Modern Warfare 3 Preview Impressions: Looks Great, But We’re Hoping for a Story

In the run-up to E3, Activision offered journalists a chance to get a look at the upcoming Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3. Reps from developers Infinity Ward and Sledgehammer played a demo video that showed two levels of the game, one set in a Russian-occupied Manhattan, and the other a covert operation that took place in London. Check out our full accounting of what we saw for some background.

After the video had finished, fellow Game Fronter Mark Burnham and I took stock of what we’d seen. What follows is our after-action report on Activision’s Modern Warfare 3 E3 preview — what we liked, what we didn’t, and what we hope to see when the next Call of Duty hits shelves in November.

Mark Burnham: It’s hard to sit in a room and watch a long, loud demo for a beautiful war game and not be excited about it. Just the format of our demonstration probably swayed by opinion, but I really liked what I saw — more than Modern Warfare 1 or 2. What (Infinity Ward Community Director) Robert Bowling said about taking the game out of the outskirts and into the hard of major cities, I really got a sense for that. You’re storming the f–king New York Stock Exchange — a place I’ve always wanted to have a gun fight in, to be honest. The monitor bays; awesome.

Phil Hornshaw: Agreed — the Manhattan demo was huge and loud, with the sounds of war literally all around the entire time. That was definitely spectacular, and I got the impression that with two developers working on the project in Infinity Ward and Sledgehammer (with Raven Software working on the multiplayer), every inch of the game is going to be larger than life. I’m really glad to see Call of Duty pushing the envelope in terms of big-budget blockbuster-ness, since Black Ops felt like it moved away from that.

Mark: I’m trying to remember where you even go in Modern Warfare 1 and 2, in comparison. I’m not coming up with a lot. Obviously, you’re in Afghanistan, you’re in the U.S., but you’re nowhere as recognizable as the NYSE. I’m not sure if the rest of MW3 will bring that kind of scale and over-the-topness, but I think I hope so.

Phil: Well, the only level I can think of that compares is Whiskey Hotel from MW2 — the one where you fight trench-warfare style on the lawn of the White House and recapture it from the Russians. That was a great moment, but much of MW2 was levels that were more Homefront-style — “that could be my town” locations that were nice but not as recognizable or as important as the NYSE.

This was the first time in a long time it really felt like this was a home-turf war for the U.S. that I really believed, and it was really visceral.

Mark: Right, duh, the White House. Loved that. But … I want more. I want to defend an invasion at the World Fair in China or something.

Phil: I hear you. And even though the White House is cool, it feels like a big empty building, I thought. The NYSE felt like people cleared out of it about 10 minutes before.

I was also struck by how fast the level pivoted from ground warfare to the helicopter gunner portion, and how great that looked in practice — you jump in the chopper and suddenly you’ve got the whole ruined city spread out beneath you.

Mark: Totally. The pacing of the demo was spot-on. Something else I may have imagined, is fellow soldiers seemed to be giving you very direct, repeated instructions — more so than past entries. If you missed the objective, it seemed like a fellow soldier would drill it into your head 10 times: “Clear out the russians, head to the Stock Exchange.” More live feedback and reminders from your team about what you’re doing.

Phil: There did seem to be a lot of chatter, which is cool if it’s not just your guys telling you over and over again what you already know.

Mark: Right. It seemed well done in Manhattan, but could get annoying if it’s persistent. The London level seemed to drag for me in the beginning. You? It felt very standard.

Phil: Yeah, basically. One of the big criticisms with Black Ops was that there were levels where your squad would basically handle everything for you, and that was the impression I got with the early stealth portion in London. It seemed okay, but we’ve done “sneak up and cap everyone in the back of the head” plenty of times in the last three Call of Duty games.

Mark: Agreed. It also didn’t really show you much of “London.” You kind of just had to believe it was London. But I sort of didn’t care about that anymore when the train event started — which I almost stood up and started cheering for.

Phil: That was definitely the coolest thing I’ve seen in a game in some time.

Mark: I agree.

Phil: For a scripted event, it was just jaw-dropping. Dodging past those trains at the last second, the whole thing had an real edge-of-your-seat quality. They nailed it. And you don’t even do anything! It’s just happening around you. And it was still awesome.

Mark: Right, there’s no way the driver was “driving.” It seemed like it was on rails, but I didn’t care. You’re freaking shooting guys in the face in the train next to you, while you’re in the back of a truck. So satisfying.

Phil: Yeah, it was really, really tense. The crash at the end was pretty brilliant, too. Just from a technical standpoint. It looked great, it went on forever, it was realistic and it looked really just…horrific. But in a good way. I felt blindsided by how cool that crash was. Totally didn’t expect that.

Mark: I didn’t either, and it left me wondering about the fate of “Burns” (the player character in the London level). If he survived, that’s brutal.

Phil: Yeah, he probably got pretty mangled.

Mark: I’ll say that, honestly, I’m not a super-obsessed Call of Duty multiplayer…player. I like it, it’s fun, but I’ve been someone who’s really played the single-player campaigns, and been both excited and disappointed. The storytelling in MW2 was way, way too fast, and the game was too short. There was no evidence in what we saw that Infinity Ward/Sledgehammer are working to change that. I’m rooting for them to get it right.

Phil: Completely agree. The campaigns in MW1 and MW2 are fun, but at the end of the day, they’re throw-away. The stories don’t make a ton of sense, you don’t really identify with the characters, and you’re not impacted much by the story. I’d like to see some really tight, involved writing make it into a Call of Duty game to make the single-player portion as much of an investment as the multiplayer half.

MW3 has a chance to change that with the whole thing being this sort of “on the defensive” war effort. I think they could really put together a cool story if they try.

Mark: It sounds like such a reasonable request.

Phil: And to be honest, in the demo, the thing that I cared about the least is the thing I should have cared about most — the actual combat. Looked like well-worn ground there to me; enemies pop up, you shoot them. Lots of sitting looking at the spot where a guy is about to stick is head out.

Mark: I saw that, but with AI, it’s tough. You have to wonder if that’s just the demo build. It also looked like the demo guy wasn’t really…taking damage.

Phil: Yeah, that’s a really good point.

I really do hope that MW 3 has some significant changes or improvements to combat, though. I expressed this issue in my Black Ops review — we’ve gotten a Call of Duty edition every year almost to the day for the last three, going on four years now. I’m not sure how excited I am to keep playing the same basic CoD game over and over without significant improvements, especially because the story isn’t that engaging. The scripted events in the demo did blow me away, but at the end of the day, it’s about how fun the game is to play.

And that’s to say nothing about the value of buying a new copy of Call of Duty every single year at full price.

Mark: I think I’d pay full price for the train scene, but other than that, you nailed it.

Phil: Yeah, that train scene was pretty damn cool. If the game is packed with moments like that, I dunno — I might change my mind. It’s like going to see a summer action movie. You know you can guess the plot and everything that’s going to happen before you get there, but it’s still a whole lot of fun to watch.

Mark: Right. That’s a good analogy, to movies. I’m trying to think of an action film with good writing that Call of Duty needs to emulate. I don’t know why, but I just thought of Total Recall, even though it’s extremely unrelated.

Phil: Yeah, but similar in a way. That movie is packed with cool things you’ve never seen before the first time you watch it. That’s what the demo felt like in a lot of ways. That train crash rivals anything I’ve ever seen in a movie, that’s for sure.

MW3′s train crash is the new three-boobed mutant babe.

Mark: Something else Total Recall has that Modern Warfare games don’t is, I guess, a sense of mystery. Black Ops sort of tried that, actually in kind of a similar way to Total Recall with the confused identity thing. But I ended up not really caring. It sucks because I don’t feel like I can tell them (Infinity Ward and Sledgehammer) how to fix it, exactly.

Phil: At the very least, spending some time fleshing out the characters will help. If Black Ops got anything right in its story, it was the fact that it had people in it whose motivations stretched further than “shoot everyone in this room then go to the next room.” At least then you’ll care if the guy next to you takes a bullet.

Mark: Agreed.

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