Dear reader. I died many times to bring you this review. I endured endless humiliation as my fellow gamers shot me and trampled over my dead body to collect my dog tags. I have suffered the indignity of being the last player shot in a game, which means that everybody gets to see my character die in slow motion. I must be a zombie though, pulled back into the same mindless entertainment, because I keep rising from the dead to play again.

Call of Duty Modern Warfare 3 launched to great fanfare on Tuesday as one of the biggest video games of the year, and we rated the single-player campaign as one of the best games of the year.

After a few days of  combat, I’m happy to say that the multiplayer version of the game isn’t a disappointment, bringing new kinds of variety and freshness for players who have played the prior games to death. This is a major reason why Activision Blizzard generates more than $1 billion in revenue from each Call of Duty game and why many players ignore other games and keep playing for months. It’s like a rollercoaster ride that you keep going back to at the amusement park.

Get used to getting shot

The great thing about the multiplayer is that it builds on a foundation that is already the finest multiplayer combat experience. The game moves at the eye-blink speed of 60 frames per second, with no perceptible lag most of the time. In contrast the slower, more deliberate and more realistic multiplayer for Battlefield 3, Modern Warfare 3’s combat is fast-paced, wildly unrealistic, and much more intense in terms of the frequency of kills and deaths. It’s also plain better, with touches such as it is much easier to tell who is your enemy and who is your friend, based on the colors of the name tags atop the players.

I played Call of Duty Black Ops multiplayer for much of the past year; the game held my interest for much longer than I played Call of Duty Modern Warfare 2, which came out in 2009. After dropping it for a while, I usually rejoined with the launch of a new map pack, which came out four times during the year. By the end of it, I had cycled through the Prestige mode one-and-a-half times, which means I played through about 111 levels. By the standards of the hardcore community, this means I was a lightweight casual player.

It held my interest because of its wide variety and an endless system of rewards and achievements that never ended. Every time I played the game, I got some kind of achievement and the session advanced me toward goals that got closer and closer.

Just one more kill, and you can get a new reward. Of course, you might have to die three times to get that kill. My goals at this point are pretty simple. Get more kills than deaths in a match, and eventually come out on top of a match with the most kills or points. It may take me a while before I can do that, given my dull reflexes in my old age. Call me a masochist. But I keep going back for more.

Can newbies play?

That whole business may sound intimidating to most players. But practice really helps you get better, and Activision Blizzard’s motto for the game is “easy to learn, hard to master.”

As I say that, I have an embarrassing kill/death ratio, which is recorded for the sake of posterity and is visible to me when I log into the Call of Duty Elite social network (when it is working). Fortunately, the online disruption of the Elite service isn’t hampering online multiplayer play at all. You can keep on playing and the servers will continue to store your multiplayer stats, even if you can’t access the Elite service.

I have to say that, even after getting back up to speed on my skills by completing the single-player campaign on the Hardened level, I am starting out pretty poorly. I’m getting killed about three times for every kill I get. That’s a lot worse than I did when I played Black Ops. I don’t know if it means that the hardest of the hardcore players are playing right now. Hopefully some more casual players will come on board and help me get my stats back up. The game does a reasonably good job of putting similar players together. But while ranked at level 13, I played in a match with a level 66 player. It wasn’t pretty.

I got my first hands-on look at multiplayer in September at Activision’s Call of Duty XP event, which was held in a giant aircraft hangar in Los Angeles where Howard Hughes built the Spruce Goose. There, I got lose myself in the excitement of playing with a bunch of other fans, including experiencing a paintball frag match in a life-size replica of the Scrapyard multiplayer map from Call of Duty Modern Warfare 2.

How to stay alive

While there, I learned a few tips from the masters. One was that you shouldn’t run everywhere you possibly can. You always have this fear that someone will sneak up on you if you stay still. But it can pay off quite a bit if you stay still and wait for enemies to come to you. For one thing, you can stay still and get a better aim. And you can keep your aim ready. If you’re sprinting to get to a flag at the beginning of a match, you better figure out when to slow down because you can bet that another enemy is racing to get to the same flag or vantage point first.

Of course, most maps are designed so that you can’t just stay in one spot and have a great vantage point. Almost anywhere you plant yourself, you either have a limited field of view or are exposed to someone sneaking up on you. When you are staying still, move around a little. You don’t want to look out a window, take shot, and then duck and go back to the window. More than likely you’ll be shot if you keep shooting from the same place. In other words, if you camp too long in a good spot, somebody will figure it out. If you get to know the maps well, then you can figure out multiple spots and then rotate between them. If you can find protected high ground, use it.

Sometimes it pays to follow around someone who knows what they’re doing. When your own teammate rounds a corner and gets shot, that’s a pretty good clue for what awaits you around that corner. Reloading takes time and makes you vulnerable. Make sure you’re out of site of the enemy when you reload. Sometimes it’s faster to switch to a secondary weapon than to reload.

It’s always nice to lob a flash bang grenade around a corner or toss a grenade into an area with multiple enemies. But you have to cook them, or hold the timer for a few seconds so the enemy can’t pick up the grenade and throw it back. You may be tempted to spray the battlefield in hopes of getting lucky with a shot, but controlled short bursts are better and more accurate.

The game has a mini-map on the heads-up display. It can show you where enemies and friendlies are relative to your position. It gives you good situational awareness if you glance at it, but don’t become to enthralled with it or someone will take you out while you’re not watching ahead of you.

Once you get advanced enough to tailor your weapons kits, create different kits that match the needs of different maps. Suppressors are good to pick up so that your gunshots aren’t so easy to discern in terms of direction of the sound. And once you get advanced enough to use Claymore mines, plant them so that you can protect your backside while sitting still. The Claymores are best used around doorways or other traffic choke points like flags. Finally, if you need practice, play the single-player Spec Ops mode, where waves of enemies keep attack you until they finally take you down.

Cool new maps

The new version of multiplayer comes with 16 maps. Matches range anywhere from four to nine players on a side. They include all sorts of terrain, but don’t necessarily reproduce anything that is in the single-player campaign.

In the Village map, you fight among tin-roof shanty buildings and deep caves. Just about every corner has a good hiding place, so it’s easy to get ambushed if you just run around a lot. In Mission, you play around a run-down Spanish mission that stands on a cliff. It provides a big challenge in fighting at different elevations. Some of the maps are small, necessitating the use of quick-draw and rapid-fire weaponry. Some are large, with plenty of room for sniping at long ranges.

It is hard to stay alive for longer than 30 seconds. At any given time, a sharpshooter may have a bead on you from far away. If you round a corner, you may meet the wrong end of a shotgun or a knife blade. From above, helicopters, Predator drones, or jet aircraft may rain death on you. And you could always swear that you pulled your trigger just a split-second before the player who took you out.

Once you reach level four, you can create and customize weapons loadouts known as classes, which is like a kit that includes your choice for primary weapons, secondary weapons, special abilities known as perks, and types of grenades. Perks include Blind Eye, which hides you from air support; Stalker, which lets you move faster while aiming; and Hardline, which lets you achieve Killstreaks (where you get rewards for shooting multiple enemies in a row without dying) with one less kill.

The variety comes in with different types of matches, from Ground War with 12 to 18 players fighting it out to my favorite, Domination, where you have to take and defend three flags scattered strategically throughout the map. You can always count on the action being near the flags. There are many other modes from Team Deathmatch to Search and Destroy.

Big differences from Black Ops

There are some important differences compared to past years. The game no longer has a points currency system that Black Ops introduced.

This time, players can choose to play three different types of modern warriors with different packages of weaponry. These include the Assault Strike Package, where you can do as much direct damage as possible with Killstreak rewards that include Predator drone missiles, helicopters and air strikes. When you’ve achieved a Killstreak, it is one of the most wonderful triumphs because you can then take an overwhelmingly powerful weapon and rain it down on your enemies.

After what seemed like an enormous wait, I finally got an Attack Helicopter Killstreak last night. One of the Killstreaks I won’t miss are the attack dogs, which killed over and over again until someone took them out.

You can also use the Support Strike Package, where you can use rewards such as an unmanned aerial vehicle for recon, counter-UAV (unmanned aerial vehicles) and anti-aircraft missile turrets. Players who aren’t quite as skilled at killing can use this package to help teammates win. When a support player dies, the streak count doesn’t reset upon dying.

If a player dies four times in a row, they get a “death streak” reward, where the player can run faster for a short time. If you die five times in a row, you can see on the radar map where the person is who killed you. If you die six times in a row, you fall into the “last stand” mode, where you’re bleeding out but can still shoot, and you carry an explosive that can blow up nearby enemies. That tips the odds in favor of beginners’ survival in battle against expert players.

Also, the game presents the Specialist Strike Package (unlocked at level 20), which is designed for expert players such as snipers. It gives you a fourth perk after two kills and a fifth perk if you get four. The Killstreak rewards of the last game rewarded players for individual kills. But this game rewards players for achieving collective goals known as Points. The more Points you get for your team, the more you can reap bonuses that help you in combat.

For the expert players, there are also some tweaks. You can now level up your weapons the same way you level up your character. There are 40 different weapons to choose from, and each one has a progression for leveling up. The higher you level up, the more you can add things like camouflage, reticules for better aiming and attachments for additions such as a grenade launcher. If you become proficient at using a weapon, you can level up and reduce the recoil when firing. As far as attachments go, you can now get a dual scope, which lets you see both close-range and long-range targets at once.

New multiplayer modes

The multiplayer also includes “survival mode” for the Spec Ops version of the game, originally introduced in Modern Warfare 2. In Spec Ops, you can play cooperatively with another player to defend against a horde of computer-generated enemies who come at you in progressively tougher and tougher waves. I played the Spec Ops mode and had a lot of fun loading up on ammo and purchase supplies in between rounds and using different strategies as more powerful waves hit me. Ultimately, you always die in this mode as the enemies overwhelm you like the undead surrounding the good guys in a zombie movie.

The regular multiplayer also has a “kill confirmed” mode. In this mode, you shoot an enemy and then have to run over the body to collect “dog tags.” That results in a confirmed kill. If you don’t confirm the kill, you don’t get credit for it. And if a person on your team dies, you can retrieve his or her dog tags so that you can deny the kill to the enemy.

This totally changes the way that snipers play. After they shoot someone, they have to rely on others to pick up dog tags for them. The dog tags become a kind of battleground, as players have to race to them to either confirm or deny a kill.

There’s also a mode called Team Defender where your job is to protect a player who grabs a flag and moves it to your part of the map.

By popular demand, Modern Warfare 3 will support dedicated PC servers, allowing players to browse, filter and join dedicated servers as they wish. Players can set up their own servers and administer them with direct control over features such as game rules, setup and ban lists.

The untested Call of Duty Elite

Because of outages in the first couple of days, the Call of Duty Elite social network remains one of the great unknowns at the moment. The service is designed to keep gamers engaged for the whole year, not just in the few weeks after the game comes out. If you subscribe to the premium version for $49.99 a year, you can get access to all of the coming map packs and monthly downloadable content. If it works, it will be one more reason that Call of Duty will be addictive.

I got into Elite for a short time on Monday to see my stats under the Career mode. You can study the multiplayer maps and figure out where you’re getting killed and how to improve your play in the future. In the future, you will be able to watch Call of Duty-related video such as the Noob Tube or Friday Night Fights. You’ll also be able to compete in everyday contests, join groups and clans, and link up with friends with similar interests. It’s a great idea, but one that is still awaiting full execution. Once Activision Blizzard gets this fixed, Modern Warfare 3 could get a lock on some of the most lucrative players in gaming.

As we noted before, Beachhead Studios worked on the Elite service as a social network for all things Call of Duty for more than two years. The goal was to integrate the service deeply with Modern Warfare 3. Since Activision Blizzard dedicated a full studio to Elite, it is considered a major investment.

Even before the launch of Modern Warfare 3, the Call of Duty community is already one of the strongest there is. More than 30 million people have played online this year and 20 million players play each month. On average, the Call of Duty player plays 170 hours of the game per year. That’s as much time spent as watching the full series of the Sopranos and Lost, combined.

For every day that the service isn’t working, that’s a lot of lost eyeballs.

Conclusion

Modern Warfare 3’s multiplayer gives players more choices in what is an already expansive environment for gaming. That’s one reason why the series sold more than 25 million in the past year and why it will likely do great again this year. Players might very well get bored because it is too similar to past games; but that’s the curse of having online multiplayer combat that works so well.

I’ve got a long way to go, as I’m only 16 percent done with leveling up on multiplayer. I’ll report some more progress and return to Elite once it becomes stable. Yes, dear reader. I will continue to die for you over and over again. I hope you appreciate my sacrifice, as this play is really hard work. If I had to give multiplayer alone a rating, I would rank it as 90 out of 100.

Please check out our Skyrim and Lord of the Rings War in the North reviews as well.