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Call Of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 multiplayer review: a tiring nostalgia trip

Get ready to grind

A screenshot from Modern Warfare 3 showing Lieutenant Simon "Ghost" Riley and Captain John Price with their weapons ready.
Image credit: Activision

Reports suggested Call Of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 was a crunch-driven 16 month project, and our campaign review thought it displayed characteristics of a rushed schedule-filler. Besides quality gunplay and a fantastic array of classic maps, MW3's multiplayer doesn't do much to differentiate itself from MW2, aside from being more of a frustrating grind. And its awkwardly positioned zombies mode, though it might appeal to some, has been robbed of its sickle-sharpening soul. All of it does smack of being rushed, and I'd only recommend the game if you're an ardent fan of COD who's happy to accept little in the way of changes. Otherwise, this FPS simply isn't worth spending your hard-earned bucks on.

Many of the earlier CODs have a pretty simple levelling policy: you blast folks with bullets and shrapnel, call in cruise missiles, have your nan's safety threatened by a 13-year old mic-breather, and earn EXP. With each level ding, you work your way towards that one gun everyone's using. Then, you use the gun and earn silly little things for it. Foregrips. A laser. A camo that looks like you melted Mr. Blobby down and pressed him into an M4A1 mold. For the most part, levelling in multiplayer has been a no-nonsense feed of rewards with an end that felt hard earned, but always within reach.

Firing the Bas battle rifle at an enemy in Modern Warfare 3's multiplayer.
There are seemingly hundreds of guns and an astounding amount of attachments for each. While I appreciate the variety and what it might mean for an interesting, complex meta, it's also overwhelming and a bit exhausting if you're a player who just dips in for a quick evening sesh. | Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/Activision

MW2 (the second one) muddied the process, turning the simple act of levelling a gun into the equivalent of clocking you straight in the gonads with a rolled up spreadsheet. With MW3 Sledgehammer have now doubled down on the ballache. Loads of weapons and perks and equipment are locked behind "Armory Challenges", which require you to complete three, rotating daily tasks.

What came as standard before - the simple flashbang, for instance - is now tied to an annoying login cycle, with the added bonus of forcing you to either: 1) play in a way you probably won't enjoy; 2) not do the challenge because you haven't unlocked the gun or item needed to complete it. Granted, some are fairly easy and do encourage you to try out guns or discover new strategies, but many seem like tedious fodder designed to elongate the levelling process in a pretty unimaginative way.

Tweaks to the perk system seem a bit "eh", too. Over the years and games they've been a selection of abilities you'd swap in and out, like Dead Silence that made your footsteps super quiet. Now, they're tied to pieces of equipment like boots, which don't actually make any meaningful changes to how they operate. They're just clothes that do the same things that perks did before.

A look at Modern Warfare 3's armory challenges.
This sucks. | Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/Activision

There are at least new vests you can wear, which give you more of a blanket upgrade to certain aspects of your build, and seem a bit like several perks rolled into one. The default grants you double sprint time and dampens explosive damage, while the "Gunner Vest", for example, increases your reload speed and grants you more starting ammo. Not exactly the Supahotfire meme, but still something.

Take your loadouts to MW3's pre-match lobbies and they come good. Finally, we have map votes and everyone listed nicely so you can see all the names you need to report. And the map pool itself preys on nostalgia, with loads of fan favourites tossed in: Terminal, Afghan, Derail, Wasteland, Estate. These old haunts - newcomers will likely love them, too - genuinely elevate matches by being incredibly well designed, as they not only dictate a varied ebb and flow, they're home to loads of interesting portions to do battle in. There's a reason why many of these are considered classics.

But while I do adore much of the map pool, they don't quite hit the same as they did in the past. That might be because I'm at least a decade older, but maybe because they've been wheeled in to prop up an otherwise samey COD shoot 'em up that's only grown more annoying with time. If you're going to regress, you best have us entering the time capsule with a sense COD's marching forwards with a pep in its step. Unfortunately, it strikes me that the opposite is true.

Firing at a clifftop player on Modern Warfare 3's Afghan map.
I'd say, though, that Sledgehammer have some work to do with spawns. So often I've respawned in front of folks who just thunked me down like a whack-a-mole, time and time again. They've even had to remove maps to fix spawn issues, so I've not had a chance to try certain maps with certain modes yet. | Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/Activision

Still, you can always rely on COD's gunplay to be crispy and precise. Despite there being an overabundance of guns, it can be rewarding to morph their personalities through their bazillion attachments. The hit-marker sound is as delightful as ever, too, with chunkier audio dinging the satisifact-ometer in my brain as headshots crunch and EXP pop-ups slide onto screen. Movement is also faster and snappier than MW2, which makes whizzing about the maps a bit smoother and the gunfights a touch less sluggish.

Most modes, like Domination and Hardpoint and Kill Confirmed, are all here and offer a solid time, alongside a new one called Cut Throat that's a decent addition. It's three teams of three facing off against each other, no respawns, and the first to three rounds wins. A flag in the centre of the map unlocks after a while, too, so it forces players to meet and fight for control over it. I like how it promotes actually sticking together as a squad, with the added tension of perma-death per round. Looking at the modes as a whole, though, I wouldn't expect any grand shakeups.

Shooting at some zombies with a pack-a-punched gun in Modern Warfare 3.
The zombies map in Modern Warfare 3.
Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/Activision

On the other side of MW3's multiplayerverse we have Zombies, which might be one of the biggest shake-ups to the formula in recent years. Where before you'd be dropped into a map with progressively harder waves of zombies, MW3's offering has been mashed into MW2's Tarkov-inspired DMZ mode where multiple teams of three simultaneously scurry about, and are given the freedom to exfil at any point. The action takes place in a zombified version of Warzone's upcoming map Urzikstan, where three concentric zones determine the strength of the zombies within them. The aim? To, errr, complete some contracts, get some loot, and then exfil whenever suits you? Then you repeat this process? I guess?

Sure, previous zombies might not have had a concrete end goal. But it was a mode where you could get together with a group of mates and challenge yourselves to survive as long as possible. At the bare minimum, you were guaranteed a chaotic time as the threat level ramped from easy to overdrive.

In MW3's zombies mode, threat lies in losing your gear by venturing into the tougher inner circles for rarer guns and perk schematics. But because it's all set on a map built for 150 players and lacks PVP, the atmosphere's a bit dead (heh) and seems devoid of peril. You've got to make your own fun by doing contracts that'll earn you money, like tracking down a scary monster or clearing an infested house of stinky pustules. Human militants appear, too, as they either patrol the map in armored cars or rappel down from attack helicopters- and in fairness these do briefly capture the chaos of old zombies, as enemies suddenly spring out of nowhere in droves.

Smacking a huge boss in Modern Warfare 3's zombies mode.
Here we encountered a hulking great boss in the hardest zombies zone. It was glitched under an archway and didn't attack us, so we unloaded all of our ammunition into it, then beat it to death for 15-minutes with our guns. The reward was... not worth it. | Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/Activision

You can then spend your money at pack-a-punch stations, which upgrade your weapons to a certain point, before steering you around the map with a message. Sometimes you'll get a "stronghold key" which points you towards militant-controlled compounds in trickier zones. In that sense, the mode doesn't leave you totally directionless, and it's obvious you'll need strong gear to survive the masses in the centre circle. But it's all too chill for my liking.

Some will find this more relaxed take on zombies a blessing, as contracts offer hits of chaos as opposed to an endless onslaught of death. And the added flexibility of being able to copter out of the action whenever you like is welcome. But I think the DMZ template robs zombies of commitment: You and your pals setting aside a chunk of time to eek out a new record with only the briefest of respites.

The trouble with Call Of Duty: Modern Warfare 3's multiplayer is that it'll set you back a frightening amount of money for the usual COD shoot 'em up, only with levelling additions that'll raise your blood pressure. And how you take to the new zombies depends on your disposition, but even still, it's hard not to see it as an awkward take on DMZ that strips zombies of risk. Sure, if you adore COD then go for it! But if you're on the fence or a fan looking for a big step forwards, it's a very hard purchase to justify.

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