Infinity Ward’s 2009 effort, Modern Warfare 2, sold around twenty-three million units, overtaking the original by nearly ten million. Shortly after the new decade began, two key figures from the company, co-founders Jason West and Vince Zampella, were fired by the CEO of Activision, Bobby Kotick, for “breaches of contract and insubordination.” It is widely speculated that this was done so Kotick could avoid having to pay West and Zampella bonuses for their successful campaign. This development in turn caused a significant chunk of Infinity Ward’s staff to leave the studio and file a lawsuit against Activision in order to regain their losses.
During this turmoil, Activision, not wishing to let a golden opportunity to cash in on a popular franchise go by, requested that members of the recently-formed Sledgehammer Games collaborate with Infinity Ward to create a sequel to Modern Warfare 2. This new company was founded by veterans Glen Schofield and Michael Condrey who were responsible for developing the widely praised horror-themed shooter, Dead Space. The burden fell on them and the remnants of Infinity Ward to complete the trilogy, tying up all the remaining loose ends in the process.
Playing the Game
As with the previous two entries in the trilogy, Modern Warfare 3 is part of a subgenre of first-person shooters set in a present-day setting, depicting entirely fictional events. Naturally, it is called the modern military shooter. There is some degree of realism in the series, for you can only carry two weapons at a time, your running speed is that of a normal human, grenades are fatal at close range, and you can’t absorb entire clips of ammunition relatively unscathed. Because of these disadvantages compared to the typical classic FPS protagonist who was effectively a small tank that could outrun cars, it’s recommended to take cover when engaging the enemy.
If you take too much damage, the screen will turn red with a visceral, pulsating border to indicate that you’re on your last legs. Take too many hits in this state and your character will die, forcing you to go back to the last checkpoint. Fortunately, all you have to do is find a spot safe from the enemy gunfire and wait for a few seconds. Once the screen returns to normal, you can resume fighting as normal.
Modern Warfare 3 provides a linear action affair with a compass to point you in the right direction. The only deviation the player may take is to scour the environments for laptops containing enemy intel, which will unlock an achievement once all of them have been discovered.
What can be said about this game? For starters, it’s nice that the developers realized just how annoying it was to throw drops of blood on the screen whenever the player was near death. There were many instances in Modern Warfare 2 where I couldn’t even see where I was going, and got killed because I couldn’t find cover even if it was right in front of me. It’s also nice how there are much fewer times in which your character gets attacked by dogs. In fact, this was the only game in the trilogy in which I was never killed by them at any point.
That said, if you thought I was damning this game with faint praise just now, you would be entirely correct. While Modern Warfare 3 is entirely functional, it’s clear that the developers are just going through the motions at this point; it’s practically wall-to-wall, nonstop action sequences. This was mostly true of Call of Duty 4, but the reason it worked was because it remembered to pace itself by throwing you in disparate situations that actually forced you to stop and think every now and again. For instance, there’s one scenario where you had to defend an injured comrade, necessitating you to set up claymore mines before enemy reinforcements arrived. This meant that you had to scope out the environment, and place them in ideal chokepoint locations to escape the ordeal alive.
This game, on the other hand, is like a hyperactive kid; it’s as though the developers were under the impression that if there’s not an explosion present on the screen at any given second, the player would get bored and turn the game off. Consequently, this game is extremely monotonous and lacks any notion of innovation. Granted, it’s entirely possible they’re as good as they’ve always been, but after three games of doing the exact same thing, they barely stand out anymore.
Analyzing the Story
WARNING: The following section of this review will contain unmarked spoilers for the entire Modern Warfare trilogy. Skip to the conclusion if you at all interested in playing any of these games.
Lieutenant General Shepherd commanded a legion of soldiers in a campaign to bring Khaled Al-Asad, a dictator responsible for executing his country’s president, to justice. The mission ended in tragedy when a nuclear bomb was detonated, killing 30,000 men under his command. Greatly affected by this loss, Shepherd, with the help of John “Soap” MacTavish created Task Force 141 with the goal of restoring the damaged reputation of the United States and reaffirm the country’s position as a global superpower.
Five years later in the year 2016, a civil war in Russia concluded with the jingoistic ultranationalists seizing control of the country’s armed forces. Shortly thereafter, terrorists besieged an airport in Russia, brutally gunning down hundreds of civilians in cold blood. Unbeknownst to the world, this action was a false flag operation orchestrated by one Vladimir Makarov. Among the inner circle was a CIA agent named Joseph Allen, who was sent by Shepherd to gain Makarov’s trust. Unfortunately, Makarov knew of Allen’s true identity, and he promptly shot him in the head as they were making their escape, pinning the massacre entirely on him. This prompted Russia to declare war on the United States under the false pretense that the terrorist attack was a CIA operation.
During this time, Task Force 141 was mobilized to hunt down Makarov, and bring to light the truth of his crimes. Once they had gathered all the information they needed, Shepherd betrayed his own unit, killing two of its prominent members while branding Soap and Captain Price, who was recently rescued from the gulags, as war criminals. The two surviving members of the force hunted down Shepherd. Upon confronting him, they learned that his goal was to become a war hero in the public eye. To this end, he had informed Makarov of Allen’s identity, knowing that a full-scale war would ensue. He wanted American citizens to know how much he sacrificed for the freedom and safety they took for granted. Although he got what he wanted in the end, he was killed in battle by Soap, the very man who helped him establish the unit.
Gravely wounded in the process, Soap is rushed to a safe house in India provided by a Russian loyalist. Shortly after he makes his recovery, the now-disavowed members of Task Force 141, joined by a mysterious soldier named Yuri, seek to exact revenge on Makarov, the man who started the conflict only to quietly slip away amidst the chaos.
Sequel hooks need to be handled with care. If you leave too many open, you’re creating a lot of work for yourself when the time comes to wrap them all up. Conversely, in the event that there are only a few remaining threads, the experience outside of directly addressing them is going to invariably feel like tedious filler. In the case of Modern Warfare 3, it doesn’t even take a savvy person to know that the plot of the concluding installment is going to end with Makarov getting killed or apprehended. After all, if the creators failed to end it in such a way, players would more than likely protest, and demand a sequel (or downloadable content) in which this error is fixed.
To be fair, it wasn’t just Makarov’s escape that needed to be resolved. After all, the United States was in the middle of fighting World War III against Russia. It would be especially strange if the invasion was repelled within the first few missions of Act I and the Russian army decided to turn their attention to Europe instead. Clearly the folks at Infinity Ward and Sledgehammer Games didn’t find it odd, because that’s more or less what happens.
The ultimate irony of the Modern Warfare trilogy is that the first and, to a lesser extent, second installments came across as harsh deconstructions of the subgenre they helped pioneer. Call of Duty 4 featured a largely grey conflict that involved the United States flaunting their military might in the Middle East, utterly ravaging the country. Modern Warfare 2 demonstrated just how dangerous it is to leave a country’s fate in the hands of gung-ho nationalists. After all, it was an inflated sense of jingoism from both the East and the West that led to the Third World War and the deaths of countless civilians.
Like its predecessors, Modern Warfare 3 has its own signature shocking scene. It depicts a vacationing family, which includes a small child, getting blown up in a chemical attack set up by the Russian army. Leaving aside that this is pretty underwhelming compared to the nuclear blast or the airport massacre, it’s a sure sign of creative bankruptcy on the developer’s part if they need to resort to killing off a minor in order to get us interested in seeing things through to the end. However, it’s not the only problem I had with the scene. To start with, the preceding level involved chasing down the truck that contained the chemical agent, and in the end, the one you track down was merely a decoy. In other words, it feels like, once again, the game is punishing the player for failing the mission even though there’s only one way to proceed. The more important issue regarding this sequence how much it flies in the face of the shocking moments of the first two installments, both of which hammered home just how awful war is and almost nothing good ever results from it. With this scene, I suspect the people who play this, especially the more impulsive ones, are less likely to come out of it horrified by the effects of war than they are with a burning desire to purge the country responsible for this atrocity off the face of the Earth.
There are other aspects which only add fuel this theory. Call of Duty 4 made it a point that torture doesn’t always work when Captain Price was unable to extract information from Al-Asad, instead gaining what he needed to know out of the blue when the game’s central antagonist called on the nearby radio. Meanwhile, threatening the bad guys with certain death in this game always gets the intel the heroes need to keep up with their enemies.
The shock value isn’t limited to slaughtering children, however; the story has to save time to desecrate national monuments. There was a level that took place in France after the Russians decided to invade all of Europe which culminated in the Eiffel Tower collapsing. It was at this point I realized just how much the series had devolved from an unsubtle, yet effective anti-war narrative to something Roland Emmerich could have directed just to appeal to the lowest common denominator. To put it another way, the franchise had gone from being reasonably dark and reflective to infamously catering to the very people the second installment condemned as villains with nary a trace of irony to be found, and I strongly suspect this game is what completed the transformation.
To give credit where it’s due, the story does have its moments. For instance, I liked learning about Yuri’s motivations for wanting to kill Makarov. It’s revealed at the end of the second act that he was a former member of Makarov’s inner circle. His exploits included saving the life of the Ultranationalist figurehead, Imran Zakhaev, after Captain Price’s failed assassination attempt on him, having been present when Makarov ordered Al-Asad to detonate the nuclear bomb that wiped out Shepherd’s unit, and ultimately refusing to go along with murdering his fellow Russians in the false flag operation. When you’re given control of a silent protagonist, you don’t expect them to have a backstory this extensive because they’re meant to be a stand-in for the player, so I thought this was legitimately clever. This series of revelations is a bit of a double-edged sword, however. Makarov was retroactively shoehorned into a plot he didn’t have a place in as a cheap ploy to make the player hate him. Keeping in mind his attack on the airport, this was completely redundant, and it only succeeds in ruining the grey morality prevalent in Call of Duty 4.
Otherwise, my biggest complaint about Modern Warfare 2 applies to this installment as well. That is to say, I found it extremely difficult to get attached to the characters, and the problem is even worse this time around. As bad as the sophomore chapter of the trilogy was when it came to unceremoniously killing off members of the main cast, the narrative at least remembered to give each playable character an airtight conclusion to their arcs. Here, it’s not uncommon for viewpoint characters to disappear once their level is finished. The most jarring example was how the American soldier you play as for several missions throughout the game, Derek “Frost” Westbrook, vanishes from the storyline with no explanation whatsoever while his squadmates show up to aid the former members of Task Force 141 in rescuing two VIPs. Even if they’re silent protagonists, abandoning major characters is not the mark of good storytelling by anyone’s standards.
So this game had several strikes against it… and then I finished it. The story of Modern Warfare 3 doesn’t really end as much as it comes to a screeching halt. Much of the game revolves around rescuing the president of Russia, Boris Vorshevsky, and his daughter, Alena, from the Ultranationalists. He was captured to prevent him from negotiating a peace treaty with the West, and to gain his nuclear launch codes. While both Vorshevsky and his daughter are saved, the narrative resolves the global war, which spanned two games, with a single cutscene before the final mission. Considering how doubtful it is that the Ultranationalists simply packed up their bags and left in the face of this development, the lack of a follow-up felt cheap and lazy. It would be like ending a non-fictional account of the Second World War with the surrender of the Axis powers, glossing over the repercussions brought on by the conflict.
Drawing a Conclusion
Some have suggested that it’s reductive to judge a Call of Duty game based on its single-player campaign because competing against others online is what the series is truly about. This is true to some degree and the fact that each entry in the Modern Warfare trilogy sold more than the last suggests most fans weren’t interested in following an ongoing plot. However, it’s a weak argument that doesn’t hold up to scrutiny, for it implies the series is somehow above criticism despite its tepid quality. Plus, it’s almost enough to make one wonder why they would even bother releasing new installments when they could just have one dedicated multiplayer game and periodically update it with new maps and downloadable content. The answer to this quandary is simple: by making something slightly different that’s functionally exactly the same, the publishers can print money with minimal amounts of effort.
After a certain point, they’re less individual games and more of an operating system you have to constantly replace, which is accomplished by purchasing the next installment, in order to keep up with everyone else you play against online. In practice, it’s a shortsighted strategy. In the event that the servers are permanently shut down for any reason, you’re left with a game without substance. It’s because of this mass production mentality which drove the Call of Duty series after the fourth numbered installment that I liken it to someone playing darts while standing a meter away from the board. Sure, they’ll hit a bullseye almost every time, but nobody is going to be impressed.
As difficult as it is to believe these days, the Call of Duty franchise was regarded as a sacred cow for most of the 2000s as it was widely seen as a fresh alternative to the nearly inescapable Halo – even being praised for having a more intelligent take on the genre. Needless to say, that status has since been revoked, and the series has deservedly been lambasted by critics and knowledgeable game enthusiasts for being nothing more than shallow, unambitious power fantasies which only serve to validate the viewpoints of the community’s more jingoistic members. I think where I ultimately stand when it comes to Modern Warfare 3, and to a lesser extent, its direct predecessor, is that it feels like the plot was conceived by a conspiracy theorist who honestly and fervently believes their own government is out to get them. It’s a mentality comparable to early twentieth century European invasion literature – a genre that fell out of favor after the First World War.
This brings us to the final important question: do I recommend playing this game? Online multiplayer aside, I think the only way you could derive any enjoyment from this game is if you are a fan of Modern Warfare 2 and desperately want to see how the plot resolves. For everyone else, there’s absolutely no reason to play anything beyond Call of Duty 4; it provides a succinct, standalone experience that ends on a reasonably good note. Sure, it’s tragic, but it only serves to underscore the pointlessness of war. By contrast, the other two entries in the Modern Warfare trilogy only served to underscore the pointlessness of token sequels.
Final Score: 3/10