[17 November 2011]
At some point, it became inevitable that the Call of Duty franchise would reach its logical extreme. Make no mistake, despite the title of the franchise’s long running Modern Warfare series, the games have never been about warfare. Instead, they simulated what would happen when two futuristically equipped SWAT teams ran into each other: an orgy of technology, explosions, and gadgets. While this isn’t inherently a problem, it does present some logical limitations and perhaps more importantly strips the game of most of the realism that it strives to attain. For the first time in the Modern Warfare trilogy, it’s clear that these are arcade games, not simulations.
Recent Call of Duty titles have all been more Capcom fighters than tactical military games but never so transparently as in Modern Warfare 3. If you’ve played previous Modern Warfare games, this one won’t offer anything surprising: a short, punchy single player mode; an immersive multiplayer experience, ripe with leveling up, new weapons and gadgets, and a host of gameplay options; and the return of the spectacular co-op missions that debuted in Modern Warfare 2. What this recent iteration fails to offer is any character, both in terms of its level design and ingenuity.
The current generation of Call of Duty games is an homage to the genre birthed by Counter-Strike. Though CS offered various gaming modes, anyone who played it extensively knew that it was primarily a team deathmatch system (those terrorists can’t plant the bomb if they’re all dead). The level design was such that while there were a few scenic routes, most players headed directly toward key bottlenecks that saw furious combat until every player on one team was dead. It was a brilliant design, evidenced by its massive popularity and longevity.
The Modern Warfare games to date had all used this model while shunning the nominal objectives of CS. Levels each featured a few bottlenecks that gave whatever team that held them leverage over the other. Players would naturally funnel to those positions and small-scale battles would ensue. The maps in Modern Warfare 3 offer none of this dynamic and instead play like you’re fighting in a shoebox, which almost completely destroys the once great multiplayer.
The Modern Warfare 3 levels are small, relatively square circuits that have occasional obstacles to navigate. There’s no real strategy or finesse to the game. You run in circles—the game features shockingly few vertical planes—and shoot things when they come into view. Kill counts tick up quickly at random spawn points, and the perpetual motion of players create near constant interaction. This may be what the game designers intended—the goal of all Call of Duty games has emphasized high kill counts and low death counts—but any strategy that went into the previous games in the series has been stripped out of this one.
Adding to the game’s frantic pace is the redesigned killstreak rewards. In previous iterations, a player’s killstreak would reset upon death, giving a significant advantage to those players that are already good at the game. Modern Warfare 3 compartmentalizes the killstreak rewards and offers less effective ones to players whose kill count doesn’t reset upon death. While a welcome change for players who don’t have the quickest trigger in the game, the shift in philosophy also unearths an unfortunate side effect: killstreak rewards are both constantly occurring and not particularly special. After just a few minutes in any match, both teams are almost always shown on the enemy radar via UAVs and there seems to always be an attack helicopter or stealth bomber flying overhead. In older Call of Duty games, earning an attack helicopter was the sort of advantage that helped your team win. In Modern Warfare 3, it’s simply part of the landscape.
As for the single player, it is what you’ve come to expect: evil Russians, giant set pieces, and automatic Quick Time Events. The coolest set piece—an anti-gravity moment as a plane plummets to earth—is unfortunately cut short, but watching the Eiffel Tower crumble or zipping between Russian aircraft carriers off the coast of New York lives up to the standard set by the series’s previous entries. The campaign is delightfully remedial: not a reason to buy the game on its own merits, but a fun diversion.
I would be remiss not to talk about the 500-pound gorilla in the room: Battlefield 3. After months of PR battles and advertising campaigns for the two juggernaut FPS releases, one thing is clear: not only did Battlefield 3 win the fight for best FPS, it made Modern Warfare 3 look like a Playskool game. From the sonics to the graphics to the physics system, Battlefield 3 one-ups Modern Warfare 3 in all aspects. Perhaps most importantly, after playing a game with destructible environments, the likes of which Battlefield 3’s Frostbite 2 engine affords, playing a game without them feels cartoonish. Modern Warfare 3 might as well be Nintendo 64’s Goldeneye with regards to graphics, sound, and physics when placed side-by-side with Battlefield 3.
Modern Warfare 3 is going to sell by the boatload, and if recent reports of thousands of gamers still playing earlier iterations are to be believed, it’ll likely go down as one of the more popular games in history. But it’s hard to get excited about a game that offers nothing new and only a few downgrades to what was previously a stellar online multiplayer experience. Modern Warfare 3 feels like a shoddy, rushed downloadable map pack with a single player campaign attached. The series has recently drawn comparison’s to EA’s long running Madden series, which receives yearly updates with little in the way of new innovation. This is the first time in Call of Duty history that this analogy is truly an insult.