Eyes and Hands-on / Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3

November’s a few months out. To gamers, that means that the start of a mad rush of AAA titles meant to vie for your holiday dollars is a few months out, and that it officially begins with the inevitable launch of a new title in the insanely profitable Call of Duty series. Ever proud of this fact, Activision likes to make damn sure everyone’s aware that their cash cow is a-coming. What better place to really do this than E3, right? And so it went that they showed off not only parts of two single-player missions, but also a chance at hands-on time with the game’s Spec Ops survival mode.

We started with the live demo of the single-player missions, introduced to us with a little plot synopsis that was basically, skipping all the details, World War 3. The first mission we saw was exactly what they showed at Microsoft’s press conference. The submarine mission where a small team manages to immobilize a Russian submarine, break in, reroute where some nuclear missiles are launched, and then escape on an epic boat chase that swerves about the ocean and between huge battle ships pelted by huge missiles. “Seen this already” certainly crossed my mind, but watching it live, up close, and in the series signature 60 frames a second is just dazzling.

The second mission, called “Mind the Gap” had a British SAS team, the same one from the early boat mission in the first Modern Warfare, breaking into an enemy facility of some kind or another. Honestly, this one was a bit drab at first. It was a little too familiar. Run from skirmish to skirmish, hear squad mates shout where tangos are, and shoot ever-spawning terrorists until you reach a checkpoint that makes all said squad mates start moving again. So it went from outdoor enemy facility-looking space to indoor dimly-lit enemy facility looking space. At some point, and I couldn’t give you the logic, the level then made its way to a subway, where a truck was fortunately placed, because the terrorists on the run happened into a train. So our guide hops on the truck, and they drive that sucker right onto the rails in a high speed chase with a subway train. Set aside how patently ridiculous this is, because it looked extremely cool, especially when the train derailed.

The scripted events just look too good. For how old this graphics engine is (originally based on id Software’s Quake 3 graphics engine), Infinity Ward and Sledgehammer Games have gotten a LOT of mileage out of it, and manage to still give it a look of relevance amid top of the line Gears and Rage. On that alone, the team(s) deserve some major praise.

On gameplay, epic setpieces and awesome destruction aside, this is Call of Duty through and through. Non-fans will continue to hate the series, and fans will be happy with more of what they love on a grander scale. Neither side is wrong, either. This kind of campaign has pretty much zero replayability, but it can still be a damn fun ride.

Once the ride ends, the idea is that you go on to multiplayer or the heavily revamped Spec Ops mode. As mentioned before, Spec Ops will now sport its own persistent online character that gains experience and unlocks perks and equipment, have matchmaking, and the new Survival mode, which was on hand for trying out.

Survival mode was pretty much right up my alley. I’m always a sucker for the Horde Modes of the world. Standing with some friends against swarms of enemy AI and holding out for as long as possible until the odds are just too great… it’s tough to beat the communal “Aww!” you will inevitably shout, followed instantly by “ok we can do this, let’s start again.” Spec Ops Survival Mode looks to keep that joy alive in the Call of Duty world, and of course won’t go without throwing in its own twists. First off, the bad news: the two-player limit is still there. So basically I, and I’d wager many others, will have to find one friend at a time instead of the common four-man teams we’ve become used to in Gears and Halo. But jump that little emotional hurdle (let the rejected friends down easy), it’s a pretty fun experience.

Me and my demonstrating teammate were dropped in a desolate little space that seemed reminiscent of the airplane graveyard in Modern Warfare 2, though I was informed that a lot of assets have not been implemented, and that a lot could change. We began with pistols, where our first wave of enemies had shotguns. They were easily dispatched, and then we had shotguns with little ammo. It wasn’t long before I discovered the revival ability we both have when a car I was covering behind blew up. My team mate ran over and managed to get me back on my feet.

This carried on a few rounds, and all the while I noticed little “+100” signs popping up as if scoring kills in multiplayer. These indicated, yes, the persistent character’s gaining experience, but also the increased currency you earn as you rack up kills. This currency can then be spent at terminals within the level that can afford you new weapons and equipment, so it works a bit differently from regular multiplayer in that what you gain will last you for that one battle only. Once the game ends, you start at zero again. You can also get XP bonuses for killstreaks, so if you score five kills without taking a single hit, you’ll get a bonus 500 points. Do it again, and it becomes 1000 points, and the next five nets you 1500, etc. Naturally, this gets harder and harder to achieve as you move on.

So we bought ourselves some ACR machine guns (ho ho ho!). This definitely helped, especially because these troops were a little tougher to take down than expected. The timing was also great, as they started to blow up after dying from bombs strapped to their chest. Then came attack dogs and then even they had bombs that went off shortly after dying. Then we faced a couple helicopters, and after we took them down with surprising ease (it’s all about distraction), it was only a couple rounds before we were both taken down. We made it to about round 8, and the farthest they’d seen someone go was 14, and they weren’t able to answer if there’s even an end to them.

It’s good! It really is! The ability to buy equipment reminded me a bit of zombie mode from the Treyarch CoDs, but with the fast frenetic action of real infantry and attack dogs. It’s clear that the mode is heavily tweaked for two-player action where you have to heavily rely on each other, but I can’t shake how much I’ll miss the four-player madness of Horde or Firefight modes.

Overall, it’s more Call of Duty, and I’m ok with that for the most part. As I watched the more drowsy section of the “Mind the Gap” mission, I did find myself wondering if this would be the one that would finally make me sick of the series. I know that’s already happened with a lot of people, but the fact is I’ve enjoyed the simple thrill rides they’re known for, and few do it as well as they do (see Homefront). Throw in a fun and revised Spec Ops mode, and the first few months on multiplayer before the main inhabitants are late teens aspiring to join the MLG, and it looks like another package that will launch the holiday game rush in style.