E3 2011: Modern Warfare 3 campaign plays it safe

Activision’s upcoming Modern Warfare 3 will sell tens of million and reap record profits for the company — unless the Sledgehammer Games and Infinity Ward production royally screws up. I’ll let you in on a little secret: it won’t. Modern Warfare 3 seems to be a phenomenal game, but here’s the (perhaps expected) catch: it’s one you’ve played several times before.

“We’re really trying to pay off for the player all of the promises and excitement that was delivered in Modern [Warfare] 1 and Modern [Warfare] 2,” said Sledgehammer Games Co-founder Michael Condrey. “We really are standing on the shoulders of greatness with Modern 2, right?”

Greatness? Well, sure. But Modern Warfare 2’s campaign was inspired by Call of Duty 4’s before it — and, quite honestly, not much has changed since then.

On Tuesday at E3 2011, Modern Warfare 3 Executive Producer Mark Rubin led a group of journalists through two of the game’s campaign levels. The first, Hunter Killer, begins underwater. A group of special operatives torch a grate, pass through a flooded tunnel still jammed with cars, and pilot their SDVs (SEAL Delivery Vehicles) toward a massive enemy submarine. This is a player-controlled segment, though barely — there’s nowhere to go but toward the sub. Corpses litter the ocean, floating eerily in their murky graves. We approach the sub, plant an explosive charge, and then watch the craft surface amidst a profusion of explosions.

We emerge from the ocean alongside the sub and see a dilapidated New York City skyline under attack from helicopters, jets, and missiles. It’s time to infiltrate the submarine, which provides plenty of opportunity to showcase the now-classic Call of Duty action: aim down the sight, shoot hostiles in the head, watch scripted event, and repeat.

In the interest of time, the demo skips forward through more in-sub combat. We’re taken to the sub’s command center — well, the bolted door outside it. It’s no problem, though; an explosive charge gets rid of that pesky barrier. We engage in a slow-motion shootout, much like those of Modern Warfare 2 (noticing a pattern yet?). After the room is cleared, we simultaneously turn a key with another operative to initiate a missile launch. Task complete, we evacuate the sub as fighter jets swoop just overhead. Hopping into a small motor boat, we navigate the dense ocean warfare and evacuate the area via an awaiting helicopter on the other end of the harbor.

The game’s visuals also look a lot like those of prior Call of Duty installments. The engine has received some very minor enhancements — I noticed a tad bit more motion blur, as well as some enhanced fire and water effects — but, for the most part, the game’s crisp graphics are more or less on par with those of Black Ops. Naturally, the frame rate is a silky smooth 60 frames per second.

The second level, Mind the Gap, was far less noteworthy — minus the thrilling conclusion. With a host of other operatives, we infiltrate a warehouse, watch some scripted kills, decimate some enemies, leave the warehouse, battle through an open lot, and so on. It’s Call of Duty through and through. Laser sights meander as skyscrapers loom in the background. A friendly chopper swoops in to lay down the hurt on a gaggle of bad guys.

Eventually, the battle works its way underground, and we hop on the back of a truck as we race alongside a subway car. This on-rails shooting segment plays host to some epic audio design — sound echoes and booms in the subway tunnels, and civilians scream and duck for cover as we pass through a station. Eventually, the train derails and smashes through the concrete barriers. Suddenly the screen goes black and the lights return — the demo is over.

In journalism, if you copy one of your old articles, shift some paragraphs around, and change a few words, it’s called plagiarism — or, at the very least, laziness. But in the games industry, if you mimic one of your old campaigns, alter some environments, add a few new guns, and slap ‘Modern Warfare’ on the box, it’ll be the new highest-grossing game of all time.