The Call of Duty franchise is known for jaw-dropping set pieces, fast and frantic gunplay, and the most popular online multiplayer experience ever. The most recent installment, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3, was heralded as the most anticipated release in history. The fact that Infinity Ward, makers of the previous Modern Warfare titles, was now teamed up with Sledgehammer games didn't dissuade anyone. The release did not disappoint in this regard, as the game shattered sales records virtually across the board. For a great many gamers out there, this is their definitive gaming experience. But for a franchise that has set the bar so high and has such a fiercely loyal fanbase, does MW3 live up to the hype surrounding it?
The story continues to follow the exploits of Lieutenant Price and his good buddy Soap. Boy, have those two been through a lot! After taking out the traitor at the end of the last game, the duo are disavowed by their own governments and are forced underground. Now operating outside the grid they meet up with Nikolai, another old friend, who helps them get what they need to go after Makarov. He's the evil bugger behind the infamously controversial "Airport" scene in MW2... the catalyst that has essentially evolved into World War III.
After the Russian invasion of the good ol' USA in the last game, the battle now takes to the streets of New York, Paris, Berlin, and other sites all over the world. I don't want to give away any spoilers, but you'll once again fill the shoes of world's most elite soldiers in pursuit multiple objectives: Yuri, one of Nikolai's best men who fights alongside Price and Soap, a Delta force operative named Frost, and a bunch of minor characters like a Russian Secret Service agent in charge of defending their President. Things go from bad to worse at virtually every possible turn, and it's a race against time before someone pushes that big red button that starts nuclear armageddon.
I like the variety MW3 offers in the campaign, but let's be honest here: all these characters are simply avatars providing you a vehicle to shoot anything that moves. The story, in my opinion anyway, is so over-the-top ridiculous it's almost hard to follow... but that's okay. If anything, we already knew that going in. CoD isn't known for a coherent or cohesive narrative (although I did enjoy the final chapter in Price's saga... if this is in fact the finale, we will see...), but rather giving the player what is arguably the best first person shooter experience available. Considering the slew of imitators that have come out in the last couple of years, I still find it impressive that this series sits triumphant on the top of the heap.
For my money, the CoD series still has the best shooter controls in the business. I wish I could explain it better than that, but I think they simply feel tighter and more responsive than anything else out there. I'm happy to report that MW3 continues this trend. The aim assist almost makes the game a bit too easy though. Popping in and out of your sights, automatically targeting the next closest enemy (provided you're already aiming relatively close to the target), allows you to mow down enemies with ease. Of course, if you prefer more of a challenge, you can always turn it off.
Oh, and a quick side note here... I'd like to thank the nice people at Activision and Infinity Ward for listening to my complaints about the "blood splatter factor." In the previous games, if you were shot, flecks of blood would appear on the screen to indicate your current predicament. The problem was that it was so overwhelming that you could hardly see what was going on! In MW3 this is far less intrusive, allowing you to find cover more easily and recover your health. While there still isn't a true cover mechanic, it also seems far less likely that you'll be shot while crouched behind cover, another issue from previous titles in the series.
One thing I will say (I always try to give credit where it's due), is that the Call of Duty series doesn't disseminate.... you know what you're going to get. All the staples of the series (sniper missions, C-130 sections, just to name a few) are present and accounted for. To be frank though, the jaw dropping moments the series is known for are not so jaw dropping this time out. Instead, while I wouldn't go so far as to say things have become stagnant, these pivotal scenes starting to be more par for the course. I wasn't as overwhelmed or blown away nearly as often this time. With MW3, it seems they are trying to up the ante to the point that things just get ridiculous, a similar complaint I had with MW2. It's not that these moments aren't fun, but they do tend to strain credulity at best... but considering all our heroes have been through, you'd think they'd be as used to this stuff as we are by now.
From a technical standpoint, MW3 performs as admirably as its predecessors. Even when things get really hairy, I only noticed a few minor moments of lag. Sadly, it still looks and sounds pretty much the same as well. Considering how mind blowing the new Frostbite 2 engine made Battlefield 3 look, well, MW3 has definitely been left behind in the graphics race. I also felt like the voice acting, while perfectly adequate, may have also taken a step back after Black Ops. I think this is simply because the talent wasn't there this time.
I've never been into online multiplayer, mostly because of my previous experiences with CoD. It's not that I'm necessarily bad at shooters, but I grow weary of trash talking kids and glitchers ruining the experience for everyone. But considering that the major competition for CoD, the Battlefield series also recently released their new game, I feel the need to make a couple of points about the differences. However, I must also stress that these are my opinions and impressions. I think MW3, much like previous titles in the series, focuses much more on a gung-ho, run-and-shoot approach. While it's not always the case, I've always felt that CoD is far less strategically based. MW3 does add a new wrinkle with one new mode, as you have to collect the dog tags of your fallen foes for the kill to count. This means that snipers and campers are now at a disadvantage unless they can communicate with their teammates to pick up those dog tags for them. I love this idea... silly campers!
To be honest, it really comes down to Coke versus Pepsi for some people as to which series you'll enjoy more. If you like playing as a team you'll probably prefer Battlefield 3. BF3 also focuses much more on vehicle use. You can take control of tanks, helicopters, and even jets. As a result, the maps are much bigger. If you're more of a loner, you'll probably be a bigger fan of MW3. Again, this certainly doesn't apply across the board. As always, there are exceptions to the rule. In either case, these two series are without a doubt the pinnacle of the online shooter phenomenon, and both are worth your time in this regard. Oh, and there is (another) tacked on Spec Ops mode you can co-op that can be quite fun as well. Also, following the lead of other franchises copying the overwhelmingly successful horde mode from Gears of War, MW3 has developed their own variation on that theme as well.
While the Call of Duty series is without a doubt the highest grossing product in the industry, I still feel like Activision/Infinity Ward/Sledgehammer Games is content with churning out different versions of what is inherently the same game on an annual basis. Modern Warfare 3, while still an excellent thrill ride in its own right, feels far too similar to MW2 or even Black Ops for my taste. Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare is probably still my favorite shooter of all time so I was looking forward to seeing how the tale of Lt. Price ended (again, if, in fact, that is the end). While some of the set pieces left me rolling my eyes, there were certainly some that had me short of breath, wiping my sweaty palms on my trousers, muttering "Wow... that was good!"
You know as well as I that next year will herald a new entry in the Call of Duty phenomenon, regular as clockwork. I, for one, am curious to see how the series develops... if it does at all. Will they throw something new into the mix or are they content relaxing on their gigantic pile of money? Stay tuned around this time next fall, we shall see.