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Activision hasn't come out and explicitly said that Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 is the last game in this subseries but I really hope it is. Modern Warfare 3 is a definite improvement over Modern Warfare 2 but at times it's uncomfortably routine. It's actually a step backward from Call of Duty: Black Ops.
If you're not aware, development duties for Call of Duty rotate yearly between Treyarch (who did Black Ops and World at War) and Infinity Ward (who has handled all three MW games). The benefit of this arrangement is that a new COD comes out every November like clockwork. The downside is that the quality of these sequels can be inconsistent. Features appear and disappear as the series changes hands. For example, Black Ops lacked the Spec Ops mode introduced in MW2. However, Treyarch compensated by adding some new features of their own. What Infinity Ward (and new co-developer Sledgehammer Games) did with MW3 is chop off all the new, interesting bits from Black Ops and re-introduce Spec Ops.
In Black Ops, the competitive multiplayer was driven by COD Points, an in-game currency that players use to unlock rewards. They could gamble their COD Points by purchasing Contracts (essentially challenges with time limits) or playing four new game modes called "Wager Matches." These four modes were completely unlike anything else in COD's competitive multiplayer. One mode gave every player a pistol and a bullet; to get more ammunition, you had to kill a player and take it from them. Though the gambling and new modes were arguably the highlight of Black Ops, MW3 tosses all of it aside.
What MW3 offers as an alternative is a lot more conventional. In terms of game modes, players now have access to Kill Confirmed and Team Defender. Kill Confirmed is Team Deathmatch except for one wrinkle: a kill doesn't count toward your team's total unless you grab the dog tag that the slain player dropped. Teammates of the downed player can recover the dog tag and deny you the credit. It really doesn't play all that differently than TDM in the end; it simply encourages you to stay near your teammates a bit more. Team Defender, meanwhile, is sort of a mess. Each team fights over a flag that lets them get double points from kills while a teammate is holding it. Inevitably, this results in the flag carrier and the rest of his team just camping in a corner for the entire round. It's sort of what Headquarters would be like if the capture point never shifted in the round. It feels like this mode's missing some extra twist. Kill Confirmed sort of discourages camping while Team Defender encourages it.
A couple of the Wager Match modes did survive, along with some other creative game types like Juggernaut, in which one player clad in heavy armor fights all of the other players. However, all of these interesting modes are not supported by matchmaking. You either have to make a private match or you can't play them period. To that, I can only reply: Whyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy?! Why would you take some of the most interesting multiplayer mode and wall them off from the rest of the game? I imagine PC gamers can find servers running Infected or Juggernaut just fine but if you're playing on Xbox 360 or PS3, modes that don't support matchmaking may as well not exist. The developers are just shooting themselves in the foot, here.
The progression system is once again the engine for the multiplayer, providing loads of weapons and perks for players to unlock. The biggest alteration is that weapons now level up as you rack up kills with them. You earn attachments, camouflage and proficiencies with each level. Proficiencies are essentially attributes for your gun, like reduced recoil. Each gun has one proficiency and they add another layer of customization. The net result of the weapon leveling is that if you really like one of the "beginner" weapons, you can keep playing it throughout your multiplayer career without feeling like you're gimping yourself. The gun grows along with you, essentially. In addition to giving you more viable options for your arsenal, the weapon leveling system gives you another XP grind to hold your attention.
The Killstreak system has been kinda-sorta changed as well. It's now a "Pointstreak" system, which means that you can add to your streak by performing match objectives like capturing the flag or planting a bomb. Furthermore, these Pointstreaks are now organized into three Strike Packages. The Assault strike package is the traditional COD multiplayer experience: you rack up a few kills/points in a row, and then you can call down attack helicopters, Predator missiles, and more. The Support package, the most newbie-friendly offering, lets you maintain a streak even through death but only lets you use team-oriented streak rewards like UAVs or care packages. The Specialist package, meanwhile, gives the player bonus perks as their streak grows. Once you get a streak of eight, you get every perk and essentially turn into a super soldier. I don't think the player community is really taking to this new system, as most people are just staying Assault. I suppose the developers get some credit for giving players new methods of playing the game, though.
The single-player campaign is probably an after-thought to most COD players. Those that do care, though, will finally get a proper ending to the story arc that began in Call of Duty 4. The fact that it has a concrete ending is probably the only positive thing that can be said about the story. It's a very breezy narrative that jumps back and forth between different soldiers across the world. I can't say I had much attachment to any of them, even the characters returning from previous games. While Black Ops' story wasn't perfect, either, it at least succeeded in creating memorable characters that you cared about.
The blandness of MW3's story is surprising, when you consider how much money they must've thrown at this area of the game. The voice cast includes Timothy Olyphant, Idris Elba and William Fichtner. Black Ops enlisted Hollywood talent as well - Ed Harris, Sam Worthington, and Gary Oldman - and the difference is that they actually had characters worth portraying. Olyphant and company are just generic soldiers yelling "Get down!" or "C'mon, we gotta get to the LZ!" It's all the more shocking when you learn that the game was written by Paul Haggis, the screenwriter for Crash and Million Dollar Baby. You'd think he could turn in a story that someone will actually remember a week after they've finished the campaign.
As far as gameplay, the campaign is the same mix of elements from previous MW games. You'll fight on foot, man turrets, drive a motorboat, and snipe people. The developers try to spice up the shootouts by giving you the occasional gadget, like a remote controlled Predator missile or marker for airstrikes. Save for one frantic fight onboard an airplane, though, there are no surprises to this campaign. You've done it all before.
Spec Ops, sort of a fledgling feature in MW2, is now a true "third pillar" for MW3. It offers 16 standalone missions - with light connections to the campaign's story - for one or two players to tackle. They're a great "quick play" experience due to their short length (5-10 minutes) and the introduction of online matchmaking. Like the competitive multiplayer, it has its own XP-based progression system. With each level, you unlock weapons and perks for Survival mode, as well as new missions.
You can probably already guess what Survival mode is just from its name. One or two players must fight off waves of enemies, and in doing so they earn money to buy weapons, explosives, and air support. Most of the enemies are standard troops that get better weapons with each passing wave. Special enemies like attack dogs, suicide bombers and suicide bomber attack dogs spice up the gunfights. It's a decent game mode but it feels like it's two years too late. Basically every shooter on the market ships with a similar mode now, and usually it supports more than two players. COD is generally a trend-setter for multiplayer so it's weird to see them chasing the pack like this. They haven't done enough with this mode to make it stand out.
On paper, Modern Warfare 3 is superior to the previous two games in the trilogy. However, it was also the least fun to play. I'd rather play MW3 than a lot of shooters on the market but the shine has worn off. In 2007, Infinity Ward took a risk by abandoning COD's World War II roots and making a contemporary shooter. It's time for them to take another risk and leave the Modern Warfare brand behind.
Platforms: PC, Xbox 360 (reviewed), PS3
Developer: Infinity Ward, Sledgehammer Games