"And here we go again," you're probably thinking to yourself at the prospect of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3. It could be the "here we go again" of someone psyched for another go-round on a rollercoaster, or the "here we go again" of someone uninterested in an established formula. Both reactions are entirely appropriate. If you want another go-round on Activision's action movie rollercoaster, you'll get just what you want. But the uninterested party should know that this go-round has some important differences. In fact, this might be the Call of Duty for you.
The competitive multiplayer still has the basic progression of the rich getting richer. You unlock more powerful equipment and abilities by levelling up, which is just a matter of time, even if you suck. All good guns come to those who grind. But the Killstreak system, which awards the most spectacular toys, has always been a boondoggle for the better players. By racking up consecutive kills before getting killed yourself, you get the best gear. But for many of us, the "not getting killed yourself" part can be tricky. New to Modern Warfare 3 is perhaps one of the single most important additions for us: the Support Killstreaks.
When you set up your loadout, you can use the traditional Killstreak system, which features its own set of tools and even an advanced option to rack up new perks instead of one-off powers like airstrikes. But if you're not confident in your ability to stay alive long, you can use a Support Killstreak. This tracks your kills over the course of the match. So even if you're frequently on the wrong end of a rifle, you can still call in fun toys like the recon drone, stealth bomber, and juggernaut suit. What's more, Killstreaks aren't just Killstreaks anymore. You can earn credit with assists and game mode objectives like capturing points. The basics of multiplayer are still the same, but now it's more democratic, varied, and flexible.
If you're not interested in the levelling-up process, Modern Warfare 3 is exactly the Call of Duty for you. Players can host private matches in which they set their own rules, including some special game modes you might recognize from other games. In these private matches, everything is unlocked. Everything. You can make any kind of loadout you want, bring along any weapon fitted with any mod, use any perk, and line up any Killstreak. For the first time since Call of Duty introduced its cannily effective levelling-up system, it has opened the lid wide for anyone who wants to dig in and play. Democratic, varied, and flexible, indeed.
Also notable for players who don't want to dive into the competitive multiplayer is the new survival mode. You and one other player can hold out against waves of attackers, earning money to buy new weapons and defences, including explosives, airstrikes, and even friendly A.I.-controlled soldiers. As you play matches, you'll level up and unlock new items for future matches. It feels different from the similar modes in Gears of War and Halo because Call of Duty's lethal gunplay is so different. Each map has unique challenges in terms of where you need to go to spend your money on different items, which makes it a lot less static than other horde modes. And the persistent levelling is an insidious hook. Survival mode is the perfect co-op alternative to the canned scenarios based on the single-player levels.
The single-player is the usual nonsense, ponderously written as if you closely followed the nonsense in the last game. It's mostly an incoherent jumble among different locales with various characters, including a new guy who turns out to be the Zelig of Modern Warfare. It's all very serious, self-important, and familiar. But to Activision's credit, the levels are fast and short enough that they don't wear out their welcome. Unlike Battlefield 3, here is a single-player campaign that knows the difference between nonsense and tedious nonsense.
And at least it's spectacular nonsense. Activision continues to wring richly detailed settings from a mostly unambitious engine, which again sets it apart from the hugely ambitious spectacle of Battlefield 3's graphics. Your console version will not be compromised, your PC will not be overly taxed, and yet everything will break, collapse, or blow up at exactly the right designated moment. Not-very-bright men will be shot by the hundreds along the way. It will all be very war-like and just cinematic enough. It will be yet another go-round on the same rollercoaster. And this time, to enjoy it fully, you won't have to measure up at a sign that says "you must be this obsessed with multiplayer to ride this ride."