Sunday, December 25, 2011

Review // Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3

I can't remember the last time such a high-profile game had the odds stacked against it to this degree.

Infinity Ward, still reeling from a late backlash against Modern Warfare 2, was torn apart and rebuilt following the sudden termination of its founders. Sledgehammer Games, a newly formed studio that was supposed to be giving a new spin to the Call of Duty franchise, was called in to help Infinity Ward deliver Modern Warfare 3 on time. And through it all, players turned their noses and sneered at what they considered to be a soulless shell of a company, declaring the franchise dead and running to the open arms of Electronic Arts, only too happy to position Battlefield 3 as the anti-Call of Duty.

But it was still made, and now, after spending dozens of hours with it, I can confidently say that Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 is pretty fucking rad, and that you should buy it.

Say what you want about how incredulous the stories of the Modern Warfare games have been or how many plot holes they have; I'm still willing to decree them the best, most engaging stories in any first-person shooter this side of BioShock for the mere virtue that I can remember the names of the characters. And not only that, but I actually care about them, too. Going into Modern Warfare 3, I was genuinely interested in how things were going to play out for Soap and Price. I'd call that a triumph.

Compare that to Killzone 3, where I wanted nothing more than Sev and Rico's heads on a pike by the end. I can't tell you anything about Nathan Hale from the Resistance series beyond the fact that he's as bald and bland as every other modern character out there, and unless I were to cheat and take a quick trip to Wikipedia, I couldn't give you a single character's name from Halo: Reach's Noble Team. Honestly, I'm impressed enough with myself that I even remembered that they were called "Noble Team."

Mind you, Modern Warfare 3's borderline nonsensical depiction of a near-future World War III isn't exactly high art, but it's easy to get absorbed into and provides a great catalyst to put you in some insane scenarios. And really, in a game more concerned with keeping the act of shooting dudes in the face fun and intense for five hours than weaving an intricate and thoughtful treatise on the futility of war and the horrors of what men are capable of doing to each other, that's totally fine.

To Infinity Ward's credit, shooting dudes in the face for five hours was a blast. There's a feel to the guns in the Modern Warfare franchise that nobody else has ever quite nailed — they feel substantial without the polarizing sway of artificial weight so prevalent in games like Killzone; they feel powerful without the crutch of excessive (and distracting) recoil in games like Battlefield. Maybe it's because enemies go down in just a shot or two, or because the reticle changes to let you know you've hit someone, or that distinct sound of the bullet impacting an enemy. Whatever it is, the gunplay in Modern Warfare 3 remains the best in the business.

But what really keeps it interesting are the absurd scenarios you're put in. Whether it's barreling past populated subway terminals while in a truck chasing a train full of terrorists or engaging in a breathtaking zero-gravity gunfight in a free-falling plane, you're almost always doing something completely crazy in this game. In fact, it's the middle act of the game, where the set pieces let up for a little while for standard boots-on-the-ground firefights, that I enjoyed the least. It was still fun, but I much preferred the pulse-pounding intensity of the scripted moments.

There are definitely some logical inconsistencies in the game's story that might bug some people, like why the Russian president is launching full-scale attacks on Europe at the same time that he's trying to negotiate peace, or how Russia even has the resources to attack all of Europe at once, but none of that really detracted from the story for me. No, I was more bothered by things like why Frost, one of the playable characters, was suspiciously absent from one of the final missions and was never seen again, offering zero conclusion to his storyline.

Overall, though, the game's story should be commended for eschewing the increasingly modern trend of leaving the ending open for potential sequels. There's a real sense of finality here when the credits begin to roll, and it's refreshing.

But the moment the credits are done rolling, you get dumped right into the returning Spec Ops mode, so get a friend ready. If you played Spec Ops in Modern Warfare 2, you know what to expect — missions designed for two players, often involving multiple pathways through a level or requiring each player to take on a vastly different role, usually amounting to one player covering the other player's back from the safety of an AC-130 gunship, for example, or a series of remote turrets. It's nothing new, but it remains a fantastic mode that simultaneously encourages cooperation and trash talk.

What impressed me more was the other side of Spec Ops, the new Survival mode, where the game just throws increasingly difficult waves at you until you die. I didn't really think a wave-based survival mode in Call of Duty would be all that fun, but it pretty quickly surpassed the Missions mode for me. When I wasn't playing it, I was thinking up new strategies and reminiscing over how wild some of the later waves get, like when the game decides to drop three Juggernauts on you at once, or dogs with C4 strapped to them, or three Juggernauts with riot shields and helicopter support.

It's more fun with two people, but I actually found myself making it further on my own. I didn't have to worry about whether my partner was carrying his weight, or taking cover when he was injured so I wouldn't have to come revive him, or executing our strategies properly. I could just... play. But hey, that's probably my fault for picking my roommate to be my partner.

Of course, that just leaves the competitive multiplayer. There have been some really smart changes to the tried-and-true Call of Duty formula, like the new Kill Confirmed mode that operates like Team Deathmatch, except that kills only count if you pick up dog tags from fallen enemies; you can even outright deny enemy kills if you pick up your teammates' tags before the other team can. It's a really clever mode with layers of strategy, like realizing you can use tags as bait, or that any tags you see could be a trap.

Another smart change is the new Kill Streak system, so if you're a more casual player who isn't confident in his ability to rack up a dozen kills in a single life, you can switch to, say, the Support option, where your kill count persists even if you die. You'll just be getting more defensive rewards, like body armor for your team, rather than the assortment of missiles and gunships that someone using the traditional Assault option gets.

There are other great tweaks here and there, but if you've played a Call of Duty game since the first Modern Warfare, this is going to feel very familiar. If you've played all of them since then, it might feel too familiar. But if you're someone like me who only plays the Modern Warfare games and avoids the off-year Treyarch filler, Modern Warfare 3 is going to feel like coming home.

I love that matches rarely exceed 10 minutes, so I can play a round or two to kill time and feel totally fulfilled. I love how customizable everything is, so that I can design a class to suit my play style that's wholly unlike anything my friends are using. I love that it's not as woefully unbalanced as Modern Warfare 2 was, where the double shotgun superhumans broke what should've been an awesome game. The maps are a little less memorable this time around, but there are still some real gems.

Unless you've been playing a Call of Duty game every year and now you're just completely burnt out, you should pick up Modern Warfare 3. It provides a satisfying conclusion to the trilogy, has some truly stunning moments in the campaign, and offers multiplayer that's more addictive than ever before.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 / $59.99 / PS3 [reviewed], 360, PC


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