The Modern Warfare series empties adrenal glands like a speed trip. Its formula turns its players into compulsive digital drug addicts, drained from elevated pulses and limitless satisfaction. Infinity Ward has built their series with a procession of rapid, breathtaking climaxes that amount to hours of distilled dramatic tension and sudden gratifying release. They are never slowed by the narrative arcs and artful characters that many games strive to produce, and the result is a delivery of thin but constant euphoria and the desire to be rewarded with even more.
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 is the purest iteration of this practice. For years now, we’ve followed our heroic pariahs as they careen toward lunatic terrorists, waiting for the moment when it all coalesces into a giant, rapturous finale. That moment is the entirety of the Modern Warfare 3 narrative, as firefights and roller-coasters take the experience of arcade-realistic war to its threshold. We’re given a story about inevitable finality, and, at its base, the impact of motivated people colliding with the world. We truck our characters forth into the fields of battle, where we blast past nameless, furious enemies who pour from ruined buildings, sometimes slitting their throats as they stand guard.
Modern Warfare 3 is more drastic than the rest of the franchise. The series has virtually stopped innovating since it first blew away critics a few years ago, but pieces of its narrative have become better in small increments as the story has drawn to a close. The pace is so quick that the story is almost incomprehensible, though the flickers of clarity that penetrate the explosions and swirling lights are resonant. We meet considerable death at points in the story, and we’ve spent so much time with the characters that it is impossible not to feel fleeting rage when one of them leaves, even though we’ve known them as nothing more than lightly-nuanced shapes. After all, the climactic formula makes us always react and never reflect on anything. It is easy to slip into our most primal emotions when the stakes are constant, high, and unyielding. And it makes us yearn for what deft storytelling might manage to stir inside us.
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 feels tricky and minimalist as we play through it, whether Infinity Ward designed it with that intention or not. We’re given scant help in understanding or following the events that occur in the story, and yet we head forth through peril and excitement with an assumed purpose. Occasionally we see civilian bodies strewn across a subway station or an entire city, snuffed lives that we must wade through as we seek to send their assailants to the grave. The game itself gives us very little reason to sympathize with these people, but our ultimate goal is to either avenge them or put an end to whatever left them this way. This is where the mechanism of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 forces us to meet the fiction past halfway if we desire to gather anything meaningful from the story. We must create a bit of our own fiction to supplement the narrative.
A little while back, my sister and I backpacked through Mostar, a small city in the southern region of Bosnia. It is the nearest I’ve ever been to a war, as Mostar was then a decade removed from a profound genocide. Most people live there now in relative safety. But some men in their middle age hobble around on crutches because they only have one leg. An entire generation of their brothers is missing. I saw war as a functional artifact, its remnants cast across the town. As we walked through the streets, great tall bullet-ridden doors would open with cheering, happy kids pouring from their interiors as school let out. I saw the place with no fear of sheared limbs, lurking land mines, or arrhythmic artillery blasts. They did, too.
That memory is where I gathered inspiration to commit sympathy to the scenarios that surround Soap and Price. Because, despite my struggle to write off this loosely drawn exposition, the point of video games is to interact with them. And I learned from rolling through the game that oftentimes it means putting more of ourselves in than we expect to get back, in hopes of gleaning something permanent to carry away with us. That reward, the reward that matters, has remained elusive to me since I clicked off my console. Yet, I felt a bit of it stir as I simulated pulling triggers then, feeling the recoil and shake and taking apart the shapes of what God’s hands committed to form.
The entity of Modern Warfare 3 is larger than the detailing of a narrative. Mechanically, this definitive Modern Warfare formula carries over into the competitive portion like the program was built for it. With relentless action and reward, it offers gamers a welcoming place to experience frenzy and exhilaration, over and over and over again. It is reckless and tight and rooted in the fractional differences between human beings. And with as many entries as the franchise has seen, this latest one has tooled around with complex features and tacked on extras enough to take modern arcade gaming to a higher peak than we’ve seen in previous versions. It will eat away parts of our lives, if we let ourselves succumb to the incessant gifts it gives simply for being inside its world.
As a package, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 is at 100% throttle, 100% of the time. It slows for nothing and because of this nuance and consideration is lost, and our guts are all that feel any sort of impact. But that is how it’s always been, and how it’s meant to be.
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 was developed by Infinity Ward and Sledgehammer Games and published by Activision. Our review is based on a retail review copy for the Xbox 360. It is also available for the PC, PlayStation 3, and Nintendo Wii.
James Hawkins is the Senior Editor for Village Voice Media’s Joystick Division, where he generates weekly columns about game narratives and our experiences with them. He lives in Seattle, and if you care to know him, you can follow him on Twitter at @JamesHawk1ns.