The Modern Warfare 3 campaign aims to outdo the spectacle of its bombastic predecessors and deliver an exhilarating experience from start to finish. In pursuit of this goal, the stakes are higher (world-war!), and the set-pieces more elaborate. Somewhere along the way however, the developers decided that tightly-crafted scripting was more important than player agency, and they never looked back. While some will undoubtedly find this approach exhilarating, most of the time I found it exasperating.
There’s plenty to like about Modern Warfare 3 on paper – the six hours of campaign are packed tight with action, and most of the levels start off in the heat of battle (happily, the tutorial is baked into the first mission, rather than forcing gamers to sit through another shooting-range segment), and very few of the story-scenes overstay their welcome.
Beyond these mostly commendable design principles, there’s a lot about the bread-and-butter of the experience that doesn’t make for a gratifying experience. Combat gets repetitive very quickly – regardless of whether you’re fighting Russian Special Forces or African militia, their repertoire consists of ‘entrench behind cover’ or ‘swarm’, with no dynamic element to how things progress beyond that. Typically, the player advances, triggers the next wave of enemies who take up their positions, and death results in being reset to a checkpoint where the same thing will happen again, except this time the player will know to take a different piece of cover. The rote nature of combat becomes even more oppressive when the player sees how artificially controlled each encounter is.
Further adding to the incongruities is the way the action unfolds; you are the most important solider on the battlefield, regardless of the fact that you’re being bossed around by everybody else. Even when your team is hauling ass through African shanty-towns on time-sensitive missions, they stop to wait for you to snoop through suspicious looking crevasses for Intel. Even the least observant gamer will notice that he can dawdle all he likes, because until he steps forward onto the invisible tripwire to prompt the next set piece, nothing is going to happen. Further aggravating is that the only doors the player can open are the ones that need to be blown open. If you’re in the lead during a frantic dash to the extraction chopper and you come up against a wafer-thin door, you need to wait for the adults to get the handle for you.
This level of scripting becomes distressingly fatalistic. Found a nice piece of cover that will give you a tactical advantage when the next wave of enemies comes forward? Tough. They’re not going to show up until you wander past it. The enemies really only want you dead, and will stroll past your allies to accomplish this goal. Even your allies don’t seem interested in keeping you alive, regularly running past enemies in their line of sight; another mundane facet of the immersion-breaking combat.
The lack of player autonomy is most apparent in the stealth missions. The player basically plays a game of Simon Says, imitating the actions and following the commands of whichever NPC fits into the story, with no means to progress if the player fouls things up (when replaying a section, I stood up before the scripted ‘cover blown’ moment occurred, and was killed instantly – next time I waited the extra nanosecond and had a chance to fight back). Even when you assume control of the guy who’s been barking orders all game, he suddenly begins to follow orders from his recruits.
For all my kvetching, there are some nice touches: one level sees a sneak-attack on an enemy compound by a well-prepared and equipped British special forces team, which is a much appreciated contrast to previous mission, which has Captain Price’s rag-tag bunch scrambling around deep behind enemy lines, improvising every step of the way. I’d have preferred a more considered approach to the pacing; most of the game is a cavalcade of explosions and barked orders that must be obeyed to proceed, with a few palette-cleansing moments of dealing death-from above, or a smartly executed first-person cutscene (one in particular subverts genre-conventions fairly successfully). The story clips along quickly so you don’t have time to wonder about its many peculiarities (how many fronts is Russia fighting on simultaneously?), and the end-sequence – while arguably a perversion of the 6 hours of gameplay that lead up to it – is an incredibly satisfying, moment-of-zen conclusion to the personal vendetta at the heart of the global-conflict.
Pretty much everything I’ve said amounts to ‘Yep, it’s Call of Duty alright’, so most gamers will know already if they can overlook the way the game constantly holds their hand and feels like an on-rails shooter. Or more likely, they won’t care, because multiplayer is what this game is about to most people in the first place, the campaign is just a few hours of distraction and a few hundred achievement points.
While the sheer extravagance of the set pieces is entertaining in itself, the way that the player is pulled along for the ride makes for an ultimately hollow experience, and the core-mechanics regularly fail to excite. While cranking up the difficulty means that the player needs to slow down and pay more attention to stay alive, it also exacerbates the issues that bog down the campaign.
Score: 7/10 (Campaign Only)
After a few hours of the Special Ops mode, I’m happy to report that it doesn’t carry the same baggage as the campaign; players are dropped into combat scenarios and must accomplish the objectives on their own steam. The thought and coordination demanded from the players is a stark contrast to the roller-coaster ride of the single-player, and the cooperative mode outshines it as a result.