Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 fires the last shot in the battle between triple A FPS titles this year, but does Activision's maximalist military shooter win the war?
MW3's "Mature" ESRB rating cautions against blood and gore (some, but not overbearing), drug references (none that I saw), intense violence (less than you'd find in the average R-rated action movie), and strong language (you'll likely hear much worse in multiplayer voicechat).
The one highly controversial scene (google "Davis family vacation" if you're not in the know) came off fairly flat to me; the shock value diminished into something close to one of the more lurid Terry Gilliam Monty Python animation by pulled-punch production values.
Battlefield 3 provides a handy point of comparison for MW3, and the figureheads behind the two max-budget titles have done so much jawing at each other over the past few weeks that the comparison seems fair.
Let's be clear on the overt differences between the two games - Battlefield 3 has a premise built on a scary, realistic threat (Russian suitcase nuke proliferation), while Modern Warfare 3 has (as EA boss Frank Gibeau famously pointed out) more Russian ships in New York harbor than the Russian Navy has in reality. Activision bills MW3 as a cinematic, character-driven thrill ride, while Battlefield 3 is more of a gritty modern soldier experience. Which one strikes your fancy? The market leans toward arcadey action, I'm more of a fan of soldier simulators.
All that said, the two games' campaigns have eerily similar plot points - a street battle in Paris and a rollicking subway car chase to name two - but I'll leave it to the bloggers to wonder whether DICE and Infinity Ward were reading each others' mail.
Setting aside the story and setting, let's look at how well MW3 delivers as a pure military FPS. On presentation, MW3 wins hands down. Rather than clunkily launching from a webpage, as Battlefield 3 does, Modern Warfare 3 has not one but two happily self-contained client installs, allowing players to uninstall the single player campaign while keeping multiplayer intact. The one downside is that the separate co-op progression is integrated into the single player game, so fans of this substantive game mode will have to keep gigs of campaign files on their HDs.
I've long hoped that other games would adopt the Modern Warfare approach to loading screens. Instead of a nominally relevant tip and a lazily-filling progress bar, Call of Duty uses that dead time to transition from one mission to the next, replete with shifting 2D art and quality voiceovers. That, plus character continuity throughout the series, cements Modern Warfare 3's status as... well, what passes for a character-driven drama among top tier action games.
Finally, for vehicle-based carnage, the nod goes to Battlefield 3. While MW3 lets you tear up the streets of Paris with an AC130 - a carryover from the original Modern Warfare game that never gets old - and offers a brief mission using a remote controlled armored vehicle (UGV), MW3's novelty gameplay doesn't touch the depth and fun associated with crewing jets and tanks in BF3.
Still, MW3 remains a smooth and solid shooter and preserves enough of the previous titles' fun to be a credit to the IP.
If we continue the BF3 vs. MW3 comparison, its close to a push in the graphics department. BF3's graphics and level of detail impress more on a moment by moment basis, but MW3 offers smoother framerates with fewer asset loading snags. MW3 pays a prices for its smooth, snag-free performance especially in multiplayer, and the level of detail isn't really a step up from previous iterations of the series. That, despite a loftier min-spec.
BF3's Frostbite 2-rendered character models and animation seem a little less caricatured and superheroic - more realistically soldier-like, boots to crew-cut, than those in MW3. Both games win points in the large collapsing buildings and structures department, but MW3 has the oo la la factor from scenes like the Eiffel Tower's collapse and a Moroccan sandstorm. It also has none of the visual niggles that plagued BF3 - overly scratched up and dusty lens effects and retina-frying flashlights to name two.
Lacking some of the crispness and battlefield immersion of the audio in Battlefield 3, Modern Warfare 3's sound design was much like the rest of the game - thrilling at times, but just adequate for most of the experience. What I see as one franchise-long audio shortcoming - the weird tinkling, almost ceramic sound of a tossed grenade - wasn't corrected, and I didn't really expect it to be, given the entrenchment of CoD's multiplayer community. Grenade indicators are a mournful necessity, but adding amplified clinky sound effects is overkill.
The game's soundtrack, on the other hand, did it's duty of providing a pulse-pounding rhythmic backdrop to the game, but the nonstop cinematic orchestrations and chugging guitars could have given way to more ethnic tang in far flung environments like Prague and Morocco, or perhaps. Granted I'm being picky, but with how much marketing spend was chasing this title, MW3 deserves this kind of scrutiny.