Shoot, stab, stab, stab, run away, stab, stab shoot. Repeat.
Okay, so the basic mechanics of a military shooter have not changed that much in the past few years. A multiplayer match still consists of running around in a crazed stupor, jumping or dropping prone to avoid cheap killshots, and plenty of random stabbings at close range (if you do not know how to stab opponents in these online gore fests, you probably are not winning too many matches).
The two biggest games of the year – Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 and Battlefield 3 – both include online modes that at least attempt to add new gameplay elements, as the millions of people that play them (and the millions of beleaguered loved ones) can attest.
Both games started shipping not long ago, and have done insane sales: Battlefield 3 has sold over 5 million copies and become the fastest-selling title in EA’s long history, while Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 has pulverized entertainment records on the way to selling $775 million in five days. Both games were, of course, bolstered by long running, and semi-fanatical fanbases that helped make both games mega-hits even before the respective games were released, and both groups have swarmed to their beloved games. So much so that even if you play at 2 a.m. on a national turkey-related holiday, you’ll still only wait a few minutes at most to find a room full of gamers playing deathmatch (believe me, I’ve tried).
Ever since both games came out, there has been a huge amount of chatter between the fans, and the rivalry between the two is fierce. Both sides are utterly convinced that their chosen military shooter is the best shooter, and nothing will convince them otherwise. So with that in mind, I decided to take an impartial look at the both titles. I sat down with each title and extensively tested every online mode, the weapons, and maps to see which one is the reigning king of online shooters.
There’s one noticeable difference between the two games. When you first load up Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3, you have to wade through a few initial setup screens, but Battlefield 3 makes you jump through more hoops. The first time you connect online with BF3, you will need to enter an EA online pass, unique to each copy of the game. In other words, be careful if you buy this game used, because once a pass is activated you can’t use it again under a different profile, and will need to purchase the pass for around $15.
Load times for both games on the Xbox 360 were reasonable, although I started hating the BF3 start-up animations. In total time, MW3 gets you into the action faster from initial start-up to first shot.
One other quick note: Battlefield 3 seems to have a few compatibility problems. When I tested it on a PS3, the game crashed a few times when the screen locked up suddenly. I also had to perform two updates to the game (one was 222MB and one was well over 700MB), where MW3 has had a few, but none larger than 4MB.
Winner: Modern Warfare 3
Modern Warfare 3 continues the tradition that began with Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare and has become a staple of all the Call of Duty games, the much beloved, and oft-reviled, killstreaks. In MW3, rather than the traditional killstreak setup where you earn rewards through successive kills without dying, you now have “strike packages.” Those come in three versions: Assault, Support and Specialist. Each package contains different rewards and is tailored to a different play style, and each is customizable as you increase in level and earn more choices. The Assault package is the traditional setup, as consecutive kills earn you things like a UAV, a predator missile, or a sentry gun, as well as several new rewards, like the helicopter strafing runs.
Perhaps the best new addition is the support package, which allows you to earn rewards by doing things to help the team, including kills, capturing flags, defusing bombs, etc, but dying does not reset the counter. These rewards are also more geared toward support elements, and offer things like ballistic vests, a recon helicopter that you can control and use to mark targets, and an EMP.
Killstreaks are amazingly fun because they add tension to the match. There’s a delicate balance as you gain more kills while using the assault package: You still need to play aggressively, but everyone else on the map is gunning for you because they know about the killstreaks as well. The longer you go, the more you become a target, adding to the tension. When you are using the support package, it is also nice, because even if you die constantly you can still find a way to help the team. As with MW2, they can sometimes overwhelm a game, but not to the extent that they used to, and the offensive rewards seem to do less damage — which is a very good thing.
Battlefield 3 relies on different classes, but to a much greater extent. (You won’t find anything like the killstreak rewards, though.) There are classes for supporting other soldiers, although now there is no dedicated medic. There’s the usual mix of recon sniper and the typical run-and-gun marine type; they are almost identical to those found in Battlefield Bad Company 2.
Where BF3 gets more credit in terms of realism is that these classes have a greater impact not just on how you play, but on the outcome of the matches. If you choose the support class and equip yourself with heavy guns to provide ammo support for other troops, you will find you move slower and need to think about finding hiding spots. MW3 also weighs you down and makes you slower if you carry a massive gun, but it’s not quite as significant as it is in Battlefield 3.
Another point in BF3’s favor is that, these classes also have a direct impact on the online match. If too many people are running around on the front lines shooting down enemies without troops providing support, your team will lose. It’s easier in MW3 (but still a bit foolish) to just run around after each respawn and go find someone to shoot. That makes BF3 more tactical overall, and arguably more fun to play, especially if you are looking for a teamwork-oriented experience.
Still, just because Battlefield 3 is more tactical and authentic does not mean it is superior overall. There is something to be said for the faster gameplay in MW3 when matched with the killstreak perks that makes you want to keep playing, even with the occasionally frustrating round. In some ways, the difference between the games is that BF3 is meant for a bit more of a long-form experience working with teammates, whereas MW3 has a greater emphasis on quick games, where you accumulate as many kills as possible. Oddly though, it is much more difficult to form a party of your own friends in BF3 than it is in MW3.
In fact, I found that MW3 won out over BF3 for gameplay because of the killstreak perks. Some people love them, others hate them, but from an impartial point-of-view, unlocking rewards (along with more weapons, perks, badges, etc.) is a compelling force. BF3 does not provide quite as much incentive to keep playing, even if the game has much larger maps and more tactical combat.
Winner: Modern Warfare 3
Battlefield 3 is a much more expansive, tactical game than Modern Warfare 3. That’s not to say MW3 lacks a wide selection of game modes, and in fact has far more variety.
Battlefield 3 carries on the tradition of massive and authentic battles. The basic game modes from the original games are still the best: Conquest (where you capture and hold flags scattered all over the map) and Rush (where you either attack or defend two bases, and move on to the next until you finish the map or run out of respawns). BF3 brings back the basic team deathmatch mode that everyone will remember from the beginning of time, but it is not a major selling point here. Fortunately, the deathmatch games take place on smaller maps, but the action is still not as fast and furious as MW3.
Long-time Call of Duty fans will find two new game modes in MW3. One is a variation of team deathmatch called Kill Confirmed, and it is arguably the most frenetic mode on offer. Not only do you need to take out enemies, but you need to grab their dog tags as well. Skip that step and you do not get the points for your team, which is how you win the round. And, by the way, you get rewarded for recapturing your own dropped tags.
Overall, MW3 does use large open maps and provides a ton of game modes, but the maps are not nearly as massive as the ones in Battlefield 3. Whether you prefer the mayhem of close combat in MW3 or the more widespread tactical approach of BF3 is a matter of personal taste. In the end, we picked the Kill Confirmed mode as an overall winner for game mode comparisons.
Winner: Modern Warfare 3
Weapons and vehicles
There’s a satisfying punch to most of the weapons in both games. We’re big fans of military shooters because we know these weapons exist in the real world. Both games feature weapons from all over the world, including some that are cutting-edge prototypes. As with the previous games, unlocking more weapons in both games means getting a chance to try out more real-world assault rifles, pistols, grenades, rocket launchers, and sniper rifles.
Both games also provide a healthy balance between weapons. You can’t just go around shooting a BFG at everyone like you could in the early days, because the heavier artillery is harder to transport, much less accurate, and they take longer to load and shoot. There isn’t such a major difference between BF3 and MW3 that one game seems more balanced than the other when it comes to weapons, melee combat, and explosives, although the comparatively smaller maps in MW3 sometimes makes it easier to see the differences with some weapons (as well as making submachine guns more practical).
Both games spent a great deal of time fine tuning the guns to give them a semblance of reality. In MW3, you will typically have smaller areas to battle it out, which means you can immediately judge the accuracy and rate of fire for each gun. The larger maps of BF3 mean that you may see an enemy long before you are close enough to do much damage (not counting a sniper rifle), so the accuracy and range take on a different meaning. In terms of reality, the guns from both games are probably close, but each game utilizes them differently.
Of course, Battlefield 3 has a much greater emphasis on vehicles. MW3 doesn’t avoid vehicles altogether, but you will pilot an airplane or shoot as a gunner less frequently, and only via killstreaks. MW3 is mostly a singular-soldier game, whereas Battlefield 3 emphasizes planes, tanks, helicopters, and four-wheeled transports for multiple gamers to all use.
Once again, this difference is a matter of taste. Most of my sessions in BF3 involved long battles over huge maps that required a fair amount of time to get to the action on (unless you could snag a vehicle), while most of the battles in MW3 started out by getting shot in the head almost immediately before I could even look around. I’m calling this one a tie: some will prefer the close combat, some will prefer vehicles, and both have merit.
Graphics and sound
We played both games on the same Sony BRAVIA KDL55HX800 55-inch 3D display with an Aperion Intimus five-speaker wireless surround sound system. The display and sounds provided a deep sense of immersion into both game worlds.
The truth is, MW3 uses roughly the same graphics engine as MW2, although some online comparisons show that there are subtle differences – mostly, that MW2 looks a bit more washed out. Both, however, continue to push 60 fps, which is remarkable.
Everything in MW3 looks amazingly detailed – water pipes glisten in the sun, helicopters rage over the battlefield, and soldiers look more detailed than any previous Call of Duty game, although the difference isn’t jaw dropping by any means. As for audio, the surround sound is brilliant: bullets whiz by as shell casings clunk to the ground. Explosions are thunderous but not quite as ear-splitting as those in Battlefield 3. There’s an immersive sense in the visuals and audio that you are in the middle of a hectic battle. Unlike BF3, there are few points in the multiplayer when you sit back and just soak in the atmosphere. When you do that, you quickly go rag doll.
As much as we like MW3 graphics and sound, Battlefield 3 uses the brand new Frostbite 2.0 game engine that is better in every way possible. BF3 obliterates MW3 in terms of finer visual touches like dust and grime that flies in front of your field of view, smoke effects (both at close range and off in the distance), buildings that look ultra-realistic, and tanks that lumber along like the real thing. The Frostbite 2.0 engine also allows for destructible environments, including both cover and buildings, something that is sorely lacking in MW3.
The Dolby Digital audio is astounding – on the Aperion surround system, the floor seemed to shake several times from the explosions – and I was in a basement with a concrete floor. Bullets zip from one end of the room to the other, and even subtle effects like the hum of an engine sound authentic. For those who prefer games that are artistic and immersive, Battlefield 3 is one of the best ever on consoles, and on PC it is a work of art.
Winner: Battlefield 3
Those who have kept tab of the scoring so far will note that Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 wins by a nose. The game has a more frantic feel with better gameplay options. The biggest knock on MW3 is that it lacks significant innovation from previous games. But if you aren’t already a fan of either series, and are looking at it objectively, the Call of Duty game style has more to offer.
Killstreaks keep you hooked to the action because you want to keep trying to outdo your last effort. Badges and other unlockables seem to make the multiplayer that much more entertaining. Yes, Battlefield 3 is the better game in terms of visual realism and sound, but MW3 is the one that made me want to keep playing.
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