(Xbox 360 Review) Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3

Developer: Infinity Ward / Sledgehammer Games
Publisher: Activision
Genre: First-Person Shooter
Players: 1-4 (Local) / 2-6 (Online)
ESRB: Mature
Reviewer: George Damidas

Overall: 9 = Must Buy

The Call of Duty series has gone through a rough patch since Modern Warfare 2. With a change of the guard at Infinity Ward, Treyarch taking on a larger role with the release of Black Ops, and Sledgehammer Games stepping in as the latest developer to tackle the billion-dollar franchise, there was a lot riding on Modern Warfare 3. Fortunately for fans, and the series’ legacy, the globe-spanning finale for Price, Soap, and Yuri is a proper—and properly explosive—farewell.

After finishing Modern Warfare 3, there is little doubt that an era has passed. The story that began four years ago with a new recruit reporting to special forces training ends in one of the biggest show-stoppers possible: World War III. By the time the dust settles, major cities the world over will lie in ruins, and you will be there as the action unfolds. From New York to Berlin, breakaway Russian forces engage the governments of the world in thrilling set-piece encounters that include a contemporary invasion of Europe, a rescue attempt in free fall, and a mission to sabotage the hull of a submerged submarine. All of these scenarios mark a welcomed turnaround from the near-claustrophobic encounters of Modern Warfare 2 and Black Ops, allowing for the aging engine to prove it can still deliver an experience that outshines most of its contemporaries—and even its predecessors.

As it turns out, Modern Warfare 3‘s epoch-ending campaign is one of the best yet. A series of design changes sees the conflict areas expanding, the ally AI taking on a more aggressive role, and a refining of the infamous scripted respawn mechanic. A feeling of being part of a major conflict also permeate the game, as you frequently find yourself in the midst of the action rather than constantly at the fore. All of this makes for a much more engrossing experience, and one which is further improved by the fact that many of the series’ more frustrating elements have been addressed with uniformly positive results. In many cases, the changes are subtle but significant: not only does it no longer rain grenades, but your comrades are now much more likely to toss them back at the enemy. The more aggressive nature of the soldiers also means that enemies are pushed harder than before, which clears them away from the combat zone without you having to run around like a mad Rambo. I can’t speak for every encounter, but of the three or four times I made a point to watch for endless respawns, I didn’t encounter them; after a while, the enemies would be cleared out and, after a straggler or two, no more would appear. Even if only partially addressed in the end, the fact that there aren’t endless pools of enemy soldiers waiting in tiny rooms and nondescript hallways does wonders for pacing—it’s nice not to be bogged down every few screens. You aren’t always in the thick of things, either, as there are times when you have to take a lead role, which makes for a nice change of pace.

All of this is made possible through the heavy use of scripting, an approach the series helped to pioneer and which has come to dominate the genre. At this point, after so installments in so many series, the rail-ride-like feel of the levels has become too hands-off for some; emergent narrative and more open worlds are gaining ground, and after so many years, being pushed can be tiresome. While that is true in many respects, especially when the script results in such awkward scenarios as enemies standing around because an unseen line wasn’t passed to activate them, Modern Warfare 3 sidesteps many of the problems by more natural triggers and active AI. The benefits of scripting, being able to have players go through spectacular sequences that require more direct influence from the developers, are taken full advantage of this time around with some of the genre’s most over-the-top and satisfying scenarios to date. The constant push is still there, of course, which can make for some aggravating moments during the less well-designed encounters, but those are fortunately few and far between.

The eight hours I spent toppling the Russian insurrection was just the tip of the iceberg. As with MW2, a series of Special Ops challenges await the victor. The Ops component is an important part of the overall package as well, sitting alongside Campaign and Multiplayer as one of the game’s major pillars. While it is similar to both, allowing for solo play as well as local and online multiplayer, it stands apart by offering unique purchasable upgrades and an independent leveling system. And thanks to a new addition, it has been expanded to the point where it is now comprised of two parts: Survival mode and Missions.

Survival is a new Horde-style mode which spawns increasingly difficult and varied waves of enemies to rush your position. Money earned by surviving the rounds is used to purchase weapons, weapon mods, ammo, explosives (grenade, claymores, C4, etc.), as well as to call in air support in the form of missile strikes and elite forces (Delta squad and a riot-shield-equipped squad). The unlockables add a great deal of variety to each map as experience gradually reveals optimal purchase order and combinations, which can vary greatly depending on the wave types with consideration to the level’s layout and locations of the three purchase spots (arms, explosives, and air support). Plus, it’s just awesome to take down heavily armed juggernauts and their air support with a small army of AI troops and turrets.

Missions consist of 16 objective-based, timed challenges. The set is designed to test a variety of skills, from running an obstacle course to destroying sensitive information, with the goal of completing each mission as quickly as possible—or at least under the time limit—to earn the max rank of three stars. Having to unlock everything separately for Survival and Missions isn’t as big of a hassle as it might seem, either, as leveling continues to be brisk.

And lastly, there is the ever-popular Multiplayer. For as prominent a feature as it is for the series, some rather drastic changes were made for 3. While the gameplay remains fast paced and on the twitch side of the realism scale—nothing like heaving a grenade over a building—there have been some significant modifications to the leveling system.

A wide range of maps and modes continues to provide rich local and online play. The 12 modes offer something for everyone, whether that is traditional deathmatch, team deathmatch, or territories. In addition to the variant modes, such as capture the flag, there are two new additions: Kill Confirmed and Team Defender. Kill Confirmed quickly became one of my favorites, with teams having to collect dead players’ dog tags to count and deny kills. This ends up creating a chance for support-oriented players to help out by being runners on the lookout for tags while the rest of the team assaults and defends tags order to reach the kill limit first. Skirmishes often break out over hotspots, areas where several tags have accumulated after large firefights, which constantly shifts combat to different areas. Team Defender is also very kinetic, with teams fighting towards a marked flag to kill the carrier and claim it, and enjoy a team-wide score modifier, defend it, or grab it. As with Kill Confirmed, players tend to move in clusters as well as engage more fiercely as the benefits of camping are largely negated by the constant ebb and flow of battle.

The killstreak system has also been substantially revamped. Now known as pointstreak, the system now rewards both completing objectives and killing enemies. The leveling system for rank remains, with new weapons and perks being unlocked as experience accumulates. Now, however, to get attachments and camo for the weapons, they must be individually leveled through use. This leads to an overlapping reward system where use leads to natural proficiency which leads to an increased score which leads to more powerful augments, the addition of which improves the stats of the weapons, from scopes to silencers to rapid fire. A similar approach is used with the three perks, which have a more powerful Pro version that is unlocked through use.

Strike Packages now allow you to tailor a custom build around a specific role based around three categories: Assault, Support, and Specialist. Each of these includes a number of gradually unlocked pointstreak rewards whose inclusion is based around that category’s theme. The rewards also have challenges associated with them (e.g., call in five Support UAVs) whose completion reward large experience bonuses; similar challenges are available throughout all gear categories, in addition to daily and weekly mode challenges. Assault offers more offensive rewards, such as predator missile strikes, strafe runs, and assault drones, as well as a rule that resets streaks upon death. Support has a smaller amount of perks and is for those wanting to check Assault troops from running amok on teammates by deploying SAM Turrets, Counter-UAVs, and so on; and while these might not be as flashy as those in Assault, the upside is that the streak count is not reset at death. Finally, Specialist focuses on a strike chain with three interchangeable perks that unlock as kills mount, which can make for some pretty nasty combinations, but both the streak and strike chain are reset at death. In all, the three offer a nice variety and an easy way to easily kit out loadouts to meet any type of situation. And for those who crack the level barrier of 80 and decide to trade in their gear and unlocks for Prestige, a bonus is available in the form of limited-time double experience, unlocked gear, new titles, and more through the new Prestige Shop.

Death Streak rewards also return, allowing players who are having a bad go the chance to get a leg up and bounce back with a variety of aids, from temporary speed boosts after respawning or to the chance of firing off a few rounds before dying. These will come in handy, especially in the beginning, because matchmaking can lead to some pretty lopsided matches. I found myself facing off against players that far outranked me, and there were times when unbalanced teams were auto-corrected for the worse. While I didn’t mind taking some lumps, and was able to make my way up the ranks due to the copious amount of experience given for nearly everything, it does make the early going a bit of a slog. It seems that Infinity Ward is currently tweaking the service, so hopefully this will be a non-issue shortly. Until then, cross your fingers and hope you land on the pro team.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 doesn’t revolutionize the genre, nor does it make any pretence to, but what it does do, it does extremely well. For those who still enjoy the cinematic high action of the series, this is a fine ending to the current story arc. For those who are weary of jumping back into another entry after four releases in four years, Modern Warfare 3 is definitely worth checking out as it provides a grand campaign that far surpasses recent efforts, a great addition to Special Ops, and a new take on multiplayer that shakes things up for the better.

(This review is based on a retail copy provided by the publisher.)

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