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Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 Reviewed, BF3 Compared
Date: Nov 17, 2011
Author: Joel Hruska
After playing through Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3's single-player campaign and spending some solid time with the game in multiplayer, we can attest that MW3 is the latest well-executed title in the long-running Call of Duty franchise. The game's production values are excellent, the single-player campaign is gripping and intense, and all of the gameplay conventions and design principles the CoD series is known for are here.

Call of Duty: Death To Landmarks

Whether or not this is a good thing depends entirely on how much you like the Call of Duty titles to begin with. If you've played any of the previous games you'll feel right at home in MW3—a fact that actually caught me by surprise, given that I'd skipped Modern Warfare 2 and hadn't actually played a CoD title since 2007's Call of Duty 4.

If you're looking for a game that fundamentally moves its own bar forward or offers significant single-player innovation, this isn't it. Players who thought MW2 and even the original CoD 4 were tired rehashes of stale game mechanisms will find no reason to change their minds. Gamers who enjoy the formula enough to slip into a new title, on the other hand, will enjoy the experience.

Single Player
MW3's single-player campaign is fast-paced, exciting, and short. It can be beaten in five hours or less on a first play-through. In this case, that's a good thing—but only because the game's plot is so threadbare, it could scarcely sustain much more.

On a boat. Like a boss. Oh God, oh God, we're all going to die

Modern Warfare 3 eschews character development or the need for thought in favor of building on MW2's already incomprehensible mashup of ultrationalist Russians with nonsensical plans for world domination. All of this is wrapped around the familiar returning figures of captains John "Soap" MacTavish and John Price. MW3 picks up where Modern Warfare 2 left off and focuses on the two men's effort to find and kill Russian ultranationalist Vladimir Makarov. It's also an excuse for blowing up the Eiffel Tower.

Take that, you cheese-eating surrender monkeys!

Games with great plots generally get away with short campaigns, but five hours of gameplay for $59.99 is a dismal value proposition, particularly since there's no great storyline or storytelling anchoring the blink-and-you'll-miss-it whirlwind tour of international locales Infinity Ward wanted to blow up.

Is it fun? Absolutely—just like the dozens of other shooters (and a solid handful of CoD-style shooters) available for $9.99 - $19.99 on sites like Steam. There's nothing in the single-player campaign to justify a $59.99 price tag unless you're a die-hard CoD fan who absolutely must have his fix—in which case, you've already bought the game.
Multiplayer, Conclusion
Multiplayer offers MW3 a second chance to shine. The game offers five preset classes (Grenadier, First Recon, Overwatch, Scout Sniper, Riot Control), but encourages players to create their own custom classes. The latter are extremely customizable—players can choose their weapon loadouts, special abilities (Perks), and killstreak rewards. Assault killstreaks are offensively oriented but reset after each death, while support killstreaks improve a team's recon and defense capabilities and continue through death. Players of sufficient level also have the option to forgo all killstreak bonuses and instead claim an additional three perks.

Each of the primary weapons has additional proficiencies that can be unlocked as well as attachments to earn (secondary weapons only have attachments). Weapon experience is earned through use and is tracked separately from player experience. Additional perks and various tactical options are unlocked through the same process. There's no penalty for tweaking item / weapon loadouts in a custom class, but killstreak unlocks are earned by leveling and can't be reassigned. Players can, however, switch from 'Assault' to 'Support' killstreaks without penalty.

One of Modern Warfare 3's strong points is that the game's customization options are very much optional; the five preset classes are more than sufficient for jumping into a quick game. The game's maps are designed for smaller skirmishes, with most games supporting 8-12 players. There are 12-18 player options, but these often feel overcrowded.

Multiplayer Maps:
The included maps are visually rich, well detailed, and mostly boring. This last isn't obvious until you've played enough of the game to be at least passingly familiar with the most popular options—but once you are, they begin to blur together. MW3's maps are, nearly without exception, a series of interconnected small-to-medium spaces, broken by the occasional hallway. In theory, that's fine—but in practice, it's deadly dull.

As you can see, the flag is securely placed in...the middle of the street. Maps are well-detailed, but something of a study in the color brown

The maps in MW3 generally lack choke points, defendable positions, sniper nests, blind alleys, or any other form of distinguishing feature. Accessible buildings, rooftops, and basements are virtually guaranteed to have at least two separate points of entry, invariably positioned such as to make covering both impossible for a single person.

It's one thing to design a map to discourage camping and something else entirely to build maps that feel like they were rubber-stamped by a committee. There's no need for strategy or tactics when it comes to assaulting an enemy position; everything is literally connected to everything else. Similarly, there's precious little reason to try a coherent defensive strategy. Control points and deathmatches are decided by who has the quickest trigger finger, and little else besides. Again, there's something to be said for this sort of quick, easy gameplay. If all you're looking for is a fast, uncomplicated game of shooting other folks, Modern Warfare 3 delivers. Leveling up and unlocking items is enjoyable and the customization options are first rate.

Is it fun?  Yes. Is it $59.99 worth of fun? No.

Modern Warfare 3 has spent the last week smashing sales records; dwarfing even Battlefield 3's impressive debut. Clearly there's an enormous appetite for this sort of game, and we can scarcely blame Activision for being unwilling to make many changes to their cash cow. MW3 is a fabulous CoD-style game (after seven previous titles, it darn well should be), and if you're a player that wants more CoD gameplay, this game delivers.

Being popular, however, isn't quite the same as being good. We've enjoyed the time we spent with the game, but there's nothing hear to make us want to play again. That's clearly not a problem for Activision, but we can't help noting that the game's much-ballyhooed Elite Service, originally promised for the PC platform, has now been pushed back into the indefinite future, likely to address the way game hackers can distort results.

We only saw three instances of blatant hacking in our time with the game, but even one hacker is sufficient to ruin an 18-player map. The combination of aimbotting and wall hacking turns them into nearly unstoppable death machines; it's not unusual to see someone rack up well over 100 kills a round while only dying 3-4x.

Series fans will find plenty to like here. Others--particularly those with limited funds--may wish to consider other options. On that note, flip the page for our comparison on how Modern Warfare 3 stacks up against Battlefield 3.

Squaring Off: MW3 vs. BF3
Both are gorgeous blockbuster titles—but if you had to pick one, which should it be? Our answers may surprise you.

Single Player:
When it comes to their storytelling aspirations, the folks at DICE clearly intended to deliver a five course steak dinner compared to Infinity Ward's McDonald's combo meal. Unfortunately for all concerned, EA's poor scripting and practical implementation undercut its aspirations. It's like arriving at a five star restaurant, only to be informed you'll have to wear a wetsuit three sizes too small and dine under the vulpine gaze of a lascivious Alan Greenspan.

You know the cooks worked hard and the food is delicious, but the wetsuit chafes badly and Alan is wiping at his mouth while murmuring something about "irrational exuberance" in a thick voice. Then you notice he's only got one hand on the table...and you just can't take it any more.

Multiplayer distances don't get much larger than what you can see above

Infinity Ward serves up a plot so thin it couldn't keep an Ethiopian stripper decently covered, but it does so at a pace Michael Bay might envy. Is it "good?" No. We've seen Saturday morning cartoons with fewer plot holes and better character development. Is it fun?  Definitely. It's too short to anchor the game as a must-have purchase, but it's still fun while it lasts.

Winner: Modern Warfare 3

Graphics and Audio:

No, the MW3 engine isn't quite as good as BF3's, but you'll never notice in the single-player campaign

Modern Warfare 3 has the dubious honor of launching less than a month after Battlefield 3 was lauded for its next-generation graphics and great positional audio. MW3's single-player campaign is gorgeously cinematic in places and the multiplayer maps are impressively detailed. Explosions, smoke effects, and audio cues are all well done. It's beautiful in its own right, period.

Battlefield 3 is better.

Even the smaller BF3 maps offer far more open space to play in

It's not just that the Frostbite 2 engine can handle maps that apparently dwarf anything Infinity Ward could produce, it's the space between buildings, the availability (and usefulness) of ground cover, and destroyable terrain. Both games have indestructable objects, but MW3's world is considerably more static. This has a practical impact on gameplay. Both games offer the option of going prone, but it's easier to hide in BF3 (this is partly due to the general availability of ground vegetation). Because buildings sustain damage and can even collapse, the same map may play differently from one game to the next. Both games offer positional audio, but it's easier to hear where shots (and footsteps) are coming from in BF3 than in Modern Warfare 3.

Ultimately we prefer the Frostbite 2 engine—but more because it allows for a much wider range of maps and play styles. The graphics in MW3 may not match Battlefield 3's, but they're pretty darn good in their own right. The limitations on map size and design are more frustrating.

Winner:  Battlefield 3

This question mostly comes down to personal preference. MW3 offers customization options and perks that BF3 doesn't, including earning the ability to call down air strikes or take a stint as a gunner on an AC-130. There's much less of an emphasis on teamwork; players can earn points for tossing down a stack of ballistic vests, but support activities play a much smaller role.

The smaller maps and simplified gameplay make MW3 potentially better for a quick game session, while BF3's vehicle options, greater number of players, and emphasis on teamwork require a bit more of a time commitment. They're different games, with different goals, and while MW3 has it's strong points...Battlefield 3 is better.

The "simple gameplay" argument would only put Modern Warfare 3 on equal footing with DICE if BF3 was impossible to pick up for a 20 minute session. It isn't. BF3 might require a tad more brain power and a bit of strategic thinking, but it's a first person shooter, not first person chess. MW3 offers more maps and more game types, but they all end up feeling like the same map (and, with few exceptions, the same game).

Winner Battlefield 3.

Best Overall:  Battlefield 3

In 25 years of gaming, this is literally the first time I've ever proclaimed that a multiplayer game with a single-person boat anchor was superior to a title with solid (if uninspiring) offerings in both categories. MW3 wins points for a fun single player campaign, but serving up the same experience five years running isn't an impressive use of development time, no matter how much money it makes the game's publisher.

With over six million copies sold thus far, MW3 is already a massive success--but if you've only got money for one, we'd recommend Battlefield 3. Alternatively, we'd recommend waiting a few weeks, and picking up BF3 once the price comes down + an old Call of Duty for the combined price of $59.99.

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