Friday, 2 December 2011

Call Of Duty: Modern Warfare 3

Developer: Infinity Ward / Sledgehammer Games
Format: PlayStation 3

Score: 8.2

For three years now, in the first week of November, our routine has been almost identical: day off work, the new Call Of Duty game and several uninterrupted hours in which the single-player is usually completed, the set-pieces fawned over, multiplayer dabbled in and the gnawing feeling that what was spectacular just moments ago will likely pale in time, the instant thrill replaced by a pseudo-critical detachment. It’s quite a feat which Activision have pulled off, hardwiring gamers into this annual ritual (judging by the numbers I’m not the only one in this position). It’s videogaming on a Pavlovian level. One well-edited trailer and we’re there. The cynical, not unfairly, will likely point out that Activision’s design and release schedule is as clockwork as ours described above.

There are two things I think I always mention in a Call Of Duty review, which might as well be dispatched now: one, that it’s difficult to see how the next entry in the franchise will be able to usurp this year’s edition without the excitement becoming a victim of diminishing returns and two, that Call Of Duty needs to innovate to stay relevant. The facts, the hard numbers, suggest that these two ideas are wrong – if anything, it’s likely that any major deviation from this proven template would create more (financial) trouble than it’s worth. Besides, innovation for the sake of innovation (as opposed to a genuine desire for progression), can often be just as bad, and it’s perhaps unrealistic for a franchise as big and ‘dependable’ as Call Of Duty to experiment in any meaningful way. Leave that to, y’know, the little arty games, the ones you tell girls you play to impress them.

Although to the casual observer (casual – there’s a word you don’t hear often with regards to COD) the release of Modern Warfare 3 must feel like a simple formality, its gestation has been anything but. The firing of senior Infinity Ward heads Jason West (former president) and Vince Zampella (co-founder) on a charge of “insubordination” following the stratospheric launch of Modern Warfare 2 compounded the feeling that the game itself was a disappointment, especially when compared to its narrative predecessor, Modern Warfare (still my favourite first-person shooter campaign of this generation). MW2 may have broken all sales records, for a year at least, but something wasn’t right – both in a corporate and creative context – under the surface.

With over forty staff leaving Infinity Ward in the wake of the West and Zampella affair, Activision were forced to hire Sledgehammer Games (formed by the creators of Dead Space) to aid development and ensure MW3 hit its expected early November date. However, if the development process for MW3 was turbulent then it certainly doesn’t show. Modern Warfare 2’s single-player was evidence that the franchise’s trademark of overloaded action sequences counts for little when it comes at the expense of narrative cogency; the sensory bombardment should ideally be anchored by a definition of what role you play in the bigger plot. Story orientation linked with visual disorientation, would be one way to put it. This is a front that Modern Warfare 3 has vastly improved on.

Whereas MW2 was confusing, over-the-top and ultimately unsatisfying, MW3 is clinical, focused and, to my mind, by far the best COD campaign since the first Modern Warfare back in 2007. It has the requisite moments that are technically amazing, where physics, scale and aesthetic combine to fantastic effect (the hijacking of the Russian President’s plane, in which the aircraft splits with you inside, is probably the pick of these), but also many missions that, perhaps mindful of previous excesses, recall the studio’s early World War 2 period. These, especially the later levels such as the German beach landing and a night-time trek through Prague feel like local skirmishes, with the sense of resistance unmoored from a wider geopolitical plot, the rhythm of play and the feel evoking, to my mind, Call Of Duty 2.

Indeed, the whole game runs like a greatest hits of Infinity Ward’s COD with everything from assassination missions to vehicle sections to a bit where you crawl under trucks making an appearance. In this, coupled with numerous narrative threads being tied up, there is the strong suggestion that the Modern Warfare sub-title is being put to bed, a full stop hinting at bolder approaches to come in future games. But we won’t hold our breath. There are also, once again, some striking narrative tricks used throughout, including a memorable spin on the iconic nuclear bomb scene from the original game, and an attempt at undermining player agency which is far more successful than No Russian was back in 2009.

So much discussion about MW3 invariably revolves around the content of the game, because the foundation upon which this spectacle hangs feel like they were refined ages ago. The ever-present objective marker, the generous health system, how way your gun snaps to target – all these facets of COD are present and correct, coupled with a robust game engine that, despite its age, is still capable of delivering the experience with the necessary impact. It’s the cry of “forward!”, which you hear more than any other in-game, which encapsulates the much-derided design philosophy of the series, a forward march towards invisible checkpoints, fuelled by panic and urgency.

Elsewhere Modern Warfare 3 welcomes the return of the excellent Spec Ops mode, as well as introducing a new Survival mode. There are 16 new missions in the former mode, including some neat twists on campaign levels – in one early mission, for example, you play the terrorists attempting to kidnap the Russian Presidents, as opposed to the soldiers attempting to defend him – while the latter is the franchise’s take on Horde, as successive waves of enemies need to be cleared. It proves great fun in co-op. In tandem with the single-player mode there’s enough content here to placate those gamers not interested or, more likely, too intimidated by Call Of Duty’s famously hostile multiplayer component.

For nearly everybody else it’s likely that the multiplayer portion of Modern Warfare 3 is the sole reason that they’ve bought the game, this annual tradition driven by persuasive forces no more complicated than simply wanting to play the same game as your friends, and seemingly as everyone else in the world: after all, nobody likes to be left out, do they? The addictive pull of experience points is of course ever-present, this time even extending to weapons (in the form of weapon proficiency) and other items. The more you use your guns, the more customisable they become, and it’s an effective carrot to get you as a player to experiment with your arsenal before eventually settling on a preferred style.

This new flexibility also affects the system of killstreaks, which are now renamed as pointstreaks and placed within three different packages, which are chosen at the outset of matches. These packages balance multiplayer, easing somewhat the introduction of new players – so whereas the Assault package is COD business as usual, the Support package sees rewards accumulating over the duration of a match and not disappearing after every death. It’s an intelligent shift, and one that doesn’t upset the core dynamic of COD multiplayer, which is otherwise as pacy, tight and aggressive as ever. It’s furious stuff, but crucially the reasons why it’s built such a huge following are still clear, even to those who may have had a curious interest before but haven’t had the confidence to jump in until now. The thrill of picking up a series of kills, the ever-present stats reminding you that the more you play the more you unlock: Modern Warfare 3 multiplayer rounds off a fine, clinical package that sees Infinity Ward bringing the series back to something approaching its roots.

The ripples of the first Modern Warfare are still being felt in today’s videogames, some four years later. Back then – and it seems so long ago now – it was hard to imagine just what a towering, divisive series this supremely well-engineered, cunningly designed and quietly audacious little videogame would become. For better or worse Modern Warfare is, for many people, what videogames in 2011 are. Whether this is a good thing or not doesn’t stop us from acknowledging that Modern Warfare 3 is amongst the most exciting, instantly gratifying entertainment of the year. So, same again next year. Who thought being manipulated could be this much fun?

Previously published by D+PAD Magazine.

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