By Darren Franich
Updated November 11, 2011 at 11:20 PM EST

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. That’s the general aesthetic strategy behind the multiplayer system in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3, which feels essentially identical to the multiplayer system in Modern Warfare 2. Yes, there’s a new coat of paint, and I’m sure that a hardcore CoD nut could point to a million granular improvements. Here’s what I noticed after several hours of gameplay: There’s still a big map in a brokedown city, and a small map with a climbing structure, and a medium-sized map with a bunch of corridors. The available weapons are still incredibly realistic, accurately acronymic, and relentlessly dull. The Killstreak has been redefined into a “Pointstreak,” which allows you to earn rewards by doing more than just killing people. If you’re an expert, the new system adds a Sabermetric-ish depth to the gameplay: Assists are worth something! If you’re an average/mediocre player like me, then the Pointstreak just enhances the sensation that literally everything you do in Call of Duty earns you some kind of reward. It reminds me of playing Little League Baseball: Even if our team never won a single game, we still got a trophy for participation.

Here’s something else that hasn’t changed in Modern Warfare 3‘s multiplayer: It’s still shockingly addictive. I haven’t been a first-person-shooter nut in a long time. (Specifically, not since my freshman year of college, when — in the days before XBox Live — we’d use the dorm ethernet to have 16-player Halo deathmatches. At my height, I think I was the fourth-best player in the dorm.) But I can play Call of Duty for hours. It’s such a pristine, smooth experience, and the constant rewarding — You won a new Callsign! You’ve shot twenty people in the leg with an UMP45! — feeds into a genuine sense of accomplishment: You can feel yourself improving every time you play the game.

You could criticize the CoD franchise for playing it safe. Certainly, the more strategy-oriented Battlefield 3 offers a valuable counter-example of what a military shooter multiplayer could look like: Brainier, more strategic, more team-oriented. But there’s a reason why Battlefield 3 sold pretty well and Modern Warfare 3 set the franchise’s latest record for Biggest First Day Sales in the Recorded History of Pop Culture Things. There’s a pleasant simplicity and straightforwardness to the CoD multiplayer that allows casual and hardcore fans to play in the same sandbox. Coupled with the recent creation of the Call of Duty Elite service, Modern Warfare 3 feels like another step towards the ultimate singularity point, when Call of Duty will stop being a product you buy each year and will start to be a multimedia platform. In a funny way, playing the Modern Warfare 3 multiplayer feels a little bit like walking through an Apple Store, or spending a couple hours toodling around Facebook: Comfortable, repetitive, inarguably pleasant.

Here’s the funny thing: Everything I’m saying about the Modern Warfare 3 multiplayer system has absolutely nothing to do with the Modern Warfare 3 campaign, which is completely bananagrams insane. It only took me around seven hours to complete the campaign, which sounds ridiculously short — in a Zelda game, “seven hours” is about the point when you finally find the Hookshot and the game seriously gets started. But there is a dizzying array of spectacle packed into those seven hours

The game kicks off in a Manhattan that is under siege by attacking Russian forces, and from there you spin around on a James Bond-worthy world tour, though invaded European metropolises, sun-soaked African villages, a remote mountain castle, the freaking catacombs of Paris. The plot reads like a Tom Clancy novel, or like three seasons of 24 stacked on top of each other: There are disavowed badasses, and a semi-Satanic villain, and that old espionage-tale favorite, “The President’s kidnapped angelic daughter.” The game moves along quickly, with lots of variation. You’re constantly hopping into helicopters to man the chaingun, or rappelling down the sides of buildings. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that every single vehicle you ride in in Modern Warfare 3 will crash. Heck, every single freaking surface you walk on will eventually explode right out from under you.

Sound fun? It is. Kind of. But it’s also one of the most infuriating game experiences I’ve had in years.

NEXT: A Marxist theory of Call of Duty.

Modern Warfare 3 is the story of Captain John Price. As voiced by British actor Billy Murray, Price is an enjoyable, eccentric videogame badass. Middle-aged, with the gruff self-possession of a lifelong soldier who also had to survive half a decade in a Russian gulag, Price is the sort of dude who, upon being told that the U.S. government wants to kill him, says: “Tell them to join the queue.” Price spends Modern Warfare 3 pursuing series Big Bad Vladimir Makarov, and I think it’s fair to say that every single move Price makes in the game is awesome. At one point, he knocks on a door, waits for it to open a crack, then lunges in, sticks his knife in one guy’s neck and shoots another guy from across the room. This is how Captain John Price tells a knock-knock joke. By all rights, Price should be one of the most fun videogame protagonists in history.

Here’s the problem, though: You don’t play as Captain John Price. Instead, you play as Yuri, a helpful Russian guy who joins Price’s task force. For most of the game, you’re following Price and his sidekick “Soap” MacTavish (Rome‘s Kevin McKidd, crushing every syllable out of the park). Until very late in the game, all the major story points involve those two characters — you’re just left to watch them play out their little dramas. Now, there’s nothing wrong with playing as a personality vacuum — just look at Half-Life, or Portal. But in those games, you’re still the engine of the plot and the gameplay. In Modern Warfare 3, you’re just being led around by much cooler characters. If you happen to move too slowly, they’ll even start yelling at you. “Come on, Yuri!” “Yuri, where the hell are you?” Late in the game, there’s a moment in a mission when Price tells you: “You move where I move and do as I do, understand?” At times like that, Modern Warfare 3 feels like a tutorial that never ends. Which is a kind way of saying that this is basically Action-Adventure Games for Dummies.

This sensation — the feeling that you are somehow the least important person in the videogame — also manifests itself in the other main plot of Modern Warfare 3, where you play a soldier named Frost. You’re a member of Delta Force, playing alongside characters with awesome names like Cowboy and Grinch played by awesome actors like William Fichtner and Timothy Olyphant. What this means functionally is that, if you ever take a second to marvel at the world around you — at the glorious devastation of Paris, or at the horrific vision of a bombed-out Manhattan — Fichtner will yell at you, “Frost, come on, we’ve got to get into the sewers!”

What makes things even worse is that your squadmates — despite what we can only assume is years of military training — are all horrible shots, which means you have to kill pretty much every bad guy yourself. After awhile, I began to compose a Marxist theory of Call of Duty. You, the player, are the proletariat. You do all the hard work. You shoot the bad guys. You breach the doors. You’re the only one who ever gets killed. And yet, you reap none of the rewards: You’re just carrying along the elite characters from one plot point to the next.*

Still, Modern Warfare 3 has one big thing going for it: The sheer epic scope of the world is incredible. There are planes, trains, automobiles, submarines. You can see paratroopers up in the sky. You see corpses floating in the river. I recognized some of the streets in Berlin. Because MW3 moves along so quickly, you will never be bored, and the designers are smart enough to create a couple dozen genuine “Holy F—!” moments that are scattered throughout the game. Remember what I was saying earlier, about every single surface you walk on exploding? It should get repetitive, but it doesn’t. Actually, the levels in the MW3 campaign feel like the exact polar opposite of the maps in the multiplayer: Where the latter are simple, straightforward, and essentially static, the former are constantly shifting. (It makes me think that there’s a much better version of the MW3 multiplayer where buildings are constantly falling and elevators are exploding. I would suggest that, but I’ve never made videogame that made $400 million in 24 hours, so who am I?)

NEXT: Is Modern Warfare 3 secretly a third-person game?

In a weird way, Modern Warfare 3 reminds me of another recent videogame threequel: The masterful Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception, another globetrotting adventure that constantly forces you to run through levels that are literally collapsing all around you. The problem is that, since MW3 is a first-person game, the game lacks Uncharted‘s cinematic aesthetic. Even as you’re speedily hopping across the Cartagena rooftops in Uncharted, your godlike perspective still allows you to enjoy the distant sunset and the wind through the palm trees. In MW3, even when the absolute coolest thing possible is happening in front of you, you never feel like you’re seeing it from the proper perspective. The game feels like a great third-person adventure game pretending to be a first-person shooter.

And yet… for all the flaws of the campaign mode, there is something incredibly vital about it. I’m not sure any blockbuster movie this year can come up with a better sequence then the moment, early in the game, when you have to battle your way across the trading floor of the New York Stock Exchange. The Call of Duty franchise has a reputation in the media for gritty realism, but moments like that remind you that the series has a little-remarked-upon satirical edge. (At the end of the Stock Exchange level, I earned an XBox Live Achievement: “Too Big To Fail.” Ha!) There’s nothing in MW3 that’s remotely as shocking as the airport level in MW2, but there is a moment that will please fans of classic John Carpenter.

In the end, the MW3 campaign feels undernourished but fascinating: There is a germ of something great here, if Activision ever decides to really turn the single-player storyline into a genuine videogame instead of just a Hollywood star-studded affectation. (The game was co-written by Paul Freaking Haggis. Good god, but the videogame industry has money coming out of its ears.)

By comparison, the MW3 multiplayer feels comfortable but unsurprising. You’re left with the impression that, gameplay-wise, there may not be any evolutionary leaps left in the Call of Duty franchise. Maybe there don’t have to be. Maybe Call of Duty has reached the pinnacle of whatever it’s trying to be. Maybe, like the Great White Shark, it doesn’t need to evolve anymore. Have Great White Sharks ever made beautiful artwork? No. But when the great art of our species has dissolved into dust, Great White Sharks will probably still be haunting the oceans of our ruined planet. When you play Modern Warfare 3, you get the sense that you’re playing the first post-videogame videogame.

Campaign Grade: B-

Multiplayer Grade: B+

Cumulative Grade: B

*SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER: In the final level of the game, you actually do get to play as Captain Price. Perhaps unsurprisingly, everything about that level is vastly more enjoyable than the rest of the game. It’s the first time you get to experience the Price/Makarov enmity from the inside, and it makes the game’s closing moments feel vivid, horrifying, and darkly funny. I know you might think all this talk about “character” is abstract and silly, but it’s not. Character matters. There’s a reason Metal Gear Solid 1 was more fun than the more expansive and more technically advanced Metal Gear Solid 2, and that reason is Raiden.

Follow Darren on Twitter: @EWDarrenFranich

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