Playing a Modern Warfare game is a lot like running down a corridor. It’s a very exciting and pretty corridor, with lots of men springing out of broom cupboards to shoot at you, but it is a mercilessly linear experience. You are guided by the hand throughout like a toddler tentatively taking his first steps, and any attempt to deviate from the ordained path is met with swift punishment.
There is a moment in the international murder festival Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 when the curiously-monikered SAS death machine Soap McTavish says to you, “Move when I move, do exactly what I tell you,” and the words sound like they’re coming from the developers’ mouths – the order to FOLLOW is the most-issued command in the entire game. I spent half my time running ahead of my teammates to explore, and having to wait for them to catch up with me because I needed them to open a door for me and unlock the next part of the rollercoaster. The time I spent waiting was a penalty the game issued me for not playing the game at the exact pace set by Infinity Ward.
I honestly couldn’t tell if this screenshot was from MW3 or BF3, and then I remember there’d be no difference.
The pulse-pounding set pieces have always been Modern Warfare’s bread and butter, but at this point in the series the developers increasingly forget to let you actually take part in them. During half of the ZOMGAMAZEBALLS set pieces in Modern Warfare 3 you can pretty much put the controller down and take a break. Set-pieces are supposed to be more guided sections of a game, but by now you’re shepherded through the game so meticulously that I wonder why the developers even bothered to give you a controller. When everything in the game yells at you to follow me follow me follow me follow me now go there do this follow me, you realise there’s no agency involved in playing, you’re a bit of a puppet.
I wasn’t even convinced that Soap and his elegantly moustachioed compatriot Captain Price were people I should be tagging along with in the first place. Throughout Modern Warfare 3’s globetrotting campaign you see these guys perpetrate many acts of casual nihilism throughout the game, like forcing you to wait for a group of rebels to execute an innocent civilian so you can slip by undetected. In a level where you tag along with a group of freedom fighters battling during an uprising, the three of you run away like little girls every time things get a bit hairy, ducking away into corridors to avoid the firefight whilst large groups of your resistance comrades stay to take a tank shell upside the face. That same level sees you crouching down and playing dead while an APC chases rebels past you. I get that the whole saving-the-world thing is a pretty pressing concern, but seriously, these guys are cold.
Yet always wearing fetching headgear.
The story picks up exactly where Modern Warfare 2 ended, and the Russians are waging war on pretty much the entire planet. You split your time between a Delta Force grunt called Frost, battling Russian invaders in a host of European cities, and Yuri, a recent recruit to Soap and Price’s vengeance mission against the architect of the carnage. With your new BFFs, you fly in to warzones the world over in search of the terrorist leader Makarov.
Except you do a lot of searching and very little finding because I’m telling you, Makarov is like Keyser Soze. The guy is a ghost. So many times in the game you start a mission and your objective is to get Makarov, and so many times you get to the end of the level to be told Makarov has vanished. Like that, and he’s gone. This becomes a bit of a running theme throughout the game, where you constantly bust into rooms that are supposed to have Makarov in them and he just. Isn’t. There. I’ve ranted before about how beating a level but failing the objective makes for a somewhat dissatisfying experience, and the amount of times you shoot every living thing within a four mile radius only to be told Makarov’s gone to the shops or something leaves a bitter taste in the mouth. The most infuriating example of this is the level where you have to rescue the Russian president’s daughter in battle-ravaged Berlin, and you burst into the room to save her at the exact moment she’s carried away by an enemy helicopter. Her face stared out of the open helicopter door at me expectantly (seriously, they need to start shutting helicopter doors in this series), but this was cut short by me burying my Xbox controller in the television.
Visual metaphor theatre: What it’s like to beat a level in Modern Warfare 3.
But let’s be honest with ourselves, the single-player campaign is mere window dressing for the multiplayer, and we all know it. The reason the Modern Warfare games make a billion dollars every time a new one comes out is because of the furiously addictive online deathmatches that devour free time like a collapsing star. That’s fair enough, and it’s nice to see the welcome return of the satisfyingly intense Spec Ops challenges, as well as some new arrivals in the form of a robust horde mode. The mystery is, why put so much effort into making an all-singing, all-dancing, all-exploding single player campaign if the only real draw is the multiplayer? Why hire Seth Bullock and Stringer Bell to voice your main characters? If it’s all about the co-op, then they should have just abandoned the solo element and put in some more maps. No one would be missing much.