Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 Review [XBox 360]

The brand new addition to Infinity Ward and Activision's behemoth FPS franchise is here - but we discover it's not quite the immediate triumph it was predicted to be.


You probably don't need this review. $400m worth of first day sales says you probably already own the latest addition to the Call of Duty franchise, and if you don't there's a good chance you fall exclusively on the side of Battlefield 3 in the fan-propelled FPS war and no amount of good or bad reviews will change your mind either way. Nevertheless, I purposefully took my time on this one, careful to ignore the hyperbole that invariably spouts from megafans of the series, and derogatory jibes from the anti-MW brigade who have not and will not play a minute of the game in anger. The timeline of the game immediately follows that of MW2, with the US torn apart by a Russian invading force, but now beginning to turn the tide, winning back territory as the Russians, lead by the malevolent Makarov, turn their destructive attentions towards Western Europe. With a wider scope, and grander scale, as well as a supplemented cast of characters and playable armed forces, Modern Warfare 3 continues the trend that positions it some way above Battlefield 3 and other FPS rivals - not necessarily in quality, but in sheer magnitude and in its hyper-real vision. This is reality+, where everything is turned up to 11, including the oddly archaic Cold War fears made manifest. The visuals are breath-taking in places - environments are wonderfully drawn, with exceptionally well executed textures, and it is no exaggeration to say that in-game humans have rarely looked this good before. Weapons are ultra-realistic, and the effects the armoury creates are equally impressive. All-in-all it smacks of a hugely high-gloss production, honed over various previous guises, and conceivably very close to a "final product". When the game shines, the gameplay is great - fire-fights carry more of a threat than earlier games, as the enemy AI seems to have had a tweak (though annoyingly, it's still way too simple for enemy troops to unrealistically detect where you are despite no obvious tell on your part), and the map design makes them genuinely entertaining. Yes, the gloss of those pitched battles does fade at the mid-point of the game, but that is to be expected from a game so heavily reliant on its FPS format - deviation too much would mean dilution of the brand after all - and there are enough cleverly designed set-pieces to mix it up. But there are some serious issues... Ironically for a game that looks so beautiful, there is something needlessly provocative and ugly about the sequence of the game that has obviously been introduced in a vain attempt to recapture the spark of that airport level in MW2. There is no sense in the chapter, which sees a family capture the moment a terrorist attack happens with attrocious cost to them and their environment, even as an overly insistent attempt to highlight the senselessness of terrorism. Because it is too overt, too ridiculously motivated to have any effect other than derision of the game developers, instead of the game's internal enemies. And that isn't the only criticism I must level at MW3. The next is that the player spends way too much time as a passenger, as the game consciously chooses to forefront cinematics and other characters above player interaction with environments and enemies, which begins to feel like you're being marginalised by a game that you paid for the privilege to play. Infuriatingly you never get to play as the best characters in the series (those who have survived until now anyway), Soap and Price - instead watching them kick asses and guide the journey from behind them in what feels like a mostly safe position. I don't know about you, but in a game that is supposed to be a First Person Shooter, I value the first person experience beyond all else, but it appears that Infinity Ward don't really agree. The problem is that story is too much the star here: yes the set-pieces are incredible to watch, but that's just it: the player is encouraged to take up a removed position to watch as events unfold in key moments (like the wonderful, but terribly limited - in terms of gameplay - air crash scene). This is not a movie, and there is definitely a line between playtime and storytime that MW3 wanders across several times, and regardless of how well that works for the spectacle element of the game - and there is a lot crammed into the comparatively short gametime - it is not conducive to the wholly immersive gameplay experience that a flagship game like this should aspire to. That's not to say that there aren't exceptional gameplay moments: in fact, when the game is good, it is really, really good. It's just that simplicity and accessibility, and an over-bearing reliance on the spectacle of cut-scenes and non-interactive set-pieces doesn't produce a positive environment for enough of those moments of brilliance. That the game is slick and precise is an irrefutable truth: as a product, and the culmination of several years' work and earlier franchise additions, MW3 is a triumph of artisanal production and design, but like the biggest juggernaut products and brands (like Microsoft, like Apple, like McDonalds) the eyes are always on the market prize. And irony of ironies, while the Reds are the enemy to the player within the game, the game's true greatness is limited by a proto-capitalist concern to open the game up to the widest market available in order to make as much money as possible. So while MW3 has sold in absolute droves, the massive accessibility of the game which allows both casual and hardcore gamers alike to play it has ultimately cost the game a lot more than was probably anticipated, and those more hardcore gamers who wanted something with real meat will justifiably feel like the developers have turned away from them. For a game that features a covert ops segment, there is never a feeling that the player's destiny is in his own hands - unlike the far more pensive and strategically geared Battlefield 3, which feels far more personal an experience than MW3 - and the enduring experience is of being lead by preferred characters through the events of the game rather insistently. There is little time to explore first time round - despite the collectible and hidden intel - because the player is constantly harried to complete the next step of the objective, in frankly frustrating manner. I can't help but wish that Infinity Ward hadn't relied so much on this white rabbit approach to gameplay guidance, which might allow casual gamers to keep up, but which robs FPS veterans of self-expression and the joy of discovery. In truth, it feels like the game is treating us all like morons. But then, when it comes down to the squirmishes and pitched battles, it is we - and not the preferred characters who have managed to survive the other steps of the franchise despite no obvious talent with a gun in these situations - who are tasked with the majority of the workload. Yes, this is what we wanted, but when the rest of the game sets up a dynamic in which you are the n00b, hand-held by the famous vets, its somewhat jarring for them then to step aside when the going gets tough. For many though, the Solo Campaign doesn't matter so much - the longevity of every Call of Duty title these days is dependent entirely on the multiplayer arena. While competitor titles' shelf-life can often only be minimally extended by online content, for the MW series in particular, it means months, even years of replaying. And MW3 is no different. It is the multiplayer side that has seen the biggest expansion, with a raft of new weapons and brand new Weapon Proficiencies that allow levelling up of favourite weapons as you use them. There's also an evolution to the Killstreaks, which have been dispensed with in favour of Strike Packages, that take importance away from just killing, with levelling up now achievable through other means, as the packages are split into three different types: Assault, Support & Specialist. Trigger happy players can still advance based on kills and damage (Assault), but the developers have clearly realised that online play would eventually only favour the best players to the detriment of everyone else, and the introduction of Support and Specialist packages means that players who are less proficient at killing (or can spend less time online than those who immediately rise to the highest level) will still be rewarded. The map design adds to the success of multiplayer online modes - a lot of thought has clearly gone into planning environments that offer a broad gameplay experience for both campaign and multiplayer, and all-in-all that side of the game is a massive success. Same goes for the Special Ops game mode, which offers the challenge to players that the campaign mode occasionally lacks, as well as good variety in the way missions and objectives are set up. And rounding out the modes is the typical wave attack Survival Mode which pits two players against increasingly more difficult waves of enemies - again great fun, and one that has benefited from the developers' prowess in the genre. At the end of the day, despite the successes of its multiplayer modes, Modern Warfare 3 is unfortunately a game marked indelibly by a contradiction between the quality of its external facets, and the glossy outer-coat, as well as carrying evidence of some serious, unforgiveable compromises in gameplay and immersion. Yes, it's still very good, but there's something distinctly lacking in the soul of the game, and in a market already highly saturated, which the MW franchise sat atop in fact, that means a big difference to the overall success of the game.

Modern Warfare 3 is available to buy now on XBox 360, PS3, Wii and PC.

WhatCulture's former COO, veteran writer and editor.