I asked you last year, and I'll ask it again now: Do you want to play more Call of Duty? It sounds like such a simple question, right? But even if you've kept current with the series and enjoyed it up to this point, it's a good time to check in and ask if you want more. Do you? For millions and millions of players out there, the answer will probably be an automatic "of course I do, why would you even ask?" But if you're actually on the fence about this thing, hopefully it helps you to know that Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 provides more Call of Duty with some new maps, new modes, and new options. It doesn't make grand changes to the things that have worked in the past, though it does make some smart additions that some will certainly appreciate. But if you've finally reached your limit on the scripted campaigns and COD's specific style of multiplayer, none of those changes are going to pull you back in. It probably doesn't take a genius to figure all that out, but if that's all you want to know about this year's Call of Duty, well... now you know, I guess.
There's more to say about Modern Warfare 3, of course. Let's start with the game's single-player campaign. The action picks up moments after the conclusion of 2009's Modern Warfare 2, with Soap in bad shape as Captain Price and Nikolai get him to the chopper and away to relative safety. The members of Task Force 141 have been entirely disavowed by the government, but that's not going to slow them down much as they link up with Nikolai's posse and continue the hunt for the ultranationalist Russian, Makarov. Meanwhile, the war that Makarov started when he shot up that Russian airport back in MW2 is still in full swing, so you'll mainly switch between Price's globetrotting crew and a Delta Force squad as they attempt to push the Russian army off of American soil, though some other factions and playable characters pop up when appropriate. The early part of the game is something of a mess. It's paced like you're running through an explosion factory, and after the first act I sat down, tried to put together where the story had gone up to that point, and had trouble remembering anything other than a handful of vehicle or mounted gun moments that felt more like a shooting gallery than a first-person shooter.
That's one of my big problems with the game's campaign. It feels like a large chunk of your time is spent as a passenger in a vehicle or as part of a fixed-position sequence, whether it's the long-past-cliched "jump into a helicopter and shoot its gun for a few minutes" section or a "hold this position by firing this mounted gun until a helicopter arrives" shootout. The rest of the time, the game demands that you follow another soldier who is helpfully marked with the word "follow" right over his head, in case you forget. This, obviously, isn't that different from past campaigns, but the structure's over-reliance on sections where they don't even trust you to walk on your own combined with a general lack of new ideas makes the campaign pretty dull from a gameplay perspective.
The weird part is that even if it isn't much fun to play, the always-on nature of the script makes the campaign pretty interesting to watch, almost as if it was developed specifically to provide strong footage for trailers and commercials. It starts with constant explosions that seem to be taking out everything around you, from a tank that you happen to be sitting in to huge monuments that may or may not fall right on top of you as they collapse. While the engine might start to show a bit of age when you're sitting still, the game doesn't deal in quiet moments very often. And in motion, the smooth frame rate that has become one of the franchise's hallmarks still holds up its end of the bargain. Also, as the story begins to come together, it starts to get pretty interesting. It's not going to win any awards for its writing, but if you've been following Price and Soap for the past three games, seeing this journey come to an end is pretty fulfilling. Modern Warfare 3's campaign deals out more closure throughout its five-or-so hours than just about any other game released so far this year.
After watching the credits roll, the game funnels you into Special Ops mode, which returns from Modern Warfare 2 with 16 new two-player encounters, a new variant, and a version of the player progression that's found in the proper multiplayer. I guess I should say "up to two players," but playing these missions by yourself isn't much fun. As in MW2, some of the Spec Ops missions are more interesting than others, with some merely having the two players make their way through an environment that appeared in the single-player campaign while others force the two players to do more than simply shoot their way from start to finish. The more interesting missions tend to split the players up, with one player covering the other from an AC-130 or a set of remote turrets. Another has one player running around in a juggernaut suit disarming bombs as the other player provides cover from above via a sniper rifle or occasional Predator missiles. Two obstacle courses are here, too, for those of you who miss the timed runs from COD4 and MW2. As you play, you'll earn experience points that unlock additional tiers of missions as well as new gear in the new survival variant.
The survival side of Spec Ops is a mostly traditional wave-based survival mode similar to what you'd expect out of Gears of War's Horde mode or Halo's Firefight. You and another player (again, it's not much fun by yourself) take on waves of increasingly difficult enemies with 30 seconds of downtime between fights to give you time to regroup. The enemies start out stupid and fairly weak--slow-moving men with shotguns, typically--but quickly escalate to include helicopters, juggernauts, and dogs strapped with C4 that explodes when the dog dies. Forget the "you might be offended by this" moment in the campaign--exploding dogs might actually be the most messed up and awesome thing in all of Modern Warfare 3. That between-round break is a perfect time to rearm yourself. As you fight, you earn money that can be spent buying and upgrading your weapons, buying armor, airstrikes, or even perks as you attempt to prolong your life as long as you possibly can. Survival works pretty well and gives you an opportunity to get used to the multiplayer maps, but it's a bit of a shame that it's still limited to two players.
There are 16 of those multiplayer maps and they vary in size and theater, giving you the standard array of war-torn environments including a Wall Street-based level that reminded me a lot of Crysis 2's New York sequence. On these maps you play the standard array of Call of Duty multiplayer game modes across multiple playlists. The basic action remains largely unchanged--Headquarters Pro is still Headquarters Pro. You can still shoot down UAVs and other air support with launchers or concentrated fire from other weapons. It still makes that cool little thwip-thwip-thwip noise whenever you hit a target. It still lets you go prone... but you can no longer dive to prone like you could in Black Ops. Rocking guitars come in to let you know that, yes, you've gained a level. And you'll probably be hearing that noise a lot more now, because in place of the currency system from Black Ops, the developers of MW3 have simply added more bars to fill across, like, every single object in multiplayer. The guns themselves now level up as you use them, and unlocking camo patterns, attachments, and new weapon-specific proficiencies is done by using the same gun for a long stretch of time. The weapon proficiencies are essentially a perk for that specific weapon. Kick, for example, reduces recoil. Flagging a weapon for dual attachments is also done using this weapon perk, which is nice because it frees up more room on your custom classes for the game's mixture of new and old perks.
Most of the perks in Modern Warfare 3's multiplayer are designed to create the same sorts of scenarios found in previous games. So if you want to be completely invisible to enemy radar and silent when you move and shoot, there's a way to build a class that accomplishes that task. Reloading more quickly, becoming immune to fall damage, making it a bit easier to call in air support, and more are all possible with the perk system. New perks include Recon, which paints targets for your team if you hit them with explosive damage. If you do that enough, Recon upgrades to Recon Pro, which paints targets if you hit them with bullets, as well. By and large, though, a lot of it feels like a light remix of what's been available in previous Call of Duty games.
More interesting are the changes made to the killstreak system, which has evolved into a "strike package" setup that lets you choose three different styles. Assault is the old system--kills for streaks and it resets upon your death. Most of the options available on that tree are the same sorts of air strikes and other offensive-minded bonuses. Support doesn't reset when you die, but most of its abilities are more tactical, like advanced UAVs or a duffel bag full of tactical vests that your team can equip for extra damage protection. Specialist tosses out all of the support bonuses and instead gives you additional perks as you reach specific kill targets. Having six perks at once can, unsurprisingly, make a huge difference, but you lose those bonus perks and your streak resets after every death. You can earn points for doing team-minded things like capturing flags, which gives players an additional incentive to "play properly." You can set your strike package on a per-class basis, giving you a lot more to configure and try as you try to find setups that match your personal play style. These changes will probably feel fairly minor to casual players of the game, but the additional of the Support tier means that those middling players will get to use a lot more of the fun stuff during multiplayer matches. And if you're any good at all, calling in an EMP--one of the top items on the Support tier--becomes nearly trivial. When you combine that with Hardline Pro, which gives you a point towards your streak for every two assists that you get, players will be racking up those point streaks in no time. It's a very smart addition to the game.
But more XP bars and a redesigned streak system isn't all that's new. There are two new variants on Team Deathmatch, as well. Kill Confirmed shifts scoring from the act of the kill itself to collecting dog tags that pop out when a player goes down. Collecting enemy tags earns points for your team, and you'll want to collect tags from your own teammates, too, if only to deny the enemy those points. Team Defender plans one flag on the map and the team that currently controls it gets double points. These slight shifts of focus make the games feel different from the standard TDM setup. The private match section has also been expanded. Gun Game and One in the Chamber, both found in Black Ops, return in MW3 along with a handful of other types that place some or all of the players in juggernaut armor. You can further configure and tweak these modes--you can opt to disable one-hit kills in One in the Chamber, for example, if you want to totally ruin that mode--to allow for a variety of custom games. These tweaks can be saved and shared via the game's vault section, but all of the private match games lack any sort of matchmaking. Maybe this says more about the way I play games and the people I keep on my friends list more than anything else, but this essentially makes all of the private match games completely worthless. You'll have to scrounge up a list of likeminded folks and coax them into a lobby before you can see any of it. Matchmade One in the Chamber and Gun Game matches were one of the cool high points in Black Ops' take on Call of Duty multiplayer, and it's unfortunate to see them crippled.
Perhaps being a social Call of Duty player will be easier this year now that Call of Duty Elite is upon us. This is a largely free service that adds a layer of Halo-style heat maps and other statistical data to every game you play. So if you want to see where everyone died in a specific match, you can get on the web site and see it. There's an on-console application that launches separately and also lets you scrub through the data and check in with your clan and groups. The groups are hashtag-based, so if you want to start a tag for "St. Louis Citizens That Love Coldplay," you could start that up and players can join as they see fit. Actually, that's probably over the character limit. Anyway, you get the idea. It's mostly a mashup of the stats services provided by Halo and Steam's group system, albeit without any sort of real admin controls over the groups. If you want to keep it private and kick out idiots, you'll need to join a clan. Clan calendars and other data can be updated on the site and pushed directly into the game. If you already have a social network that you're into--and that social network happens to be Facebook--you'll also appreciate that the game can take your Facebook friends list in, as well. Lastly, there is also a paid tier for Elite that gets you access to a year's worth of downloadable content as well as contests and original video programming. None of that content was available prior to the game's launch, but former wrestling lady Stacy Keibler will be hosting one of the shows. I'm sure her KDR is much better than yours.
When I take a step back and total it all up, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 is still one of the best first-person shooters of the year. The multiplayer changes are just interesting enough to make me want to configure classes all over again, and it has a lot of good maps to choose from. The amount of closure in the campaign--I can't imagine they'll call a game "Modern Warfare 4" at this point--makes it worth seeing, even if it isn't always exciting to play. And Spec Ops has always been more exciting to me than Zombies. But the whole thing feels old at this point. The new tricks feel more like a distraction designed to make you forget how revolutionary Call of Duty 4 was. I will certainly buy and play a copy of Modern Warfare 3, but there's nothing here that makes me want to shut off the rest of the world and obsess over it anymore. It makes you wonder if the franchise's best days are truly behind it and where Infinity Ward and/or Sledgehammer go from here, let alone Treyarch, who will presumably iterate on Black Ops in 2012.