In the South Park episode Imaginationland, the United States Government enlists the aid of Michael Bay to help counter a terrorist attack. “We start by making a big CG building, and we have a meteor go crasshhhhh!” says the Transformers director. “An 18-wheeler spins out of control and it’s all braaaahhhskkshhh!!”
The general sat across the table is unimpressed. “Those aren’t ideas; those are special effects.”
It’s a familiar criticism. Over the years many have denigrated the ever-popular Call Of Duty series for similar reason, considering it nothing but a mindless corridor shooter, concerned only with showing the player as many things blow up in the course of five minutes as the technology allows, rather than cultivating genuinely innovative gameplay.
It can’t be denied that there’s truth to such claims. Compare Call Of Duty to the likes of BioShock or Half-Life 2 and it’s like comparing Pearl Harbor to Schindler’s List. The Call Of Duty series, and in this particular case its Modern Warfare offshoot, are certainly dazzling, flashy and exciting, but they’re hardly the smartest games in the genre – although they do try //so// hard with those twisty-turvy narratives.
But although genuinely novel ideas in a Modern Warfare game are as rare as photos of Captain Price wearing a bikini, it’s extremely difficult to summon up a morsel of concern about a lack of innovation when speeding between exploding Russian warships on the Hudson River; dodging wildly careening train carriages on the London Underground; or watching in awe as the tail end of the plane you’re in rips off during an earth-shuddering plane crash. Ideas can sod off when the special effects are this spectacular.
Once more unto the breach
So yes, you’re going to be doing very little in Modern Warfare 3’s campaign that you haven’t before – you’re not going to be plumbing the depths of objectivist philosophies or developing close and meaningful relationships with NPCs – unless you really, really like the thought of Captain Price in that bikini – but you will experience what is easily the best Call Of Duty campaign since you fired that final bullet into Zakhaev’s brain at the end Call Of Duty 4.
Minute-for-minute, Modern Warfare 3’s single-player campaign is easily the most exhilarating and set-piece-driven Call Of Duty yet, boasting sky-high production values and a level of polish so impressive that you can almost make out your own face in the level textures.
You’re no longer attempting to prevent World War III but are actively engaged in it, with the globe’s largest and most significant cities of power under attack from Russia. It all kicks off in the besieged avenues of New York, the Russkies seemingly having got fed up with the food at Burger Town and pressed on to attack America’s second favourite thing after fast food: money.
In pushing up through Wall Street towards New York’s stock exchange, Infinity Ward and new boy Sledgehammer Games immediately confirm their status as masters of the set piece. Concrete shatters under gunfire; explosions send air and smoke rippling across the battlefield; the sound design, although not of the same fidelity as Battlefield 3’s, still does a good job of making firefights sound like an avalanche.
Then there are the smaller details, like the hundreds of particle effects that give your surroundings a real density; the way NPCs slide and fall as explosions knock them off balance; the faintly heard shouts only just audible over the cacophony of the battle. Taken as separate elements, Infinity Ward and Sledgehammer’s efforts are impressive; put them all together and they’re exhilarating.
One level where this cohesion feels particularly effective kicks off on a small riverbank in Hamburg, with Derek ‘Frost’ Westbrook and his fellow Delta Squad soldiers pushing up the shore under intense enemy gunfire. Squint a bit and you could perhaps be making your way up the beaches of Normandy. The sensation of playing a WWII shooter is only further enhanced by the following segment that sees the soldiers slowly making their way through the streets of Hamburg behind the protection of two tanks – a steady, powerful push through enemy forces rather than a stealthy James Bond-esque intrusion. It’s a feeling repeated throughout Modern Warfare; whether it’s in New York, Paris or Berlin, Infinity Ward and Sledgehammer have recaptured that sense of slow forward momentum against overwhelming enemy forces that felt so pronounced in the series’ WWII titles.
Not to say that the Sixties spy thriller stuff that personified so much of Modern Warfare 2 has gone completely; it just feels more Daniel Craig than it does Sean Connery. Snowmobile escapes down Kazakhstan’s mountain ranges are replaced by Humvee chases through Parisian streets; the favelas of Rio de Janeiro are replaced with the landscape of Sierra Leone; and stealthy oil rig infiltrations become violent shootouts through the London Underground. From the cold air of India’s mountains down to the sun-baked shantytowns of Somalia, Modern Warfare manages to whisk you around the world while still staying grounded and believable.
It’s partly thanks to the fact that, for this third entry, the knotty narrative has been somewhat untangled. It’s as if Infinity Ward reached for the plotline-absurdity dial and went to turn it up to 11, but behind it stood Sledgehammer, arms folded, slowly shaking its head. As such, that dial has been turned a good deal down, with a narrative that concerns itself largely with just two things: kill Makarov, save the world.
All you need to know in this Modern Warfare is what your next objective is, be it locating a secret weapon that Makarov intends to use, finding and interrogating an informant who knows the locations of a bomb manufacturer, or rescuing the Russian President’s daughter. It’s all in aid of the same goal – killing Makarov and putting an end to hostilities. There are few twists or turns to confuse you here; everything is a means to the same end. Don’t expect everyone to make it through to the last shot fired, though…
The rhythm of combat
An eye for cinematic pacing feels more important than the actual storytelling here, and it’s in this regard that Modern Warfare 3 feels most closely related to Call Of Duty 4. Rather than feeling like a succession of battles slowly increasing in intensity, Modern Warfare 3 makes the action swell, subside and swell again, connecting set pieces and quieter moments in much the same way a filmmaker might in the editing suite.
The flashy and elaborate introductory firefight through Wall Street is followed by the serene, submerged quiet of an underwater submarine infiltration, which soon becomes a taut and claustrophobic shootout through the boat’s compact corridors. Later, a loud and raucous battle in Somalia is turned on its head by the intrusion of a dense sandstorm, the sound of gunfire subsiding as you make a ghostly trek through the red-orange haze and take down silhouettes hidden in the dark. Later still, stalking through the sewers and catacombs of Montmartre, Paris, with only a torch to guide you soon shifts to an on-foot chase followed by one in a vehicle.
Even within the levels themselves, Infinity Ward and Sledgehammer giddily play with the tempo. The aforementioned Hamburg level goes from WWII simulator back to close-quarters combat when the tank you’re in collapses through several levels of a car park. An AC-130 mission in Paris sees the camera follow a 105mm shot right down to its target before swooping back to the view of the ground troops, while throwing purple smoke to mark a target causes it to pitch back up again. A chaotic battle in the Russian presidential aircraft sees gravity shift and lurch violently – and even disappear completely for a short time – as the plane becomes increasingly out of control.
We imagine the aid of Sledgehammer has been invaluable in constructing this sense of tempo – much of that team was responsible for the excellent pacing of Dead Space, after all – and it makes for a truly enjoyable single-player campaign. It’s not perfect – Modern Warfare 3 fumbles it a little towards the last few levels, and the mission in Sierra Leone doesn’t exhilarate in the same way those missions in the capitals of the world do. It’s also easy to roll your eyes at yet another ‘All Ghillied Up’ mission. Still, by and large this is easily the best COD campaign we’ve experience in quite some time; one far more assured in its cinematic aspirations than the likes of Black Ops or World At War.
But still, there’s that same problem. Most of what we’ve discussed in this review are special effects, not ideas, and the feeling that there’s a deficit of anything genuinely new in Modern Warfare 3’s campaign besides bigger explosions is difficult to repress.
Are these games so anticipated because they’re genuinely innovative? When Call Of Duty 4’s multiplayer was first released, perhaps, but not now. They’re anticipated because they play great and look better; because they have production values that reach to the moon; because they have a budget most developers can only dream of and the resources to do whatever they want. They’re certainly not anticipated because they’re delivering a new kind of interactive experience or exploring ideas that games haven’t touched on before.
Modern Warfare is the Transformers of the gaming world: more money equals more explosions equals more players. New, exciting concepts are hard to find, but those special effects are spectacular to look at. At least in this case, unlike with Michael Bay, these special effects actually do a good job at taking down the terrorists.