Call of Duty Modern Warfare 3 delivers what it promises for gamers. It’s an epic first-person shooter combat game with all of the drama and action of a Hollywood war movie. Because the developers solidly executed their mission for the third time running, this game will likely be one of the biggest-selling titles of the year. I’ve played it through and it didn’t disappoint me. To me, it’s one of the contenders alongside Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception for the best game of the year.

Editor’s note: This review contains some story spoilers.

Activision Blizzard has mastered the very difficult job of giving Call of Duty fans a new blockbuster game every November, with plenty of multiplayer play to keep them busy for much of the year. Modern Warfare is the crown jewel property within the Call of Duty series; it focuses on first-person combat in the modern era. In the first-person shooter genre, this game is as big as it gets. At the current rate, Call of Duty games are generating more than $1 billion in revenues for parent company Activision Blizzard. Analysts expect this title to sell more than 20 million units, beating last year’s record-setting Call of Duty Black Ops.

The grudge match with Battlefield 3

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Modern Warfare 3 is going head-to-head this fall against Electronic Arts’ Battlefield 3. While Battlefield 3 sold 5 million units in its first week, the analysts expect that Modern Warfare 3 could outsell it by 2 to 1.

I played Battlefield 3 all the way through and I did so while heavily medicated. Indeed, what started as the flu turned into walking pneumonia for me. I wasn’t supposed to be doing anything but rest. But there was no way I wasn’t going to play both Battlefield 3 and Modern Warfare 3 all the way through as soon as possible. That’s what gamers do as a kind of self-sacrifice for the greater cause.

I didn’t think the overall Battlefield 3 experience was quite as bad as our reviewer, Sebastian Haley, described. He definitely nailed the first-day server issues as inexcusable. And Sebastian was right on the money about what was weak about Battlefield 3: weak characters, a so-so story, and poor storytelling when it comes to drama and tension. Sebastian is tough, but he’s got keen insights.

I had fun playing infantry, tank, and air battles in Battlefield 3 because they weren’t the same as Call of Duty. I can see EA’s path of improvement with its first-person shooters. But in the end, I had to favor Modern Warfare 3. Battlefield 3 may be more realistic, but it just isn’t nearly as fun to play as Modern Warfare 3.

That latter statement is my opinion; I fully expect a lot of fans will see it the other way around. I’m actually glad that these two games have come out so close to each other, as they will provide sharp comparisons and contrasts for gamers on the different roads that developers can take in making these kinds of games. When one game’s servers are down, gamers will have the option of jumping to the other one. Competition is a good thing, and I think both of these games are better for it. I suspect a lot of people will be like me and play both games all the way through.

The single-player campaign for Modern Warfare 3 wraps up a story that began in 2007 with the first in the Modern Warfare series, Call of Duty Modern Warfare. That game took the series out of World War II and brought it to a whole new level of serious single-player and multiplayer modern-day combat. That move completed the game’s shift to “epic realism,” which Activision chief Eric Hirshberg says is striking a balance between real world authenticity “where this could be happening” with the unbelievable, Hollywood style epic moments that seem like they’re out of the movies.

Hirshberg also says that Call of Duty games are unique in delivering an “ultimate adrenaline rush.” You play it with white-knuckles and it shakes you up. The games are also easy to learn and hard to master. And Call of Duty games are primed to run at a first-person speed, or 60 frames per second, Hirshberg said. For the most part, he’s right. The game stands apart based on those claims.

Battlefield 3’s console versions ran at the slower speed of 30 frames per second, and the difference was noticeable. While Call of Duty’s physical effects, such as destructible environments, aren’t as good as Battlefield 3’s, the graphics are really quite good and playable. Only Battlefield 3’s graphical quality on the PC stands far above Modern Warfare 3’s. Still, I usually keep an eye out for graphics flaws, and I didn’t see anything horribly out of place in Modern Warfare 3.

Controversy comes again

It seems like it is pretty hard to make a game about modern warfare without being controversial. New Yorkers will certainly cringe at seeing their skyline in ruins in the game, and Parisians will bemoan the flames on the Eiffel Tower. Londoners in particular will be quite upset with this game.

The new game has controversial elements in it, just as the prior games had. In this title, you can choose whether to see them or not, just as you could (after a patch was installed) on Call of Duty Modern Warfare 2. Two years ago, Modern Warfare 2 drew widespread criticism because the user could participate in a civilian massacre at a Russian airport. This time, the disturbing scene isn’t so interactive and it is much shorter. In it, you see a child and her tourist parents killed after a truck stops nearby, explodes, and spreads poison gas throughout London. Movies have scenes like this all of the time to drive the emotion of war and violence home. But Activision Blizzard catch hell for including the scene, particularly from the mass media that doesn’t play games. For hardcore gamers, this scene fits with the disturbing portrait of war in the age of terrorism that the game series paints so well.

This year’s game is the third installment in the Modern Warfare series with the Call of Duty Brand. The first, Call of Duty 4 Modern Warfare, debuted in 2007 with an unrelenting focus on the horrors and action of modern combat. The second title debuted in 2009 with Call of Duty Modern Warfare 2, which at the time became the best-selling game of all time. That title was succeeded by Call of Duty Black Ops (set in the 1960s onward), which sold more than 20 million units and also became the biggest seller of all time. Analysts are predicting that Modern Warfare 3 will be the biggest title yet.

Thankfully, the gutting of Infinity Ward with the departure of its founders (in an ongoing dispute with the parent company) didn’t hurt this game. Infighting over royalties tore the team apart and nearly pushed the game off schedule, but Activision Blizzard pulled in the reinforcements, enlisting developers from Infinity Ward (more than half the staff stayed to work on it), Sledgehammer Games, Treyarch, Beachhhead Studios (which worked on the Call of Duty Elite social network) and Raven Software. With more than 500 developers to tap, the team finished the title on time for today’s launch. By using multiple studios and staggering their work across multiple years, Activision Blizzard can feed rabid fans a new major game every year, without sacrificing quality. Activision Blizzard may well have put off some future projects, but it managed to finish Modern Warfare 3 — without major glitches.

Starting with a better story and good characters

The good starting point for Modern Warfare 3 is that it has a much better plot to keep the game focused. In any Call of Duty game, the goal is to give the gamers a wide array of experience fighting in multiple types of terrain in various combat situations.

That has meant in the past that you jump from character to character and the plot sometimes doesn’t hold together as a cohesive whole. Battlefield 3 kept a consistent main character and didn’t stray too much, but its characters and story weren’t as compelling. If Battlefield 3 was lined up against Call of Duty Modern Warfare 2, it would have looked just fine in that way.

The plot of Call of Duty Modern Warfare 2 started plausibly enough, with two great nations being tricked into war by terrorists. But then it veered off into unbelievably ridiculous terrain. By the end of that game, you as the gamer had to shoot at terrorists, Russians, and American soldiers commanded by a rogue general — all in the same battle. It was horribly implausible, and I really didn’t enjoy shooting at American soldiers.

This game is much simpler. It focuses on the major characters Capt. John “Soap” MacTavish, a member of the secret anti-terrorist group Task Force 141 (now disavowed) and former SAS Capt. John Price. As the war wages around them, their mission is to find and kill Vladimir Makarov, the ultranationalist Russian terrorist leader who tricked Russia and the United States into World War III during the previous game. Modern Warfare 3 is a story about revenge, enacted by soldiers who have earned our respect over time as saviors of the modern world. Makarov has new diabolical plans to get his hands on Russia’s nuclear arsenal.

Both Soap and Price have been together since the very first title. While the player jumps from one character to the next, Soap and Price are never out of the picture for long. In that sense, the characters are familiar and iconic. Soap is voiced by actor Kevin McKidd and Price is voice by Billy Murray. While the dialogue isn’t brilliant as it is in Uncharted 3, it also isn’t stupid, which is often the case in video games. Soap and Price are buddies, but not jokers. They are merciless killers in pursuit of a prize. These now-iconic characters are bound by a common lack of respect for the rules and a hatred for Makarov and his fellow terrorists. The plot advances as they find ways to track down Makarov and thwart his plans to interrupt the peace process and keep the war going.

Price and Soap are joined by Russian informant Nikolai and by new characters such as Yuri, a member of Task Force 141 who may or may not be trustworthy. Another new character is Derek “Frost” Westbrook, an American elite Delta Force soldier who fights along a Delta Force officer named Sandman. The story is plausible, though it happens in an incredibly short period of time. And the plot has unexpected twists and serious moments that make it seem like a Bourne Identity thriller movie.

A good beginning

The new game starts in the middle of World War III. As mentioned, Modern Warfare 2 brought the conflict between the U.S. and Russia to a head, with the Russians taking Washington D.C., only to be pushed back at the last minute. Now the fighting has moved to New York, London and Paris.

You start out as Frost, who has to fight his way into the New York Stock Exchange and disrupt Russia’s technology for interrupting allied communications. From the very outset, the combat is fierce. The player as Frost has to take out a bunch of Russian troops and sweep through a bunch of enemies in rubble in order to get into the building.

One of the battles takes place inside a jewelry shop full of glass displays. That scene reminded me of the scene in the original Call of Duty 4 Modern Warfare game where a shootout takes place in a TV station full of glass monitors. The sound of gunfire and shattered glass is cacaphonous. Then you move on from one difficult firefight to the next. Once you get to the top of the building, you have to blow up an antenna and then take out a bunch of Russians on rooftops. Then you board a helicopter and have to deal with Russian Hind helicopter gunships chasing you through the skyscrapers. Then things really get hairy when your helicopter spins out of control.

The action is short, sharp, and polished for maximum drama and tension. The first scene is an example of the kind of nonstop action that the game delivers to you over and over again. Jaded veteran players might very well be bored with this kind of over-the-top game play — something that isn’t likely to happen in real life — but the experience of playing through it will leave you with that adrenaline rush. That first scene is enough combat for a movie like Saving Private Ryan, but that’s just the start for Modern Warfare 3. Altogether, the single-player campaign game has 17 missions across three Acts.

Flawless execution of familiar game play

The game play is familiar in that you point and shoot. You can auto-aim by pulling the left trigger, which focuses your gun sites on a target. Then you pull the right trigger to fire. Rinse and repeat. You do this over and over again to clear lots of enemies before they can get a bead on you.

You can switch weapons, toss a grenade, take someone out silently with a knife stroke, and use special weapons or ride in a vehicle. For the most part, you can participate in tank or aerial combat, as the game continues to focus on the individual soldier’s experience of war.

Each battle space is unique in some way. Flaming embers fall at your feet. Chemical warfare gas can force you to wear a mask and lose your full vision. Sandstorms can whip up even worse visibility problems. You can choose to take out enemies silently or go in with guns blazing.

Usually, you can’t go wrong if you seek out one of the flanks and try to go around the enemy. The maps are usually big enough where you can find the path to the side. But in one of the maps, you have to stay in between two columns of advancing tanks. The enemies are on foot on both sides. So you have to use the tanks as cover and move ahead at a fast enough speed to stay up with the tanks. But the fighting is tricky because you have to fire in both directions in order to stay alive. The timing is particularly difficult, and I spent a lot of time trying to get through that mission.

That’s one of the reasons that the play time for the relatively short campaign can go upward. It took me about eight to 10 hours to finish the single-player campaign on “hardened,” which is one level above normal difficulty and which is the level that most players should play on if they are veterans of the prior games. It took me about the same amount of time — probably a little longer — to get through the Battlefield 3 single-player campaign. I don’t know the exact times since I was occasionally delirious while playing.

But there are some important differences between Modern Warfare 3 and Battlefield 3. Those include the over-the-top moments that are much more like scenes from Uncharted 3 (with fights aboard planes and moving ships or trains) than Battlefield 3.

Way over the top

The Call of Duty developers have a knack for putting you in the most dramatic combat scene possible and then focusing in on nothing but eye-popping action, where you move from the frying pan into the fire over and over again.

By the time you finish, the game will take you on a whirlwind tour of Manhattan, New York harbor, Brooklyn, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Russia, the London underground, London’s docks, Paris, downtown Prague, a castle in the Czech Republic, the skyscrapers of Berlin, a mine in Siberia and a fancy casino in the Middle East.

You’ll fight in the glass jewelry shop, underwater, in a rubber speed boat, on board an airplane that is losing its hull integrity, in the dark with night-vision goggles, during high-speed car chases, and in the middle of a sand storm. Sometimes you go into battle with guns blazing, but often you have to scoot by guards in stealth and take them out with your knives. You have all manner of assortment of weapons to use, including sniper rifles, assault rifles, pistols, shotguns, rocket-propelled grenades, Javelin anti-tank missiles, and you can even control a remotely piloted mini tank with a chain gun that can deliver some fierce firepower.

You’re pretty much always an elite foot soldier, but you can fight as the machine gunner in a tank, fire mortar rounds at approaching enemies, lob smoke for air attacks to obliterate nearby enemies, take out enemies with well-placed sniper fire, command the 105 millimeter cannon of a giant AC-130 aircraft at tiny targets on the ground, glide down zip lines, guide missiles from drone aircraft, and shoot it out among the cubicles of ruined offices.

These activities aren’t new. But they are executed with a sense of drama that makes them exciting and familiar at the same time. For instance, you go from a battle on the ground in Paris to the AC-130 aircraft flying above it and back down to the ground battle — all in a very short span of time. There isn’t time to get bored, even though you’ve fired from an AC-130 in previous games. It’s enough action for 10 war movies.

Occasionally, you feel like there’s too much action, like when you’re escaping from a Russian submarine, and you’re simply along as a spectator for a spectacular ride. And the greater the spectacle, the less realistic it seems. But as long as that ride is entertaining, I don’t mind.

Is 60 frames per second good enough?

The graphics are speedy and high quality, and the cinematics, or animated film-like sequences, are seamlessly woven into the game play, much like in Uncharted 3. Sometimes it’s hard to spot the exact transition from the cinematic to the playable game. Activision Blizzard’s mandate is to focus on the speed of the game. But it’s hard to notice graphics flaws. The sounds will make your pulse pound and the music is primed to deliver an overwhelmingly immersive experience. One of the great visual effects usually happens at the end of a mission, like when you board a helicopter and the camera pulls out wide, showing the devastation of a city and the crashing collapse of a major landmark in a view from the air. You move from game play to cinematic in a seamless way.

It’s nice that you are a companion to the major characters Soap and Price during much of the game, since they bring a kind of emotional immediacy to the action that unfolds around you. If they scream at you to jump for cover, you’re going to jump for cover. That’s a more dramatic moment than when you get hit unawares by bullets in an ambush, with no one warning you to get down. The graphics and sound effects are good, but they’re wrapped in the story as well and they serve to advance it.

Pointing the gamer the wrong way

One of the frequent “bugs” that I find in shooter games is that you can often get lost and not know what you’re supposed to do next. You emerge from a firefight and find that your companions have moved on to the next part of the mission, but you don’t know where they are. Call of Duty solves this problem by putting a white dot with the word “Follow” on the soldier you are supposed to follow, whether that’s Soap or Price or someone else.

Still, it’s possible to get lost. Sometimes you move into a larger battle space, such as a plaza in a castle, and find you’re not sure exactly what to do. You can take out a lot of the enemies and find that your companion is just ducking low in the middle of the plaza. Where are you supposed to move? It took me a while to figure out that I had to move along the sides, find a corridor where I had to shoot it out, and then link up with my companion in a hallway in the upstairs part of one of the walls to the plaza. It was not easy to find that place where I was supposed to be. To me, that’s a bug in the game, not a flaw in the player.

Another flaw that I spotted a couple of times in Battlefield 3 is that you can stay in one position and shoot the same enemy over and over and over again. As my team was assaulting the previously mentioned skyscraper, I lay in wait on the flank and fired repeatedly at one soldier on the far end of the building’s exposed third floor. Some dumb soldier kept moving into the same position, as if the soldier were merely a robot getting up and going back to the same spot. That happened a couple of times in Battlefield 3, but it didn’t happen to me in Modern Warfare 3. In fact, when I was trying to get through the tank escort mission, the same soldiers often didn’t show up in the same place, even though I was repeating the mission over and over.

If you do happen to get stuck in a part of the game, the usual reason for me is that I’m getting shot and I have no idea where the shot is coming from. Sometimes you get a clue by watching the animation that continues for a second or two after you get shot. But there are other times when it seems like the shots are coming out of nowhere. That makes the game more challenging.

It also changes your tactics. You have to plan which attackers you’ll take out first and then proceed to the next ones methodically. Sometimes I just let my companions take on the bulk of the shooting and I crawl along the ground. It’s not very dignified or heroic, but it’s a good way to survive when you just have no idea where the enemies are hiding. The problem is they will toss grenades at you if you stay holed up in one place too long.

For the most part, you can figure where the enemies are through trial and error. Unlike in real life, in the video games you get an endless number of lives to experiment with. If one approach doesn’t work, you try a slightly different tack the next time.

Bugs or inconveniences?

I had a little trouble saving my missions. This is an automated process that allows you to pick up exactly where you left off by selecting “resume game.” Since the mission saving didn’t always work, I had to backtrack and redo those missions. I discussed the matter with Infinity Ward and they said that they hadn’t heard about that problem with anyone else.

The time counter for time spent playing the game was a little off as well. That’s because the timer continues to count time if you back out of the game and leave your machine on sitting at the Main Menu of the game. So the single-player game time on the Hardened level of difficulty is more like eight to ten hours, though my counter said I had played it for 20 hours. The actual game time felt like a satisfying duration for the game.

When I completed the campaign on Hardened, I was surprised to see the game said I had only completed 75 percent of it. That’s because I didn’t collect all of the “Intel” available on every level. And I would have gotten more percentage points if I had played the game on the highest level of difficulty, Veteran. Fortunately, there are no major flaws in the game itself.

Spec Ops single and multiplayer mode

Modern Warfare 3 features a new survival mode where one or two players can fight wave upon wave of non-player enemies. This Spec Ops mode allows you to start out with just a pistol and then earn “cash” points for every kill you get. The enemies are easy to shoot at first, but they become harder over time. In between attack waves, you get so many seconds to “buy” better weapons, ammo, and armor from chests that are spread out on the map. You can buy grenades, automatic weapons, and the whole assortment of weaponry that you have in the single-player campaign. The enemies get tougher, like a shotgun-armed armored soldier who has to be taken out with heavy ordinance. I find it useful to get some easy kills in Spec Ops mode by buying Claymore mines that the enemies will run into, earning you easy extra kills that pay for themselves.

But I never last for long in Spec Ops. I’ve got a long way to go before I get anywhere near completing the Spec Ops missions. But it does the job. If you play with a friend, you can spread your weapons across two players. But the waves never stop coming and they eventually get you. After you die, you’re tense and you’re feeling like “I can’t believe that last guy got me.”

Call of Duty Elite

One of the new attractions for gamers this time is the new hardcore gamer’s social network, Call of Duty Elite. It includes a free service that allows you to explore the Call of Duty universe, view game-related videos, participate in tournaments, join like-minded friends in both groups and clans, and look up your career statistics such as your lifetime kill/death ratio in multiplayer.

[Update: Activision Blizzard acknowledged it is having trouble keeping up with player registrations on Nov. 8]

Elite will also have a subscription service of $49.99 a year that will make monthly downloadable content free. You’ll also get access to daily competitions with virtual and real prizes, the ability to level up your clan, and expert advice on how to improve your game play.

The PC version of this service is late. But I checked out the Xbox Live version of the network and it works as advertised. I played a few matches of multiplayer and saw the match results show up under one of the tabs in the Career section of the Elite service. I could see exactly how many kills and deaths I had, which weapon I used to get those kills, and the percentage accuracy of my shooting. I don’t know how EA’s Battlelog service compares yet because I haven’t been able to log into it.

Over time, I’ll be able to look at the stats and then view them under the Improve section of Elite. There, I’ll be able to examine the 16 multiplayer maps and find out where I’ve been dying or killing most of the time. I can also find out which weapons work most effectively on those maps and then work on getting better.

For entertainment, the Elite TV section offers professionally produced shows such as The Noob Tube and Friday Night Fights, as well as access to cool YouTube videos of exploits in Modern Warfare 3.

My main complaint about this service is that I wished Activision Blizzard thought about doing this at the dawn of Call of Duty. I feel like all of the hours I’ve already invested in this game haven’t been recorded. But going forward, at least I’ll be living a documented Call of Duty multiplayer life. I don’t know if it’s worth paying for Call of Duty Elite yet. But it could definitely be a way to deepen the overall Call of Duty experience and make me spend even more time with the game.

In summary — and multiplayer review to come

Call of Duty Modern Warfare 3 brings a real sense of closure to the series. If they never make another one, the series will feel complete. That’s what the third game in a trilogy is supposed to achieve. You can see an end to a story that started more than five years ago and you can play it to its spectacular finale. I’ve been a fan of this series since the very first Call of Duty game debuted, and I’m amazed to see how far it has come in defining the genre for everyone else to follow.

So while the game play is familiar, this title is not the same old thing, a problem for many sequels in the video game industry. I played it on the Xbox 360, and it is available on the PlayStation 3 and PC as well.

Our review of the multiplayer version will follow shortly. Suffice to say that multiplayer is better for this title than the past ones (both Call of Duty Modern Warfare 2 and Call of Duty Black Ops). And the Black Ops multiplayer was so fun that I played it for months. So far, I’ve had no trouble getting into Modern Warfare 3 multiplayer games.

Based on the superior single-player experience and the multiplayer fun, I rate the game 91 out of 100.