Call of Duty, to paraphrase Douglas Adams, is big. You won't believe how big it is. It's been an incredibly rapid expansion as well, a Big Bang that few could have predicted. As recently as 2006, with Call of Duty 3, the series was just another well-regarded but modestly successful WWII shooter, fighting for shelf space alongside Medal of Honor and Brothers in Arms.
But 2007's Modern Warfare turned Call of Duty into a legitimate media phenomenon: a superbrand that generates the same enormous numbers as a Tom Cruise, a U2 or a Manchester United. And like those entertainment colossi, it's as divisive as it is popular.
For every player who loves the games for their razzle-dazzle and online ubiquity, there's another who would gladly see the latest entry slapped with a mediocre score just to cut it down to size. Is it unfair to mark a game down just for giving millions of fans exactly what they want? Or do games that generate this much attention and income have an obligation to stretch the boundaries of their genres?
Either way, Modern Warfare 3 is exactly the game you expect. It's conservative in every sense of the word, a paean to military superiority which never ventures far beyond gameplay parameters that were set in stone in 2007.
As with all recent Call of Duty games, the single-player campaign is where the skirmish between spectacle and depth is most obviously fought. Picking up almost immediately after the events of Modern Warfare 2, it plunges the player into a world on the brink of a Third World War, with villainous Russian hardliner Makarov doing everything he can to ensure we're all tipped over the edge.
The good news is that the story - a planet-spanning tale full of treachery, terrorism and the sort of unlikely stunts that would make James Bond soil himself - is at least coherent this time. Compared to the meandering, disconnected compilation of things happening that led to Modern Warfare 2's head-scratching final twist, this is as lean and concise as Call of Duty storytelling gets. Events are easy to follow, characters behave consistently and while there are some major shocks along the way, they enhance the narrative rather than torpedoing it.
"A Call of Duty campaign is nothing these days without a sprinkling of 'holy s***!' moments."
While the garbled plotting has been reined in, the blockbuster excess has somehow been ramped up. A Call of Duty campaign is nothing these days without a sprinkling of "holy s***!" moments, and Modern Warfare 3 delivers the goods. This is a game where you can't get into an elevator without a helicopter crashing into it, and where it's not enough to just ride a tank through a city when you can chase the enemy inside a multi-storey parking structure, explode every car inside and then fall through the car park.
There's the storming of a nuclear submarine. There's a fantastic stealth entry to a fortified castle and an explosive exit from the same. There's a shootout in the London Underground involving moving trains which is breathlessly staged. Despite the story's constant scenery-shifting and multiple viewpoints, it all feels part of the same piece.
The only misstep comes in a short and frankly pointless interlude where you find yourself in the shoes of an American tourist in London as a dirty bomb is detonated. The scene isn't as wantonly crass as Modern Warfare 2's airport massacre, No Russian, but it still feels cheap, nasty and exploitative. Putting the gamer in horrific, hopeless situations only works if there's some greater insight to be gained. Doing it just to underscore the obvious is an abuse of the first-person perspective; tragedy porn of the worst kind.
For the most part, however, Infinity Ward has done its usual ruthlessly efficient and highly polished job of retooling Hollywood trailer moments into interactive vignettes. The absolute highlight is a sequence in which you're cast as a Russian secret service agent, protecting the Russian president on board his private jet during a hijack. The addition of violent turbulence and brief moments of weightlessness as the plane lurches and drops creates one of the most visceral and jaw-dropping shooting galleries in recent memory. Part Air Force One and part Inception, it's a great showcase for Infinity Ward's skill at designing memorable rides.
And it is a ride, of course. Often a visually stunning ride, with the retooled MW3 engine pumping out rock-solid carnage at 60 frames per second, but a ride all the same. If there's an element of the COD template that feels the most shopworn, it's the corridor construction. The game still veers sharply between astonishing "woah" moments and protracted head-banging checkpoints where constantly spawning enemies keep you pinned down as AI allies dither and dawdle, providing no assistance whatsoever until you inch past the invisible line that moves everything forwards.
It's not enough to ruin the experience - the eye-popping highs linger in the memory more than the teeth-grinding lows - but the fact that the series is still clinging to this awkward stop-start design ethos is troubling.
"Online sections of the game have been given a surprisingly wide-ranging overhaul."
If it's business as usual for solo players, the multiplayer contingent will find plenty that's new, as the online sections of the game (where, arguably, the real Call of Duty experience lies) have been given a surprisingly wide-ranging overhaul.
The core experience, however, is unmistakably COD. It's as frantic and aggressive as ever, with no concessions to suggest that Activision has been rattled by Battlefield 3's tubthumping. The headshot is still king, and the 16 maps all adhere to the ethos that has served the series so well to date: keep things moving, keep things busy and make sure there are no safe places to hide. At its brutal best, there's still nothing like a Call of Duty multiplayer match, and a shrewdly designed unlock system ensures that players of every skill level will start expanding their arsenal almost immediately.
It's all about progression these days, and Modern Warfare 3 does more than most to make even the n00biest n00b feel like they're upwardly mobile. Pretty much everything has its own layers of XP and augmentation built in: so every weapon, every accessory, every perk gets better with use as you tunnel deeper into the dense tangle of sub-objectives buried beneath the arcade-friendly surface.
Attention has also been paid to the perk system, so controversial in its first outings thanks to balance-breaking killstreaks and infuriating martyrdom abilities. Not only have the more unstoppable streak bonuses been tamed slightly - attack choppers and bomber strikes are no longer a sign to throw in the towel, for instance - but you have greater control over the perks you get, the bonuses you earn and when you unlock them. Strike Packages are how these elements have been reinvented, allowing you to select what benefits you'll get from a streak.
The Assault Strike Package is the most obvious, aimed at the headhunting body count player and rewarding constant kills. The Specialist package targets the more experienced player, offering up to three additional perks of your choice as your streak total rises. The Support Strike Package is perhaps the most radical, offering a lifeline to players who are unable to keep up with the ferocious kill/death ratios of the top-ranked players. Streaks for this class don't reset after death, so it's possible to build up to useful and worthwhile abilities even if you don't get a headshot every time.
The modes of play have also been expanded and improved. Most notable is Kill Confirmed, the new game mode which takes Team Deathmatch and injects just the right amount of strategy to keep it interesting. It's a small change to the formula - for a kill to count, you must collect the dog tags dropped by dead enemies - but it makes a huge difference, essentially turning each downed player into a miniature capture point. As well as collecting the tags from enemies, you can grab them from fallen comrades, thus denying the other team a vital point.
"Most notable is Kill Confirmed, the new game mode which takes Team Deathmatch and injects just the right amount of strategy to keep it interesting."
Call Of Duty Elite, the much-maligned pay-to-play subscription nightmare that is really just a free stat-driven app with bonuses for those who sign up in advance for all future DLC, adds yet more interesting wrinkles to the expected gameplay. Heat maps make it easy to dissect post-match performance, while it will also analyse your style of play and suggest weapon and perk combinations that will improve your scores.
Elite is also central to perhaps the most exciting development, as Private matches get their own exclusive game modes. Perhaps an admission that COD's community doesn't have the best reputation for civility, the decision to offer greater flexibility and variety to those playing with friends will be a boon to anyone who loves the game, but hasn't got the stomach for all the racist and homophobic epithets that too often greet each point scored.
These are the more offbeat modes - Juggernaut matches, Infection modes where players swap teams with each kill, Gun matches where every fresh scalp gives you a better weapon. All are fully customisable and open to remixing in whatever way you fancy. Even better, these settings can then be saved and shared with friends, who share with their friends, and so on, spreading mutant community-designed game modes virally. The best ones will be highlighted on Elite, and may even be added to the game proper in future updates.
Amid all the tutting and sniping about COD's bloated status as the biggest game in the world, it's easy to forget just how generous the series can be. There's a third side to Modern Warfare 3: co-op play. Where other titles might treat co-op as a paltry side dish, Modern Warfare 3 turns it into a veritable banquet.
Not only do you get 16 new Spec Ops objective-based missions to play with a friend, ranging from two-player twists on stages from the campaign to entirely new encounters, but there's an equally sizeable Survival mode as well, which uses the multiplayer maps for heart-pounding waves of ever-stronger enemies. Every bit as fast-paced as the competitive multiplayer, these horde-style stand-offs are more tactical and demand impeccable teamwork as you battle to last more than ten rounds. There's months of gameplay in this section alone.
So while it's easy (and fair) to criticise Modern Warfare 3 for sticking so closely to a winning template once again, it's also good to be reminded that for all the ire that the series attracts, it's still a phenomenally well-tooled gameplay machine, and one that goes out of its way to please.
Comparisons to Battlefield 3 are expected, but played back-to-back, also fairly futile. Where multiplayer is concerned, the two are far more different than their surface similarities would suggest. Where COD wins out is in its coherence.
Away from online, Battlefield 3 felt uncertain, its half-baked campaign and co-op modes dictated by the sudden marketing-led rebranding as the multimillion-dollar David to Activision's billion-dollar Goliath. Modern Warfare 3, on the other hand, feels like a complete package from the start; the three gameplay areas - solo, co-op and multiplayer - all feeling like parts of a cohesive whole, driven by a clear and honed declaration of intent.
With such a well-rehearsed recipe to follow, there's more room here for innovation than there is for improvement. There are plenty who would love to see Call of Duty dragged through the mud for its lack of new ideas, but the game itself is too confidently constructed, too generous with its pleasures, to deserve any lasting vitriol. This is a ferocious and satisfying game that knows exactly what players expect, and delivers on that promise with bullish confidence.
Its greatest weakness is an outmoded single-player campaign that feels more threadbare each time it gets wheeled out, the limitations of its structure only occasionally masked by ever-escalating scenes of bombastic mayhem. It's thrilling and familiar in equal measure - but never, ever boring.
That the single-player story brings the Modern Warfare saga to a fairly definitive end is, then, cause for celebration. Whatever next year's entry brings, some measure of reinvention will be essential. For now, its exuberant blend of testicular bravado and blockbuster gloss ensures that Call of Duty retains its crown as the shooter genre's biggest, boldest rollercoaster ride for at least one more year.