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Love-hate: the Modern Warfare 3 dilemma
by Chris Hawke

Released to critical acclaim in 2007, the original Modern Warfare both redefined the first-person shooter genre, and catapulted its developers to the forefront of industry attention. Almost five years on, however, Chris Hawke explores the difficult dilemma prompted by Activision's cash cow.

I still struggle to remember why I knew almost nothing about Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. Almost five years ago, I'd read some previews and seen a bit of gameplay, all the trappings and trimmings of a game that just sits in the corner of your eye; you know it's there, but you're not too fussed. In reality, I was hugely unprepared for what hit me in 2007.

Modern Warfare was brilliant. It was hands-down, balls-to-the-wall stunning. It tore the competition apart with realistic, next-gen graphics, a fresh setting, and horrifically brutal gameplay. In a world filled with tired, old Second World War shooters, and clunky sci-fi romps, Modern Warfare boldly strode out onto the playing field and slapped the gaping, wide-eyed industry around the face, proclaiming "This? This is how you make a videogame."

I'm writing this on the 21st June, 2011. I'm watching the E3 demonstration of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3. And I don't know what to think.

The Call of Duty series has been in a rather odd decline, at least from my personal perspective. Yes, sales are continually rising uncontrollably, breaking records with the carelessness of a toddler and his toys. Yes, the franchise has more media coverage than anything that had ever gone before it. Yes, it boasts an ever-growing userbase, and has propelled the franchise's two developers - Infinity Ward and Treyarch - into stardom. Yet, whilst a casual onlooker may only glance the surface, storms rage beneath; they may not notice the corporate turmoil as splinter group Respawn broke away in a messy lawsuit, might not have seen the furious mobs' boycotting and badmouthing, and may not get a whiff of the general feeling - amongst those serious about their games - that the magic has slipped away from Activision's baby, like falling sand from Bobby Kotick's clammy hands. Battlefield is enjoying unparalleled reverence left, right and centre, whilst Call of Duty Elite was announced to tepid applause and scathing stares.

The series finds itself with older legs and faster competition.

But how did it come to this?

One commonly cited criticism is the stumbling plotlines. Call Of Duty: Modern Warfare had a rounded, interesting and lovable cast, complete with HOORAH-yelling Marines and quiet, reflective British SAS stormtroopers. It allowed greater scope for a wide variety of characterisation, a concept disgustingly overlooked even now in many shooters. To actually care about a video game character in a first-person shooter - to the extent that the discussion surrounding whether or not Price was dead, and 'that' moment when you succumbed to nuclear radiation, raged for weeks afterwards - was novel; you actually cared for who you fought with and what you fought for. The implications of that on the quiet, grounded and scalpel-sharp story were huge.

Here's a quick recap of its sequel, Modern Warfare 2: BANG, BANG, NO NO, NOT THE CHILDREN, THUD THUD THUD BAM HOORAH KA-BOOOOOM. Or, at least, that's all I could glean. Garish explosions replaced understated floodlights, heavy metal overpowered the once-terrifying echoes of gunfire, and the whole thing was just big and loud and stupid and dumb. Compared to the deftness of the original, with its relatable characters and clever twists, Modern Warfare 2 felt contrived, messy, and incomprehensible. It covered precisely the same ground and the same characters - only, this time, with more swears! - and essentially the same twists, but with a nasty gasoline-meets-match focus and very little development. It could still take you on somewhat of an engrossing journey, and there are some lovely touches when developing the theme of personal sacrifice, but the whole thing just paled in comparison to its older brother.

Competition has also been a major element in the growing distaste for the Call of Duty name. We waited with baited breath for Medal of Honor's return, wanting it to grab the top spot once more, but it could only manage to get a fleeting finger on the prize. Homefront was touted as a possible Call of Duty killer, but the less said about that, the better. If you give an audience the same thing for 4 years, they're going to get bored. People scream out for new stories and new experiences, and after so many failed attempts at delivering that, it's natural that fans become more and more disillusioned. Battlefield 3 seems to be the new centre of attention, and every feature it has that Call of Duty doesn't have (regardless of how minor or unimportant) is touted as another small victory in the war against the Call of Duty name.

These factors are important. The rivals, the ridiculousness; it all chips away at the once-proud, Ozymandian series. But there's one comment that you keep seeing again and again, over and over, which perfectly sums up the reason for this backlash against the beauty that became the beast:

"It looks like the other Call of Duties".

Correct, it does. And it isn't for lack of trying, either. Now you're in England, Germany, even France; there are new guns and new features, new levels and new characters. There are pretty hefty improvements and additions to Modern Warfare 3, so it isn't quite correct to claim that each new game is merely its predecessor "with some new maps". Instead, that effect - of each game seeming the same as the last, and the one before that - is created through one key, tragic flaw: the IW Engine.

"It would be counter-productive to create a new engine from scratch", Infinity Ward claim. Utter bollocks. The engine is the very heart, the core, the beating heart and pulsating soul of the Call of Duty series that once dazzled, but now reeks of dirt and guilt and rust, struggling to keep the game standing on its ever-weakening legs. The engine has aged, and it hasn't aged well. Sure, the actual graphics could stand up to other games in 2011, but that isn't the point. I've played every Call Of Duty multiplayer since 2007, all the single player stories countless times, achieved 100% completion on Spec Ops: I know the games, and I know them well. And thus, even before I've played Modern Warfare 3, I know exactly how it will feel and play.

I know the bodies of enemies will drop to the floor a bit too fast, and won't have enough physics for my liking. I know that it'll take two bullets too many to kill a man. I know that, if I camp in a corner and don't cross an invisible 'line', no more enemies will find me. Even in the E3 demo, I knew how it would feel to control the boat, how long it takes to aim my weapon and reload, and that the only blood splatter will still, disappointingly, come from a headshot. I know pretty much every detail - the good, the bad and the ugly - months before release.

It's beyond stupid: it's depressing.

But, even as I survey Modern Warfare 3, shaking my head and tutting, I can't help but think: y'know what? That's quite good. Setting it in four entirely different locations? That's pretty neat. Sneaking into a nuclear submarine, hijacking the missiles, and then belting away as Manhattan burns? Yep, that's kinda cool. It's a bit redundant to compare every facet of Battlefield and Call of Duty to one another, but whilst EA had a slow E3 demo in which (let's face it) a few tanks had a skirmish, Modern Warfare 3 was a thirteen-year-old's wet dream. Is that what we want from a first-person shooter nowadays? Possibly not, but the fact that it realises its situations so well is honestly awe-inspiring: everything is blown to bits or on fire or dead. It may be childish and unrealistic, but Infinity Ward take the task of setting out a Third World War scenario, and do a bloody admirable job of it.

And that is the dilemma. Modern Warfare 3 is predictable, outdated and stale. But, despite that, it has a raffish charm, like the kid who's muddy, dirty, annoying and loud, but you can't help but admire a little bit. The key question, when it comes down to it, is whether or not you purchase a game you've essentially played for years now, with only some nice little additions in way of development. Or, is this the final nail in the coffin?

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- Chris Hawke

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