Modern Warfare 3: Define “Modern”

I FINISHED MODERN WARFARE 3′s CAMPAIGN this week, and can’t help but feel I’ve done all this before. Which isn’t to say it wasn’t fun – there’s something comfortable and enjoyable about the combat that most shooters lack – but despite the game’s many attempts to create over-the-top battles in famous locations, I feel like it’s a watered-down version of a game I’ve played five or six times before.

If you haven’t played Modern Warfare 2 (which I’ll admit is the only CoD game to date that I’ve never finished), the beginning of MW3 might throw you off a bit. The visuals are stunning: a New York City skyline on fire, with smoldering skyscrapers and fighter planes soaring overhead. However, it’s never explained that this is part of the Russian invasion that started back in MW2, so if you feel a little lost at the beginning, don’t feel bad. In typical CoD fashion, you’ll jump into the shoes of a few different characters as the World War III story plays out. 

I’ll give Infinity Ward and co. credit: they at least go all-out with the locations. After the first mission at the New York Stock Exchange, later battles take place in the heart of London, Paris and Berlin, and the sights of raging military battles trashing these iconic cities has an odd appeal. The Call of Duty games have always done a great job of blowing stuff up, and if nothing else, MW3 delivers on that. Other levels have their own twists, like a firefight on a hijacked plane or a mission set in the middle of a sandstorm, and at least try to keep things interesting. 

And yet, every time one of these levels takes a turn down a side street or heads into a building, it feels too familiar, and you start wondering which previous Call of Duty game it reminds you of. Wasn’t I already here in Modern Warfare 1, or CoD 2? At some point, all the back alleys, city streets and half-destroyed buildings all begin to blend into each other.

THANKFULLY, THE COMBAT IS A LOT more satisfying than last year’s CoD: Black Ops, which often felt amateurish and sloppy. Beefy weapons and big firefights are still the strength of the series, and while the game takes an extremely linear approach to its story, there are many areas where you have the freedom to forge your own path: straight down the middle, far left or right, take the upstairs path or not, etc. For all the complaints of the CoD games being “on rails” (and justifiably so), it’s still one of the rare shooters where you can play a level three or four times and approach it in completely different ways each time.

The problem is that there’s just not a whole lot of that combat. Short campaigns have always been a complaint for the CoD series, and MW3‘s might be the shortest so far. Part of that is because so many missions have you just following people, sneaking through forests or stealthing around enemies instead of actually fighting. And of course, there’s no shortage of missions where you ride shotgun in a tank or truck and blast everything that comes near you. So while the firefights are solid, it wouldn’t shock me to hear about people completing the campaign in only four or five hours.

I’ve only begun to scratch the surface of MW3‘s multiplayer, but I can already tell that very little has changed. It’s still the same basic formula as recent CoD games: you level up as you get kills and complete challenges, unlocking new weapons, items and perks along the way. It’s all very addictive, and there’s no shortage of modes or achievements to chase down.

Still, the multiplayer suffers from the same issues as in past years. Too often, you feel like you’re at the mercy of someone who’s unlocked air support and is just spamming spawn points from above. And really, without the XP system and unlockables, the multiplayer is fairly ordinary, maybe even tired. I played a lot of the multiplayer in the first Modern Warfare, but in MW2 and Black Ops, I only played enough to level my character to close to the prestige cap (about a week of playtime) before putting it down for good.

The one potential gamechanger in Modern Warfare 3 is the new “Special Ops” mode. Here, you can choose between “Survival” (just stay alive as long as possible against waves of enemies) or “Missions,” which are sort of like mini-maps you can play solo or with friends. A lot of these missions are based off events from the single-player campaign, so you should probably save these for after you’ve beaten the game, but they have their own leveling process and unlockables, which provide alternative replay value if the game’s multiplayer isn’t your thing. 

I CAN’T HELP BUT THINK that Modern Warfare 3 closes a chapter on the Call of Duty franchise in more ways than one. It obviously completes the MW trilogy, not to mention being the first game done under the new Infinity Ward regime since the high-profile departures of founders Vince Zampella and Jason West last year. But more than anything, it feels like the series has run its course and almost become a parody of itself.

I remember the first Call of Duty, a game that blew everyone away with multiple epic set pieces and went on to win numerous Game of the Year awards. The first Modern Warfare felt similarly epic, bringing the franchise to the present day and introducing its unique take on multiplayer. These were rare games you couldn’t put down, where even dying wasn’t a big deal because you wouldn’t wait to jump back into the action, and I couldn’t help but think there was something about the FPS that Infinity Ward grasped got that other developers didn’t.

But in the years since, with games like World at War or Black Ops and now Modern Warfare 3, it feels like something’s missing. The games haven’t been terrible, but have the feel of a garage band struggling to do cover versions of classic songs. They don’t feel as fresh or polished, that you’re just along for a quick ride and then you’re done.  A few years ago, Activision assumed control of the Guitar Hero franchise, which then began to quickly spiral downward until the series was eventually killed off; hopefully this isn’t the beginning of the same for Call of Duty.

Sluggo’s Score: B.