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.
Gameplay - 90 / 100
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.
Graphics - 87 / 100
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.
Sound - 70 / 100
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.
Multiplayer - 82 / 100
MW3 offers two multiplayer modes, each with a separate progression path. Co-op is essentially a wave battle building on CoD's "Survival" zombie murdering marathon, this time with human opponents straight out of the single-player campaign. Ironically, you can play Co-op solo if you wish, and it has its own level-progression and set of unlocks. Like all arenas, you have to be of a certain achievement-driven mindset to enjoy the repetitive gameplay, and I personally enjoyed the variety offered by several of BF3's co-op missions (where two players can pilot and co-pilot an attack helicopter, for example) much more.
Traditional multiplayer mode is, in MW3, maybe a little too traditional. Most CoD dabblers will be happy to get fundamentally the same experience they got in the previous Modern Warfare games, complete with new maps and weapon, icon, and dogtag unlocks and a level progression that offers level-up perks such as sprinting longer or reloading faster. If you haven't been initiated into the Call of Duty ranks, however, expect to be owned early and often. Design flaws (and yea, I regard them as flaws) such as insta-proning, sniper rifle fast-scoping, and bunny hopping to avoid fire sap the game of its military shooter realism and propagate CoD's already closed-off community. The multiplayer side of the Modern Warfare 3 is pure twitch, and if you aren't, you shouldn't expect more that 5-6 hours of single player thrill ride from this title.
Value - 65 / 100
Modern Warfare 3 somehow managed to pack twice as much single player excitement into its 5 1/2 hour campaign that Battlefield 3 did in my 9 hour playthrough, but, yea, it only lasted 5.5 hours. If you enjoy wave battles and have a friend of a similar mind, you might stretch that figure a few hours with co-op. But what really decides whether MW3 was worth $US 60 of your hard-earned gaming dollars is whether or not you're truly hardcore enough to rank up in multiplayer.
If you're gaming time is limited, the promise of Call of Duty Elite seems lackluster, and if you're more drawn to other titles coming out this holiday season, it's probably best to wait until MW3 winds up in the bargain bin.
Pros and Cons
- An action-packed, globe spanning campaign that ties up the series' loose ends well and offers a fitting end to the series' best characters.
- MW3 offers a pleasingly crowded take on the MMO-esque level progression and unlocks that made the series' multiplayer stand out to begin with.
- Multiplayer maps are well-designed, with few chokepoints.
- A 5.5 hour campaign is an all-time low for a single player campaign, especially at the $US 60 price-point.
- Narrative cheap shots such as the Davis family vacation and collateral destruction of national monuments might generate press, but diminish the character-driven story.
- Persistence of fast-scoping, bunny hopping, insta-proning, and overall lack of multiplayer innovation means that the latest Call of Duty iteration is still overly punishing for new players.
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 is a solid military shooter with an enjoyable and fitting (if brief) campaign, but with co-op being little more than a time-wasting ring battle and multiplayer still overly punishing to CoD neophytes, it's hard to recommend this game to anyone other than the Modern Warfare hardcore.