To say that Call of Duty means a lot to a lot of people would be an understatement. The franchise ranks worldwide alongside series like Gran Turismo, Grand Theft Auto and The Sims. In the NAG office alone, we have collectively logged over 4,400 hours between Black Ops and Modern Warfare 2. Perhaps it’d be accurate to say that Call of Duty means a hell of a lot to a hell of a lot of people, so how does one go about developing the next title in this long line of successful games, with so many gamers eagerly awaiting it, and with others left bored with the series or put off by the administrative unrest it’s seen over the last few years? The answer, it seems, is a simple “play it safe.”
“Safe” is a relative term in Modern Warfare 3, as the game attempts to do everything it can to convince you that danger lurks at every turn while simultaneously letting you know that everything will be okay as long as you do as you’re told. This is a game that wants to be played to completion. The formula has worked a treat with past Call of Duty titles, which relied on series of events that play out like scripted productions in which you’re allowed to run around with a high-powered assault rifle while the other actors await your next line – a backstage prompt occasionally helping you out if you’ve forgotten it – and nothing has changed this time around. Only this isn’t like the pantomime your mom dragged you to for a shot of culture when she felt you’d spent too much time in front of “that damned box”, MW3 begins with you crawling out of a ravaged APC in the middle of war-torn Manhattan; a comrade tosses you a clip of ammunition and tells you to kill anything with a Russian accent between here and your goal 500 metres ahead. Masonry falls about you from the high-rise buildings while enemies attempt to fill your head with bullets. Players on hardcore or veteran difficulty would do well to keep to cover, be smart with their movements and be quick about taking their shots. Those on lower difficulty levels are free to gallivant around like indomitable heroes during these combat sequences. Your AI squad mates will do their best to deal with the enemy but try to leave a few shots for you, which adds a sense of urgency to the combat, especially when the grenades start raining in your direction in the attempt to flush you out of cover.
During the single-player campaign, you’ll get to take on the roles of a few different players in Makarov’s attempt to spark World War 3. Each character is functionally identical but plays a different role in the saga, and depending on whether you’re fighting as a member of Delta Squad, Price’s ragtag group of international special operatives, the SAS, or as a few cameos in-between, the mission types range from straight-up run-and-gun to support to covert operations with their laughable stealth sequences. While the scripting is generally strong enough to carry the lack of innovation in MW3 and keep the action fun, one can’t help but feel that it’s too overpowering in the stealth sequences. As long as you keep your face glued to Price’s rear-end, stop when he says stop and pull the trigger on his command, you’ll sail through these. Thankfully, in the six hours of the campaign you’ll spend most of your time shooting bad guys and watching incredible action sequences unfold around you, so this blemish a minor one.
Finally, there’s the human emotion angle – the bit that those players who take the Call of Duty single-player campaigns seriously genuinely enjoy. I can’t make that claim because COD has always been about eye candy and popcorn action for me, but there are enough heartstring-tugging moments in the campaign to let you know that someone is still trying. With that said, the final mission is perhaps the most engrossing part of the entire campaign. It was the first and only time I felt attached to the characters and I regret not experiencing more of that attachment throughout the campaign – it certainly would have gone a long way to enhance the story and make the world more believable. When you’re simply following orders and everything magically happens around you because you’re standing in the right place on someone’s mark, that believability is somewhat perturbed. Not shattered, just, you know… ruffled a bit, especially when you attempt to perform an action that hasn’t been planned for.
Once you’ve finished the SP campaign, Spec Ops is where you’ll enjoy most of the game’s replayability if you’re without connection to the rest of the world. It comes in two parts: Missions and Survival. The 16 missions are mostly retellings of important parts from the campaign, either from new perspectives or with different objectives, and rewards players for completing them either quickly or at all. Three challenge ratings exist for each mission and players earn XP for completing them. These experience points are for Spec Ops only, and give Survival mode one thing that the now-classic Call of Duty Zombies mode doesn’t have: unlockable content based on a persistent player level.
Survival mode is similar to Zombies and most other horde survival modes/games, in that infinite waves of enemies spawn in the attempt to kill the players. Survival is played in slightly altered versions of the game’s 16 multiplayer maps, which are divided into four levels of difficulty – each new difficulty bringing with it new enemy types that spawn at later stages. During or between each wave, you can access the three terminals scattered around each map to purchase ammo top-ups, weapons, equipment and air support (including certain perks, aerial bombardment and the like), using cash acquired from kills and bonuses. Much like the Perk-a-Cola machines and Mystery Box in Zombies, timing your visits to the terminals is a key part to surviving later rounds, and while the certainty and variety of the terminals’ contents somewhat diminishes the terror usually associated with “Box runs”, it’s still pretty unnerving to run out of bullets in the middle of a round and be forced to make your way across the map to the weapons terminal. As mentioned previously, Spec Ops has its own persistent player level counter which is especially important in Survival, as a higher player level gives you access to the bigger and better weapons, equipment and air support options, although you’ll always be able to pick up the weapons of your fallen attackers. Survival is certainly fun and will make for a good time with you and a friend in either splitscreen or online co-op, but its limit of just two players means that you’ll never experience the same level of frenzied chaos (and resulting hilarity) that four-player Zombies offers. It also lacks the history, bizarre storylines and tons of Easter eggs in Zombies, leaving Survival feeling cold and detached compared to it.
I’d argue that the majority of Call of Duty players care more about the multiplayer component of these games than anything else, but I don’t have the stats to back that up. Modern Warfare 3’s multiplayer isn’t here to rock your perception of the genre or change the way we play games, but rather to refine and improve on MW2’s and Black Ops’ multiplayer components, fix those things considered to be broken and please as many people among the current fan base as possible.
Within minutes of playing on any of the sixteen new maps, I felt comfortable and confident about routes through the environments and within a few minutes more I had a good sense of the places to be and those to avoid. In short, each map feels distinctly COD-like, but a number of changes to design subtly permeate the gameplay and you’ll only really notice them when you notice that you haven’t recently been shot by a camper abusing a horribly unbalanced section of the map (although, to be fair, there were a few instances when that did happen; one has to leave something for the campers to do). Another change is the absence of huge, sprawling maps, or particularly small ones. Each map feels just right in size and you’ll never be too far from the action, even if you’re the flanking type.
Many of the design changes centre around a focus on gun-play, and with that, melee attacks and underslung grenade launchers have been nerfed. You’ll still be able to insta-kill with the knife or with a direct hit from a noob tube, but splash damage has been reduced on the latter and the removal of the Commando perk and most lag-related “teleportation” has seen to it that the former is less of a concern unless you’re within kissing range on the battlefield. The perks have also been balanced, together with weapon proficiencies and attachments gained from levelling up individual weapons, to make each player feel like their play style has been catered for without putting anyone else at a disadvantage. Unless, of course, your play-style is a knife-wielding noob-tuber, in which case you’re out of luck. Oh, and the shotgun class has been moved to the primary weapon slot, which you’ll probably welcome if you’ve ever been blown apart by a surprise AA-12.
Most of the game modes have been left intact, with the only notable exception I spotted being the change in Demolition’s final round in the event of a draw, and the inclusion of a few new modes is most welcome. Kill Confirmed is similar to Team Deathmatch but requires players to confirm each kill by collecting the dog tags dropped by each slain opponent, and preventing enemies from confirming their own kills by scooping up tags from fallen allies. Only confirmed kills count towards the team’s total score. Not only does this make camping less effective (unless you’ve got a great team to collect the tags), but it encourages team work which otherwise tends to disappear in TDM. The other new game mode, Team Defender, is similar to Capture the Flag, in that there’s a flag, but the goal is to hang on to it for as long as possible, gaining points for your team as you do. If you die, the flag drops, available for anyone on either team to pick up and start scoring points. Again, this is a great distraction from TDM and manages to be a game mode focused on combat, but also requires a keen battle awareness and map knowledge from the flag carrier.
Another feature that must be mentioned is the restructured Killstreak reward system – these are now Pointstreaks, which are made up of points gained from killing enemies as well as accomplishing mission objectives like flag or point capture. This change alone is brilliant, and long overdue, but it’s made even better thanks to the segmented Strike Packages – essentially three separate categories of Pointstreak Rewards of which the player is allowed to choose one per loadout. The Assault Package is perfect for those who enjoy dropping lots of bombs and helicopters on people; the Support Package is my personal favourite, providing team bonuses like counter-UAV, ballistic vests for the whole team and V-22 Osprey -protected care package drops. Finally, the Specialist Package grants players up to three additional perks from those they’ve already unlocked, at 2, 4 and 6 kills in the streak. Each Strike Package further bolsters the idea of building loadouts that are suited for your style of play.
An admittedly unexpected focus on private, unranked games has also popped up, presumably to increase support for the pro-gaming scene as well as offer a few sillier game modes to multiplayer gamers. Gun Game and One in the Chamber return from Black Ops’ Wager Matches (sans wagers), to be joined by Infected, Juggernaut, Team Juggernaut and Drop Zone. Where the pro-gaming reference comes in is the player’s ability to customise each of these and the regular game modes with pre-defined loadouts and map rotations. This means that pro leagues will be able to define which weapons are allowed, force certain perks or remove them altogether, and determine which maps are permitted, in a certain game mode – most likely Search & Destroy. This custom game mode can then be saved and shared through Elite, so that a standard can be established and adhered to without the need for modding tools.
If you hadn’t gathered from the 2,000 words of poetic waffle above, there’s a lot that’s good about Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3. It has its downsides: the single-player campaign won’t change your mind about the series one way or the other, but it concludes an interesting-enough story in a manner that’s as entertaining as a triple-A action film, and requires the same mindset. Spec Ops should offer enough fun for a few hours or even longer if you find a decent buddy with whom you’ll tackle Survival mode, and the multiplayer component is stronger than it’s ever been. If you enjoy action-focused contemporary shooters and don’t feel the need to drive tanks and fly jets, you can’t go terribly wrong with Modern Warfare 3.