Modern Warfare 3: Blowing Up Wall Street and Hands-On with Spec Ops

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So far Activision’s only shown a handful of single-player levels from Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3, one of this year’s most anticipated games. I talked about two levels from the solo campaign–”Hunter Killer” and “Mind the Gap”– in my E3 2011 coverage and a comparison between Modern Warfare 3 and Battlefield 3, and recently got the chance to watch a third in action.

Modern Warfare 3‘s being co-developed by three separate studios: Infinity Ward (who originated the Modern Warfare branch of COD), Sledgehammer Games and Raven. Sledgehammer’s Glen Schofield and Infinity Ward’s Robert Bowling recently visited New York to show off progress from the in-development game.

The “Black Tuesday” level starts a few hours after Modern Warfare 2 and shows just how significant the Russian incursion on American soil has been.  The mission takes place in downtown Manhattan’s financial district, with players controlling a new team of Spec Ops guys called Delta Force.

The team’s codenames are Sandman, Grinch, Truck and Frost, with players controlling the latter. According to Schofield, “If you remember what happened with Washington [in MW2], that’s continued to the point where the East Coast of the United States has been decimated, including Manhattan.”

He elaborates, saying, “The Russians have overtaken Manhattan and this mission represents the sort of last effort to push them.”

The Russians are specifically trying to attack the allies’ communication system and the Delta Squad team needs to take down the enemy scrambling hardware—housed for some reason at the New York Stock Exchange—so that they can get communications back up for the rest of the friendly squads throughout New York and Europe.

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As the level starts, you see Delta Force’s vehicle being taken down mid-transport and crashing. The assault team coolly takes this in stride and begins to wind their way through lower Manhattan’s streets, which are eerily deserted. At one point, right after watching enemy tanks roll by in eerily quiet fashion, they’re joined by an armored assault vehicle to help them break through an enemy cordon. A few firefights in, Russian attack choppers fire a volley of rounds at an office building, sending an impressive shower of glass shards raining down on Frost and crew. Delta scrambles into an office building where they’re met by more Russian soldiers. One of MW3‘s new weapons is the XM-25 a laser-targeting firearm that lets you tag bad guys behind cover. It shoots a high-arcing payload that bursts into a shower of explosives, making for a quick way to thin out clumps of enemies, as long as they’re not being protected by anything overhead.

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The battle continues on the floor of the Stock Exchange, with Frost bobbing in and out of the phone banks and LCD screens responsible for millions of dollars changing hands daily. From there, Delta moves to the roof where yet another chopper keeps them pinned down with suppression fire.

It’s here where I first saw one of MW3‘s new assets in action: the Reaper drone, a computer-guided UAV that you can deploy to cripple enemy emplacements. It’s an aerial tool similar to the Predator missile in previous COD games and gets commanded from a laptop, where you can use a satellite view to aim it at enemy soldiers or vehicles.

After the Reaper takes out the helicopter, Delta plants charges on the satellite arrays that have been mucking up communications and mops up the straggling Russian invaders. After securing an exfil point for their ride away, Frost jumps into a chopper and mans a heavy gun against other copters giving pursuit. The U.S. aircraft gets clipped pretty badly and looks like it’s going to crash, but eventually prevails and shoots down the enemy birds, with the last one taking out a construction site in a fiery finish.

I didn’t get to actually play “Black Tuesday” myself when I saw it, but was able to saddle up with Bowling in Modern Warfare 3‘s Spec Ops mode. The co-op offering that first debuted with Modern Warfare 2 gets a new mode called Survival. You and another player have to make a stand against advancing waves of bad guys on one of the game’s multiplayer maps.

This year, Spec Ops will boast its own rank and leaderboards that are separate from the competitive multiplayer portions of the game. It’ll also have dedicated levels for various mission modes. But the bigger change that Survival brings is the implementation of economy and deployable assets. Each kill earns cash that you can spend on weapons or equipment, both of which can be upgraded.

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So, while you start off only with a pistol and the ability to pick up enemy weapons from fallen foes, once a round’s over you can go back to either an equipment or weapons terminal to buy new stuff. Among the gear available to purchase are auto-turrets that instantly track and fire on enemy characters. In addition, you’ll be able to buy killstreaks—the iconic perks that good battlefield performance grants you in COD multiplayer—like Predator drones or attack helicopters. You can even buy Delta Force as a back-up squad to help even the odds. All the AI-controlled assets will focus on the biggest threats first, which helps you survive longer.

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Part of the tension in Survival is having to hustle back to a terminal when you’re out of ammo or need a new weapon to take out pesky suicidal, explosive-loaded enemy combatants. Those enemies will come in ever tougher tiers, too: lightning-quick suicide dogs, crackshot snipers, helicopter gunships and the fearsome Juggernauts. The big, tank-like supersoldiers of previous COD games get broken up into different types, too: ones that wield riot shields, ones that are susceptible to explosives or ones that can only be taken out by headshots.

Unlike Horde-style co-op modes in other games, Spec Ops Survival in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 goes on for an infinite amount of levels. Bowling and I got through to wave 9 and even that was a challenge. Bowling’s clearly a COD vet but the randomness of Survival kept him jumping and yelling in surprise, too. You never know where an enemy squad will surface from and the maps are so big that you can easily get separated from each other.

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That, of course, just makes it easier to picked off. Survival shows off a rising trend in the shooter category, which is pairing the tower defense mechanic of resource management and deployment with action/shooter elements. Games where you buy and place battlefield assets in the middle of a firefight (or in between rounds) have cropped up a lot this year, with Section 8: Prejudice and Trenched as current examples, with Gears of War 3’s Horde Mode 2.0 on the way as well.

Despite that similarity, MW3 still has all the traits that make COD a powerhouse on an annual basis. The fast action, gritty realism and frantic pacing are all there, just as they have been, and there’s still more to be revealed with regard to multiplayer and the Elite social platform Activision’s currently beta-testing. Check out our interview with Bowling and Schofield and hear them talk about what’s it’s been like to build one of the year’s biggest games.

INTERVIEW: Activision’s Field Generals Talk ‘Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3′

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