Platform: PlayStation 3, Xbox 360
Style: 1 or 2-Player Shooter (18-Player Online)
Developer: Infinity Ward, Sledgehammer Games
Release: Nov. 8
Concept: Give fans reason to return to the annual blockbuster.
Graphics: A few standout setpiece moments, but the visual style of the series is becoming predictable.
Sound: The orchestrated, high-energy soundtrack is indistinguishable from previous "Call of Duty" games, but the multiplayer audio isn't radically improved.
Playability: You won't find any issues with the controls. The core gameplay feels as tight as ever.
Entertainment: Though the campaign is poorly presented, the multiplayer offers enough subtle improvements to satisfy fans.
Replay Value: High
It would be easy to dismiss "Modern Warfare 3" as just another iterative update to the massively successful shooter series. After attending a preview event this summer, I left with concerns that the Infinity Ward/Sledgehammer Games collaboration shelved the multiplayer innovation Treyarch introduced with "Black Ops" in favor of more minor, underwhelming updates. After playing through the finished product, some of my early concerns proved valid, but many of the incremental tweaks are smart additions to the multiplayer experience. "Modern Warfare 3" does little to fundamentally change the well-known franchise formula, but it offers enough enhancements to recommend it to any fan.
On the surface, this "Call of Duty" experience is similar to the other "Modern Warfare" games. If a casual fan sat down for a few rounds of team deathmatch or domination, it would be easy to forgive them for mistaking this for a map pack. Its visuals look familiar, most of the weapons are recycled from previous games, the tight gunplay feels similar, maps are still fairly cramped affairs for the most part, assembling a party operates the same, and many of the killstreak rewards return. "Modern Warfare 3's" most noteworthy tweaks may be smaller changes, but they add up to contribute in a big way.
Custom classes are as crucial to online play as always, and players can choose between three new strike packages for their loadouts. Assault is for offensive-minded players, as its rewards are mostly death-dealing instruments like remote control assault drones, devastating air strikes, and the proximity-based I.M.S. (Intelligent Munition System). If you're outfitted with this package, your killstreak progresses as always -- it builds as you rack up kills, but resets to zero once you're taken down. Considering I'm usually heavy on offense, I stuck with the assault package for my first few hours of multiplayer.
The Support package killstreaks are defensive in nature, like SAM turrets, recon drones, and counter-UAVs. They don't have the flash of the deadly assault rewards, but they're still helpful. Unlike the assault package, this package killstreak count doesn't reset upon death. You wouldn't normally reach one of the crazy 18-kill assault rewards without dying, but now it's feasible to earn the most valuable support items in a single game. This package was even more appealing to me when I unlocked a few offensive rewards, like the remote sentry turret, the B-2 bomber, and the recon juggernaut suit. Once I realized the value of this package, it became my default for the majority of my future rounds.
The final package, Specialist, is for tacticians who strategize formulas for specific game types. Specialist allows you to unlock a specific order of perks as you rack up kills. For instance, let's say you want to create a specialist package for use in Domination. You start with whatever three perks you normally have available, but you could then unlock Extreme Conditioning after a few kills to help you sprint from flag to flag. If you live long enough to capture a few flags, you're probably be running low on ammo. Not a problem -- you can set your specialist package to unlock Scavenger to help you pick up more ammo. To reap the rewards of this killstreak package, you have to analyze how you play and where you'd benefit from the unlocked perks most. For the hardcore crowd, this is an ideal pick.
Other new multiplayer features contribute to overall mode improvement as well. Completing objectives like flag captures adds to your killstreak count, and players can cycle through killstreak rewards with the d-pad and select them in the order they wish. Prestige mode counts for something now, as players earn coins to spend on new custom classes, double XP time, or special callsigns. Leveling individual weapons unlocks proficiency abilities like reduced kick or faster fire rate. Customizable private matches allow for absurd and entertaining variations of Juggernaut, Infected and Gun Game. You won't respawn in the middle of a massive air strike nearly as often, either. Players won't notice many of these changes if they're just popping in for a quick round, but those who spend a lot of time in multiplayer will appreciate them.
"Call of Duty's" bread and butter has always been its deep multiplayer, but the campaigns deliver their fair share of memorable moments as well. "Modern Warfare 3" doesn't stray from the oft-emulated "Call of Duty 4" formula. This large-scale, linear, global and sometimes controversial campaign can be finished in less than six hours.
For the first two or three hours, the game hurries from country to country with a jarring narrative that doesn't succeed in getting much information across. All you know is this Makarov fellow is a bit unsavory, and he wants to kill a lot of people. In your efforts to find and kill him, the game finds excuses to have you shoot up the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, protect the Russian president on a jet, attempt to stop a chemical attack in Paris, and watch a supposedly offensive scene that's essentially a less effective and less necessary version of "Modern Warfare 2's" "No Russian" mission. These early scenarios are more concerned with topping the big set piece moments from previous entries in the series than with putting forth a coherent narrative. In one scripted sequence that's awesome, terrible, and hilarious at the same time, I was even forced to shoot a cheetah multiple times in the head while I was in a church.
My concerns with the early portions of the campaign have as much to do with gameplay as narrative. It's a constant "run here, trigger the enemies, now click between the trigger buttons until everyone is dead" experience. As much as the first few hours disappointed me, it gets its act together around the halfway mark. You learn some more about your primary character and his motivations, and the latter half of the campaign isn't filled with the convoluted double-crosses of "Modern Warfare 2." Setpiece moments become more intriguing from a gameplay perspective, with one mission involving an imminently-approaching sandstorm and an air assault mission that switches perspective back-and-forth from the ground to the air. By the time the credits roll, the globetrotting ordeal meets a satisfying conclusion.
If you've wrapped up the campaign and want a break from the standard multiplayer, Spec Ops serves as a great third pillar. This mode is broken into two distinct sections now, with one dedicated to co-op missions like those seen in "Modern Warfare 2," and another that's essentially a Horde mode variant. This survival mode is a blast to play because the soldiers, dogs, and vehicles are far more engaging than the slow zombies seen in Treyarch's entries. Plus, it has its own in-game economy and ranking system.
When it comes down to it, "Modern Warfare 3" meets expectations. The core elements of multiplayer and the campaign remain fundamentally unchanged, but the game serves as a great example of how many subtle tweaks can add up to an improved overall product. Even with the recent turmoil at Infinity Ward, the remnants of that team (in conjunction with Sledgehammer) have put together a worthy sequel to one of the most successful franchises of all time.
SHOULD YOU ENLIST IN ELITE?
Activision's new "Call of Duty Elite" service is an overwhelmingly in-depth feature with many different tools. The team at Beachhead has created a performance tracker that is equal parts comprehensive stats database, clan management system, loadout customization tool, social networking site, and improvement guide. You can see graphs of how your kill/death ratio is trending, customize your clan's callsign and tag, analyze the map locations where you die the most, add friends directly from your XBLA/PSN/Facebook accounts, and even push a new custom class to your console from a free app on your phone. All of the uproar about a premium membership fee seems to be misguided after seeing the final product, as the large majority of the content is free. Members of high-performing clans (of which you can only be a member of one at a time) may want to consider the premium membership, as they make you eligible for prizes like cameras and a free trip to Paris if you're good enough. If you're a casual "Call of Duty" fan, you can still have a fun time in multiplayer without ever touching "Elite." However, this new feature is a boon if you're the type that likes to prestige multiple times.