Few franchises have had a larger impact on the modern console gaming landscape than Call of Duty. The Modern Warfare scion of the long-running series has attracted millions of devoted players (and customers) to its addictive multiplayer arenas and cinematic campaigns, as well as inspired widespread adoration and shameless imitation. And Modern Warfare 3 doesn't stray far from the familiar formula. Though some of the signature thrills have lost their luster, this is still a very exciting and rewarding game. An explosive campaign, breakneck competitive action, and challenging cooperative play all serve as engrossing reminders of how Call of Duty earns its prestige.
Like previous Call of Duty campaigns, the one in Modern Warfare 3 is a globe-hopping affair that puts you in the boots of a few different soldiers. One thread follows Soap and Price on the hunt for Makarov and picks up where Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 left off. Others take you to major metropolitan areas like New York City, London, and Paris, where full-blown battles are being waged. The destruction that has been visited on these iconic locations is visually stunning, making the stakes seem higher than ever before. As you shift among remote air support control, on-foot firefights, and tense vehicle sequences, the expert pacing keeps you engaged and eager to take on the next threat.
The campaign also has a few unnerving sights and thrilling tricks up its sleeve, and the latter are more successful than the former. Chaos on a presidential plane and a frantic chase through Parisian streets are highlights, where environmental upheaval makes you feel like you are struggling for control in out-of-control situations. Other, quieter moments give you a chance to take in the carnage that these urban conflicts have caused, and seeing dead civilians who evidently perished while fleeing danger is affecting.
Unfortunately, Modern Warfare 3 takes a much more overt and heavy-handed shot at wrenching your heartstrings, which doesn't go well. The outcome is so obvious from the moment the scene starts that you're left to watch dispassionately as the throwaway characters act out their lines and fall victim to tragedy (opting not to see disturbing content at the outset of the campaign will likely spare you this unpleasantness). Despite this emotional misstep, the campaign remains an engaging and superbly paced roller-coaster ride that brings the Modern Warfare story to a satisfying conclusion.
Though the campaign is strictly single-player, the cooperative Special Ops mode returns after its debut in Modern Warfare 2, bringing with it plenty of opportunities to slaughter AI enemies with another player, split-screen or online. There are 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 tanking along in a Juggernaut suit to covering your ally with remote-controlled sentry turrets, there's a lot of variety here. Though even the longest missions can be completed in less than 10 minutes, the variable difficulty levels help Spec Ops missions provide hours of challenging combat. And if you prefer to continue your solo soldiering, you can run almost every mission by yourself and aim for a respectable spot on the online leaderboards.
There's also a new Survival mode that offers even more opportunity for cooperative or solo slaughter. As in many similar modes in other games, you take on wave after wave of increasingly difficult enemies. From humble militia fighters and attack dogs to seasoned mercenaries and hovering attack choppers, you can easily get overwhelmed if you don't make smart use of your arsenal. You unlock guns, attachments, and equipment by gaining experience in both Survival mode and Spec Ops missions. And as you play through Survival waves, you earn money to spend on these goodies. Though your foes will drop their weapons when killed, the weapons you purchase are likely to be the ones that give you staying power. Ammunition and grenades can only do so much, however, so saving your funds for a sentry gun or squad of AI allies is a wise move. 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.
While the challenges offered in Spec Ops can be stiff, the greatest test of your abilities is found in online competitive multiplayer. The action will be instantly familiar to anyone who has braved a Call of Duty battlefield in the past four years, but the speedy action and rewarding experience point system are just as thrilling and addictive as ever. Modern Warfare 3 benefits from interface improvements that make customization and progression easier, with the free Call of Duty Elite application offering even more ways to analyze, customize, and improve your performance. Whether you download it to your console or access it through a Web browser, Elite gathers extensive statistics from your play time and offers a lot of helpful advice on weapon usage and perk combinations. This knowledge will be especially helpful to newcomers who find themselves overwhelmed because the Combat Training mode from Call of Duty: Black Ops is conspicuously absent.
Getting to know your guns with Elite and familiarizing yourself with the maps in Survival mode can help you refine your strategy, and 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 addition of Kill Confirmed mode. This mode mixes things up by requiring you to collect tags from dead bodies 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, adding an enjoyable new tactical dimension to an otherwise familiar deathmatch.
Modern Warfare 3 also includes some adjustments to weapon upgrades and killstreaks; you now unlock attachments, camouflage, and stat-boosting proficiencies by leveling up individual weapons through use. Furthermore, 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 and rewards you for killing successive enemies in a single life; 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. You can make your own eccentric tweaks to the action with the robust Private Match customization options, which bring back some of the weirder modes from Black Ops and hold the possibility of odd permutations to come. Whatever diversions or innovations lie in Modern Warfare 3's future, the competitive multiplayer still offers the same sweet satisfaction you've come to expect from the series. 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.