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Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 Review

call-of-duty-mw3-reviewLike all industry leaders, the Call of Duty franchise has become a victim of its own success. The people that like the series swear by it, while those that dislike it tend to righteously hate it. The thing with the Call of Duty games is that you can criticize them for the style and dislike the nature of the games, but you can’t really claim that the games are bad or technically flawed. Not that they are perfect, but they are polished.

It is fair to criticize things like the series increasing stagnation and the lack of risks the developers take, but the franchise is where it is because Activision releases quality games stemming from the best possible resources available in the gaming industry today. Activision has too much at stake to let the series totally fail. The games could slide into tedium and mediocrity, but they will still retain a sense of technical proficiency at the very least.

And because the series takes very few risks, they won’t likely win over any people that aren’t already converts. The core fans may not be blown away either, but they are typically satisfied. In the case of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3, Infinity Ward (and company) did a good job of examining what has worked, and tweaking the things that didn’t, even with all the hoopla stemming from the behind-the-scenes telenovela surrounding the ousting of the former IW heads. But that’s another story for another day. Perhaps the loss of West and Zampella hampered the creativity a bit, but there is no obvious loss of quality.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 does what it needs to do, and should satiate fans without alienating any. The campaign is on par with the last Modern Warfare story (take that for what you will), while the multiplayer will likely suck the life from gamers for months to come—right up until the next Call of Duty in 2012. It doesn’t take any risks, but when you have one of the most successful franchises of all time, you really don’t have to.

Michael Bay Presents World War 3

If you played the previous Modern Warfare campaigns, than you know what to expect: Lots of ‘splosions and shootin’. In fact, with the exception of the cut scenes and a few very deliberate parts, there is not a single 60-second stretch where you are not involved in combat. From minute one, there is never a slow section as you race through the six-hour or so story.

The plot picks up immediately where Modern Warfare 2 left off, with Soap and Price having just confronted Shepherd, the Russians invading and Makarov still loose. As with the previous games, the story regularly shifts perspectives. This time the bulk of the plot is played through the eyes of an America Delta Force soldier codenamed Frost, and a former Spetsnaz member working with Price, named Yuri. There are exceptions, and you do take on a few other roles, but the bulk of the story focuses on these perspectives.

When you are with Price, the plot is focused on the hunt for Makarov, as the former Task Force 141 travels around the world looking for their prey. The Delta team is mostly involved with the larger story of the outbreak of combat around the globe that heralds the start of World War 3. Regardless of the character, the plot can usually be summed up by you killing everyone before they kill you.

As with most third entries in a trilogy (and while there may be several more stories to tell with the same core characters there is a definite ending to the current storyline), the characterizations are a bit weaker than before–but for a game like this that hardly matters. The story is not quite as compelling as the first Modern Warfare, and it doesn’t have quite as many over-the-top moments as MW2, but it is a serviceable story, and a fitting conclusion to the trilogy.

There are still plenty of wild instances as you fight around the world through some impressive settings, but it is the gameplay rather than the plot that will keep you involved.

The same technical problems with the campaign exist as they did with not just the other Modern Warfare games, but all CoD games. The enemy AI is fine but unremarkable, while your AI teammates—while not busy trying to catch your bullets with the back of their heads—are mostly ineffective. The AI isn’t great, but it isn’t bad either. Again, Infinity Ward (with help from Sledgehammer) did what they needed to without taking many chances.

The campaign is fun and will appeal to fans of the story, but it won’t really impress either. Then again, as long as it is decent, it doesn’t have to.

A Good Reason to Have the Internet

Few games are as geared towards online play as the Call of Duty franchise. The campaign is important, but secondary to the series. Most won’t be playing the campaign a year from now, but you can be sure that there will be people online playing the multiplayer. While Infinity Ward (with the help of Raven Software) didn’t exactly rewrite the book with MW3‘s online side, there are a few key changes that should make fans happy.

With a game like this–a game that will have so many people playing and scrutinizing it–there will always be a few balance issues that make people angry. In the first Modern Warfare juggernaut and martyrdom could make a nun swear. In Modern Warfare 2, several weapons were too powerful (looking at you, Model 1887 akimbo shotguns) while others led to weird semi-glitches (javelin glitch, anyone?). There are sure to be the same complaints about Modern Warfare 3, but nothing immediately stands out. With a closed beta though, those problems are to be expected, as are the inevitable “oh my god, using the ___ ruins the game! I’m never playing CoD again!” exclamations that will come. Give it time.

But for the most part, the weapons do have a sense of balance. Sniping seems to be a bit easier as the “strike zone,” so to speak, is a little larger and bullets will kill with what may look like a glancing blow. The rest of the weapons are all fairly interesting, and there are a lot of them. Many of them also feel a bit meatier, and the sound, kickback and controller feedback make them feel a bit more realistic and unique.

Each weapon now also has its own leveling system, which unlocks weapon-specific perks and attachments called Weapon Proficiency. The more you use a weapon, and the more success you have with it, the faster your level rises. Once you’ve put in a bit of time with a particular weapon, you will start to unlock the things you would expect like red dot attachments, cammo or things like extra ammo—the purchase system from Black Ops is gone, but he new Weapon Proficiency allows you to add a perk to your weapon on top of the attachments. Some perks are things like kickback, which reduces your weapons recoil, while others allow multiple attachments. It is just one more thing to level up, but it is a solid addition and gives more customization options.

Beyond that, the perk system remains more-or-less the same as always, with three perks to choose in each loadout. Secondary weapons have also followed the Black Ops’ path, so while you can carry machine pistols, handguns and launchers as a secondary, unlike MW2, shotguns are once again a primary weapon.

Renovating the Killstreaks

One of the biggest complaints people had about MW2 was the killstreaks. They were ridiculous. More than that, they became a defining factor of each game as they overpowered the gameplay. But the idea of choose-your-own killstreaks was a good one, and those return, but with a twist. As part of your loadout, you now have three options on what type of killstreaks to use.

The first is the assault class, which is similar to the previous games—you select your killstreaks from a list, and as you rack up consecutive kills without dying you are rewarded with a killstreak once you hit the specific number of kills. There are a few new options, but it is the same in theory.

The second choice is support, which is where things change. If you have ever played a game of domination and had a killstreak going, but were then forced to try to take a flag only to have a random grenade kill you, this setup is for you. The more you help your team, the more you build to your rewards, regardless of deaths. If you have a few kills but die after taking a flag, your points will carry over and you will be rewarded for the flag capture. The more you do in a game, the faster you build up your killstreak regardless of how long it takes. Once you have a killstreak available (you choose them from a list before the game begins) and activate it, it is then is used to help your team. You can’t save up and call an airstrike, but you can earn UAVs, ballistic vests for your teammates and a slew of other support elements that are not specifically offensive in nature. It seems like a minor change, but for hardcore fans, it is a brilliant addition.

The third setup is the specialist, which is all about the perks. As you earn killstreaks, you unlock multiple perks like those you select with each custom class. When you hit eight consecutive kills, you unlock every perk in the game for your character. It is more of a solo thing that may appeal to the lone wolf approach, but it is interesting.

Back to Basics

One of the biggest issues with Modern Warfare 2 was the layouts of the maps. Some were too big for this style of controlled chaos, but a bigger issue was the dimensions. Getting shot from behind, to the side and above was simply not fun, and the maps just didn’t necessitate a good flow. It was too easy to die randomly from angles you couldn’t always check.

Infinity Ward heard those complaints, and went back to what made Modern Warfare (and earlier CoD games) a success. The game currently offers 16 maps, and more will be coming eventually in the form of DLC. While there haven’t been any huge advancements in the game, there have been significant improvements in the map design.

With so many maps, there will always be favorites–and there are a few that feel a bit out of place–but in general they all move very well and offer fast-paced games. The maps feel much closer to Modern Warfare than MW2. There is even a map that seems to be based on “Crash” from MW, which has received several accolades for its design.

Adding to the Mix

Along with the new loadouts, two new gamemodes have been added to the competitive side, while the Spec Ops mode returns with a new mode called “survival.”

Now, adding two new game modes to a multiplayer may not seem like a major deal, but when you consider that the CoD offerings have remained mostly unchanged for years, it’s worth mentioning.

The first is “kill confirmed.” It plays out like team deathmatch, but there is a major difference. When you kill an enemy, they drop their dog tags. To score for your team, you must then collect those dogtags. Alternatively, when you or a teammate die they also drop tags, and you can collect those to stop the opposing team from scoring. Individual kills are still counted and earn the gamer points, but you need to collect the tags to win. It is wildly addictive. The dropped tags can be left as bait, or a frantic rush towards them can ensue. There are a lot of options, and while it is still essentially deathmatch, it makes an old concept feel fresh.

The other new game mode is “team defender,” which is a twist on capture the flag. At the start of each game, there is a single flag located in the center of the map. Anyone can grab it, and when they do, they begin to earn points for their team. If they die, the flag becomes neutral, and another player—friend or foe—can grab it to start earning points. If you play solo, this mode will be an interesting diversion, but not much more. But for people into teamwork, this could quickly become a favored mode. Once you have the flag, you can run anywhere, which means your team can set up a defensive perimeter around you. The possibilities are awesome, and will be determined entirely on how you choose to play.

The Spec Ops mode returns with a selection of two player challenges that range from killing all enemies to capturing select targets. Each mission has three difficulty options, and you earn up to three stars based on the selection. With 16 missions, there is a lot to try out, but this mode probably won’t be much more than a fun distraction—just like the last Spec Ops. The survival mode is a different animal.

Image used with permission by copyright holder

Survival mode is essentially MW3’s take on horde mode. You and a friend, either via splitscreen or online, face wave after wave of enemies. With each kill you earn cash, which can then be used to buy new weapons and killstreaks. In both the standard Spec Ops and the survival, you level up separately from your multiplayer character. As you level, you unlock more options to use in the survival mode, like airstrikes or my personal favorite—a Delta Team to come help you out. It is a blast to play. It is a bit of a shame that it is limited to two players, but it is still fun and could develop a huge following.

Wager matches from Black Ops are mostly gone, but they do still exist as private matches, which also include a handful of other modes like a juggernaut game to try out. The changes aren’t massive, but they are well-planned, and they will keep the game feeling fresh until next year’s edition.


Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 is a safe game. Activision knows that it has a product that people like, and they also know that changing it would be risky. The modified IW Engine is starting to show its age, and while the 60 frames per second keep it looking good, there are other games that look better. Having destructible environments is also noticeably absent.

If you aren’t a fan of the series, or if you are tired of the gameplay, than MW3 probably won’t convince you otherwise. But for fans of the franchise, the changes will come in answer to complaints from fans that go back years. The changes aren’t massive, but they will go a long way for devotees.

The campaign is a brief affair that is worth playing, but the multiplayer is the key. Infinity Ward (and friends) haven’t changed a whole lot, but the changes it made were spot on. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 may not revolutionize the series, but if it ain’t broke don’t fix it, and this game does more than enough to honor the series and keep fans coming back for more.

Score: 9 out of 10

 (This game was reviewed on the Xbox 360 on a copy provided by Activision)

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Ryan Fleming
Former Digital Trends Contributor
Ryan Fleming is the Gaming and Cinema Editor for Digital Trends. He joined the DT staff in 2009 after spending time covering…
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