Liquid fast, meticulously polished, wickedly consuming: Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 doesn't deliver stories or engender emotion in its players, but rather deals in raw adrenaline. A match of Modern Warfare 3 is punctuated by the rush of a well-placed shot, the anger at a surprise, unjust death.
Infinity Ward's latest iteration on the series is more akin to a sport than it is a video game. That's not a new direction for the series. It's more a solidification of the sameness of the franchise that makes some love and others hate Call of Duty.
Where other games might slowly metamorphose from one sort of play to another, Call of Duty's innovations comes in increasingly narrow details. The focus is on playing with the formula that makes the game's online action a fun blend of light role-playing, gunplay, tactics and the predictability of a familiar though moderately improved experience.
Playing Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 compared to playing Modern Warfare 2 is different in a way most easily defined by its many passionate fans. Casual players dropping into the game's mainstay, it's deep, consuming online gameplay, will likely struggle to explain how the game has changed. But it is noticeable.
Matches are faster, respawn times shorter. The games rewards for doing well in a match. The renamed pointstreaks aren't just earned through kills anymore, they also are rewarded for completing non-lethal objectives. Players can now choose among three different ways to accrue those points and unlock the special pointstreak rewards. It's a subtle change that seems meant to handle the increasingly disparate sort of players attracted to Call of Duty.
The Assault package is essentially the same reward system used in Modern Warfare 2 and Black Ops, dispensing similar awards to people who achieve a set number of kills without dying. The Support package seems more geared to casual or new players, allowing them to build up their kill counts even when they die. These easier-to-unlock rewards tend to be more about supporting the team than helping a player bolster their own kill count. Finally the Specialist package seems to be designed for hardcore gamers, doling out awards for every two kills without a death. If a player kills eight people without dying they unlock everything until they die.
Another subtle change to the online mechanics is the ability to add special perks to weapons after earning experience on the same weapon for a while. This pushes players to master a specific weapon instead of switching around a lot. Finally, the game rewards players who top out at level 80 and then decide to give up all of their unlocks to start over. This starting over at level one is called Prestiging and earns players tokens which can be used for special unlocks in the Prestige Shop.
The game also adds a few new game modes. My favorite is Kill Confirmed, which requires a player to pick up the dog tags of a killed enemy to score the points for that kill.
Most of the changes rolled out in the game's multiplayer seem geared at rewarding those players both skilled and familiar with the game's mechanics, while trying to level the playing field for those casual players and folks first trying out the game. The results are mixed.
I still feel that the game can be overwhelming at times. Dropped into a poorly matched game and you're likely to die dozens of times within a single session. That's the sort of thing that should be better controlled through optimized matchmaking.
The reduced spawn times and almost immediate action a player runs into makes for a fun, quick, pick-up-and-play experience. It also, though, makes Call of Duty feel a bit less tactical than it should. With so small a penalty for death, players, especially new ones, tend to become cannon fodder for more-experienced gamers.
Over time I think the matchmaking system will sort through most of this and it will become less of an issue, but the game still feels too homogenized. The animations, the graphics, the subtleties that can make an experience stand out, increasingly feel like they're missing the sizzle that are found in some of my other favorite games.
But this is war as sport, so it depends on that familiarity to build a level playing field, a vocabulary of play that everyone can come to easily understand and participate in. It has mastered that.
Call of Duty's online competitive multiplayer, while certainly the game's most-played component, isn't the only one that matters.
The game also includes its own take on Horde Mode, which has players fighting increasingly difficult waves of enemies to earn cash which can be used in the match to upgrade weapons, unlock perks and prolong the experience. It's a nice addition to the game's online competitive modes and is bolstered by a return of Modern Warfare 2's Special Ops. In Special Ops, players run through single missions together trying to earn stars through skilled play, quick times and low deaths.
The biggest addition to the series this year is Call of Duty Elite, an always-on stat-tracking, community-building service meant to both support Call of Duty's online gaming sessions and expand the player base. Only it doesn't completely work, at least not yet.
Here we are one week after the game and service's launch and Activision is still struggling to make Elite functional. It's a reminder of the problems that Battlefield 3 suffered when it launched, only, in the case of Electronic Arts' stumble, that impacted game play. With Elite, the problem prevents players from tracking their stats, tinkering with their loadouts and building upon their clans, but doesn't seem to impact play.
While on the surface the Elite outage seems much less serious than the one suffered by Battlefield 3, I think both will become serious issues for how gamers perceive each franchise. Elite was meant to be Activision's big push to turn a wildly successful video game into something more akin to a national pastime. But new gamers were greeted with broken technology and error messages when they tried the new service.
It will, I'm sure, eventually function for all, but I'm not sure how easily Elite will recover from the blundered launch.
Finally, there is the game's campaign, a five to six hour narrative experience that does a lot to remind players what it was they loved so much about the original Modern Warfare. No, it isn't a better experience than that original amazing game, but it is a tightly-paced, carefully-shaped story that manages to deliver a satisfy ending.
Players are introduced to what will likely become the new cast of future Modern Warfare games in a hand-off, that, while not quite emotional, is evocative. The globe-trotting journey through the aftermath of a Russian invasion of the United States is helped along nicely by some smart game design choices that go a long way to fix problems that have long plagued the series. While narrative shooters still lean heavily on creating a path and driving the player carefully along it, Modern Warfare 3 does a lot to disguise those invisible walls meant to keep you from straying. More than with any other shooter I've played in recent memory, I was allowed to run far ahead or linger far behind without noticeably impacting the game. I found myself running along side streets rather than down the main road in missions, only to find that the game changed the way I confronted the enemies. That minor tweak in enemy behavior helps prolong the illusion of player control in a dynamic war.
The experience of working your way through the culmination of a story that started four years ago is surprisingly satisfying. No matter how much you think you don't care about Modern Warfare's story, you owe it to yourself to finish the journey. A number of memorable tent-pole set pieces build up to and mingle with clever reminders of the greatest moments of the three-game experience.
Call of Duty's flavor of gameplay is marked by succinct writing, nuanced enhancements and always-streamlined action. There is little message here, just pure entertainment. But sometimes that's all a person wants or needs from their gaming.