Not one analyst would have guessed it at the time, and the Activision stockholders were certainly too busy wringing their hands to concern themselves with what good could have come from the situation, but it would seem that the departure of Vince Zampella and Jason West from Infinity Ward – and the mass exodus of employees that followed – might actually been the best thing that ever occurred for the Call Of Duty franchise.
Not that we mean to be flippant about a scandal that uprooted many lives, but without it and the fallout that followed Sledgehammer Games would never have been drafted in to co-develop Modern Warfare 3, and we might not have received a game that felt so assured in its ambitions.
It’s impossible for us to ascertain exactly how much influence the team of Dead Space devs had over the work Infinity Ward had already completed on the title, or point out exactly what they brought to the experience that didn’t exist before, but we do know that Modern Warfare 3 is without doubt the biggest, most explosive, and most deliriously set-piece-driven Call Of Duty yet. It’s also one of the most well constructed, its gameplay and cinematic ambitions holding together better than ever before and conveyed through a narrative that, for once, takes a minimum of effort to follow. Whatever Sledgehammer brought to the experience, it’s done so with a level of technical and artistic flair not apparent in the last few entries into the series.
Among a cast of bit roles and cameos, the main players here are Delta Force’s Derek ‘Frost’ Westbrook and the now-disavowed Task Force 141’s Yuri, who’s constantly flanked by Captains MacTavish and Price. It’s once again a case of hammer and scalpel, and MW3 kicks off with the former – Delta Force’s slow push through the besieged corridors of New York’ City’s financial district making MW2’s battles on the fringes of small town America feel quaint in comparison.
Players are transported from set-piece to set-piece as they flit around the globe, from the still air of India’s mountains to the streets of Montmartre in Paris and the compact shanty towns of Sierra Leone. However, unlike the James Bond globetrotting that made up the majority of MW2’s missions, MW3’s bigger, more spectacular action sequences share more in common with the slow, forward pushes of the series’ time spent in the battles of WWII. One level on the shores of Hamburg even sees you make your way up a beach under intense enemy fire, before following tanks up past the Binnenalster. Squint a little and you could almost be playing Call Of Duty 2.
Not to say all that British spy flick stuff has been swept under the carpet completely. You’ll speed through the Hudson River while Russian warships detonate around you, dodge careening train carriages on the London Underground, and watch in awe as the Russian presidential aircraft’s tail end is torn off during an earth-shuddering plane crash. But there are moments of quiet, too. The flashy and elaborate opening in New York is followed by the serene quiet of an underwater submarine infiltration, while an intense shootout in Somalia becomes a ghostly trek through the orange-red haze of a sandstorm, your targets nothing but dim silhouettes concealed in the dark.
It adds up to a better sense of tempo to MW3, the campaign more tightly packed with action and delivered with some of the highest production values you’re likely to see this year. It occasionally loses its grip – missions in Sierra Leone and Prague feel less stimulating than those set in the capitals of the world – but it’s nevertheless a COD more robust in its cinematic aspirations.
Affixed to the single-player campaign is that which many consider to be Call Of Duty’s raison d’être: its multiplayer. It’s back with a few tweaks and changes, but ultimately comprises the same experience that we’ve been enjoying for some four years now. New support packages ensure that even those who can’t sustain a killstreak are still rewarded with items to help out their team, while the specialist strike package enables expert players to unlock new perks the more kills they rack up.
The most noticeable differences in MW3’s multiplayer come in the new game modes. Public matches introduce Kill Confirmed and Team Defender, which subtly alter the play of Team Deathmatch and Capture The Flag games, but it’s the new Private Matches that digress most from usual play. Gun Game and One In The Chamber return from Black Ops’ Wager Matches, although the ability to customise them to your whim feels like it detracts rather than enhances the experience – Gun Game is hardly as fun when just playing with assault rifles and sub machine guns rather than ballistic knives and crossbows.
Modes like Drop Zone, Juggernaut and Infected fare better, perhaps due to the fact they’re game modes that feel more commonly encountered in sessions with Halo. The former two are deadlier, faster, and more turbulent matches that focus the action on specific points or players on the map, while the latter transforms COD multiplayer from fight into flight as the ever increasing team of contaminated Juggernauts converge on the remaining survivors. It turns COD into a game about speed, navigation and dexterity rather than quick reflexes and an itchy trigger finger.
It’s unlikely we’ll ever see these matches introduced to the public playlists – they’re too removed from strategy and tactics to sit alongside modes like Domination within the XP system – but they’re a welcome distraction from the core multiplayer nevertheless.
If you insist on comparing Modern Warfare 3 to games as deep and intricate as Dark Souls or as effortlessly compelling as The Legend Of Zelda: Skyward Sword then sure, there are certainly criticisms to be made regarding its lack of deeper mechanics or more imaginative gameplay design. But if you take it for what it is – an explosive, cinematic and unashamedly linear action game – then you’re in for a treat. It’s confident and self-assured without feeling cocky; bombastic and loud without feeling overblown. It’s a Call Of Duty that feels incredibly focused despite a period in its development of massive uncertainty. Its campaign still toes the line between being smart and being stupid, but for Saturday night, popcorn entertainment, Modern Warfare 3 has the competition beat.