Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 (Xbox 360) retrospective

2022-11-11  Reviews and retro

With a bit more time on my hands this week, I decided to dust off my Xbox One and play through a game that I sunk many an hour into on the Xbox 360 about a decade ago (although it turns out not in the way I thought) - Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3. As the final game in the first-person shooter series’ most popular and iconic trilogy, this one had a lot to live up to.

In November 2011, almost 11 years ago to the day at the time of writing, Activision released the Infinity Ward-developed Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3, marking the final instalment in a trilogy that set Call of Duty free from the confines of its traditional World War II setting, redefined online multiplayer, and elevated the series as a whole to become an instantly recognisable pillar of mainstream gaming and a reliable moneymaker for the publisher.

With so much focus on the game’s multiplayer, the campaign is the topic of far less discussion. In fact, when I started playing it via the Xbox One’s backwards compatibility (sidenote - for some reason this required an 11GB game update, and it arguably would have been quicker to dig out my 360), I started earning achievements after the first couple of missions. Apparently the multiplayer, and in particular the co-op Special Ops, were such a distraction that I never completed MW3’s campaign back in the day.

Setting the scene

Jumping back into it in 2022, MW3 picks up right after the bizarre final events of Modern Warfare 2, with Price and Nikolai rushing Soap to a safehouse for medical assistance. The logo on the title screen tells us what to expect, as “WW3” morphs into MW3 - this game is set to tackle war on a huge scale, as Makarov-engineered Russian aggression targets states around the globe.

Conveying this urgency, we’re thrown straight into a mission in New York, bypassing the usual COD tutorial. We mount an assault to take back the New York Stock Exchange, board a Russian submarine, and a high-speed chase ensues through the harbour. Unusually for the series, this is about all we’ll see of the US, as most of the game’s action takes place in Europe (although oddly, and perhaps in an effort not to alienate a large part of the audience, most missions are still played from the perspective of US troops).

We then play as Yuri, helping Captain Price evacuate the injured Soap (who after MW2 has apparently ascended to NPC legend status) as the safehouse comes under attack. We miss the extraction chopper and fall down a slope into a river, but Price rescues us - an instant reminder of what a guy he is.

In a series first, the next mission is played from a Russian perspective, as we fill the shoes of a guard on the president’s private jet. The plane is attacked by Makarov’s terrorists, and there are some cool zero-G moments during the shootouts as the plane plummets to the ground. We locate the president in the wreckage, but just as we’re about to extract him Makarov appears and kidnaps him. Before shooting us dead, he says Russia will take control of Europe even if it has to burn it to the ground in the process.

Going underground

Next is a stealth mission with Price and Soap as you investigate a tip that Makarov is transporting something to London. This features a challenging sniper segment, but all that good work is undone when you must fire mortar that is painfully slow and prevents you from moving to avoid hits. When you eventually reach your destination, you find the cargo is already gone.

The shipment is in a warehouse in Tower Hamlets, which allows for a nice level visually, with the grimy industrial estate juxtaposed against the bright lights of Canary Wharf in the background. As with many missions in MW3 this starts quiet before turning into an all-out firefight against hordes of enemies.

The bad guys eventually jump into a random waiting Tube train, and I can forgive the questionable accuracy as we chase them through the tunnels on a truck just because the sequence is pretty cool, especially as the chase bursts through packed commuter platforms. The train derails at Westminster and you fight your way up through the station to surface level.

A suspect van arrives and is shot down, but it’s not the only one. We’re whisked away to this game’s answer to MW2’s No Russian - a wholly unnecessary segment where we play a camera-wielding dad filming his wife and little girl on holiday in London. A van pulls up, Russians in gas masks jump out, and we see our family killed in a chemical attack. The next cut scene tells us that similar attacks are taking place across Europe, paving the way for a Russian invasion, so why did this need to be playable?

A European tour

US forces move in on Hamburg to rescue the vice president in a mission that plays out much more like classic COD, with an opening that seems to be deliberately reminiscent of the D-Day beach landings and large-scale battles between opposing squads across vast areas. It’s perhaps telling in terms of the series’ direction that there’s not much else notable about this level.

We then play as Yuri once again, alternating between on-foot and chopper turret sections as he and the gang attempt to locate an arms dealer who has been working with Makarov. He tells us that his bomb maker, Volk, is headed for Paris. This mission is set apart by its finale, which sees you fight through a sandstorm. Everything turns orange and black, and the effects and lighting make this look very nice even by today’s standards.

The next big set piece mission takes us to Paris, where the American squad are wearing gas masks because there is still toxic residue from the chemical attacks in the air. This is the first of several parts of MW3 that feel like they’re paying homage to the Wolfenstein games, as we drop down into creepily lit catacombs descorated with skulls and bones to find Volk.

This culminates in a car chase with some on-rails shooting, ending in some seriously excessive ramming as we disable Volk’s vehicle and capture him. The last segment is a battle on a bridge, at the end of which an explosion causes the Eiffel Tower to topple into the Seine. They just couldn’t resist the visuals, which form a part of some of the game’s promotional images.

Return to Castle Makarov

Volk says Makarov is in Prague, so Yuri and co. are sent to infiltrate the city to get close to the castle in preparation. This is full-on Wolfenstein, from the architecture to the black armour worn by the Russian soldiers. Soap mimics Price in Chernobyl mode - the flawless guide whose footsteps we must follow as we creep around in the shadows avoiding enemy patrols.

While this is ripped straight from the original Modern Warfare, and there are some moments where the Russian soldiers must be straight-up blind not to see us, it is perhaps the best mission in the game simply because it has more character than most of the others. This is further elevated when it goes loud (as they all do) and we find ourselves helping the Czech resistance to take on the Russians in huge battles in the city’s streets.

We hide out in a church that is serving as a resistance HQ until morning, planning to snipe Makarov when he arrives for a meeting. Our contact betrays us and blows us up, and when we wake we have to protect Price as he carries an injured Soap through the streets. Just before he dies, Soap finds the strength to tell Price that Makarov knows Yuri.

Price punches us down some stairs to interrogate us, and in a flashback we see that Yuri did indeed previously work with Makarov, but that he was betrayed, turned good, and attempted to stop the No Russian massacre. Apparently this is enough to convince Price, but he won’t admit it because he just says he won’t kill us “for now” and it’s never mentioned again.

There’s more Price-led stealth as we infiltrate the castle - as in MW2, this mostly consists of him doing all the cool stuff while we wait behind. Things are mixed up in an interesting way when he kills the lights in a prison area and we use our night vision to take out helpless enemies, but this lasts all of 20 seconds before they drop flares and can see again.

We learn the Russian president’s daughter is in Berlin and that he is likely to give up his nuclear codes to Makarov if she is located and taken hostage. The US team in Germany go after her, repeatedly disobeying orders to extract after the first team is destroyed by Russian forces, and we only catch a brief glimpse of her before she’s whisked away in a chopper.

Tying up the loose ends

With his daughter in enemy hands, Yuri and Price need to locate the Russian president in a Siberian diamond mine before he gives up the launch codes. Our fight through the mine ends in a bizarre vertical breach as we plant explosives on the floor and drop down to rescue the president. Yuri gets blown up but Price helps him to the chopper, which takes off and leaves US team leader Sandman (did I mention him before?) to his presumable death.

The US and Russia declare peace (European countries too, I hope, since they’ve been on the receiving end of invasions throughout the game) but Makarov is still at large, and Price can’t have that. We get to play as the legend himself for the first time as he and Yuri don juggernaut armour and launch an assault on the Dubai hotel where Makarov is staying.

When we reach the top, a chopper fires a rocket that leaves Yuri impaled. He tells us to leave him and go after Makarov, so we jump onto his helicopter as it takes off and fight the pilots. Somehow both of us surive the ensuing crash, and we wake to see a gun on the floor between us and Makarov.

Price crawls towards the gun, but Makarov takes it from us and shoots Yuri dead. A fist fight follows in which we tie a cable around his neck and push him through the shattered glass floor, leaving him hanging at the top of the hotel. Price lands on a balcony, and in the absence of anyone to say a cool line to, silently lights a cigar. It’s over - World War III has been won.

Final thoughts

Like many trilogy endings - notably The Dark Night Rises - Modern Warfare 3 suffers in that the stakes are so high by this point that there’s a sense everything must be overly dramatic and extreme to make it worthy as a finale. I mentioned in my retrospective that parts of MW2 felt awkward in the context of recent real-world events, but there’s none of that here because everyone has been caricatured to the level of cartoonish heroes and villains.

While I understand that it was necessary to focus on strong leads because telling the story of a fictional WW3 at a macro level would be impossible, MW3 really marks the point that COD stopped trying to tell semi-respectful war stories and switched to worshipping a bunch of superheroes - most prominently Captain Price. You could say this strategy paid off in the long run, because flawless heroes undoubtedly sell more skins in the modern microtransaction-led world than nuanced characters would have.

The same trend is apparent in terms of the game’s settings. With perhaps the exception of the London Underground, the main difference between each locale is that each city’s most famous landmark is dropped on the horizon. The actual spaces you move through are fairly generic, without enough local flare to really generate any notable sense of place.

Mechanically, the game is near identical to MW2. The core shooting has a satisfying weight, but the left trigger tap lock-on is sometimes overpowered. It can be frustrating when missions end due to friendly fire, since everyone wears quite similar armour and the AI doesn’t always keep them to two sides of an area, and for similar reasons it’s almost infuriating when an unseen enemy insta-kills you with a one-hit melee attack from behind.

Your AI comrades do a decent job of keeping up the appearance of large-scale battles, but there are moments when everyone fires at a single enemy for a long time, waiting for the player to kill them so we can move on. Enemy AI is unremarkable, with difficulty increases largely down to the quantity of foes in an area, rather than any discernable change in their behaviours.

Stealth sections return in force, likely due to the popularity of the All Ghillied Up mission in the original Modern Warfare, but they haven’t evolved at all. The player always follows directly behind an NPC (probably because the AI isn’t there for solo stealth), and in MW3 they always reach a point where all hell breaks loose. Perhaps Infinity Ward was worried players wouldn’t have the attention span for a complete mission without a big firefight.

For all its flaws, the Modern Warfare trilogy is an important part of recent gaming history, and MW3 does stand up well enough for a playthrough in the present day. In fact, I’d say the story is more coherent and interesting than MW2, and with so much variety - there’s standard FPS shooting, stealth, on-rails sections, drone operation, car and boat chases, and so on - I can at least say for sure that you won’t be bored across its seven-hour span.

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