When the Modern Warfare scion of the venerable Call of Duty franchise branched out four years ago, the electrifying campaign and addictive multiplayer cast a new mold for first-person shooters. In the years since, this formula has been consistently refined, shamelessly imitated, and widely adored, making it one of the defining franchises of this generation. Modern Warfare 3 stays the course, delivering an explosive campaign, breakneck competitive action, and challenging cooperative play. This is an exciting and rewarding game, but the series' signature thrills have lost some of their luster. Modern Warfare 3 iterates rather than innovates, so the fun you have is familiar. Fortunately, it's also utterly engrossing and immensely satisfying, giving fans another reason to rejoice in this busy shooter season.
The campaign picks up where Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 left off. Our heroes, Soap and Price, are in bad shape, and the villain, Makarov, is still at large. It doesn't take the pair long to get back in the hunt, and soon you're hopping the globe in pursuit of your quarry. You make a few forays into backwater outposts, but the most striking situations are when you take up arms in conflicts that consume entire cities. From New York City to London to Paris, no bastion of Western civilization is safe, and the destruction that has been visited on these iconic locations is visually stunning. As expected, PC players get the better end of the deal, with sharpness and clarity that outshine the console versions. The impressive scenery makes the action more impactful, and the campaign shuffles you around to different fronts within each city to make sure you can experience the battle from many different angles. Remote air support control, on-foot firefights, and tense vehicle sequences keep the campaign moving at a great clip in these urban environments, capturing the expert pacing that has made past Call of Duty campaigns so exhilarating.
As with its predecessors, the Modern Warfare 3 campaign has a few tricks up its sleeve aimed to shake you up or make you cry out with excitement. The latter are more successful than the former. A jet flight gone wrong and a chase through Parisian streets are highlights, using environmental upheaval to make you feel like you are struggling for control in an out-of-control situation. These sections are definitely exciting, but because Call of Duty has trained you to expect the unexpected, they lack the extra spark of surprise that kicks exciting up to thrilling. Modern Warfare 3 also takes a startlingly out-of-place shot at wrenching your heartstrings, but the outcome is so obvious from the moment the scene starts that you're left to watch dispassionately as the characters set up and fall victim to tragedy (opting to not see disturbing content at the outset of the campaign will likely spare you this unpleasantness). The game is more resonant when you encounter scenes of tragedy in the natural course of the campaign, but this is not an emotionally fraught campaign. It is, however, an engaging and superbly paced roller-coaster ride that brings the Modern Warfare story to a very satisfying conclusion.
If the five-hour campaign doesn't satisfy your thirst for AI blood, then the Special Ops mode almost certainly will. Returning after its debut in Modern Warfare 2, Spec Ops offers 16 one-off missions that complement the events of the campaign, letting you experience new facets of the global conflict in which you are embroiled. From stealthily escorting resistance fighters to slugging through a large enemy force in a Juggernaut suit, there's a lot of variety here. Though even the longest missions can be completed in under 10 minutes, the variable difficulty levels help Spec Ops missions provide hours' worth of challenging combat. Furthermore, you can now tackle almost every mission solo and make a bid for leaderboard glory. Depending on the quality of your connection, however, load times for online cooperative matches can stretch to over a minute long. It's a bummer when you have to wait so long to get into the action, but once things are under way, slowdown is infrequent.
Spec Ops also includes the new Survival mode, which offers even more opportunity for cooperative or solo slaughter. Survival pits you against wave after wave of increasingly difficult AI enemies on the same maps you encounter in competitive multiplayer. Playing either Survival mode or Spec Ops missions levels up your Spec Ops profile, which in turn channels that familiar satisfaction by unlocking guns, attachments, and equipment. These unlocks come into play solely during Survival games. As you progress through waves and earn money for killing enemies, you gain access to hotspots where you can purchase items from your unlocked arsenal. While you can always pick up the guns your enemies drop in a pinch, the weapons you purchase are likely to be the ones that give you staying power. Refilling grenades and ammo regularly is a necessity, and as the waves get tougher, so is making use of the more powerful assets in your repertoire. A sentry gun can help you stay safely entrenched in one corner of the map, while a squad of AI allies can help cover you when things get hairy. With good gun choices and savvy equipment use, you can make solid progress, but there's always another wave waiting to outflank and overwhelm you.
Spec Ops is a great destination for those seeking a stiff, surmountable challenge (missions) or the thrill of seeing how far sharpshooting and smarts can get you (survival). But the most fiendish challenge comes when you take your skills into the realm of online competitive multiplayer. The action will be instantly familiar to anyone who has braved a Call of Duty battlefield in the past four years. The speedy action and rewarding experience point system are just as thrilling and addictive as ever, and some welcome refinements make it even easier to enjoy. Interface improvements make it easier to customize your loadout and view relevant challenges, which offer hefty XP bonuses. Those thirsty for more information about their weapons and statistics can use the free Call of Duty Elite application, which you can access through a Web browser. In addition to providing extensive stat breakdowns and a variety of premium features that you must pay more to access, Elite offers some useful weapon tips that can help you tweak your battlefield strategy. The Combat Training mode in Call of Duty: Black Ops that simulated a multiplayer environment with AI opponents does not appear here, so newcomers are left to fend for themselves in the online wilds (though Survival mode at least affords you the opportunity to familiarize yourself with the maps).
The 16 maps provide an excellent array of arenas for the action to play out. Bomb planting, flag grabbing, territory controlling, and straightforward killing form the backbone of most matches, with the notable new addition of Kill Confirmed. This mode mixes things up by requiring you to collect tags from dead bodies in order to actually register your kills. Confirming a kill or denying an enemy kill by collecting a downed ally's tags is as important as making sure your bullets hit the target, giving this mode an enjoyable new tactical dimension. Adjustments to weapon upgrades and killstreaks also require some tactical shifting, because you now unlock attachments, camouflage, and stat-boosting proficiencies by leveling up individual weapons through use. Killstreak rewards have been reissued in strike packages that offer some new assets to play with, like a remote recon drone and a ballistic ground-based booby trap. The Assault strike package works in the familiar way, rewarding you for killing successive enemies in a single life, but the Support strike package doesn't care if your streak spans multiple respawns, and the Specialist strike package rewards you with extra perks instead of traditional killstreak rewards.
These tweaks alter the flow of rewards into your arsenal and onto the battlefield, but Modern Warfare 3 doesn't take any chances with the tried-and-true formula. At launch, even the matchmaking playlists feature standard fare, but the robust Private Match customization options let you tweak the standards to your liking (even offering some of Black Ops' more interesting modes) and hold the possibility of odd permutations to come. Whatever diversions or innovations may lie in Modern Warfare 3's future, the competitive multiplayer still offers the same sweet satisfaction you've come to expect from the series. There are still some lingering technical issues that can result in laggy matches or frozen screens, but these problems are relatively rare. This is some of the best online shooter action around, and with the daunting challenges of Spec Ops and the exciting, globe-trotting campaign, Modern Warfare 3 stands tall as another great descendant of the game that changed a generation.