TPG Second Look: Modern Warfare 3 PC Review

By: George Weidman

“How does it feel to suck so bad? How does it feel?”

These were some of the first words I heard upon starting up Modern Warfare 3. I heard them again and again.

“All of you suck. You’re bad. You’re all bad. How does it feel?”

He didn’t sound particularly energetic or boastful. In fact his voice was pretty flat, with a kind of drawling tedium to his trash talk that sounded deliberately monotone. He wanted to be stating a fact. He didn’t just want us to feel worse than him. He wanted to know that we were worse than him.

War for the Digital Age

Each year, Activision transforms war into a picture-perfect online bloodsport straight out of cyberpunk fiction. There’s an absolutely minuscule little single-player campaign tacked on to these games, but let’s face it: the single-player alone isn’t what sells gazillions of copies of every Call of Duty game. But despite their infamously short longevity, there’s nothing objectively “bad” about their single-player modes. In fact, quite the opposite is true. Infinity Ward’s games are whisky-smooth in their presentation, with the kind of meticulous polish and bombastic spectacle that only a decade of blockbusters of this magnitude can muster. Modern Warfare 3 is no exception. The whole thing is squeaky clean: you can feel the hundreds of hours of playtesting and programming labor that make it play so smooth. There isn’t one bug, glitch, or awkward-looking animation in sight. Mouse movement is captured perfectly, there are no unskippable company logos, and environments are filled with a dizzying amount of little details. The big elephant in the room is that these games treat their audience as viewers instead of players. The whole thing is an excessively linear and scripted corridor crawl, with no freedom for the player to venture off the path that is so delicately planned for them. Mechanically, this is reflected by the laser-accurate and overpowered guns, the ever-present floating waypoint markers, and the tendency for you to be following someone more important than you.

Superiority Complex

That’s the thing about these Call of Duty games, someone’s always more important than you. Online, a more experienced player is generally out-scoring you. Offline, you’re generally looking at some other soldier’s backside. Either way, you’re being forcefully arranged into some kind of pecking order of superiority. But if a game’s over-arching narrative is well-directed, energetic and daring enough to make following other people exciting, it can actually work (Metro 2033 and the previous Modern Warfare readily spring to mind as examples.) Unfortunately, Modern Warfare 3’s campaign just barely misses the mark. No moments compare to participating in that infamous airport massacre, or scouting around the city after an EMP attack, or seeing one of the most effective loading screens ever introduce the game’s too-ridiculous-to-not-be-awesome plot twist. Two years ago, climbing to the top of Burger King to fend off Russian invaders felt much more compelling than it had any right to be, and that genuinely surprised me.

In this game Russia’s invading just about everyone, and the sheer loudness of the ensuing World War 3 drowns out the edge of familiarity that made the last game shine. Locations are so bombed-out that they’re unrecognizable; the storyline is super-serious and predictable; and civilian life is generally forgotten in the militancy of it all. Pacing suffers as a result. It’s still a competent, spit-shined entry into the series, but the peak of the series happened years ago.

Selectivity Bias

Another thing about these Call of Duty games: they’re relentlessly fast. Story elements are told by the second and are interrupted by shooting segments that last minutes. Online, the game turns into an absolutely brutal arena of fast reflexes and snap aiming. Split-second reaction times and an almost instinctive knowledge of game mechanics are required to play with these folks. There’s no trick to handling the guns. You just point and shoot at a faster pace than your opponents, and the maps are all too small for strategy. Take any longer than two seconds to think, and you’re dead. It’s all about a physiological bias that prefers raw reaction times and fast aiming, boiling all of its secondary mechanics down to a simple game of high-octane target shooting.

How Does it Feel?

“How does it feel to be so bad, huh? How does it feel? You all suck,” said our trash-talker again for the umpenteenth time.

“Remember this night. You played with one of the best Call of Duty players in the world… Remember my name, ‘cause I’m one of the best.”

Truth be told, he was winning this free-for-all by only a hair’s breadth. Other less-vocal players were quickly catching up to him.

As expected, Modern Warfare 3 has a billion or so extra weapons, gadgets, abilities and features to be unlocked if one is a dedicated player. One of the most bizarre is the “Callsign,” which is a colorful, customizable banner that goes underneath your screen name. Significant chunks of game time end up being devoted to unlocking cosmetic stickers and backgrounds for this thing, and they’re all macho and “xtreme” in a kind of offensive way. I didn’t want a skull lined with military hashes plastered next to my name, or a cracked-teeth background underneath it. Lighter-hearted options include backgrounds that looks like a spanking paddle, or monocled and mustached cats. Either way, there’s no avoiding this “tough guise,” this mightier-than-thou message that somehow comes with the ability to unlock stuff in Call of Duty.

Digital Darwinism

“Oh, what? A level eight camping noob? You suck. You all suck.”

I was actually catching up to him through the luck of accidentally sneaking up on other player’s backsides. I ended up winning that match, but only because the trash-talker quietly left the game halfway through, leaving me with the undeserved first place.

Watching a garrulous victory animation appear complete with trumpeting fanfare, I suddenly realized something: this whole game is about social Darwinism. Captain Price says it himself during one of the cutscenes. “The duty of every soldier is to protect the innocent, and sometimes that means preserving the lie of good and evil— that war isn’t just natural selection played out on a grand scale,” he says, just before we shoot our way out of a crashing Russian airplane.

Think about that. If Infinity Ward truly interprets war as a naturally-occurring mechanism to preserve the fittest, then no wonder their virtual version of war is a physiologically demanding target-shooting sport filled with aggressively vocal players. After witnessing a mess of cheaters and horribly surreal trash-talkers, I didn’t blame these players for being so mad. The multiplayer game ultimately boils down to a contest of lightning-fast reaction times and split-second ingenuity, and despite the series’ massive popularity, it’s built to cater towards a very specific skill set. But it’s all so in-your-face, so “xtreme,” aggressive and macho that it appeals to a ubiquitous and unfortunate aspect of our culture’s version of masculinity: the destructive desire to dominate others. Proving oneself through a contest of skill has been a reliable outlet for a euphoric adrenaline rush for centuries. Nowadays, you can experience it through something as slovenly as winning a video game. It’s a philosophy that the trash-talker fervently believed in.

“How does it feel to be bad? To be worse than me? Huh?” I can finally answer him: it felt better. I eventually climbed the learning curve, increased my rank, unlocked a majority of the unlockables and won a few first-place matches here and there, but I never really felt good about it. The adrenaline high of victory lead to more negativity and frustration than it did genuine enjoyment, and I can’t recommend it for anyone who isn’t desperate for a meaningless feeling of superiority.

Days after my encounter with that trash-talker, I slowly noticed the game turning me into the same kind of bitter and angry sob that he was. I think it’s time I stopped.

Modern Warfare 3 Technical Summary:

  • Time Played – 12 hours
  • Widescreen – Yes
  • 5.1 Audio – Yes
  • Bugs – None encountered
  • Control Scheme – Mouse & keyboard, gamepads currently unsupported
  • DRM – Steamworks
  • Game Acquisition Method – Review Copy
  • Availability – Steam, Direct2Drive, Retail
  • Demo – None
  • Review Specs – I7 860, Radeon 6800, 4GB RAM

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9 thoughts on “TPG Second Look: Modern Warfare 3 PC Review

  1. Great article.

    I’m probably one of the few people out there that actually bought Modern Warfare and Modern Warfare 2 for their single player campaigns. I always thought I would give multiplayer a shot at some point, but so far that day hasn’t come yet. Your article sums up nicely exactly why I’m not a fan of multiplayer games. The single player experience in the Modern Warfare games isn’t for everyone and a lot of people don’t like the fact you are constantly being told what to do and how to do it, but I assume that is similar to how a real-life combat situation is – unless you are the top dog, you aren’t making the decisions and you follow orders. I personally enjoy the story in the Modern Warfare series and love the fact that even though the single player experience is short, it’s one heck of a roller coaster ride while it lasts. Games like this are a nice break from the long, in-depth, free-roaming titles like Fallout 3 / Skyrim and I’m glad I have games like this in my Steam library to pick up and play for a few days whenever the mood strikes.

    Initially I wasn’t even going to purchase Modern Warfare 3. I kept hearing how the story was mediocre / the campaign was even shorter than the first two / it was just a re-hash of MW2 etc. I figured I could just check out some walkthrough videos on youtube and treat it like I was watching a movie (just to see how the finally wraps up and save some money at the same time). After watching the first 20 minutes of the game, I quickly realized that there was no way I wanted to sit back and let someone else have all the fun – I need to jump in there and experience it too. The only problem now is waiting for the price to drop to $30 (I can’t bring myself to pay more than that since I’m obviously a “single player-only” kind of guy).

    • If you’re in it for the “four hour rollercoaster” experience, you can’t go wrong. This series has been providing consistently excellent single-player rollercoasters for years. That they’re all so similar means that customers know what to expect: very high standards of polish and pacing (and this is likely a big part of why Activision sells so many games.)
      But why do they remain at full-price on Steam for so long time? Though Activision is selling bazillions of these games, they want to squeeze as much money out of every single purchase as possible. While I would love to be able to buy a singleplayer-only version of Call of Duty for $30, it’ll be years before it gets that low. Even Black Ops is still selling for $60.

      • I’ve often thought that myself – why can’t Activation provide a ‘single player only’ experience for half the price for people like myself who aren’t interested in the multiplayer, but also give the user the option to ‘upgrade’ the game with multiplayer features for another $30. I’d be happy with that.

        I haven’t played Black Ops yet, but I did pick it up on Steam for $30 sometime last year and it’s in the queue of games to be played. From the gameplay videos I saw on youtube, it had the same ‘Call of Duty’ feel as Modern Warfare, so I should enjoy it quite a bit.

  2. Nice article – an interesting read.
    I tried playing MW1 SP campaign a few years back, but its style did not fit me and I gave up after the second or third mission. This was my last first-hand contact with the series. I still like to read about it, though, even though I’ll probably never understand why it is so popular.

    • Hopefully I’ve tapped into a few theories as to why it’s so popular. My biggest theory is that it’s explicitly designed to appeal to the hetero-normative, orthodox Western male. It’s the high-tech, grown-up version of playing with toy soldiers. Add on a multiplayer mode that’s designed to give brief but euphoric drug rushes of adrenaline, and you have a layer of addiction on top of the macho war fantasy.

  3. Just had to leave a note about this article. I read a lot of the content here on TPG regularly, but this article was so spot on, it’s not even funny. I had almost the exact same experiences in Battlefield 3 as you did in MW3 — right down to the recognition of how the game was having a very negative affect on my attitude and state of mind after a few hours of play.

    I wholly empathize with your experience, George, and have to say that you really nailed it down in this post. Well done!

  4. Pingback: Jamestown PC Review | truepcgaming

  5. Honestly, this felt a lot like a personal rant about why competitive mutliplayer is evil and bad. This could’ve been written about MW2’s multiplayer, about BF3’s multiplayer, about any modern shooter, were slight alterations to the article made. So much that is wrong with MW3 beyond the fact that it is, in fact, a competitive multiplayer game, is unmentioned. Probably not even recognized by the author. I hate the game, for opposite reasons. The game is trying hard not to be the darwinistic reflex-selection tool the author hates it for being. But you don’t see that unless you’ve overcome the curve and been on the other side of the fence. Unless you’ve been the guy on top of the scoreboard, that’s realized that all the emblems and titles and unlocks are only there to keep the people on the bottom motivated. That the game is not about making the best player win, but about making the worst player play on. If the game were like the author described it, I’d love it. What he describes is Quake 3. Not Modern Warfare 3.

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