Preview

Modern Warfare 3

Good things come in threes..?

Modern Warfare has never been restrained when it comes to pre-release coverage and controversy, but even by the series' standards the last few weeks of headlines and reveals have been fascinating.

Last month the first official Modern Warfare 3 trailer with game footage hit the Internet and it's already caused quite a stir. The trailer shows battleships off the coast of New York launching missiles into the air while a Russian Mi-24 helicopter gunship lays siege upon a battered Manhattan, as well as massive firefights taking place in the streets and shopping arcades of Paris.

It's the footage of a covert operation taking place in London that has touched a nerve with the Daily Mail. The British newspaper describes "fury" from support groups of those affected by the 2005 London suicide attacks because the trailer shows footage of destruction in the Underground and outside the Houses of Parliament. It did not take the Daily Mail long to find ire, it has to be said.

Maybe more interesting and relevant to note is how much the trailer confirms the extensive plot leak that Kotaku reported earlier this month. Activision Publishing CEO Eric Hirshberg has since told Joystiq that the source "clearly had deep access" but that not everything in the leak is correct.

It's with all that in mind that I reflect on the gameplay footage shown to me - by Activision I'll have you know - of one of the Manhattan missions from start to finish as well as a big chunk of the covert operation mission taking place in London. Let's start with NYC.

The story resumes where Modern Warfare 2 left off, with Russia now deep into a full frontal attack of the Eastern Seaboard. As the trailer implies, World War 3 is very much a go.

The single-player campaign of the second Modern Warfare ditched the realism of the first game without remorse, going less for a plot torn from the front pages than for one wrenched out of the recesses of Michael Bay's brain matter. If the Manhattan mission is anything to go by, Modern Warfare 3 is clearly committed to the series' new bombastic direction.

The mission sees you play as a Delta Force operative tasked with taking out a jamming tower on the roof of the New York Stock Exchange that is preventing air support from counter-attacking the Russian invasion. You come out of unconsciousness in the flaming wreckage of a carrier vehicle with your commander, a blunt-sounding dude by the name of Sandman, helping you out to safety.

As you follow Sandman towards the Stock Exchange you see the city's skyscraper landscape blazing and crumbling around you, the wreckage so heavy that it's formed small foothills of debris for you to traverse. It's like Crysis 2 at first but with fewer aliens. Then things start to get insane.

For example, you eventually reach a stretch of road that is essentially a valley created by two of these foothills of wreckage. In front of you, you see Russian soldiers storming over the foothill horizon and taking cover behind whatever wreckage they can find. As you take fire, a Russian tank negotiates its way on top of a foothill, only for an American one to do the same behind you. Any strategy is thrown out of the window in what is a huge, utterly chaotic stand-off.

As soldiers and tanks start to appear out of seemingly nowhere, and just as you think this scene can't get any more blockbuster ridiculous, suddenly a Mi-24 descends upon you and throws its booming, destructive voice into the already deafening cacophony. It's all-out and a half, I'll give it that.

Luckily you're able to duck into a nearby building and make your way through some of the backstreets towards the Stock Exchange. When you do reach the Stock Exchange you find it surrounded by Russian defense. You make your way inside, underneath its tall Corinthian columns and large, half-torn American flag, gunning down hordes of the enemy and sparing little mercy for the wounded soldiers desperately backing away from you. Inside, there's the eeriness of a trading floor consumed by the noise of gunfire rather than voices. You circumvent what's left of the trading stations, taking out defenses on the gangways above as you ascend to the roof.

There are other highlights such as using a firework-like cluster grenade called the 9-Bang during an ambush, storming through a jewelry store that's more ablaze than a-bling, and using a reaper drone to take out roof-bound stragglers, but without doubt the Manhattan mission is all about the climax. I'll restrain from detailing it fully - there are clearly more than enough spoilers out there already - but suffice to say it involves a minigun and a very narrow recreation of Top Gun.

A quick note on the presentation: the visuals and audio are once again superb as you'd expect of a game following in Modern Warfare 2's footsteps, but without doubt it is a drop from what I saw of Battlefield 3 last month. That's to be expected when comparing a game leading on PC against one leading on consoles at this stage of the cycle, of course, and it will be more interesting to see how DICE's game looks on the same hardware. Just how much swing of the audience DICE can get with its PC visuals is another matter. Maybe the most important thing is that Modern Warfare 3 will run at 60 frames per second, certainly an achievement when you see the depth of the chaos in Manhattan.

That leaves the London mission to talk about, one more thing to reference the capital and be called "Mind the Gap". Thankfully that's as far as it seems to go in terms of authenticity - no red phone boxes being blown up or Mockney chimney sweeps sniping you from the roofs. Also, in contrast to the madcap run of Manhattan, the London mission is a covert one and starts off stealthy and slow.

It takes place midway through the campaign and you play as a SAS operative, your task to stop a WMD delivery from reaching Westminster and the Houses of Parliament. Whereas the US is in the midst of World War III, the fight appears not to have reached British soil or at least not that of the capital. The evening is calm and the East London skyline is serenely reflected in the Thames waters.

For a short while the mission seems like standard Modern Warfare stealth, albeit in a new and unusual setting. Eventually you're spotted and a firefight breaks out in the Dockyards. This culminates in the terrorists commandeering a tube train, Speed-style, and you being forced to give chase to it through the Underground tunnels in a Jeep, as detailed in the trailers.

The terrorists take fire at you from the carriage and you right back at them as your Jeep dips on and off the rails, desperately avoiding onrushing trains; London's underground is as dense a metro system as there is and its trains do frequently rush by one another within its tight tunnels.

To nail the Speed resemblance you even rush by a platform of commuters, all of them shocked by the scene playing out in front of them, all of which would seem to indicate the relative normalcy of life outside of the US in the Modern Warfare universe, at least before the events taking place in London. The icing on the Speed resemblance cake is when the terrorist's train derails in front of you, with you and your jeep unable to avoid becoming entangled in the crash. The events following and your own status remain to be seen, that is unless the Kotaku leak has gotten everything correct.

The thing is, as Infinity Ward's Robert Bowling indicated on Twitter earlier this month, the best policy is to wait to hear from Activision as to what will really go on in Modern Warfare 3.

Nothing epitomized that more than finally finding out that the speculation over Activision charging multiplayer was misdirected - slightly. Instead, Activision will roll out a multiplayer service for Modern Warfare 3 and Black Ops called Elite.

Elite is essentially a hub for Call of Duty players. It has detailed statistical information on players' success or failure in multiplayer modes, right down to kill to death ratios for each weapon, map, friends, recent matches, the whole bunch. For the numerically inclined of Call of Duty players, and let's face it, there are a lot of people out there who care about how good they are at Call of Duty online, this side of Elite will be very welcome.

There are also extensive social networking options in Elite in the form of groups, clans, competitions, YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook integration, and more. The final major aspect of Elite is the Wiki-like section that is stocked to the brim with information on just about every aspect of Call of Duty; each weapon, perk, map, killstreak bonus, accessory, etc.

Activision says that a great deal of what I'm seeing will be available for free, but there is a premium service which they are being quiet about regards price point. Having a premium subscription will give players access to all Modern Warfare 3 DLC, though, so if it's competitive against the total price of all that content then it may just be tempting enough to lure in most of the enthusiast contingent of Call of Duty players. It's an interesting gambit by Activision, this, and it will be even more interesting to see what they do and do not reveal about it next week at E3. Watch this space.