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Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 Review

By Jeff Buckland, 11/9/2011

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Compared to some of my game critic friends, I haven't been especially kind to Call of Duty in the last couple of years. With serious PC issues on launch for the last two games and campaigns that were memorable but short with little replay value, I've had a hard time considering any recent Call of Duty anything quite like the best shooter made that year. And the multiplayer hasn't been my cup of tea for quite a while, mostly because the attention-deficit style of play where you spawn, kill, or die every couple of seconds is just incredibly frantic and counter to the idea of teamwork.

So I was already a little hesitant when going into Modern Warfare 3, and my skepticism was running high with the knowledge that most of Call of Duty's original creators, the founding team at Infinity Ward, had left the company nearly two years ago. On top of that, I felt that the slick, fun, and only mildly difficult-to-believe storyline of the first Modern Warfare made way for a completely ridiculous plot in MW2. It lost me somewhere about halfway through; there was something about the way that Russia invaded the United States that seemed silly, and the plot holes in how it all got started nagged at me. Online play in MW2 gave people some of the most broken, overpowered perks and killstreak rewards, too, and for me, it was the weakest game that Infinity Ward had made up to that point.

Now, the revamped Infinity Ward, along with Raven Software and Sledgehammer Games, have put together a true sequel with tweaks to online play and a ramping up of the single player campaign that's, frankly, right in line with what you'd probably expect from the Modern Warfare series. This third game starts with a true world war breaking out, and you'll quickly travel the world to visit places like New York, North Africa, Paris, Germany, the Czech Republic, and plenty more places - including some flashbacks to memorable locations from the first two games - to put together the story.

Not that there's much room for story throughout most of the campaign. Modern Warfare 3 minimizes downtime to an extreme, giving you only a few seconds of slower-paced atmosphere in every other mission before breaking out into all-out war for upwards of half an hour at a time. It's almost like those few tense but (relatively) quiet parts of the previous two Modern Warfare games were deemed to be too slow or boring; what used to be the video game equivalent of a Michael Bay movie has now been multiplied many times over for this third game in the sub-series, as the sound and visuals are all-encompassing with constant reminders that war is raging all around you. Helicopters, explosions, gunfire, and much more are almost always going on, and the game switches you between several perspectives very often, trying to give you a taste of a huge range of mounted weapons, gunner positions, and standard FPS action. Sometimes these transitions to other perspectives are done seamlessly inside a single level, and then you switch back again only a couple of minutes later. It can be a bit haphazard and disorienting.

Don't get me wrong - the action is exactly what you'd expect out of Call of Duty, which is to say it feels solid and satisfying, but after so many years of similar visuals and gunplay, it's pretty much identical to what you're used to, and for me it's wearing thin. Four out of the last five games in the series have used many of the same weapons (in the case of Black Ops, it admittedly took a while in the campaign to get to that point), and they all feel exactly like you expect. There are a few fun, new tricks this time around, like guns with hybrid sights that allow you to use one weapon in multiple roles - you might flip the reflex sight out of the way on your M4A1 and slide in the ACOG scope for a medium zoom level, or in another mission you can angle your semi-auto sniper rifle to look down the gun's side-mounted reflex sight and turn it into a solid mid-range weapon. Other gadgets like remote turret control on a nearby helicopter or an unmanned ground-based drone are fun, but they're more like gimmicks. Luckily, the developers seemed to realize that these bits and pieces were not going to last last more than a few minutes before getting old, so while you shouldn't expect any revolutions in the way Call of Duty is played this year, at least none of the new bits and pieces overstay their welcome.

With all of that said, I feel like Modern Warfare 3's campaign better matches the extremely frantic pace that its multiplayer sets - even if that's not actually what I want out of my first person shooters. You're constantly being rushed from one point to the next, always desperately trying to get to the next checkpoint or objective that your superiors bark to you. Everything's carefully scripted to fall down here or explode right over there right as you turn the corner - just as is expected in these games - but in many gunfights you'll be given several tactical options for entering a building to circle around and flank the enemy, hanging back and sniping the troublemakers, or just charging in with a shotgun and sticking a boot up the Russians' backsides. You are never allowed to go terribly far off the rails and the AI is generally only just barely capable of even responding to creative maneuvers - they usually just respond at higher difficulties by doing more damage and being more accurate - but having that modicum of choice in how to handle fights is always a welcome thing in these games.

Now, let's get on with the multiplayer modes. Modern Warfare 3 includes the two-player Spec Ops mode for recreating some of the single player campaign's battles (as well as some additional missions and fun stuff like obstacle courses), but it also includes a new, separate mode called Survival. It plays out like Horde or Firefight mode in other games, crossed with the purchasing power of Treyarch's Zombies mode. Survival plays out on the standard competitive multiplayer maps; waves of enemies come in, you and your co-op buddy get cash for kills and buy new equipment, and you continue to get better stuff as the waves get tougher and more aggressive. There's a rank-up progression in Spec Ops mode, but it's separate from the competitive mode, although the emblems you receive do show up in all online modes.

In competitive play, many of the most annoying perks and killstreaks from the last two Modern Warfare games have been removed entirely. Point streaks now replace killstreaks so that players doing team-oriented stuff now get streak bonuses, and the addition of something similar to character classes makes things more interesting. You can still play MW3 online like you always did before with the Assault package, but now there are two new ones to try. The Support package gives players a ton of support-type equipment as streak rewards without too much in the way of direct offensive attacks, but their deaths don't reset their streaks, and the Specialist package allows skilled players who often get to very high killstreaks to get perks instead of streak rewards as they rack up points, eventually getting to the point that all perks are active at the same time until they get killed. These changes make online play even faster and more deadly for everyone involved, and the tight, almost claustrophobic-feeling maps mean that the next kill or death comes mere seconds after the last one; going around nearly every corner or through almost every doorway results in a firefight and someone watching a killcam.

My favorite addition for MW3's online competitive play is the Kill Confirmed mode. Here, the two teams must collect dogtags from killed enemies to actually net any points for their team, and they can collect fallen teammates' tags to deny points to the opposing team. This often results in a much more in-your-face type play-style rather than hanging back and camping, and it really brings the strengths of Call of Duty multiplayer to the forefront. (It also highlights its negatives, like the ridiculous pace and reliance on simple gun-on-gun mechanics, but most CoD fans wouldn't have it any other way.)

And while I do appreciate the efforts Infinity Ward made to promote better teamwork, like the point-streak system or the small-but-important ways that Kill Confirmed makes players stick together a little better, they're not enough to really make this a team-oriented game. You'll still have lone wolves out there who consider one's kill-to-death ratio to be the sole measure of success, and for many gamers out there, team-based play is that mildly annoying gametype where half the guys on the server generally just get in the way and are merely to be avoided or ignored. The voice chat online is exactly what you expect from Xbox Live - often bringing vile and hateful outbursts from players that immediately go to the top shelf for insults - if the poor sound quality of Xbox Live's chat is decipherable at all - and anyone who tells you that MW3's ESRB M rating does anything to stop teenagers from playing it should go online with one of the console versions to find out how wrong they are.

I spent time on both the Xbox 360 and PC versions of the game, and each port comes with its own strengths and weaknesses. On 360, you get solid visuals and the buttery-smooth 60fps action we have come to enjoy in Call of Duty, while the online social network and advanced statistics system Elite comes fully featured - but it'll cost you. On PC, you get access to better visuals and higher resolutions along with both the matchmaking from MW2 on PC as well as dedicated servers in online play (although you'll have to enable connecting to them in the Options menu), and while Elite is free on PC, it's also being delayed until after the launch and not all features from the console editions' Elite integration will be available on PC. It's not the most ideal thing, but it's the best PC launch we've gotten since World at War.

Finally, while PC gamers are now starting to get accustomed to having to buy DLC instead of getting free map pack releases, they'll likely still find the $15 cost of each upcoming map pack for Modern Warfare 3, which will have four of them over the coming year, to be rather steep. That said, this still feels like a very complete game even with the $60 price tag (yes, that price is for the PC version as well), even if the way it plays is almost completely unchanged from the last few Call of Duty titles.

There are some nice features on all versions, too, like the Theater mode that records your matches and lets you view them from any angle or perspective, edit, and upload footage. Color blind assistance mode will be very helpful for those that could use it, although any other disability is probably not very well covered since the game's so fast and furious in online play. Matchmaking and online play has been smooth and issue-free on all versions for me so far, even with millions of gamers jumping on to play, so kudos to the Xbox Live and Steam support staff who have made that possible.

Despite feeling some fatigue with the reuse of this same formula repeatedly, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 still winds up being everything I expected, and it even includes a few extra additions and improvements I didn't expect. Of course, my expectations were also rather tempered, because I knew that there was no way Infinity Ward or Activision were going to make big, sweeping changes to the franchise this year. Still, some of the series' most dedicated online players will see even the slightest positive change to have huge and far-reaching results and while I can't really agree that any one adjustment could possibly be any kind of earth-shattering revolution in FPS gameplay, adding them all up makes for a concentration of the core Call of Duty experience down to an even tighter, more intense format. I might not agree that this is the direction the series needed to move in, but I fully admit to being in the minority amongst many FPS fans, and at least it does show that the developers are listening to their dedicated and hardcore fanbase. And that's exactly what Modern Warfare 3 needed to do.

Overall: 9 out of 10



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