Darren Franich
November 11, 2011 AT 11:20 PM EST

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. That’s the general aesthetic strategy behind the multiplayer system in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3, which feels essentially identical to the multiplayer system in Modern Warfare 2. Yes, there’s a new coat of paint, and I’m sure that a hardcore CoD nut could point to a million granular improvements. Here’s what I noticed after several hours of gameplay: There’s still a big map in a brokedown city, and a small map with a climbing structure, and a medium-sized map with a bunch of corridors. The available weapons are still incredibly realistic, accurately acronymic, and relentlessly dull. The Killstreak has been redefined into a “Pointstreak,” which allows you to earn rewards by doing more than just killing people. If you’re an expert, the new system adds a Sabermetric-ish depth to the gameplay: Assists are worth something! If you’re an average/mediocre player like me, then the Pointstreak just enhances the sensation that literally everything you do in Call of Duty earns you some kind of reward. It reminds me of playing Little League Baseball: Even if our team never won a single game, we still got a trophy for participation.

Here’s something else that hasn’t changed in Modern Warfare 3‘s multiplayer: It’s still shockingly addictive. I haven’t been a first-person-shooter nut in a long time. (Specifically, not since my freshman year of college, when — in the days before XBox Live — we’d use the dorm ethernet to have 16-player Halo deathmatches. At my height, I think I was the fourth-best player in the dorm.) But I can play Call of Duty for hours. It’s such a pristine, smooth experience, and the constant rewarding — You won a new Callsign! You’ve shot twenty people in the leg with an UMP45! — feeds into a genuine sense of accomplishment: You can feel yourself improving every time you play the game.

You could criticize the CoD franchise for playing it safe. Certainly, the more strategy-oriented Battlefield 3 offers a valuable counter-example of what a military shooter multiplayer could look like: Brainier, more strategic, more team-oriented. But there’s a reason why Battlefield 3 sold pretty well and Modern Warfare 3 set the franchise’s latest record for Biggest First Day Sales in the Recorded History of Pop Culture Things. There’s a pleasant simplicity and straightforwardness to the CoD multiplayer that allows casual and hardcore fans to play in the same sandbox. Coupled with the recent creation of the Call of Duty Elite service, Modern Warfare 3 feels like another step towards the ultimate singularity point, when Call of Duty will stop being a product you buy each year and will start to be a multimedia platform. In a funny way, playing the Modern Warfare 3 multiplayer feels a little bit like walking through an Apple Store, or spending a couple hours toodling around Facebook: Comfortable, repetitive, inarguably pleasant.

Here’s the funny thing: Everything I’m saying about the Modern Warfare 3 multiplayer system has absolutely nothing to do with the Modern Warfare 3 campaign, which is completely bananagrams insane. It only took me around seven hours to complete the campaign, which sounds ridiculously short — in a Zelda game, “seven hours” is about the point when you finally find the Hookshot and the game seriously gets started. But there is a dizzying array of spectacle packed into those seven hours

The game kicks off in a Manhattan that is under siege by attacking Russian forces, and from there you spin around on a James Bond-worthy world tour, though invaded European metropolises, sun-soaked African villages, a remote mountain castle, the freaking catacombs of Paris. The plot reads like a Tom Clancy novel, or like three seasons of 24 stacked on top of each other: There are disavowed badasses, and a semi-Satanic villain, and that old espionage-tale favorite, “The President’s kidnapped angelic daughter.” The game moves along quickly, with lots of variation. You’re constantly hopping into helicopters to man the chaingun, or rappelling down the sides of buildings. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that every single vehicle you ride in in Modern Warfare 3 will crash. Heck, every single freaking surface you walk on will eventually explode right out from under you.

Sound fun? It is. Kind of. But it’s also one of the most infuriating game experiences I’ve had in years.

NEXT: A Marxist theory of Call of Duty.

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