After Modern Warfare 2, Infinity Ward seemed to be in deep trouble. An overly public spat with Activision led to the loss of numerous staff, leaving the studio’s fate in the balance. Even during development of this game, they’ve had to put up with heckling from the suddenly very cocky Battlefield brand.
They have stepped up in spectacular fashion though. With reinforcements acquired in the form of Sledgehammer Games, they’ve brought us a stunning example of hi-octane warfare yet again. It’s loud, it’s brash and a little bit insane. We wouldn’t want it any other way.
The story brings together the surviving characters of MW2 in the search for Makarov, the lunatic behind Russia’s waging of World War III. There’s still a lot of globe-hopping and character switches, but it’s much more coherent than the last two games. Sure, it stretches the realms of plausibility, but it works if you don’t sit there nitpicking the hell out of it. Enjoy it as entertainment. Thankfully, there’s nothing as offensive as the No Russian level of MW2. There’s an unsettling London scene, but it doesn’t feel like it’s aiming for sensationalist headlines and you’ll have seen worse from Hollywood.
From the series that wasn’t afraid to drop a nuke on you, it’s surprising just how many times this game can astound you for all the right reasons. I’ll avoid spoiling the big set-pieces. Many smaller parts of the game are just as impressive. Hijacking a submarine for instance, places you in a darkened web of corridors with eager laser-sights poking through the steam as the Russians try to find you. You’ll speed past an exploding Russian Fleet in New York, have zero-G gunfights in a nose-diving aeroplane and even have to fight off wild hyenas.
Like the submarine assault, lighting plays an important role in Africa, when a sandstorm is unleashed on the town you’re escaping. The storm blots out the sun, throwing everything into an eerie orange darkness with muzzle flashes and lasers-lines providing a nightmarish atmosphere. Having to sprint through this hellish gauntlet ramps up the tension to dizzyingly levels that pull you in better than any other shooter this year.
While the game generally favours a balls-to-the-wall approach, gameplay is occasionally broken up into different styles. Overhead drone targeting returns, but the remote gun on a chopper is the clear winner. From the ground, you whip out god’s own PSP and obliterate small armies from town squares with a support chopper.
Stealth sections let the game down though as you’re never allowed to think for yourself, you’re forced to follow an AI partner. The only choice you get is to shoot the left or right guard. Deviating from the path results in a base-wide alert or a game over screen. At least the sniper weapons aren’t limited to these parts, there’s plenty of opportunity for long-distance death and the rifles feel spot on.
Other weapons are mainly familiar. Although one of the new semi-automatic shotguns fires so quickly it may as well be an assault rifle. You’ll like it a lot. One of the guns allows swappable sights for medium-long changeovers, but enjoy it while it lasts as I only found one more of them in the rest of the campaign.
Firing between targets is fantastically smooth, thanks to the light lock-on. Some weapons have a lot of kick to them, mainly ACOG-fitted ones, which I would dump immediately for anything with a red dot. Your grenades have lost a little oomph, meaning I often forgot they were there. The enemy still loves to spam them at you, so the new ability to send them right back is much appreciated.
The game can be frustrating at times thanks to some awkward checkpoints and the old problem of constantly spawning enemies until you cross the magic line. After dying a few times at tough sections, I was then seemingly ushered through, like the game whispered in the soldier’s ears “let him through, he’s getting pissed off.” Suddenly enemy soldiers weren’t shredding my face as much as the previous attempts and I waltzed through. Very suspicious.
The game is crying out for a new graphics engine. It’s not ugly at all, but the colours seem flat, like they secretly wish they were grey. The same old typeface and HUD refuse to let the series look like it’s advancing. A little polish around areas like this would make it feel fresh. On the plus side, they’ve got rid of the idiotic ‘jam effect’ on-screen when you get shot.
There’s not a huge amount of changes here. Killstreaks have been renamed Assault Strike Packages and you can opt to replace them with Support Strike Packages, which while still financed by kills, doesn’t reset when you die. While not as powerful as the big Killstreaks, they help to balance things for the non-hardcore. Aerial drones are in for painting targets too. Points can now be added to streaks for completing objectives, which is a nice improvement, allowing team players to be better rewarded. Actually, just imagine IW have pilfered most of Homefront’s cool stuff, because that’s exactly what they’ve done, minus vehicles. Campers and spawn-stalkers are as present as ever, not to mention newcomers don’t really stand a chance until they’ve hit level 10, but it’s worth pushing through these problems.
Individual weapons are upgradable now, with players able to choose from recoil reductions and such along with familiar attachment options. Not a grand departure from before, but certainly tweaked for the better.
Amongst the old favourites is the new Kill Confirm mode, easily the best addition to COD since zombies. In this team deathmatch, players drop a set of tags when they die. If an enemy picks it up their team get points, if your allies pick it up, the other team is denied the points. With the tags being the only way to score, the matches are much more movement based, as camping won’t net you points unless you have a buddy picking up after you. It’s similar to the coin-collecting mode in Timesplitters: Future Perfect and it’s fan-friggin’-tastic. Especially if you always have your thumb jammed on the sprint button.
The separate Spec Ops co-op missions against the AI return and the new survivor mode is IW’s answer to a zombie mode. Unsurprisingly, giving the enemy guns and throwing juggernauts at you isn’t as much fun as plugging the undead. Being able to buy better guns, turrets and aerial strikes as you earn more money from each wave does help with the added challenge. Both modes still only support two players, which is a letdown when you look at Gears 3, Black Ops and Halo Reach.
The competitive multiplayer is going to be hard to play on a casual basis, as the competition is fierce. Kill Confirm is an absolute must though. Co-op and Survivor is fun for friends that have worn-out older COD games too. The single-player game is what’s really impressed me this time though. After approaching it sceptically, I’ve simply been blown away. It stands tall next to Uncharted 3 as an outrageously fun piece of entertainment. Overall, 2011’s FPS of the year.