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Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 (Xbox 360) artwork

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 (Xbox 360) review

"This final chapter in the trilogy provides what is unquestionably the purest adrenaline rush that the series has yet seen. Iím left imagining someone on the development team turning a giant crank until it rests at Ď11í and then just leaving it there. Explosions are huge. Planes crash. Buildings collapse. There are moments that feel like they were torn out of the previous games, except here the ante has been upped."

Here in the real world, war carries a terrible price tag. The soldiers who battle for our freedom put their own lives on hold, endure torturous conditions and all too often make the ultimate sacrifice as they protect ideals that are bigger than any of us.

As I played through the single-player campaign in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3, it occurred to me that no game has a real chance of bringing home the true tragedy of war. Most gamers probably wouldnít want that, anyway. As we virtually unload enough bullets to flood a landfill, our tendency is to forget that there are real men and women in uniform who engage in these activities without the comfort of illusion. Those brave soldiers donít have checkpoints to fall back on if they make a mistake, just loved ones who will mourn their passing if the worst happens.

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Modern Warfare 3 deserves credit, I suppose, for making me think so much about the true cost of war (such thoughts certainly werenít on my mind ahead of time), but Iím reluctant to call it a resounding success because Iím fairly certain that my personal response wasnít the one the developers had in mind.

When Call of Duty: Modern Warfare released as the fourth in an already fantastic series, it immediately captured my imagination. I enjoyed placing myself in the shoes of the various soldiers as they blasted, sniped, ran and crawled through a variety of impressive set pieces. The technical polish on display was astounding, but even more impressive to me was the emotional connection that I established with the characters and the story. That connection that carried me through what I soon realized was the finest military shooter that I had ever played. However briefly, the game made me think about war in ways that I never had before.

When the sequel arrived in 2009, it gave me new reasons to feel invested in the outcome of the fictional third world war. As I marched through the tragic remains of a suburb in Anywhere, USA and later struggled through a shell-shocked District of Columbia, I was horrified by what I saw but thrilled by the role I played in the effort to set things right. Betrayals meant something to me. My failures mattered. I was a part of something huge and I loved that feeling.

As I worked through Modern Warfare 3, though, I simply felt tired.

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You may have heard by now that Modern Warfare 3 picks up immediately where its immediate predecessor ended so memorably. Thatís true. If you havenít played through that previous game, youíre going miss some important references and you wonít have the strong connection with the principle characters. There are flashbacks to remind you where the story left off, but mostly you just see a guy in a uniform falling to the ground with a knife in his forehead. Unless you remember the events that came previously, it feels random and is never properly explained. Then, without so much as a pause to complete a dull tutorial stages (not that Iím complaining), youíll immediately find yourself battling through a near-future version of New York as explosions rock buildings around you and helicopters swarm roofs lined by snipers.

Modern Warfare 3 is full of such intense moments. This final chapter in the trilogy provides what is unquestionably the purest adrenaline rush that the series has yet seen. Iím left imagining someone on the development team turning a giant crank until it rests at Ď11í and then just leaving it there. Explosions are huge. Planes crash. Buildings collapse. There are moments that feel like they were torn out of the previous games, except here the ante has been upped. You donít just wander along aisles on a huge plane, gunning down terrorists the way you did in the first game; youówell, I donít want to spoil anything. This is a game that delivers value in the form of shocks to the system.

The unrelenting chaos wears on a person after a while, though. As the body count continued to rise and eventually those among the dead included comrades that the writers had bothered to give actual names, I began to feel that I myself had also become a victim. I stopped caring what happened because I no longer felt a connection with any of it. The explosions blurred together and became background noise. Dazed, I stumbled through one disaster after another. My critical side marveled at the visual polish, the technical wizardry that made such unrelenting madness possible, gave each explosion actual impact. I was no longer a participant, though, just a mindless drone.

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Fortunately, Call of Duty games donít rely solely on their single-player campaigns. Thereís an abundant supply of other content, including Special Ops missionsówhich are never really my thing, but they certainly add hours of value for those who dig the extra challengeóand the tough-to-top multiplayer offerings. Iíve sunk dozens of hours into those same modes in previous Modern Warfare titles and (schedule permitting) Iíll still be playing this third installment months from now.

If youíve invested much time in previous Modern Warfare titles, you already know almost exactly what to expect. Thereís an assortment of spectacular maps that all feel like they must have taken forever to design. Building placement is a thing of true beauty. Every structure seems to have been considered so that you have multiple ways to approach nearly any point youíd care to reach. If you just sit back sometime and watch players fan out after a match begins, itís a bit like watching ants attack a pile of food left on a sidewalk. Standing around to admire things isnít really recommended, however; itís a good way to get shot.

Perhaps inevitably, Modern Warfare 3 is downright nasty to players who donít bring their best game to each match. Until you memorize a particular map, youíll routinely find yourself being flanked on all sides, gunned down before you even have time to think about where you can best find shelter. Multiple routes may lead to each key point on a map, but some of those routes offer more protection than others and no one on the other team is going to think twice about gunning you down if you donít put any available shelter to its best possible use. Unless youíre playing along with friends (the best way to experience the game, hands down), you donít have a snowballís chance in hell until you invest some serious time. This is a game where the difference between life and death is routinely a 20th of a second in reaction time.

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The good news is that you donít have to overcome such obstacles alone, even if none of your friends are anxious to play (an unlikely prospect, that). With a Call of Duty Elite membership, which is available in both free and paid versions, you gain access to a ridiculous range of stats that let you know where youíre dying, who is killing you andóby extensionówhat you might change about the way you play in order to slowly climb your way up the rankings. People who pay the annual fee (or who picked up the Hardened edition, which comes with a free code) can also look forward to additional clan features, a series of nine downloadable map packs and exclusive competitions and prizes. Call of Duty can easily wind up taking over your free time for the next year, if you let it, and the Elite service adds genuine value on top of that.

With or without the extra investment, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 boasts enough content that no concise review can ever do justice to everything. Even before you see the massive wall of names in the closing credits, youíll be able to tell that this product was the labor of a virtual army of talented individuals. Few games have ever provided this much value to justify your $60 investment, yet itís hard at times to escape the feeling that the creative spark that once lit the fuse has been snuffed out and now weíre just left with the bombastic explosions. As a result, the trilogyís epic conclusion is basically everything you expected but with more spectacle and less heart. Clearly, fictional war comes with a price tag of its own.

honestgamer's avatar
Staff review by Jason Venter (November 11, 2011)

Jason Venter has been playing games for 30 years, since discovering the Apple IIe version of Mario Bros. in his elementary school days. Now he writes about them, here at HonestGamers and also at other sites that agree to pay him for his words.

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Masters posted November 13, 2011:

Nicely done. Pretty much sums up my feelings on the game, though I'd probably be even less kind.
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honestgamer posted November 13, 2011:

Thanks, Marc! I guess I'm just a kind person. I enjoy playing the game a great deal, by the way, but the franchise's best days are behind it now. Explosions can only get so big and so loud before there's nowhere left to go and we've reached that saturation point. If Call of Duty is going to remain relevant and continue to push the genre, it's going to have to do so in new ways.

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