I’m not sure how to write this review. I’m not really sure that I should. It’s Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3, after all, and it was released months ago. If you haven’t played this blockbuster already, it’s certainly not for lack of finding a decent review. So the question begs to be asked: why are you here? Wait wait wait! Forget I said that. Read this review. It will make all your dreams come true.
But seriously, what remains to be said on the Modern Warfare trilogy, or the Call of Duty franchise as a whole—which now stands at a staggering eight games, if my memory is correct? Honestly, I’m certainly not going to read what anyone else has to say about this game, yet I feel compelled to add my own two cents worth of virtual ink on the title, which—one can hope—will be the last Modern Warfare game.
If you’ve caught the whiff of disdain for MW3 in the above paragraphs, I assure you it does not originate from a better than thou opinion, so popular as it is among critics looking to make themselves feel smart. I know how popular Modern Warfare is and I know how rabid and numerous its fan base is. A billion quadrillion people can’t be wrong, right? I absolutely loved the original Modern Warfare, and I nearly made it to my second Prestige in MW2 before my real life took over. Modern Warfare was the first game that got me to forget about Halo for a while. My ho-hum feelings for the third game in the series (or the eighth, depending on how you count it) are simply because I feel like the modern military shooter has been done to death, and MW3 offers zero novelties over other games in the genre (including its own predecessors.)
However, before you think I’m spiraling past the event horizon of a black hole of negativity, let me offer an alternate beginning to this article:
I’m coming in fast over the water hanging out the side door of a Blackhawk. We’re low—really low—and we’re taking fire. There’s an Osprey to our left that seems dangerously close to our bird, and it gets hit almost immediately as we approach land. But we keep barreling forward. I can see the tracers flying past the window and I’m wondering why we haven’t been hit yet. We touch down on the beach at Hamburg, Germany (at least, I think it’s Hamburg, my memory of the mission briefing is a little hazy) and I jump out with the rest of my squad. Friendlies are landing all around me and we’re taking fire from the buildings and road ahead of us, but I can’t see clearly to make out any targets. The birds all lift off and retreat back over the water. I’ve already lost sight of my squad leader, so I find some cover and hunker down. I check my weapons: an M4 with an ACOG site and some sort of launcher that I’ve never seen before. Maybe it’s an anti-tank weapon, or maybe anti-air. I have no clue, but I’m probably going to need it so I tuck it away and ready my rifle. I locate my squad leader and a few other friendlies trying to move up the beach. I sprint across an open patch of beach and duck behind a large rock. My squad is right in front of me and I’m wondering why they’re all standing so close to each other. I yell, “Get your heads down! Don’t bunch up!” but of course they can’t hear me. I fire blindly toward the road (I still can’t make out any enemies, but their bullets aren’t stopping.) I finally link up with my squad and our leader takes us forward. We reach the road, take cover behind a cement wall, and slowly start returning fire. More friendlies have made it off the beach now and I finally feel like we may actually get out of this one. I’m psyched. I push forward, duck behind a car, fire, reload, repeat, sprint to the next car. Here come our tanks, yeah buddy! Miniguns open up and clear a path, but here come the Russian tanks—we’re not out of the woods yet!
Maybe I should have led with that?
The landing at Hamburg, which occurs several missions into the game, was the first time MW3 really pulled me in. (Just checked my notes: I really was “psyched.”) I felt like Infinity Ward was going back to their roots in the WWII shooter, paying a very overt homage to the D-Day landing at Normandy. And it worked. I didn’t realize it beforehand, but this was exactly what I wanted from MW3. The Call of Duty franchise, and Medal of Honor before it (many of whose developers would later defect to form Infinity Ward and create Call of Duty) has always been good at placing the player in the role of a grunt on the battlefield, surrounded by confusion and chaos, facing seemingly insurmountable odds. Unfortunately, not all aspects of the game are equally brilliant. Indeed, some are just dumb.
Let’s go back and analyze my recount of the epic Hamburg beach landing (which, apparently, was the beach of a river—unless I am mistaken, Hamburg does not stretch all the way to the coast. Of course, maybe it wasn’t Hamburg at all. The Army gets things wrong sometimes.)
1) There’s an Osprey to our left…and it gets hit almost immediately as we approach land. Okay, cool, that’s exciting. Here’s what’s not exciting: this entire landing is a scripted series of events. When I play this section of the game again, I will be greeted with the same Osprey that gets hit and goes down in exactly the same way. No variance, no new surprise. Am I playing a game, or am I watching a movie?
2) We touch down on the beach at Hamburg, Germany (at least, I think it’s Hamburg, my memory of the mission briefing is a little hazy). The biggest failure of the Call of Duty franchise is that it moves you around so often, not just in physical location but also in terms of who you control, that I never can be sure of exactly where I am or what I’m supposed to be doing. I will offer this possible explanation: neither do real grunts, so perhaps this is realistic? But I’m playing as a member of Delta Force; I should know what I’m supposed to do. Right?
3) I check my weapons: an M4 with an ACOG site and some sort of launcher that I’ve never seen before. Why is the Army equipping me with a weapon for which I’ve received no training? What’s going on here? This reminds me of an old Army story my father told me. He spent all this time training with the M14 rifle—to the point where he could take it apart and put it back together blindfolded—and when he arrived in Vietnam they handed him an M16—a weapon he’d never seen before. So I guess the whole maybe this is realistic argument applies here, as well. Still, I beat the mission having lugged that launcher halfway across Germany without ever getting the chance to fire it. (They only gave me one round, so I kept waiting for a bigger target.)
4) My squad is right in front of me and I’m wondering why they’re all standing so close to each other. I yell, “Get your heads down! Don’t bunch up!” but of course they can’t hear me. Here, I was literally yelling at my TV because I felt the stupidity of my NPC squad mates was putting the mission at risk. The AI (artificial intelligence, or lack thereof) of NPC’s in Call of Duty games is notoriously bad. Friendlies group together too closely, enemies stand out in the open—just stand there—while firing or reloading their weapons. And the vehicles don’t have me convinced that they are actually governed by any AI programming at all. The original Halo, released over ten years ago, still has better and more lifelike AI than Modern Warfare 3 (or most other games today, for that matter.)
Thus sums up my biggest gripes with MW3 and the Call of Duty franchise as a whole: the incessant reliance on scripted events, the lack of any narrative clarity, and the horrid AI—which, perhaps, necessitates the reliance on scripted events. My complaint about being given a weapon without being told what to do with it is, in reality, a minor concern. Allowing a player the freedom to explore and learn within the game world—be it testing a weapon or otherwise—is one glorious aspect of video games that books and movies cannot offer. However, Modern Warfare 3 does not present the player with the space to learn—he/she is thrown directly into the maelstrom (in the boots of a Delta Force solider, no less) where the situation demands the player act immediately. I don’t believe we need a tutorial for each weapon, but how hard would it have been for my squad leader to say to me before we landed, “Keep your launcher safe; we may need it if we encounter tanks” or helicopters/bunkers/whatever.
I will say that on my second play-through of MW3, the plot became much clearer. I was more aware of where I was and what I was doing. I just believe a game should be better on the first play through. Careful pacing of your narrative arc is something that all fiction writers are taught early in the process; it would behoove Infinity Ward (and the myriad of other dev units who helped out with MW3) to take an introductory writing class. After all, no book author expects his or her readers to only “get it” after their second or third read of the book. On this topic, I should also point out that MW3 has much in the way of plot—yet it lacks any substantial story. I want so desperately for video games to be better than this. I recognize that many of them are, but it’s the Modern Warfares that capture headlines and gain the interest (good and bad) of the general media and populace. I don’t want video games to be known to outsiders simply as senseless time-wasting tools, but unfortunately MW3 follows the paradigm of appealing to the lowest common denominator. It’s not that MW3 doesn’t give one something to think about—there’s plenty there worthy of discussion—it’s simply that the game doesn’t force the player to consider anything bigger than “shoot the next bad guy” while playing. It’s perfectly acceptable for a player to do nothing but go through the motions, even if that player never understands what he/she is doing or why he/she is doing it. To me, this is unacceptable.
In short, MW3 was designed for gaming’s jocks.
Despite my drab experience on my first play through, I eventually went back and did it again. And I must admit, I had a blast on my second go. Things made more sense, I knew where I was and what I was doing. I even felt something for the characters and their plight. Of course, this was because I had been primed by my first play through—I knew what I was supposed to feel, so I felt it—because I wanted to. This isn’t so different from any other artistic presentation—if you don’t want to believe, you won’t believe. The difference here is that I didn’t want to believe the first time. And that is a huge failure.
So, I guess I can only conclude with this: Modern Warfare 3 is good if you’re willing to play it at least twice. If you’re looking to get something out of your first play through, however, you will be sorely disappointed. It offers little, if anything, over any other military shooter on the market today. However, if you are the aforementioned gaming jock, it might be right up your alley. Minus good.