It’s interesting that the AC-130 makes a return in Modern Warfare 3, and it's impressive that it’s not just a repeat of what’s come before.
The “Death From Above” level in Modern Warfare was a great, unique level, putting you in an AC-130 raining explosives down upon your enemies. Since then it’s been mimicked with varying results, and Modern Warfare 2 wisely avoided retreading this familiar ground. So it’s interesting that it makes a return in Modern Warfare 3 in the level "Iron Lady," and it's impressive that it’s not a repeat of what’s come before. Infinity Ward has changed how the sequence plays in subtle ways that reflect how the series has evolved.
It gets the basics right. There are people on ground that we have to protect, so we can’t shoot wildly and randomly with the biggest guns. This escort conceit adds the possibility of failure even though we’re flying high above the action, and that possibility of failure adds the requisite amount of tension to this turret sequence. Infinity Ward then ups the difficulty by setting the action on narrow Parisian streets, telling that us we can’t hit the buildings because there may be civilians inside. Since the AC-130 is constantly circling the warzone, it’s not uncommon for a building to block your shot. This is a good departure from the open fields of “Death From Above” and shows how Infinity Ward respects its players. The developer assumes that we know how this kind of level works and that we can already hit targets in an open field, so they don’t waste our time by slowly ratcheting up the difficulty. They’re not retreading level design that they’ve already covered (at least not in this case).
The most interesting new twist is how the game switches back and forth from the plane to the ground troops. Modern Warfare tried to do this, but the switching point was a new level. In Modern Warfare3 , you switch between the two groups multiples times over the course of "Iron Lady". Better yet, the switch is often justified by something that happens in the battle: When the plane gets hit by a missile and has to back off, we jump into the soldiers’ shoes and take out the enemies with rockets. At the end of the level and after a couple more jumps back and forth, your soldier must mark targets for the plane with smoke grenades. You can actually see the AC-130 flying overhead and get a front row seat to witness the power of its guns.
This kind of contextual switching between units gives players a better sense of scale and a better understanding of each unit’s place within that scale, There are things that the soldier can see that the plane can’t and vice versa. This also has the effect of not distancing you from the action as it did in the first Modern Warfare, which is appropriate since this game is about World War 3. Since the whole world is now at war, it’s only fitting that a unit that was once distant and safe from the action is now in just as much danger as the soldiers on the ground.
The most surprising new twist is the chase sequence, in which the soldiers on the ground get into a car and are chased by more cars and helicopters. Infinity Ward ups the difficulty once again, since you now have to take forward momentum into account when you shoot -- in addition to protecting the troops and not hitting civilian buildings. A chase like this, viewed from an AC-130, hasn’t been done before in a modern military shooter. It’s a nice change of pace from the normal slow pace that usually accompanies these kinds of levels.
These are all basic changes in pacing, but when Modern Warfare’s biggest competitor was content to lazily reproduce the “Death From Above” level, Modern Warfare 3 could have won the contest by simply doing something competent. Instead, Infinity Ward actually went that extra step, giving us a level that was more than just a quick copy/paste of “Death From Above.”
Part of me wants to see Infinity Ward make a true on-rails shooter; they’re clearly good at it. And after all, if Dead Space: Extraction can be the best Dead Space game, who’s to say Call of Duty: On-Rails can’t be the best Call of Duty game?