Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 Review

By Adam Rosenberg - Posted Nov 08, 2011

Modern Warfare 3 is a stellar experience, continuing Call of Duty's five-year reign as the premiere multiplayer FPS experience.

The Pros
  • Better story with non-stop pace and explosive set pieces
  • Multiplayer tweaks offer more depth, still inviting to newcomers
  • Spec Ops missions return and new Survival mode is rewarding
  • Call of Duty Elite integration is smooth and seems to work well
The Cons
  • Two-player max for co-op play in Spec Ops
  • Several Black Ops innovations are missed

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 Review:

The ground rumbles beneath my feet as I step out into the hazy daylight. The streets of lower Manhattan are a mess, but a loud noise from above immediately draws my attention to the sky-scraping rooftops in front of me.

The flaming wreckage of some ruined military vehicle slams right into the upper floors of the building across the street from me, sending huge chunks of pavement hurtling to the pavement below. It's a chilling sight for me, a native New Yorker, to see, immediately summoning to mind images of that fateful day in September, 2001.

This is the opening battleground of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3. Things only get crazier from here, as you'll soon find out. Why don't we first take a step back and look at the big picture?


Setting The Stage

Modern Warfare 3 puts Infinity Ward back at the helm of the first-person shooter series that it created. The developer returns after a year off to a dramatically changed landscape: there was the firing of IW's top brass Jason West and Vince Zampella in early 2010; the triumphant return of Electronic Arts' competing Battlefield franchise; and competition from within too, as the 2010 Call of Duty release from Treyarch, Black Ops, is seen by many fans as the strongest entry in the series.

Modern Warfare 3 arrives in stores in the midst of all this baggage. After the bad taste left with fans by Modern Warfare 2's poorly received story and glitch-heavy multiplayer, can IW, now working in a co-development relationship with Sledgehammer Games, possibly regain its footing? After spending three full days immersing myself in every aspect of the game, from the solo campaign to the new Elite social network, I have an answer to that question: absolutely, yes.

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Weaving A Blockbuster Narrative

Let's start with the campaign. Modern Warfare 3 opens on the same sorry world that we left back in 2009. The United States is at war with Russia and, for the first time since the War of 1812, the conflict is unfolding on American soil. Meanwhile, Captain John Price, John "Soap" MacTavish, and the Russian informant Nikolai continue their under-the-radar campaign against Vladimir Makarov, the Ultranationalist terror leader who lit the proverbial fuse that started World War III.

As with past Call of Duty campaigns, players will spend much of their time jumping between different soldiers on different battlefields. The bulk of your time will be spent in the shoes of Delta Force operative Frost and Yuri, a loyalist Russian who is brought into Price's Task Force 141 by Nikolai. They're not the only characters you'll play as, but they're definitely this game's playable protagonists.

Modern Warfare 3

The campaign runs at a non-stop pace, hopping into and out of explosive set pieces scattered all across the globe. Call of Duty games have always been good about wrapping a narrative into blockbuster spectacle, and Modern Warfare 3 is a master class in that regard. I'm not going to spoil any of the great "holy s#@t!" moments; however, suffice to say, I found myself cackling and shouting at the insane happenings unfolding in front of me more than once in most of the game's environments.

Before we move on to look at the rest of MW3's delicious gumbo, one more note on the story: those who were worried where this one might go after the events of MW2 can set their minds at ease. The new game has more in common with the original Modern Warfare. None of the moments manage to hit quite as hard as the "execution level" and the nuke blast from IW's 2007 release, innovative as they were at the time, but I can think of two in particular that come damn close.

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Enlisting For Battle In World War III

The multiplayer in Modern Warfare 3 presents the biggest target for criticism of the game. Many of the player-approved changes introduced by Treyarch in Black Ops -- a credits system for weapon and perk unlocks, contracts, wager matches, dolphin dives -- are gone. We're back now to the Modern Warfare model of player progression-based weapon, equipment, and perk unlocks. That's not to say nothing's changed, however.

The idea of killstreak rewards has been completely reimagined with the new Strike Packages. There are three of these: Assault, Support, and Specialist, which offer damage-dealing rewards, team-boosting rewards, and additional mid-match perk unlocks, respectively. You'll earn tokens as you rise through the levels that can be spent on unlocking additional options in each of these categories.

What's really game-changing about the Strike Packages isn't what they offer, but how they work. Assault is the most immediately familiar; pick up a killstreak in the course of a single spawn and you unlock rewards. Support is geared more toward less streak-oriented players; the kills you earn across all of your spawns in a given match all add up toward the reward counter. Specialist works like Assault does with killstreaks, only perks are your rewards.

It's a relatively small change that adds a great deal of depth to the strategic options arrayed before you in Call of Duty's multiplayer. Each package offers rewards to different types of players. In the same way that Modern Warfare's level progression lured in gamers that hadn't yet boarded the online multiplayer train, MW3's Strike Packages promise to do the same for those who feel like they're not "good" enough to compete.

Modern Warfare 3

There are other tweaks too. Weapon proficiencies are a big one; you now earn firearm-specific experience as you invest time with one gun or another. As you rise through the levels, you'll unlock weapon-specific perks that improve things like kickback and penetration damage, as well as the expected set of attachments: scopes, sights, underbarrel armaments, and the like.

The Prestige Shop is new as well. Players still have the option of resetting their user data when they hit the new level 80 cap, but now the reward for doing so is more customizable. You'll earn a token every time you Prestige -- you'll also start with one token apiece for each Call of Duty game you've gone the Prestige route in -- which can be spent on things like: two hours of double XP (general or weapons, you choose), custom class slots, and emblems.

There are two standouts in the Prestige Shop, however. One, Unlock Gear, allows you to choose a weapon, piece of equipment, or perk that will remain unlocked for class creation purposes across all future Prestige resets, regardless of what level the item typically unlocks at. There's also a reset all stats option that unlocks at the 10th level Prestige, essentially giving players the option to start fresh once they've hit the apparent max level.

Modern Warfare 3

There's more too. A pair of new modes: Kill Confirmed and Team Defender. An enhanced set of tools for setting up private matches, along with an assortment of fun unranked modes that you can build custom match types around. All of the multiplayer unlocks are open to use in private matches too, regardless of what your ranked MP level is. And of course, wrapping around everything in multiplayer is Call of Duty Elite, Activision's franchise-specific stat-tracker/social network. An in-game UI provides access to a simplified version of what you see on the website; it's all very easy to navigate.

None of these features would amount to much if the game didn't play right, but that's never been an issue for Call of Duty. The strengths and weaknesses of the 16 included multiplayer maps will only become clear through extended play, but they look great and they're definitely fun to do battle on.

Call of Duty multiplayer is and always has been analogous with paintball, and that doesn't change in Modern Warfare 3. It's definitely a more complex and long-term investment-oriented take on paintball than the series has yet seen, but you're ultimately still looking at one of the fastest-paced, team-based, vehicle-free, multiplayer shooters on the market. Modern Warfare 3 evolves the formula in some very welcome ways, but there's nothing that fans will have a hard time adapting to.

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Fighting In An Army Of Two

Finally we come to Spec Ops, the newly spruced-up mode returning from its Modern Warfare 2 debut. Spec Ops was the highlight of the 2009 game for many fans. It's definitely still *a* highlight in MW3, but the two-player cap on the co-op Mission and Survival modes is a definite drawback in this increasingly cooperative play-driven gaming world.

This is especially true for Survival, which can be described as MW3's own take on Treyarch's hugely successful Zombies survival mode. This is a wave-based challenge in which one or two players take on increasingly difficult groups of enemies. You start with a pistol and a handful of grenades, but scoring kills earns you money, which can in turn be spent on more weapons, ammo, upgrades, equipment, and support requests, like Predator missiles or an AI-controlled Delta Squad.

These Survival matches all play out on the game's 16 multiplayer maps, so it's just as good for learning the MP maps as it is for a fun co-op experience. There's a twist, however. Spec Ops, like multiplayer, is driven by a level-based progression and system of unlocks. As you play and earn experience, you'll unlock a wider array of tools for use in Survival, as well as the full selection of maps (only four are unlocked at first). Plugging away in that mode is one way of earning experience, but Spec Ops also brings back MW2's missions.

There are 16 missions in all, unlocking in groups of four as you earn stars in each, up to three per mission. If you enjoyed the twist that many of MW2's Spec Ops missions brought in, then you'll love the offering in MW3. There are a few that are simply built around stacking up a body count, but most have some sort of co-op-oriented twist.

In one of my favorites, one player controls a series of remote turrets while the other moves through an environment, hacking computers along the way to give the first player access to new, more well-placed turrets. In another, one players breaks into an enemy base while receiving support from an AC-130, controlled by the second player. Fun times to be had here.

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Summing It All Up

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 is a proud return to form for Infinity Ward, with no small amount of thanks and props going to Sledgehammer Games as well. The two studios hit the ground running with the tight campaign, and it's a pace that never lets up. Campaign, multiplayer, and Spec Ops all deliver what they're supposed to -- with better visuals and tighter controls than the games that came in years past, naturally -- and the Elite social network promises to keep bringing a lot of fresh appeal to the experience in the months following the game's release.

You didn't need me to tell you that this game is awesome, but it is all the same. If you're a fan, you will continue to be. If you're not, maybe it's time you boarded the hype train. Modern Warfare 3 is a stellar experience, continuing Call of Duty's five-year reign as the premiere multiplayer FPS experience.