The Modern Warfare games have become something of an industry standard for video games, specifically for military-based, first-person shooters. They boast a mix of realism and over-the-top, explosive action, and Modern Warfare 3 makes no exception to this rule. Fans tend to consider it to be the best of Battlefield 3's realistic warfare and Gears of War 3's "summer blockbuster" pacing. Critics tend to consider it to be a shallow mash-up that is overhyped and underdeveloped. Love it or hate it, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 is here to stay.
We sat down with the game and a nice chunk of time, and carefully delved into the campaign and multiplayer modes. Doing our best to ignore both the good and the bad hype, we gave the game an objective inspection*, though one not lacking in considerable previous experience. We neither adore the Call of Duty series, nor do we have any prior grudges against it. We did our best to take Modern Warfare 3 as simply an individual product, at least where gameplay is involved.
That said, we're not really sure why it's such a big deal.
*This review is based off of the Xbox 360 version of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3, though observations concerning elements of the game outside of specific controllers and graphical presentation should be considered to apply to all versions of the game.
Modern Warfare 3 is a very intuitive game. If you've played any console shooters in the past decade, you could probably sit down and figure out the controls and pacing very quickly, partially due to the fact that the series was a huge influence on the shooter genre. You could just about call it the standard by which other shooters are judged, or at least, often compared to.
It's not that the game isn't the heir of the exciting, gruff, gory action we've come to expect from the Call of Duty series and its numerous, less-successful clones, it's just that it feels rather more like an expansion pack to the previous title than a new game. This isn't a bad thing; the campaign and multiplayer are fun and entertaining, if anything, and Modern Warfare 3 delivers more of the same.
But say you hadn't ever played any shooters, military or otherwise. To give you an example of the genre, we would likely refer you to Modern Warfare 3 simply because it is exactly what one might imagine if they were, for some reason, compelled to imagine a military shooter. A series of battles that take place around the world, replete with helicopter shootouts, subtle stealth missions that lean heavily on sniper rifles, nicknames like "Frost" and "Sandman," and plenty of slick army lingo to the point of nearly being hyperstylized.
Modern Warfare 3's core gameplay involves--what else?--warfare. The modern kind, with intelligence based on real-time countries and factions, electronically triggered drone raids, EMP detonations, and lots, lots, of explosions. Players are guided through the game's campaign at a rather quick pace, and are otherwise dropped into battles and given specific objectives to fulfill in a Point A to Point B manner--though usually, there are a lot of surprises thrown into the mix. You get your favorite gun and move from cover to cover, eliminating enemy soldiers and calling out orders and enemy locales related to the specific area you're infiltrating/defending/scouting. If you're into military tactics and real weaponry, you'll likely feel right at home. If not, you might have trouble (at first) figuring out which tango is on your 6 and which exfil point is the contact dropzone. (What?) Grenades will be thrown, air strikes will be ordered, and health will magically regenerate while you hide behind a stack of wooden crates.
Essentially, the game's entire basic mechanic involves moving around linear maps using a large variety of weaponry while navigating various stages with very light platforming elements, in order to best shoot your enemies and avoid being shot. Of course, it's much more complicated than that to a degree, but if we had to absolutely boil it down to something, it would involve fightin' 'round the world.
You and your squad (or live teammates) will work in tangent to navigate artillery-heavy battlefields, or the war-torn paths of some abandoned village, or a dark warehouse full of enemy ordinance, living by one basic rule: kill or be killed. Other than the occasional use of more advanced/technologically involved military-based weaponry such as mounted turrets or a surprisingly hardy UGV (Unmanned Ground Vehicle), the entirety of Modern Warfare 3's gameplay involves shooting enemy targets to the best of your aiming ability and navigating the levels presented, which has been the formula behind the games from the very beginning. If you've played any of the previous Modern Warfare titles, you already know all you could about the gameplay found in Modern Warfare 3. If you're new to the series, it shouldn't take very long to figure it out.
Controls in Modern Warfare 3 are based on the now standardized scheme of almost all shooters. They are perfect for the relatively simple actions required to navigate the game and be successful, if only because there aren't that many things you need to do. Moving from standing, to crouching, to lying prone is simple enough, and in fact can all be done with the tap/hold of a single button (in our case, the B button). It's easy to adjust aiming speed from very sluggish to way, way faster than necessary, so most players can find something in between that works for them. Characters move fluidly and easily, though jumping in first-person with no context as to where your feet are can get a little frustrating. Aiming and shooting is so simple (and so, so necessary) that we imagine even a very young child could do it with some degree of success (they do). There are a number of variable control schemes to accommodate players who are already well-versed in other shooters' controls, and while Y-axis aiming can be flipped, buttons cannot be remapped. On the Xbox 360 controller, we were able to pick up the game and successfully play Team Deathmatch, despite not regularly playing the Call of Duty titles. The controls are very simple and very easy to learn, leaving the players' attention free to watch the cinematic elements of the campaign or the action on screen during multiplayer.
We can't imagine why anyone would want to play through Modern Warfare 3's campaign mode more than once, save to play through it with a friend, hunt down some extra achievements, or simply because you loved that one level with the guns in it. But multiplayer? Multiplayer will never die. People are still playing the multiplayer for the first two Modern Warfare titles, and you can bet on the longevity of Modern Warfare 3's multiplayer community. Between the unlockable classes, emblems, and titles, downloadable extras like map packs, and the continuous reward of leveling up, prestiging, and mastering the game's relatively simple shooting mechanics, the replay value is potentially endless, especially if this really is the last game in the Modern Warfare series.
From an Xbox 360 standpoint, Modern Warfare 3 features a now greatly sought after set of achievements, like any big budget game on the system. But the most notable additional content to be found in the game is, easily, the continuous downloadable content released for the game at regular intervals. Since its release, 8 "drops" of differing content have been released, mainly extra multiplayer maps and Spec Ops missions. And that pales in comparison to Call of Duty: Elite, a subscription service provided by Beachhead Studios; players pay a fee to be part of, well, part of the "elite," giving them access to much more detailed stat tracking and clan-based activity logs than are available outside of the game's vanilla presentation, to say nothing of free access to all of the DLC drops.
Nailing down the exact pacing of the multiplayer modes would be a daunting, if not impossible, task. The experience is different for everyone. But concerning the campaign only, we can say with all confidence that it is paced very, let us say, quickly. Difficulty never really ramps up over the course of the campaign; for the most part, making use of cover and allowing your squad mates ample time to take flanking positions on enemy units will make for smooth skirmishes. But the pace of the story is a little hasty for our preferences. Sadly, there's not much time taken for narrative, compelling dialogue, etc., as its really just mission after mission attempting to stop the world from plummeting into destruction by causing a considerable amount of counter-destruction.
The AI in Modern Warfare 3 left us feeling very incompetent. No, not the enemy AI. They like to hit our bullets with their heads. But your squadmates, wow. Playing through the campaign on the standard difficulty, it was very possible--multiple times--to lay prone behind a convenient barrel and wait until Sandman or Truck finished off the enemies in a particular segment, before moving on to the next. Granted, this isn't a fun way to play, but it's good to know that if you're really under fire, you can lean on your AI teammates a little. If only Dom from Gears of War were programmed so effectively. Considering numerous missions have you following your squad leader, there's not much of a Rambo, I'm-the-boss feeling during the campaign; you sort of feel like just another soldier in the field, and the AI's consistent competency, inability to die, and perfect knowledge of what to do in any situation really, really adds to that feeling.
The story for Modern Warfare 3 picks up where Modern Warfare 2's story ended, just hours afterwards in fact. The in-game dialogue is not terribly compelling, though it's usually masked beneath the sounds of gunfire and explosions, but on a whole, the story is fairly interesting, whether or not you've played the previous games in the series. You watch the campaign's worldwide events unfold through the eyes of various soldiers: Delta Force member Sgt. Derek "Frost" Westbrook; S.A.S. Sgt. Marcus Burns; and a Russian security agent, Andrei Harkov. However, players will spend most of the campaign as Yuri, an ex-Spetsnaz. The conclusion to the events laid out in the previous two Modern Warfare games is over-the-top, bombastic, and, of course, entertaining. The Call of Duty games have traditionally featured lengthy, cinematic, threshed-out campaigns. However, Modern Warfare 3--plot elements aside--has received a lot of complaints because its campaign can be finished up in just over 4 hours, which by today's standards is lamentably short. Unfortunately, our time with the game proved this to be true. Unless you're dying over and over, don't expect a long, epic campaign.
Modern Warfare 3 is almost entirely bereft of any humor, save for the occasional painfully predictable banter between squadmates. But where it lacks in humor, it fills in the gaps with a mostly incomprehensible briefing system, voiced by robotic-sounding women over shots of post-it notes and computer screens detailing the upcoming mission. The overall plot is moved forward in brief segments through each mission, in a number of flash-sideways style events that reveal events already seen from different locations in the world. The narrative itself would fall flat were it not punctuated by scenes of carnage and military heroism; despite the story being interesting on a conceptual level, the actual layout of events is fairly confusing the first time through the game, but players are given almost no time to mull it over, as firefight after firefight propels the story along at breakneck speeds.
Furthermore, we noticed some common but still unforgivable grammar errors during the game's subtitles, particular a continuous mistake involving using "it's" where the writers meant to use "its." This isn't a huge deal, but it adds to the feeling of mindlessness that the game has been repeatedly criticized for.
It's hard to say whether or not Modern Warfare 3's story takes precedence over its combat-saturated gameplay, as the two are so inseparable, you could likely argue that the series of battles and small skirmishes, taken outside of the cutscenes between missions, are the backbone of the story. However, this tended to make us feel as though the big picture had been entirely forgotten in favor of whatever pressing matter--stopping a convoy of trucks, infiltrating a factory, escaping a submarine--dictated the reasoning behind the current mission. One thing's for certain: there's almost no player choice allowed in the story, at all, save for what guns to use. During a stealth section, we were required to snipe a series of patrolling guards before they discovered a squadmate hiding in a nearby shack. Upon failing this segment a couple of times, we found that, regardless of our success rate in sniping the guards, our cover was eventually blown no matter what.
The squadmates surrounding the player's current inhabited soldier--Frost, Yuri, or Andrei--are competent and brave, and lend a sense of realism to the feeling of being a member of that particular squad, in pre-set action only. General dialogue and character movement is stale and cliched at best, and at worst, involves watching your teammates frantically calling for backup over the radio while they pace with purpose and vigor into the nearest obstacle. The characters are clearly scripted in a weak manner, and tend to handle situations with the same level of effectiveness or ineffectiveness regardless of what the player does. Once they reach whatever parameters dictate the successful scripted actions to complete a particular task, they are right on cue, but seem to stumble along in-between these sections like puppets to a petulant and attention-deficit puppet master.
Cinematics are a huge part of the presentation in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3; almost painstakingly so. Every other mission ends or begins with some kind of scripted event in which the player is merely spectating. Granted, these cinematics are often entertaining and highly integral to the progression of the plot, but it's sort of an attempt at Uncharted's movie-based story progression without the charm of human interaction or any lighthearted elements. Some cinematics seem to serve only as shock-value, and many more simply involve the player falling into or waking out of a blurry, explosion-induced hazy. You can watch a military movie. You can play a military game. Trying to do both at the same time takes away from both the cinematic presentation and the amount of actual, nitty-gritty gameplay available in Modern Warfare 3.
It's common knowledge by now that Modern Warfare 3's game engine is the same game engine that was used for Modern Warfare 2. This means that graphically, the game is exactly the same as its predecessor. This isn't a bad thing, but it certainly doesn't give graphics freaks or audiophiles much to look forward to, and is one of the key factors in why Modern Warfare 3 feels, all too often, like an overhyped expansion pack.
Cities look like cities, Africa looks like Africa, and Russian biochemicals look like Russian biochemicals. Graphical quality aside, Modern Warfare 3 does a decent job of capturing the "feel" of whatever its current arena is. But we wager most people wouldn't be able to pick out its screenshots from a collection of screenshots from any slew of modern, strictly military shooter games. It simply doesn't have a compelling artistic presentation or signature style in the way that Halo or Gears of War does.
The graphics in Modern Warfare 3, as previously discussed, are exactly the same as those found in the previous game in the installment. If any other series did this, fans would be scratching their heads, wondering why. But for some reason, it was more important to release the last game in a vastly popular series just shy of two years after its predecessor than taking the time to make improvements. Needless to say, considering their dated and relatively simplistic nature, the graphics in Modern Warfare 3 are nowhere near impressive, unless you've just come from playing Nintendo 64.
Like the graphics, the music in Modern Warfare 3 is not much changed from the second or even the first game in the series. Not that it was ever much besides stock, upbeat, "get pumped up 'cause it's a crazy fight" tunes that course relentlessly beneath the tide of battle, but overall, we're disappointed at the distinct lack of theme. Music has become a huge part of video games and their overall feel. Regardless of frequency or passion, everyone, everyone, listens to some kind of music. Video game music can be purposefully pretentious and over-the-top, or subtle and gently crafted to illustrate the details of character or plot development, or anything in between. But Modern Warfare 3's music is utterly forgettable and generic.
Like so many things about this game, the sound effects are notably lackluster. To get right to a specific point, the sounds of firing a military-grade shotgun did not carry the weight and bass boom to make it feel exciting, adrenaline-inducing, or powerful. While the subtle gun sound effects might be Infinity Ward's attempt at instilling a sense of realism to the game's gunplay, we're not really sure what the point is in employing realism in some areas, but not in others. Take the explosions, for example. Glass shatters and debris flies, and the entirety of the game's soundscape becomes dominated by effects in a way meant to draw the ear into the action--so why is this only used in ways that hand-hold the player's attention towards the plot points affecting the minutia of the battle at hand, and not perpetuated to create a continuous excitement for the entirety of the game? The fact is, the sound effects on a whole are "good enough." But these are some odd results to be garnered from a game that sold 6.5 million copies on its launch day.
Competitive multiplayer in the Modern Warfare variety of the Call of Duty series (as well as Black Ops) is by far the most discussed, loved, hated, and marketed feature to be found in the games, and Modern Warfare 3 continues that tradition with a series of new, old, and revamped styles focusing on both co-operative and competitive multiplayer. The Xbox Live community alone numbers in the millions, and multiplayer is far and away the real selling point behind this game. A good number of changes have been made to Modern Warfare 2's formula, to both praise and criticism, but overall it has attempted to become more balanced, and has definitely become more complex.
We jumped onto Modern Warfare 3's competitive multiplayer as a fresh-faced level 1 greenhorn with absolutely no prior knowledge of map layouts, and no real practice with the game's more subtle aspects of gunplay, to say nothing of understanding the semi-complex pointstreak, strike package system that is the result of revamping Modern Warfare 2's multiplayer modes. Despite this, we weren't slaughtered mercilessly, which does say something about Modern Warfare 3's learning curve. Considering the relative simplicity of movement and the familiar gun mechanics, we imagine one reason the game sells like hotcakes is due to the fact that's it's fairly easy--and fun--to just jump into a match with 9 other players and see who comes out on top. We were reminded of simpler days, playing horribly cramped 4-player split-screen deathmatch via the N64 version of Goldeneye 007, except we had the screen all to ourselves (though 2-player split screen is available).
While the gameplay and graphics are very basic within the realm of competitive multiplayer shooters on today's market, there is something undeniably fun and timeless about Modern Warfare's multiplayer matchmaking. It's quick, easy, and consistently rewards the player--even when they don't do that well.
While Modern Warfare 3's competitive multiplayer features integrated co-operative elements already (default teams are 5 v. 5), and players would be foolish to try and take on the enemy team solo, without help or communication with their teammates, that kind of co-op is old hat for the series. However, Modern Warfare 3's new Survival mode is a co-op experience that's been tailored specifically to 2-player teams, pitting them against wave after wave of enemy soldiers in a test of skill, survival instinct, and teamwork. Players can play split-screen or link up over Xbox Live (or PSN) and work through various maps--unlocking higher difficulty maps as they proceed. Players start with only a pistol, and fairly limited ammo, and must scavenge more powerful weapons from their defeated enemies as they move through the map. While it's really just a Horde clone at heart, it's still a welcome addition to the plethora of modes available alongside the game's brief campaign.
Modern Warfare 3's multiplayer still has most of the modes that were available in Modern Warfare 2, as well as some new additions. On top of classic modes like Team Deathmatch and Capture the Flag, Infinity Ward has also thrown in a number of multiplayer modes that feature new rules, such as Kill Confirmed, in which players have to scavenge the dog tags from their slain enemies in order to score points for the kill, or Team Defender, with is a capture the flag mashup. Modern Warfare 3 also features a number of different playlists--standard, advanced, and elite--that cater to players of lower or higher levels, in an attempt to balance gameplay between brand new players and the best of the best. Out of everything we don't like about Modern Warfare 3, it's clear that Infinity Ward took gamers' past suggestions and criticisms to heart, and adjusted the game's various multiplayer modes to feasibly provide enjoyable content for anyone who picks up the game.
Modern Warfare 3 is well-known for its complex and involved multiplayer customizability. Infinity Ward has learned from what worked--and what didn't--in Modern Warfare 2, and made alterations to their multiplayer to best suit those specifications. There are probably too many minute changes to list here, but the biggest change involves altering the second game's Killstreak reward system, which would award bonuses to players for as long as they scored kills without dying themselves (a lot harder than it sounds). The system is now called Pointstreak, and while repeated kills are still the mainstay of its reward system, players can earn a Pointstreak without ever firing a bullet, a good example of the multiplayer's shifting emphasis from assault-based rewards to a mix of assault, tactical, and support-based rewards. These rewards take the form of strike packages, which players choose upon receiving a Pointstreak. Continuing in Modern Warfare 3 is also the ability to set class, create custom classes, choose from unlockable titles and emblems, join clans. The list goes on and on, and while most of this has been carried over from Modern Warfare 2, it's still the most rewarding and exciting aspect of the entire series, and is arguably the games' biggest selling point.
Matchmaking is one of the simplest aspects of Modern Warfare 3's multiplayer capabilities. Due to the massive amount of people who play the game over Xbox Live alone (around 7 million), there are people playing roughly 24 hours a day, and finding a match is a quick and painless process. There is a good system for mixing teams to pit an average of player levels against one another, so newer players will be mixed in with more experienced players on teams of 5. Finding partners for the game's co-op Survival mode is also relatively easy, as plenty of people tend to frequent that mode, though by far the lion's share of players are taking part in competitive multiplayer.
Players with headsets can talk freely to their team during Team Deathmatch modes and other team-based modes, and all players can chat with one another while waiting in the lobby. This is one of those iffy areas of Modern Warfare 3's matchmaking system, as anyone who is familiar with the series is probably familiar with the boasting, bullying, and completely immature banter that can tend to overwhelm the discussions found in a given game. Granted, on an objective level, the amount of communication and ability to network with other players in clan trials and skirmishes is great. But the community is sometimes less than deserving of these features, especially with the tendency for rage-induced backlash at other players resulting from being killed or camped. This is certainly not limited to only Modern Warfare 3, however, and unfortunately is par for the course for most shooter titles with chat functionality.
It's interesting to us now, looking back on this review process. We went into professionally testing and reviewing the gameplay, storytelling, and basic functionality of Modern Warfare 3 with a purposeful lack of bias or pre-conceived notions concerning the game and its considerable industry hype. And we were left feeling like, without any attention paid to biases or hype, there's really not anything very compelling about the game as a standalone product.
It's been regularly called Modern Warfare 2.5, and we can see why. When compared to the last game in the series, Modern Warfare 3 has not been much improved. Its campaign has all the flare, set-piece moments, and cardboard military cliches that helped the first game in the series sell so well, but that is where Infinity Ward erred. The campaign would be exciting had you never played a Call of Duty title, but by today's standards, it's very short, and doesn't do anything too differently than the previous games. If you loved the campaigns in the other Modern Warfare titles, you'll likely enjoy the campaign found here, but at 3.5 to 4.5 hours of gameplay--much of which is filtered into and out of spectating segments where players have no control over the action whatsoever--it feels like more like DLC for Modern Warfare 2 than a full, refreshed, $60 story.
Put up against other releases from 2011--Skyrim, for instance, or even Minecraft--the amount of content found in Modern Warfare 3's campaign is very limited, and outside of its continuous insistence on over-the-top events and debris-steeped explosions, is really very shallow. While the use of varying points of view has always been a staple of the Modern Warfare campaign outline, it also makes it very hard to connect with the characters around you. When you've only just "met" a certain AI-controlled ally, there's only so much shock value involved in watching them be executed. The campaign seems to have been thrown together only to tie up loose ends from the previous games' campaigns, and like the multiplayer modes in campaign heavy games, feels tacked on as an afterthought to the game's revenue-grabbing multiplayer.
Where multiplayer is concerned, changes have been made, but veterans of the series have fielded a lot of complaints about the map design, new Pointstreak system, and amped up damage from guns that used to be a lot weaker. While we don't have the level of experience to make a definite comment about the minutia of the game's multiplayer gameplay, we can say that--considering the lack of content in the campaign and the game's surface-level Survival mode--if there's one thing that should be getting a lot of attention, it's Modern Warfare 3's competitive multiplayer. There's plenty of content and support for the mode, and lots and lots of people are playing it, but we have to wonder why.
Between the forgettable graphical quality and lack of memorable music, what is it that makes a game like Modern Warfare 3 sell so many copies, and become so inexplicably popular and hyped up? There are tons of shooters out there, most of which don't fall into such a military cliche as pitting gruff, patriotism-laden soldiers against the nation of Russia. The graphics and sound are pitiful by comparison to games released around the same time. The engine is outdated. The characters are underdeveloped and, for lack of a better word, boring. And yet, Modern Warfare 3 had the largest launch-day sales of an entertainment media ever.
The truth is, it's the McDonald's of video games. Billions and billions served, but no content whatsoever. If it had simply been called World War 3, or Soldiers of Glory, or what have you, and not carried the Call of Duty: Modern Warfare brand, would it have had such rave sales and such a rabid fanbase? We're pretty sure it would be considered a stale version of a game that was already made back in 2007.
But gameplay mechanics aside, what does one get out of Modern Warfare 3? We're not just hating on it, but beyond the hype, what is it, really? Comparing it to titles like BioShock, Skyrim, or the Mass Effect series, would be akin to comparing fingerpainting to Van Gogh, or Nickleback to Mozart. There are no high-quality, objective standards lived up to, and it feels like Infinity Ward and Activision were certain people would eat up this product without checking the ingredients; unfortunately, based on sales, they were right.
We're not saying it's not fun, or not worth having in your game collection. By competitive multiplayer standards, it's the best source available for easy, quick, intuitive matchmaking. It's a great way to hone your basic shooter skills, and to have fun with a group of buddies. In other words, it's just a really easy game to pick up and play. You can just shut off and let the game carry you through a generic, mainstream video game experience, because taking a deeper look at the themes, motivations, and subtler elements behind the game's blockbuster presentation reveals a depressing lack of artistic quality. If you're an adult gamer and you want to experience a game that will make you think, or move you with its story, or its soundtrack, or its deep and realistic human characters, we must insist that you look elsewhere.
There's an old saying, something like "50 million Frenchmen can't be wrong," but, unfortunately, that isn't true. We love video games, and we revere them as an art form that competes with and rivals the film and literary industries, to put it mildly. We cringe when we see mainstream media ridiculing video games for their insistence on violence, cheap thrills, and mindless repetitive activity. Modern Warfare 3 fits comfortably into that misinformed mindset, and our final conclusion is this:
As simply a form of entertainment, the game is just as valid as any other. As a video game, by today's standards, it is a stone age-era remake in a series that, at one time, deserved respect. We can't recommend spending your money on such a shallow product.
Meet the tester
Lee has been Reviewed's point person for most television and home theater products since 2012. Lee received Level II certification in TV calibration from the Imaging Science Foundation in 2013. As Editor of the Home Theater vertical, Lee oversees reviews of TVs, monitors, soundbars, and Bluetooth speakers. He also reviews headphones, and has a background in music performance.
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