplay focus, so things like SAM launchers to take out enemy aircraft or Recon Drones for marking targets are here - and the nice part is that these streaks don't reset when players die. The third one is Strike Specialization, and this one is going to be the most interesting new entry because as your killstreak goes up, you start getting more and more of the game's classic and most popular perks added to your character, and on the eighth kill in a streak, you get all of the perks at once. Die, though, and everything resets.
What this does it allows a great player to use the Strike class to become an overpowered juggernaut, but since his kills on Support players don't ruin their progression through their killstreaks, he doesn't ruin the fun of the players that don't have the aim to take him down face-to-face. Standard Assault streaks still take out lots of people and do plenty of damage, so everyone has their place. The only thing I see as an issue is that Support players will be seen as noobs, even if they're actually really good at what they do. I'm hoping that this attitude changes and that Call of Duty players as a whole can see the utility in having support-based players who help the team and keep everyone alive - possibly with a lower Kill/Death ratio, sure, but they're still contributing meaningfully.
Of course, in some modes, you need to, uh, support the ... Support players by giving them reasons to perform these actions and still get to the next killstreak level, so now "pointstreaks" are used by default in some modes. Not only do they get to continue their streaks when they die, but they also are contributing to their next streak with support actions as well as actual kills. Players who still measure their success entirely on K/D ratios and shooting people in the face won't see a difference, but those who choose a more strategic route won't be too far behind.
My favorite thing to play over this whole weekend of CoD XP was the new Kill Confirmed mode. Here, every killed player drops dogtags, and if your buddy goes down and you collect his tag, you deny the enemy's kill - and their team's score doesn't change. If you kill someone and either you or one of your teammates takes the tag, your team's score increases. Likewise, if you see a firefight break out and both your buddy and an enemy die, the first team to run over both dogtags is the one to get the point for themselves. This also adds a new element as people could be laying a trap - is some guy just camping in some dark corner, waiting for you to run to the dogtag of the guy he just killed so he can get a two-for-one? Players will have to become just a little bit more cautious and check around that corner before popping out to grab that dogtag. Overall, it's a relatively small adjustment to the standard Team DM action, but it has some fairly profound effects on how people play.
We've now read quite a bit about Elite, the feature put together by Beachhead Games that started out as a stat-tracking site, and has turned into a much more ambitious project. Now, it's a social network for Call of Duty players that allows them to connect and communicate from the web, mobile devices, and even in-game, and analyze their play in an unprecedented number of ways. The service got a lot of flak when it was announced since it was originally announced in a way that made it seem like the majority of its functionality was hidden behind some kind of monthly fee, but the end result we'll be getting is actually pretty attractive.
Nearly all of Elite's features are free, and the subscriber-only stuff is a much smaller subset of (admittedly pretty cool) stuff. Subscribers can level up their clans separately from their own characters and participate in challenges, you get access to all of the paid DLC, and you can participate in solo challenges as well as a paying member. Challenges can lead to in-game rewards and even real prizes, and the plan is to have a new challenge going on every night, so it might be the most knife kills in two hours, the most Domination captures in an evening, or the most people marked with a Recon Drone in a small time window. The general idea is to have competitions that challenge both the game's top players as well as ones that nearly any player could theoretically win, although having the superb aim and reflexes to take out nearly every enemy on the way to challenges does seem like it'd still be a pretty hefty advantage.
But what I like most about Elite is that it only costs $50 for a year, and according to Activision's wording at the XP event, you actually gain ownership of any DLC that comes out while you're a subscriber. The plan is four major DLC packs, but Elite subscribers have that content broken up into something new every month, so in the timeline between Modern Warfare 3's release and the release of presumably Treyarch's next entry in the series in November 2012, paying members will have exclusive access to content nearly all year. And when Activision uses the word "own", that tells me that subscribers will be able to keep playing DLC even if they stop paying for the premium version of Elite; of course, right around that time a new game in the series will be coming out, so the idea seems to be that they'll be trying to convince you to resubscribe for the new game's extra content and prizes. The bottom line is that if you're going to buy four map packs anyway, that's sixty bucks; Premium Elite costs ten dollars less, gets you all the DLC, and gives you access to extra features and even the chance to win prizes, too.
Now, Activision at this event has thrown out a lot of numbers regarding new weapons, killstreaks, perks, maps, and such, but I don't feel that trying to make a big list would really be productive; suffice it to say that Call of Duty veterans looking for another fun online FPS experience that lasts months, if not years, are very likely going to be happy with what Activision's offering this time. I'm a little doubtful that teamplay will be focused on very heavily by players, and that those looking for a tighter, more cohesive game that forces players to work together to win will have to look elsewhere. Still, at this point it's kind of silly to think that when every Call of Duty is more successful than the last, a huge change to the way it plays is really warranted. We can spend all year trying to predict the eventual demise of this tried and true formula, but here in 2011, Call of Duty is going to be just as successful (if not more so) than it has been in years past.