Another year and another instalment in the Call of Duty franchise. Another record breaking release, shattering the sales records set by itís predecessor. Therefore unquestionably an all round success and the best COD game yetÖ Well yes and no. On the surface MW3 is everything it needs to be. Itís the glitzy end of a trilogy that started with the defining benchmark Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. Itís an evolution of the multiplayer template that has been imitated by all itís competitors. It also has enough bells and whistles in most subsidiary areas to make it look like a healthy upgrade. On the surface itís all shiny and new. Beneath the surface it is anything but that. Though itís feature set maybe expanded and all itsí credentials in order at times it feels like a staid formulaic effort in a franchise which seems to be focused more on making money than re-defining itself. Harsh? yes. Fair? Yes, I think so.
What may also be key is that this time around it is Infinity Ward back at the development helm albeit working side by side with Sledgehammer Games. This was due to the internal turmoil and dispute that saw Infinity Ward all but disbanded following the release of Modern Warfare 2. The fall out of that saw several employees part from the company and file lawsuits against Activision, including one major lawsuit from the two owners of IW (West & Zampella) who are suing for lost royalties. Surely the ramifications of this sort of real-life drama behind the scenes has had an impact on the creation of MW3? Indeed watching the credits roll upon completing the campaign itís clear that both Neversoft and Treyarch also had a hand in this games creation at some point as well. It seems most of the internal development houses at Activision were drafted in to steer the ship on this one with no expense spared.
Before I continueÖ it may sound like Iím being overly negative here, but let me just say one thing. Iím a huge fan of the Call of Duty series. Iíve played every instalment on the Xbox 360 this far (aside from other platforms) and thoroughly enjoyed every one. Iíve also felt that the annualization of the franchise has genuinely begun to hurt both the progression of the core game-play and the direction of the series as a whole, in direct sacrifice for large sales figures per year to keep the COD name in the spotlight and the coffers full during these trying financial times. Whilst I donít want to criticise the financial success of any series and call it out as a bad thing (these things keep the industry I love ticking over), to me it has begun to show itís strain on the creativity that exists within the development of video-games, that spark which can spawn a ďclassicĒ as opposed to just a financially successful release. With MW3 I feel not only is it a decent closing chapter on the trilogy which openly set the benchmark, itís also the perfect time to halt the series altogether and allow it to re-invent itself once more as something better.
Upon opening MW3 youíre given three select modes which are instantly familiar. You have the campaign, multi-player and the return of Spec-OpsÖ Infinity Wards take on co-operative play in the Modern Warfare universe. The first thing that strikes you is how similar the layout is to Modern Warfare 2, itís near identical. A million miles away from the funky first-person interrogation menu system seen in Treyarchís Black Ops effort last year. This first impression is resounding as on deeper inspection itís clear that MW3 is, as the name suggests, a direct sequel only to MW2 and for better or worse shares nothing in common with the last instalment of the series.
Starting with the Campaign. The story kicks off straight after the events of MW2. Captain Price and his unit are back in action, off the radar and still pursuing the Russian nationalist Makarov after his attempt to invade US soil. Indeed the first few chapters will have you wading through Manhattan before moving to major European locales such as London, Berlin, Paris and Prague. Itís quite clear there has been attempt to give this final chapter in the campaign a much more global feel and it delivers this with sheer aplomb. Indeed the highlight of the campaign if youíre well travelled is recognising these locations and acknowledging the painstaking details put into them to make you feel as grounded in this reality as possible. Itís a huge aid to the visual spectacle and in some major set-pieces literally plays a huge part in conveying the extent of the war.
All things considered the 5-6 hours worth of the campaign are an absolute roller coaster ride of explosions that would put Michael Bay to shame. It all kicks off with a bang and rarely is there a moment of respite through itís entirety. Plus whilst itís very much the Hollywood blockbuster approach to story-telling it does wrap up the entire Modern Warfare narrative very nicely in itís closing segments better than I could have expected. Itís certainly not going to blow your mind at any point and equally the stories surprises donít deliver with the impact thatís expected of themÖ but then, if youíre going balls out for the duration no amount of character building is going to come across in the matter of seconds afforded to it. In summary, if youíre going into the campaign expecting the story to hold your interest forget it. But if you want to know how it ends and see a barrage of explosions and set-pieces along the way then strap yourself in tight and you may not be disappointed.
In fact the only things that does disappoint in the campaign for me is the simple fact that it is no different from any of its predecessors. This goes down to the design template of the campaign itself and how it is manufactured behind the scenes. Although the locales have changed, the set-pieces are bigger etcÖ the mechanics and formula is identical. Match up the campaign elements to MW1 or MW2 and they are absolutely identical in every form, so much so that it just reads like a laundry list of ďcoolĒ moments that must be fitted in somewhere. Riding as gunner in a helicopter mowing down enemies. Piloting an AC-130. Infiltrating silently as a sniper behind enemy lines. Taking a beach-head in a full scale battle. Lazing targets for an air-strike. Using night-vision on targets that cant see you. These are all in those short 5-6 hours of the campaign. These are also nothing new to the series at all, only the names and locales have changed. Everything else remains the same. I may be moaning about the very notion of repeating a tried and test formula, and you have to give the fans more of what they want in many respectsÖ but here itís so obviously cookie-cutter repeats that it leaves a sour taste. It leaves me thinking back to the Chernobyl sniper level, ďAll Ghillied UpĒ in Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare where you infiltrate and take the long sniper shot whilst adjusting for wind and the Coriolis effect. That level is a classic and amongst other epic moments raised COD4 to classic status. That level is now four years old. MW3 campaign contains nothing of that standard by comparison, only imitation.
Multiplayer tells a similar story. They say if it ainít broke donít fix it but whilst there are a lot of good changes made to the multiplayer formula there are also some down right bizarre ones the muddy the waters. Dealing with the bad first. When I said earlier that for better or worse this doesnít follow any direction set by last years title Black Ops, at not other stage is this more prevalent than in multiplayer. The near useless, but admittedly cool feature of diving to prone has been removed in MW3. Now that may be small fry in the big scheme of things but to me its this sort of thing that indicates how opposing it can be when two development houses have different interpretations of where to take a franchise. All you end with is polar opposite implementations. So the diving is gone (I will miss it) but in itís place IW have also removed the manual locale filter in match-making, removed the money system designed to allow players to unlock weapons through purchasing them (as opposed to grinding through weapon usage) and brought back the return of quick-scoping for sniper rifles.
This just all totally confounds me. Firstly if youíve ever played a COD game from Australia youíll know we tend to get the raw deal when it comes to match-making because of our remoteness. The ideal situation is to pair us up against similarly located players and reduce latency. A manual toggle option to filter down to this restriction is an obvious design inclusion. It seems Treyarch understand this but Infinity Ward donít agree. As such this feature has been added and consequently removed every year since COD4 as the design decision moves between development houses. On top of this the ďautomaticĒ match-making that Infinity Ward insist is the better implementation has never worked perfectly on release. Ever. It took them several months to fix with MW2 and to date MW3 seems to also be having issues although to a lesser extent. What is compounding this issue even more is the advent of what many are calling Lag Compensation. As MW3 is running peer to peer like its predecessors there is always going to be host advantage and those connecting with high latency to the host can expect to be hobbled in some fashion. In MW3 though those with better connections as penalised to balance out this issue, but the reality only makes the issue worse. You can be in games with a perfect connection and still be instantly killed by someone who has a worse connection because the game delayed your view and ability to respond. Only the kill-cam tells the source of truth and seeing things from your killers perspective can sometimes be horrifying. On many occasions Iíve shot 3-4 rounds into an enemy only to die within one shot. On re-viewing they saw me earlier and shot me dead before I even fired. Though they have apparently patched this phenomena on the weekend there is still something awry behind the scenes. The situation is improved but the issue still remains, as does the fact that implementing Lag Compensation is an idiotic move in the first place. If you want to offer a fair, competitive environment to all involved remove the host advantage by adding dedicated servers per region and allow the players to search locally with a filter.
As for Quick-Scoping. Many will argue is has a place in the series. I will continue to argue that is doesnít. This isnít a discussion as to who is right or wrong on the subject but this is my opinion. Sniper rifles are long range weapons that require precise scoping to kill. That is their implementation in real-life modern warfare and that is how I perceive any sniper class would be implemented in a video-game representation aiming for some sort of realism vs. fun balance. Quick-Scoping removes this completely. Being able to quickly aim, shoot and kill in one hit from any range may take an admirable amount of skill but from a balance and realism perspective it breaks the mould of what should be achievable with the weaponry on show. Sniper rifles by their nature are for long range stealth engagements, Assault rifles are for mid to long range and sub-machine guns aid close-quarter combat. I always felt the inclusion of quick-scoping in MW2 was an abhorrent mistake and from the way Treyarch attempted to remedy it in Black Ops last year (right or wrong) it is clear someone feels the same. Having it back in full effect in MW3, combined with the lag compensation and inferior matchmaking makes for a frustrating game experience.
That is the bad. On the flipside there have also been some positive steps in the right direction.
The biggest notable change when firing up the multiplayer is that the whole structure of kill-streaks has been changed and now come in three very distinct flavours. The Assault package is the standard fare weíve grown to know throughout the series to date. With devastating rewards unlocked through consecutive kills such as aerial attacks like helicopters or pave-lows. This package remains largely unchanged but the additional Support and Specialist package are something of a revelation. The Support package is modelled to suit those players who arenít the lone-wolf type that runs off on a 20-0 streak rampaging up the scoreboard. As such the additional equipment you unlock serves to ďSupportĒ your team such as dispensing armoured vests (extra bullet damage), a radio controlled helicopter to spot enemies or advanced UAV etcÖ the vital key here though is that kills do not have to be consecutive, only cumulative. So even if you die often, you can still contribute to the cause and gain unlocks for your team. Finally the Specialist package doesnít unlock air support at all, just more and more perks for your player. This is the ultimate risk/reward category for those that do bet the farm on themselves playing well in a match. When I first read about the Specialist package on paper I thought it was a potentially game-breaking element to the new design. Surely everyone who thinks they are going to dominate a round would select that as preference over the other two options? Thankfully that hasnít eventuated and in my experience most matches have a diverse selection across the board.
The next big change is the addition of two brand new game modes called Kill Confirmed and Team Defender. Kill Confirmed alone is one of the best inclusions for the franchise in a long time, even though for me itís borrowed heavily from Crysis 2ís default mode (something most have overlooked). In Kill Confirmed normal Team Deathmatch rules apply but to confirm a kill you must pick up the dog-tags of any fallen enemies which are left on the map. Conversely you can deny enemies a confirmed kill by picking up your team-mates dog-tags yourself. This simple dynamic mixes up the entire structure of the game into something new and unique in the seriesÖ Itís still very much Team Deathmatch but with a healthy twist which keeps you on your toes. Iíve often found players luring opposition into the open by leaving dog-tags there as bait as the natural instinct is to pick them up as quickly as possible. As you play the mode more you appreciate the tactical nuances that bubble to the surface. Team Defender isnít nearly as enticing but itís still fun. This is a change up on basic capture the flag rules. There is one flag and the team holding it must stay alive for as long as possible. Itís an ok addition to the usual mix of game-types but youíll pass on it after only a few rounds for something more interesting.
Delving into the rest of the mechanics and things are pretty much as they were bar for a few minor revisions. Guns now have proficiencies, which is a fancy word for giving every weapon a levelling bar so now youíre not just ranking up your soldier but each individual gun as well. Personally I prefer the money system in Black Ops for choice of unlocking but this is just another alternative to offer the player more customisation options. Unlocking proficiencies for a weapon improves it with itís own set of perks such as less recoil/kick. So now you have perks in kill-streaks, perks for soldiers and perks for guns. For better or worse everything is perkedÖ so to speak. Players are given prestige tokens for every time theyíve prestiged in previous games of the series, which can be spent in a prestige shop for double XP or gun XP etcÖ again a nice touch but just more of the same. There are a few nice tweaks in the in-game controls and add-ons. Firstly you can now stack your streak rewards (if you unlock several and havenít used them) and cycle through them using the Dpad. Secondly there are hybrid/dual scopes for weapons so you can flick between two different scope attachments for different ranges which is also utilised in some sections of the campaign.
Lastly some of the features from Black Ops have made it over, and thankfully ones which make sense. The in-game theatre mode is back in full effect and as fun as ever to record footage of matches to share with your friends. I love this stuff. Every game needs this sort of thing. The tongue in cheek gun-games have also made the transition for those that want to play something a little less serious. These are moved into a different play-list but are still great fun to play when the main modes get too frustrating. Nothing like a game of one in the chamber to freshen things up. Finally you can still create your own private match rules for games and essentially create your own game-type variant which can be shared to others. I hear IW will be monitoring the most popular of these and possibly look to add these in future play-list revisions (judging by reporting hacking slow-mo seems to be a winner).
Moving onto co-operative play sees the return of Spec Ops. As I said before this is Infinity Wards take on co-operative play modes and as such there is not a zombie or monkey in sight. The mode is also lacking 50% of the players seen in the last COD game with the total player count reduce to just two players and whilst it does play wonderfully well my brain keeps questioning why itís only a two player offering. The mission modes are as superlative as ever and I can understand the reasons why they are two player. They are specifically geared to work in a tandem team and as such the linearity of the levels are structured to facilitate that. The new survival mode though, which is essentially Horde mode from Gears of WarÖ that really, really needed to be at least four players. Itís a fantastic mode where you demolish wave after wave of enemies all whilst purchasing guns, streaks and perks at nominated weapon stations. Youíll also tackle dogs with C4 strapped to them and marauding helicopters dropping juggernaut soldiers into the mix. ButÖ two players only. Why? When Black Ops offered up four players in all of itsí additional zombie modes that are essentially the same thing. To me this is a huge oversight and feels like this franchise gives with one hand and takes it back with the other.
Graphically and SonicallyÖ well weíre back to as good as this aging engine can perform. I always felt Black Ops was an inferior game from a technical standpoint and this really proves that point to be true. MW3 is the best looking game in the franchise without question. It is hard to believe this is still running on the same modified Quake 3 engine when you watch the amount of elements itís throwing around at a rock solid 60fps. Of course the truth is the effects are only skin deep. There is little, if any non-scripted destruction. A completely linear campaign and multiplayer maps which feel almost claustrophobic in their design. Whilst itís main competitor, Battlefield 3 pushes the boundary of what is possible on the same platform by pushing out in all directions to the point of finding the stress points by contrast the graphical engine in MW3 doesnít steer away from itís historic limitations, but doesnít push itself either. From a technical standpoint I believe graphically, this is as good as Call of Duty can look on the Xbox 360 without moving towards a more modern engine with more effects. What it does do though, it does exceptionally well and given the twitch nature of the games design its locked rigid 60fps frame-rate makes it as reactionary as it possible can be. The audio lets the side down. Itís sub-par, weak and boring. This is one area where this game series could start from scratch because it has never been great to be honest. One quick comparison to Battlefield 3 and itís crystal clear that this franchise is far behind when it comes to quality surround sound effects and details.
I guess in summary there are fundamental problems with MW3 which have prevented me from appreciating what is actually an accomplished title. The whole franchise now appears to suffer from an identity crisis from one year to the next which only succeeds in splitting the fan-base into those that prefer one developer to the other. It has also fallen into the trap of becoming too similar every year that once cracks appear they continue to be visible and worse still, if the expectation is that a new COD title must appear every 12 months I feel we are never going to witness another ďclassicĒ in this franchise unless someone makes the decision now to start from scratch for the next generation.
As I said near the beginning of this review, I love Call of Duty. I think itís fair to say Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare changed my perception of the FPS genre and in many ways changed my life. In contrast Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 changed my perception of what is good for this franchise and nothing more. This is a really good game, but itís no classic.
XboxZone Score: 8.8/10