There seems to have been a certain amount of snobbery emanating towards the Call of Duty franchise from gamers of late. Whether that's franchise-fatigue, a general disdain for anything published by Activision, or simply because it's reigned supreme since Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare and people always prefer to back the underdog, remains unclear. But whatever the reason, it's obvious that some commentators are losing the ability to remain objective about what in a few days time will be this year's tent-pole-release across all platforms.
I'll admit to going into Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 (MW3 from hereon in) with a certain amount of trepidation. After the very public fall-out between Activision and Infinity Ward studio heads Jason West and Vincent Zampella - a dispute which ended with the latter taking a huge number of their former employees with them to form new studio Respawn Entertainment - it seemed that this year's release was surely going to be hurried, hastily cobbled together and lacking that something special that had defined Infinity Ward's previous releases. That fallout, combined with the fact that Activision was going to somehow have to manage a simultaneous 3 studio development consisting of Sledgehammer Games, Raven Software and Treyarch, surely then meant that during the game's 2 year development cycle, compromises would have to be made somewhere, and maybe, just maybe, with strong competition from EA's Battlefield 3, the tide would surely turn.
Well having managed to get a hold of my copy of the game a whole 4 days before release and having spent the best part of the weekend churning through each and every mode, completing the single player campaign as well as spending hours in each of the game's 3 multiplayer modes, I'm here to reveal whether Activision et al managed to achieve the seemingly impossible, or whether the pressure has finally gotten to this once invincible franchise.
MW3 can be broken down into 4 clear and separate parts. There's the single player campaign, the stock multiplayer, Special Ops, and the new Survival mode which takes its cues from Treyarch's Zombies and Gears of War's horde mode. A large majority of the Call of Duty playing public buy it for one reason and one reason only, the multiplayer, but before I get on to that, the single player campaign is definitely worth more than a passing mention.
MW3's single player story mode follows the tried-and-tested formula of all of the previous games. It's a linear, roller-coaster-like experience with you and your rag-tag band of protagonists mowing through thousands of non-descript enemy forces from either Middle-East-istan, or, as is the case this time around, Soviet Russia. As ever, the plot is complete bobbins and trying to keep up with it is a fool's errand, but let's be honest, if you're playing Call of Duty for its plot, you're playing for all of the wrong reasons. The game's build-up has cleverly focused on morphing WW3 into the MW3 logo and herein lies the rub of the game's campaign. It's Russia vs. the rest of the world with an unknown terrorist organization stirring things up.
The single player campaign is a heart-stopping and unrelenting series of astonishing set-pieces. Whether you're thrown into the thick of things with the New York skyline falling in on itself, hurtling through the London Underground chasing a runaway tube-train, attacking a submarine before firing its missiles on its own compatriots or fighting your way through the hijacked Russian equivalent to Air Force One, the action never lets up. And while previous games in the series have suffered from simply being one corridor-shooter-like level after another, each and every level in MW3 presents you with a hugely impressive and often bewildering set-piece showdown. You'll use just about every weapon and piece of explosive ordnance known to man and it's both a hugely satisfying and rewarding experience. My favourite stand-out moment being the Dead Space-inspired slow-motion, zero-gravity shootout on the rapidly falling from the sky Russian president's aeroplane.
While Modern Warfare 2 courted controversy for its 'No Russian' level, MW3 will no doubt also generate similarly scathing headlines for its 'Mind The Gap' London-based level. Beginning at the Docklands but then concluding in and around a tube station under terrorist attack, with its iconic double-decker buses and devastated underground station, it makes for somewhat uncomfortable viewing only 6 years after the 7/7 attacks and some might argue shows a lack of judgement and tact from Activision and Infinity Ward. While 'No Russian' was bad in and of itself for its subject matter, 'Mind The Gap' mirrors recent tragic events a little too closely. Though others would also argue that during the release of such a blockbuster title, there's no such thing as bad publicity.
What's also worth mentioning is that as the plot revolves around peacefully ending World War 3, it's not just London that comes under attack. New York also lies devastated and barren, the Eiffel Tower is destroyed right before your eyes and you'll visit just about every other region in the world as the developers' level designers and modellers really flex their muscles. The attacks on London fit well within the context of the game's plot though and are not simply awkwardly shoe-horned in for dramatic effect.
My first playthrough of the game, on Regular difficulty took 5 hours and 59 minutes, which given that I achieved this over two days, seems, in hindsight remarkably low - it certainly felt much longer than that. This no doubt doesn't take in checkpoint restarts or enemy deaths, but is firmly in line with the previous titles. It felt sufficiently long enough for a single player experience, never out-stayed its welcome and was a high-octane thrill-ride from start to finish. As ever, achievements are awarded for completing the game on the much more difficult Hardened and Veteran difficulty levels. And even though Regular proves to be a relative breeze to playthrough, it's actually the difficulty level I'd recommend you initially play on. I'm sure I've made this point before, but due to its heavily scripted nature, the single player campaign is not something to play repeatedly unless you're achievement whoring, and is best enjoyed almost as an interactive action movie. That may sound like a criticism or a back-handed compliment but it's not meant that way. It's a complete blast to play through and being constantly frustrated and stopped in your tracks would spoil the otherwise excellent pacing.
The game's Multiplayer, also in the main, follows that same tried and test formula of old, but there've been plenty of tweaks, improvements and additions that will inevitably see the game become the defacto online shooter, at least until Treyarch's inevitable next release in 12 months' time and probably even for some years after that. I've been playing all of the previous Call of Duty games this week ahead of the release of MW3 and there's still an astonishingly high number of players playing all 4 of this generation's releases. But focusing back on MW3, the first addition you'll notice is a new game mode called Kill Confirmed. An alternative take on the traditional Deathmatch mode, Kill Confirmed sees you and your enemies leaving behind dog tags when killed. A small number of points are scored for the initial kill, but team progress is dictated by how many dog tags you collectively pick up which places the emphasis firmly on ensuring each and every kill is confirmed. But kills can also be denied by team-mates avenging your death and sweeping up after fallen comrades. This mode's genius lies in the ways in which it creates a myriad of new strategies. Do you simply charge around shooting enemies and collecting tags as you go with wanton abandon? Or, do you sit back, hidden, waiting for enemies to fall into your carefully set trap as they're lured in by seemingly uncollected tags? It's a brilliant new addition and really ramps the tension up as the emphasis is placed much-less on just sitting back and picking off opponents from a distance.
In fact, it quickly becomes apparent that Infinity Ward's focus for the whole multiplayer experience has been on making it a fast-paced close-quarters affair. The maps feel smaller, tighter and much more claustrophobic. You never get a second's breath and if you stand still without adequate backup or defences for too long, you'll inevitable be quickly mowed down and lose whatever killstreak you were building towards. The many multiplayer maps also feel expertly designed with seemingly fewer choke-points, sniping spots, and much to my chagrin, tight little corners for you to hole up in.
Vanilla Team Deathmatch is hugely fast and frenetic and at times you'll feel like you're running laps around the map. Hardcore Team Deathmatch, meanwhile, feels more strategic and tactical with onrushing inexperienced players easily picked off. The fact that defensive items such as the new Bouncing Betty and the much-loved Claymore aren't available until levels 39 and 53 respectively again reinforces this new focus on fast, reactive gun play rather than cold calculated camping. The levels also feature lots of verticality. You constantly have to look up and down as well as in front of and behind you.
Killstreaks have also seen a considerable overhaul. There are plenty of new additions such as the Short Circuit-like Remote Assault Drone, the 5 helicopter Strafe Run, the Remote-Control Sentry Gun and my current favourite, the Booby-Trapped Airdrop. The way kill streak rewards can be earned has also been revolutionised with the option to choose between an Assault or Support strike package. Assault allows you to select 3 offense-minded streaks which are unlocked in the traditional method, by consecutive kills without dying. Support strike, meanwhile, presents you with a meter that charges as you kill enemies or complete objective such as capturing targets in domination and planting or defusing bombs in sabotage, demolition or search and destroy. Dying does not end your strike. The only caveat being, however, the rewards on offer are far more defence-minded such as the UAV, the Advanced UAV (similar to the SR10 from Black Ops), the Remote Turret and the Escort Airdrop. Unlock your highest selected support reward and your meter resets. Another new addition is that of Ballistic Vests which are unlocked after 5 kills and allows you to call in a package of armoured vests that your team-mates can collect which gives them an extra level of protection against enemy gunfire. The options for genuine team-play are much increased.
Last but not least is the new Specialist Class. Instead of earning kill streaks, players instead unlock the ability to use additional perks for 2, 4, 6 and 8 kills respectively. Earn the maximum number of kills and you're able to use every single perk in the game until you die. It's a huge compromise to make, but in the hands of a good player can be utilised extremely effectively.
MW3 also sees a return for the popular Special Ops missions first seen in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. These co-operative vignettes often take place across small portions of single player campaign maps and see up to 2 players attempting to complete various scenarios using the game's huge array of weaponry and firepower.
And as if all of the above wasn't enough, Infinity Ward has also added Survival Mode which sees you single-handedly or co-operatively taking on hordes of enemy soldiers, dogs, Juggernauts, suicide bombers and choppers. You earn cash for every enemy you kill and between each round you have 30 seconds to buy new weapons, grenades or ordnance. With multiple maps and a raft of achievements for fun in-game challenges such as killing two choppers without taking any damage or for finishing off a Juggernaut with a stab, there's plenty to keep you going, though the lack of 4 player support seems something of an oversight. Limiting Special Ops to 2 players is acceptable but Survival mode would be a lot of fun with 4. It worked just fine for Zombies so why not Special Ops?
Aside from the obvious tweaks to the game's multiplayer, there's nothing in MW3 that should surprise anyone that's played any of the previous games. But for fans of the series that's no bad thing. New maps, weapons, killstreaks and modes are all that's required to keep the faithful, well, faithful. The single player, meanwhile, rather than being a throwaway companion to the real meat and bones of the game is instead a brilliantly bombastic showcase of set-pieces and action. Take Call of Duty for what it is and embrace its dumb, nonsensical and scripted, but nonetheless hugely entertaining action sensibilities. And for those that continue to dismiss to the series as soul-less and immature, in an industry where we celebrate games like Bulletstorm for using the term 'dick tits' or Saints Row 3 where you can bludgeon people to death with a giant dildo, perhaps some perspective is required.