Activision’s “Call of Duty” releases are to video games what Michael Bay movies like “Transformers” are to cinema. They’re loud and flashy, they deliver state-of-the-art digital effects, and they don’t have a coherent thought in their heads. If playing the latest “CoD” campaign doesn’t give you a headache, trying to make sense of its convoluted, preposterous story will.
“Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3” (Activision, for the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PC, $59.99; Wii, $49.99) begins with New York City under attack from Russia. How did we get here? In the previous chapter, an American undercover agent got himself framed in a terrorist attack at the Moscow airport, and now the Russians are retaliating. Both sides, however, are merely pawns being manipulated by Vladimir Makarov, who’s bent on destroying the West and returning Mother Russia to its former glory.
So begins a symphony of destruction that lays waste to cities and landmarks all over the world. Wall Street gets leveled. The Eiffel Tower is toppled. In one particularly manipulative moment, a little girl and her mother gawk at Big Ben before London gets its clock cleaned.
One problem with the “Modern Warfare” series is that you cannot do anything to stop this. You control a cross section of elite warriors with seemingly infinite resources at their disposal, yet a surprising percentage of “MW3” missions end in failure. Makarov got away again? Oops.
What do you control? Guns. Pistols, shotguns, sniper rifles, assault weapons, rocket launchers ? if it has a trigger, it’s here. Occasionally you get to call in an airstrike or set off explosives, but for the most part it’s aim and shoot, aim and shoot until you’ve killed everyone.
The gameplay falls into the familiar pattern for military shooters: You enter an area filled with enemies, eliminate them, then reload and move on to the next zone. There are occasional breaks ? like an underwater mission tracking a nuclear sub ? but they’re just brief diversions from the relentless gunplay.
It all looks and sounds spectacular; developers Infinity Ward and Sledgehammer Games had a lot to live up to with this sequel, but all the behind-the-scenes drama doesn’t seem to have diminished the quality of the production. (In brief: Infinity Ward’s founders and dozens of their employees jumped ship last year, and Sledgehammer was recruited to help the restaffed studio complete the “MW” trilogy.)
As always, “MW3” offers an exhaustive suite of online, multiplayer modes. There’s nothing radically new this year, but familiar modes like death match and capture-the-flag have been tweaked enough that online “CoD” fans will definitely want to update. Also returning is the Special Ops mode, a collection of brief solo or two-player missions that fill in some of the main campaign’s background. And there’s the new addition of “Call of Duty Elite,” a $50 add-on service that promises monthly downloadable content, prize competitions and other treats for the truly hardcore.
The big question for this franchise is: Where does it go from here? Creatively, the entire military shooter genre has shown some signs of exhaustion this year. Sales-wise, however, “Call of Duty” is still doing blockbuster numbers, and Activision has already announced a new “CoD” installment for 2012. Next time, I hope the developers take a few more chances and try to breathe some new life into a series that’s at risk of getting stale. Three stars out of four.
Follow Lou Kesten on Twitter at http://twitter.com/lkesten