People love to hate it, but the Call of Duty franchise is successful for a reason. No other first-person shooter has the same flair for visual spectacle in its singleplayer campaign, and few can match its utterly addictive multiplayer. While Call of Duty games have become formulaic at this point, as evidenced by Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3's muddled narrative and at times frustrating design, Infinity Ward and Sledgehammer Games have refined and polished the Modern Warfare experience to produce the best of the series with the third installment.
Modern Warfare 3 comes to us by way of an older engine, but still looks great. Sure, it's not among the very best out there nowadays, but it performs well. At any given time the screen appears ready to burst with effects and visual madness. Entire battles are waged before you; buildings burn and crumble while a steady flow of explosions batter your senses. This is Call of Duty, and Modern Warfare 3 collects these moments of boom in abundance, presenting them in all their 60 frames-per-second glory.
Modern Warfare 3's singleplayer campaign hits many of the same highs and lows as its predecessors. Amazing setpieces serve as backdrops for giant firefights yet again. This is no understatement. Few games retain the crazy roller coaster pace that this does level after level, with brief moments to breathe set between the next eruption of gunplay. The shooting feels extremely responsive and well-tuned, and the battlegrounds challenge your awareness at all times. You're always given different situations that mix-up the gameplay just enough to keep things interesting. The game presents a formidable challenge, as always, on the Hardened and Veteran settings – something that the more hardcore players will want to delve into.
Still, Modern Warfare 3's campaign suffers from a run of the mill story and the patented Call of Duty monster closet syndrome, a common shooter ailment that occurs when infinitely spawning enemies pour from around corners, doors and stairs without end. At several points enemies even appear to completely disregard their own safety if it means they can run past your allies and just shoot you in the face. The story is difficult to follow as usual, and while it does wrap up the arc begun by the previous Modern Warfare games, it isn't ultimately all that interesting or satisfying. Moments of emotional weight fell flat as I found it difficult to muster up feelings of sadness about the death of one named soldier after witnessing the countless deaths of hundreds of other Americans.
If singleplayer is good, then Modern Warfare 3's multiplayer is fantastic. Like the other Call of Duty games before it, this entry pulls you in with its persistent leveling system and frantic combat. All of the sixteen new maps are fun to play and, with a whole new slew of challenges to complete, rewards constantly pop up and keep you hooked with the next little endorphin rush. No matter whether I play for five minutes or five hours, multiplayer in Modern Warfare 3 always makes me feel like I'm accomplishing something.
Some of the rewards you're constantly unlocking are killstreaks and perks—series stand-bys—which are a few great examples of how Modern Warfare 3 refines the series. You still unlock weapons by leveling up, but weapons also have levels as well. Leveling up a gun adds Weapon Proficiencies, which are essentially perks for your weapon. These proficiencies take things like the hip fire accuracy perk from the previous games and add it to your weapon unlocks, giving you the ability to focus on other perks when customizing your class.
Killstreaks have also been reworked into Strike Packages to bring a better sense of balance and reward to all types of players. You still unlock abilities in Strike Packages by getting kills, but now you can specialize your killstreak rewards so they suit your playstyle. If you're not the type who goes on huge streaks and you're not always watching your kill/death ratio, you can take a Support Strike Package. This package doesn't have rewards that are as offensively-focused as the Assault package, but all kills carry over between spawns. This gives less-skilled players a way to contribute to the fight, and will hopefully give clans and groups ways to better specialize their players into a cohesive team unit. It's a great new feature, and showcases how Call of Duty offers one of the most varied multiplayer shooter experiences around.
The controls feel as good as ever, and that same sense of exhilaration and speed that comes from a great round of multiplayer still exists. Like past Call of Duty games, occasional moments where one team totally dominates the other due to Assault Strike Package rewards still happen, but overall this remains a slight annoyance when weighed against the rest of the multiplayer package.
New modes like Kill Confirmed also help keep things from feeling like just more of the same. While lone-wolf players still have Team Deathmatch free-for-all and numerous other older modes, Kill Confirmed changes how the game plays, encouraging team work in ways Modern Warfare didn't previously offer. In this mode, everyone drops a dog tag when they're slain. To get points, you have to not only kill the person, but also collect their tag (you can deny kills by collecting the tags of your allies before the enemy does). The results in an entirely new dynamic, where players must coordinate, play as a team, and attempt to use the dog tags as lures for enemy players.
Combine Kill Confirmed with modes like Team Defender (where each team attempts to hold onto one flag for as long as they can), new private match modes (which you can tweak and customize yourself), as well as many returning favorites, and you have a multiplayer experience you can play for months—if not years—on end. The sixteen maps already span a wide array of settings. And with new modes and the need to switch up loadouts you have an extremely dynamic multiplayer suite. An especially tactics-focused player can sink hours of time into creating classes for specific game types, devising battle plans for specific maps, and developing sports like "plays" for their team.
On top of the single and multiplayer campaigns, extra time can be sunk into the cooperative Spec Ops mode. This mission mode from the previous Modern Warfare returns with a whole new set of stages that challenge you in a variety of ways. For instance, you might have to quickly take over a plane, while in another mission you'll be tasked with disarming chemical weapons or silently getting past a large number of enemies. Additionally there's a Survival Mode, where two players try to survive against endless waves of increasingly difficult enemies. It's not exactly original (or zombies), but it's a game type that works well in Call of Duty, and can be played over and over again if you care about getting to the top of those oh-so-precious leaderboards.
The menus and means to interface with Modern Warfare 3 are basically the same, well-laid out system we've seen before, with one major exception: Call of Duty Elite. Elite takes all the stats you care about, like your multiplayer kill/death ratio, etc., and puts it into a format you can easily understand and interact with (similar to what Bungie.net and Halo: Waypoint provides for Halo players). Whether or not you're paying for the more specialized services it offers, you can always check out your performance on past matches, see exactly where you were killed and who killed you, as well as compare load outs and performance like accuracy and flag captures. You can also just look at pictures of maps with all the information such as spawn points for various multiplayer game types, giving you the ability to think about strategies and planning – something that will be super valuable to clans. The sheer amount of available information makes Elite something I can spend far too much time with, and can definitely help you improve your game.