As gamers, we tend to be quite forgiving. We overlook things like being suddenly shot down in a military shooter like Call of Duty by someone using a fluorescent pink Uzi, perhaps as Nicki Minaj, or other lucratively cosmetic monsters. Or the fact that Activision seems to make less and less effort each year to renew its Call of Duty formula. As long as it plays well. But this year, they’ve gone too far.
Before we dive in, let’s gather some intel: the Call of Duty series has been sustained for 20 years by three different lead studios that alternate developing a game in the shooter series, so they can drop a new game each year. Infinity Ward is the big number one: the creators and innovators who laid the foundation for the series with Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. Developer Treyarch positioned itself as a solid number two with Black Ops and Zombies. And in third place is Sledgehammer Games, which started as a support studio and primarily delivered mediocrity with COD WWII and Vanguard.
Although Modern Warfare is actually from Infinity Ward, Sledgehammer was given the reins for this Modern Warfare 3. We smelled trouble. Stories emerged that this game was originally planned as an expansion for Modern Warfare 2. After shareholders protested, publisher Activision is said to have changed tack and demanded that Sledgehammer turn the expansion into a full-fledged sequel. In just 18 months, half the standard development time of a normal Call of Duty. And that explains why this Modern Warfare 3 feels more like a hastily put together, uninspired expansion of Modern Warfare 2 than a fully-fledged new chapter.
Let’s start with the major pain point: the single-player campaign. Compared to previous games, it’s particularly short and tasteless. Where previous games guaranteed an entertaining rollercoaster ride full of explosive Hollywood-worthy set pieces, here you get a collection of ad hoc thrown together levels that mostly seem to recycle elements from the past.
After a fairly successful intro level where you break into a heavily guarded prison at night, cause a riot to free your target, it all goes downhill. For once, you’re not playing the loyal and always obedient rookie soldier, but you step into the army boots of icons like Captain Price and Ghost. Although we expected that to be more spectacular.
The campaign alternates short, linear levels with so-called Open Combat missions. These are small open-world levels where you choose your own route to complete certain objectives. Along the way, you find weapon chests with better shooting gear, can pick up kill streaks, and even just switch loadouts. A little bit of Warzone injection, you say? Right. And that has its consequences.
The number of impressive set piece moments is nil. The storytelling is subpar and the level pacing, well, non-existent. Those Combat Missions play like an unbelievable shooting gallery where stealth is recommended, but the somewhat experienced shooter player here easily plows through as an invincible one-man army. Invading a busy, enemy military base on your own to destroy three helicopters? More than a grenade launcher and well-timed sprint work is not needed.
It certainly doesn’t help credibility. It feels as if this campaign had to be squeezed out in record time. After which Sledgehammer supplemented the handful of missions they had already outlined for the expansion with scriptless Open Combat missions. Are there no plot twists or epic shootouts at all to spice it all up? Not really. After about four hours, the credits roll on the screen, and it dawns that you didn’t even have a final confrontation with the arch-villain. Jeez, on to multiplayer then?
Multiplayer is the Stronghold
We’ve been playing Call of Duty since the very beginning. And although after all these years we no longer even expect substantial changes to the formula, Activision really tests our loyalty. The multiplayer – which is once again the mainstay of the package here – is almost identical to that of Modern Warfare 2. Your weapons and skins from MW2 are transferred and MW3 adds a bunch of new guns, some kill streaks, and a whole lot of old maps.
The only real change that Sledgehammer implements is actually more of a tweak: the perks now come in the form of outfit items. The Overkill perk that allows you to carry two main weapons at once has now become a vest. Just like the perk to switch weapons faster is now a pair of gloves. The same content, just packaged differently. To slow down the unlocking of perks, kill streaks, and guns, Sledgehammer now also ties Daily Challenges to them. For example, you can only unlock the Heartbeat Sensor by completing eight Daily Challenges. Long live the grind.
Don’t get us wrong: we still think the multiplayer is good. And that new Mosquito drone is our favorite new kill streak. But come on, guys, you can’t possibly call this a new multiplayer and ask 70 dollars for it? This is an expansion. And the same goes for the maps neatly plucked from Modern Warfare 2 of 2009. It’s fun to relive classics like the airport shootout Terminal and the white marble death pit Quarry, but Activision could have offered this just as well as a DLC map pack. Of course, it plays like a charm, it did before too, but this Modern Warfare 3 doesn’t bring anything new.
Halloween in Warzone?
And then we come to the third disappointment. Sledgehammer has squeezed the ever-popular Zombie mode into a new corset that will probably have benefited from the short development time. They turned it into an open-world extraction shooter that feels more like a Halloween version of Warzone than the crazy and always overwhelming shooting festival that Zombies once was.
Blasting hundreds of undead and their equally dead Dobermans in claustrophobic corridors at breakneck speed: that was Zombies. And that has now been transformed into a far too long search for objectives in a far too large Verdansk-with-fog. Where the missions are kilometers apart and your teammates begging for revival can never be helped in time. The difficulty level is high, teamwork is difficult, and since you have to complete the missions several times in a row, progress is incredibly slow. This feels more like a temporary Warzone event than a full-fledged Zombie experience.
We can’t see this Modern Warfare 3 as anything but the low point of the Call of Duty series. This is a clear signal that the release of annual sequels must stop. Because when you market this kind of half-hearted neither-fish-nor-fowl expansion as a full-fledged sequel under shareholder pressure, then it just doesn’t work anymore. As far as we’re concerned, the plug may be pulled for a year or two, guys. Time to regroup.