My esteemed comrade Rabid Ferret has already written a review of Modern Warfare 3 for this site, and while I completely respect his right to be totally wrong, I felt a need to provide the opposing viewpoint.* Ferret’s problems with the game are common to hear nowadays, along with some others: doesn’t pushing out a sequel every year somewhat dull the potential of the franchise? Don’t they pay the least bit of attention to making these games fair? Do we even still need this infantry-only twitchfest when the Battlefield franchise provides us with so much vaster an experience?
The answers to these questions are, in order:
Admittedly yes, believe it or not yes, and absolutely yes.
Return of the twitch
Reviews of this game often take on a certain tone of factionalism, and Battlefield 3’s “Above and beyond the call (of duty franchise please buy our game and not theirs)” marketing campaign has only encouraged this line of thinking. Battlefield 3 won’t run on my computer, and I haven’t been able to play it, so I’ll give it the benefit of the doubt: in this review I will assume that Battlefield 3 has solved every last problem the Battlefield series has ever been plagued with. Battlefield 3, in my world today, is the very epitome of everything that the franchise intends. Gosh, I sure wish I could play that game. I was a big fan of BF2142 and was pretty sure they would never top it! However, even if this were the case, I would still put more time into Modern Warfare 3. This comes down to my personal preference for the type of game which Modern Warfare represents, but is also thanks to the fact that MW3 has, just like our hypothetical BF3, been successful in bringing a problematic formula back to its full glory.
Call of Duty is the only current iteration of a tried and true genre of modern gaming, the arena twitch shooter. We might summarize this genre thus: a strong focus upon reflexes and mouse control, an emphasis upon meetings between individual players rather than the strategic motions of entire teams, and a guarantee that all the capital of combat effectiveness and strategic opportunity is equally distributed among the players.
“But idiot,” I hear you say, “weapon unlocks are 100% contrary to that last bunch of big words you just used!” A tiny bit yes, but even a level 1 character has access to some default setups which use the equipment you unlock later on, some of the most powerful equipment you could ever need. You are never without the chance to fight equally, just not in whatever way you would like. But this is a part of the fun, I’ve willingly prestiged already and am enjoying the incentive to try out new character setups – actually, hey, shut up! I’m not ready to talk about the game’s fine details yet. It’s history time.
The arena shooter is a proud genre, perhaps born with the original Quake, its legacy continuing in the Valve universe with Counterstrike and Team Fortress Classic, and then came 2007, the year when Quake’s lineage got split down the middle of Team Fortress 2 and Call of Duty 4. With the former, Valve made some perfectly respectable decisions to lower the speed and stakes of the moment to moment gameflow, thus inviting more types of players into Steam’s loving, very rich arms. COD4, meanwhile, retained and even increased the brutality and skill-intensiveness of the arena genre. (The other big multiplayer shooter that year was Halo 3. Pft.)
I’m giving you this history lesson because I want you to remember how awesome COD4 was back in 2007. Even if TF2 was more your thing, and even if Counterstrike was never your thing, there was little disagreement that Infinity Ward had created some tremendously hot shit, particularly in the multiplayer aspect. Killstreaks and perks were new ideas which both worked to liven things up beyond simple aiming and shooting, the maps wound neatly between indoor and outdoor settings, there were plenty of guns and game modes, and most importantly, every moment was tense and potentially life-or-death. You had to be awesome.
And then a lot went wrong with Call of Duty. World at War was a shallow clone. Modern Warfare 2 was a heaping mess of rushed content. Black Ops tried to balance Modern Warfare 2’s better ideas, and somewhat succeeded, but at the cost of flattening the game to something which felt like oppressive sludge to play. In just three years, CoD’s reputation was shot completely dead to anyone but its unthinking loyalists. So, now you can finally understand: this is why I am so happy to say that Modern Warfare is back.
No, it doesn’t reinvent the formula, and no, it doesn’t do anything profound you haven’t seen before. But it does do one thing: everything right.
New and improved
Simply speaking, it takes the ideas of Modern Warfare 2 (which were largely intended to add variety to Modern Warfare 1’s formula), and balances all of them. Better yet, it balances them in ways which provide even more variety. You can see the lineage of almost every design decision. For example, look at killstreaks.
- Modern Warfare 1: The only killstreaks are the UAV, the airstrike, and the attack helicopter. These are simple but fun, rewarding effective play with a small boost to your momentum, never out of reach for either team. Better yet, every streak can be countered or responded to effectively.
- World at War: Essentially the same, except the chopper is now a pack of dogs. Kind of boring, now. Everyone collectively asks, isn’t there more potential here?
- Modern Warfare 2: Everyone collectively regrets asking that. There are a billion killstreaks, and they cause a lot of weird and wonderful things to happen, which is cool, but have mercy. The first team to get a chopper gunner out at the same time as an advanced UAV at the same time as two predator missiles will always win, or worse yet someone will get lucky enough to call in a nuke and literally earn the right to press an “I win” button. Good intentions, but a giant mess.
- Black Ops: Streaks no longer chain, nuke is just gone. Better, I guess, but somehow they no longer really feel that rewarding. Just a few free kills and that’s it? Come on. Where’s the momentum?
In Modern Warfare 3, streaks are broken up into three character types, called “strike packages.” One, assault, focuses upon simply killing enemies, and these do chain, but they’ll never help your entire team at once. That’s support’s job, and he gets to unlock powerful teamplay streaks by simply getting kills, regardless of how often he dies. Clever use of support is instrumental to your team’s victory. Furthermore, if anyone of any strike package really does manage to nail that 25 killstreak, he gets to drop a M.O.A.B. instead of a nuke: it kills the entire enemy team once, and then disables their HUD for the rest of the game. Doesn’t end the game prematurely, just puts a gratifying cap on what was surely a decisive win already. Problems fucking solved.
And better yet, Infinity Ward were clever enough to further these solutions into even more new stuff. With support’s new role in the game comes a tendency for the intensity of a match to increase as it goes along. The supports on both teams are racing to get the advanced UAV and the EMP before the other team does, hopefully delaying their support assets all the more. Better yet, support has several streaks which can cancel out the enemy’s, creating a strategic duel of wits which operates on a layer above the ground war. And more! The third strike package, specialist, unlocks perks as he racks up kills without dying, at the opportunity cost of unique abilities, enabling him to earn a run as a super-powered soldier with every perk and weapon specialty enabled at once. It’s fresh, fun, and a unique challenge, but not unfair.
This renewed polish is everywhere. Where BLOPS had made all weapon types other than automatic assault rifles and sub-machine-guns worthless garbage, Modern Warfare 2 brings back quickscoping as long as you have the right perk for it, brings back primary shotguns which can be perfectly deadly in the right situation, brings back side-arms which are worth a damn, even brings back semi-automatic assault rifles and weird gimmicks like the riot shield. All useable, all seen regularly, all completely different in their feel, never unfair.
Gone, on the other hand, are the famously overpowered elements. Explosives are no longer so effective when spammed, and in fact the noob tube is best when paired with the recon perk; it’s rare for the explosion to kill without a direct hit, but it’s easy to use that perk along with your bomb chute to paint targets on the minimap. Also gone is the perk which turned you into a teleporting blade ninja, thank fuck.
Plus! All the maps are solid: just the right number of cover angles on every key position, much fewer effective camping spots (and the ones which are effective are made obvious so everyone knows to check them), flanking routes which are exactly the right length for the speed at which the game moves, lots of variation in engagement distance. If you get shot and killed from behind, it was usually your fault. There is exactly one map which I dislike, and even there I’ve had myself a fair number of great games.
The hits just keep on coming
I could go on like this forever. As I write this I’ve put about 43 hours into MW3’s multiplayer, and for that entire time I’ve been discovering more of the sound cleverness underlying the game’s design. There are so many little details which are just smart. Are there small, niggling problems in the weapon balance? Of course. Is the netcode the eternal solution to all lag issues ever? Hush. There are no games without these annoyances.
Modern Warfare 3 is the best Call of Duty, and the best arena shooter game, since the original Modern Warfare. Listen, I’ve been disillusioned too. I’m not any more fond of Activision’s yearly release schedule than you. Of course I would love it if everything in this game had been slowly patched into CoD4 for free since 2007. It’s still the case, however: this time they got it right again. If they had the kind of financial freedom Valve gained when they created Steam, then Modern Warfare 3 is the game they would have patched Call of Duty 4 into. If you’ve ever been fond of reflex-oriented action on a highly personal scale, you owe it to yourself to give Infinity Ward another chance. Whether or not you buy next year’s title? Well, that’s another question.
The single player experience
Oh yeah, this game has a single player campaign. Here is my review of the single player: it’s fine. They removed some of the old silly things like infinitely spawning enemies, but it’s still a linear series of setpieces and targets. It’s a bit dull, the player doesn’t exactly have a lot to do, but the production values are certainly impressive. These are certainly not cheapo expansion packs, even if the essential experience of playing them is the same. The Special Ops co-op mode is a little more lively, a little more dynamic, a little more like a real game, and it can be played single player too. This half of the overall product isn’t really memorable, but it’s never completely boring. Give it a spin, then work on your next prestige rank.
Cheery, isn’t it?
* Just like I do with everything ever.