This title may feel familiar, but its similarity is hard to criticise when the core components are this good. A speculative campaign and a freshly balanced multiplayer component headline Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3, and while the visual engine is looking a bit tired, its penchant for addictive gunplay remains unmatched.
"World stands on brink," reads an advert for the latest issue of Time magazine in a war-torn interpretation of the London Underground. We've just chased a train through London's famous subway, shooting at enemies from the back of a speeding van. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 remains as bombastic as ever, but it’s the franchise's touches of everyday familiarity that represent its most poignant charm.
It's not like Modern Warfare 3 is particularly believable. It spends much of its campaign trying to steer its predecessor's narrative in a more cohesive direction. But in spite of its pompous eye for the speculative, the World War III backdrop is genuinely touching. That is to say, beyond all the slow-motion explosions and trendy military jargon, Modern Warfare 3 touches a nerve that makes it all the more engrossing than the plots of competing shooters such as Killzone 3 and RAGE.
The opening scenes underline Modern Warfare 3's urgency. There's no time for cute shooting ranges and brisk strolls through military camps — New York is under attack. Those that muddled their way through Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2’s messy campaign will recall the game closing on an impending war between Russia and North America. Modern Warfare 3 tries its best to re-write many of the hokey aspects from MW2's campaign and generally comes up trumps, weaving a narrative that is as enjoyable as it is explosive: if you don't spend too long over-thinking it.
Given the capitulation of Infinity Ward last year, it's somewhat of a miracle that Call Of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 exists at all. When Call Of Duty's founders Vince Zampella and Jason West were publicly removed from their post at Infinity Ward, the top-tier developer suffered a cull which cost it almost half of its work-force. It's unclear what state the project was in before Activision newcomers Sledgehammer Games jumped on board, but whoever steered Modern Warfare 3's ship back on course deserves a pat on the back.
Despite having everything against it, Modern Warfare 3 is surprisingly a fantastic game. While the formula hasn't really evolved much in the four years since it started, it’s a reminder that the series really is the very best at what it does. There's something about the sheer spectacle of Modern Warfare 3's moment-to-moment action, coupled with its class-leading controller input response mechanisms, that put it ahead of every other shooter out there.
The smooth 60 frames-per-second refresh rate also leads to some of the most satisfying gunplay on the market, with the snap-to aim assist leading to some genuinely slick corridor shootouts. Like recent Call of Duty games, this is linear and arguably simplistic, but it’s hard to deny the gratification associated with bundling down urban locations behind the red-dot of an explosive assault rifle, while threads of bullets bring down enemies promptly and smoothly.
There's a slickness to the gunplay that makes it so universally appealing, and this title turns up the scale from the offset. Admittedly, this leads to a few too many on-rails sequences — as you point a fixed machine gun at a variety of moving targets — but these can be forgiven in part due to the sheer scale of some of these encounters. One of the early set-pieces thrusts you inside a helicopter ride through New York, focusing raucous cascades of heavy machine gun fire on chasing Russians. The sequence concludes with crashes, explosions and ringing ears —while ultimately familiar, it’s a minute long testament to the type of set-piece that the franchise handles so well.
Within an hour of your time with Modern Warfare 3's single-player campaign you'll have survived a plane crash, destroyed a submarine and witnessed more meaty explosions than is possible to count on two hands. The game opens at a high-octane pace and never relinquishes its grip, making it unusually moreish in spite of the stressful scenarios it pulls you through.
Unfortunately some of the game's encounters do end up feeling a touch formulaic. When it comes to the franchise's most recognisable encounters, it feels like Infinity Ward is checking boxes. Not every game in the series needs an AC-130 mission, no matter how good it was first-time around.
Modern Warfare 3 is at its best when it channels the heritage of its predecessors. You still feel like something of a super-hero, but shootouts throughout Prague and London give you that sense of being one-person in a war of thousands, and that's refreshing after the scaled back scenarios of Modern Warfare 2 and Call of Duty: Black Ops.
Your allies are still excellent too. Billy Murray reprises his role as Captain Price and puts in another sterling performance, forcing you into a beaming smile each and every time he closes a cut-scene with a bad-ass monologue. The American soldiers are solid this time around too, with the cringe-worthy backslapping of previous entries toned down a touch, giving the unit a much more likable appeal.
The plot is refreshingly decisive also. Modern Warfare 3 ties up the narrative arc that Infinity Ward's been exploring in its past three games fairly conclusively.
Of course, for many, the conclusion of the game's campaign will not represent the end of its appeal. Multiplayer is still a huge aspect of Modern Warfare 3, and thankfully Infinity Ward and Sledgehammer have implemented a number of subtle tweaks to add longevity and balance.
The formula is largely the same — light role-playing implementation rewards players for almost every action in the game, offering the ability to unlock new weapons, profile icons and more. It's still as addictive as ever, being the master of a dangling the metaphorical carrot. While some would argue that games should be played on the basis of their gameplay systems, Call of Duty goes further. It's not only a fun game to play, but it's also a rewarding one. Getting a double-kill is satisfying on its own, but the way it’s framed with big guitar stings and flashing numbers makes it all the more gratifying — it’s the ultimate incentive to keep playing.
Modern Warfare 3 is also arguably the most balanced game in the series. Killstreaks are now divided into Strike Packages, allowing you to further customise your style of play. Support packages allow less skilled players to contribute towards the team without needing to go on outrageous killing sprees, while Assault packages are more traditional. The pair are balanced by the killstreak resetting upon death, meaning it's still extremely challenging to unlock some of the best rewards. Meanwhile, Support packages can be obtained throughout the duration of a match — and while they offer less immediate effects, they can still make a huge difference.
A duo of new game types help to extend the appeal of the franchise's familiar roster too. Kill Confirmed is a welcome alternative to Team Deathmatch which sees you collecting dog-tags in order to register or deny a point on the board. Meanwhile, Team Defender is a fast-paced game-type which has teams fighting over a single-flag and seeing which side can hold onto it for the longest. Neither really reinvent the wheel, but nor do they need to. With the core action already so identifiable, these subtle tweaks add hours to the experience, offering new stomping grounds for existing players. And of course, the already well-established roster of play-lists are represented across the title's set of new maps.
Of course, Modern Warfare 3's roster of gameplay options doesn't stop there, with the Spec-Ops co-operative mode that debuted in Modern Warfare 2 now fleshed out and expanded. A new Survival Mode finally fulfills Modern Warfare's version of Horde — minus all the zombies — while a slew of new Spec-Ops objectives offer a challenging sub-set of new missions derived from the main campaign. It's disappointing that this component is still stingily confined to just two players, but at least it’s enhanced by full matchmaking if you're something of a lone-wolf like we are.
It's a shame that the MW3 is starting to show its age technically. The boosted frame-rate feels like a trade-off for its blurry textures and wishy-washy colour palette. While the sense of scale is enormous at times, it’s hard to shake off the feeling of familiarity. The engine simply looks tired, and it really feels like the right time for Activision to plough some of the series unparalleled profits into overhauling things once and for all.
Menus remain slick and precise, though the majority of statistical tracking can now be found within Activision's new Call Of Duty: Elite service. Unfortunately, the service has been going through some serious teething troubles since launch, leaving us unable to take a glimpse at our own statistics for the past five days. Hopefully Activision's able to tidy up this component quickly, because it does feel like it could provide a worthy service to heavily invested players, and we're actually quite curious to see just how deep the implementation goes.
There's a tangible insistence from gamers that this series needs to evolve, but it seems unwarranted when it still leads the FPS class. The engine's definitely in need of an overhaul, but when it comes to thumping set-pieces and addictive multiplayer design, Modern Warfare 3 is still in a league of its own.