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MW3's Survival mode - hands-on, Bowling face-time

VG247 spends time with the shooter set to cause widespread absenteeism from work and school come its November launch, and speaks to Infinity Ward’s Robert Bowling.

Call of Duty has always been something of a niche franchise. Not niche in the vein of Braid, Limbo and Super Meat Boy's quirkiness or peculiarities, but niche because the franchise aims to achieve specific things and hit specific benchmarks for a specific audience. It just happens that the audience is several million strong; making it a mainstream niche.

The single-player element of the franchise, and increasingly its Modern Warfare offspring, has carved out a place for itself alongside the best of Hollywood’s action blockbusters, high excitement and an exceptional level of polish rounding out a tightly scripted entertainment product that provides a common ground of near identical shared experiences amongst its players.

Meanwhile, the online multiplayer is where many a virtual soldier have written their own more unique personal story. In recent years, upgrade paths, custom loadouts and distinct classes have opened up a dynamic and fluid battlefield in which hundreds, if not thousands of hours have been invested by many an individual fighting the never-ending battle.

With the introduction of Spec Ops in Modern Warfare 2 and its expansion in Modern Warfare 3, a bridge between the single-player and multiplayer modes has formed. Spec Ops has established itself as a major force, fighting for your time alongside the traditional multiplayer modes, long after the scripted conflict of singleplayer has been resolved and laid to rest.

Despite its wild success, though, Call of Duty is not for everyone. It seems almost churlish to suggest it should provide more entertainment value - beyond perhaps bloating the singleplayer campaign – or that, having become the pinnacle of its genre, it should seek to push boundaries in other directions. But, nonetheless: should it?

“I think it’s important to appreciate your style and find out where it belongs,” says Robert Bowling, Infinity Ward’s creative strategist.

"We pick up with Delta Force as they’re fighting in New York, trying to get the Russians out of America."

“What we do now, especially in Modern Warfare 3, is have the single-player designed to be that very cinematic experience. We love doing that, and our audience loves it too.

“That said, though, we can find moments we want to blow out in a different direction – because maybe we think a particular element would be great with co-op, or maybe it just doesn’t fit the story and so otherwise might be cut - and take those moments out and put them in Spec Ops mission mode.

"This provides more of a sandbox, where we can give you a variety of weapons and a different experience.”

I’ll buy that for a high price

In Modern Warfare 3, Spec Ops is receiving its own little blow-out with the introduction of Survival mode. A ceaseless, never-ending barrage of enemy troops that attack in the de facto standard wave pattern. It’s here that the link between single-player and multiplayer is at its strongest, with Survival mode being played out across all of the maps used in the more traditional multiplayer - along with some re-purposed environments from the single-player campaign and some unique maps for good measure.

Played alone or in co-op, you must repel the increasingly challenging enemy waves that mix various flavours of foot soldiers, C4-laden attack dogs, juggernauts and chaingun toting helicopters. Killing results in cash, with bonuses awarded for headshots, kill streaks and clearing each wave, and you’re afforded 20 seconds between each bout in which to loot fallen enemies for weapons and ammo and to do some online shopping.

Three armouries - in the form of location-based computer terminals - provide access to weapons, equipment and air support. The terminals can be used to purchase stronger artillery, upgrade existing weapons and to restock grenade and ammo supplies on the fly.

More exotic items such as auto-turrets, additional last stand chances and a handful of AI allied support troops, are available for a higher price tag, with the option to share cash between players if either one is just short of the necessary funds to make their dream purchase. Tracked player stats keep provide a competitive edge to the co-op action and provide bragging rights at the end of each wave and play session.

Our hands-on time with co-op Survival mode provided a number of talking points, as time and again we barely scrape through a wave. It’s often necessary to revive one another whilst fending off attack from multiple directions, only to have a mad dash to an armoury to tool up before the next wave starts.

The proscribed order of the waves invites role-learning and will inevitably lead to some truly intimidating leaderboard scores as maps and enemy types are memorised and well disciplined co-op partners mount a solid defence against scores of waves.

Those that may have shied away from traditional Modern Warfare multiplayer for fear of spending the majority of their time lying prone on their backs or respawning will also benefit from Survival mode.

“In the end I think [Survival mode] ends up being a better training tool [for online multiplayer] than single-player ever was,” Bowling says.

The reveal trailer.

“Now you get to play on those multiplayer maps, you get to learn kill streaks, gear and customising your weapons – the things that you never get to do in single-player. So, it’s a great tool for giving you the experience outside of the competitive multiplayer environment but, more importantly, it allows you to become more competitive in the process.”

They call me Mr Bombastic

For many, multiplayer has long been the raison d’être of Call of Duty and the vast majority of those that purchase Modern Warfare 3 will experience it in some form or other. But Modern Warfare’s overarching narrative is continued in the single-player campaign and picks up just hours after Modern Warfare 2.

“DC is burning and the war has escalated up the Eastern Seaboard,” says Bowling, setting the scene. “Task force 141 is either dead or on the run, we don’t know their fate yet. So, we pick up with Delta Force as they’re fighting in New York, trying to get the Russians out of America.

“At the same time the British SAS are in London fighting a very different conflict. The war isn’t raging there yet so they’re trying to figure out what’s going on and how their country and city is going to be pulled into it as the conflict escalates across the world. It’s spreading everywhere and pulling everyone into it: to Paris, London, parts of Germany, parts of Africa and the Himalayas. Primarily, we follow what’s happening with the two factions of Delta Force and the British SAS throughout these regions, but we also look at how the journey of our once-heroes plays into this.”

Dimming the lights, Bowling goes on to provide an eyes-only presentation, complete with thumping surround sound, demonstrating Delta Force infiltrating a Russian sub. Forcing the sub to surface through the judicious use of mines planted on its aft side, Delta Force emerges alongside it and we catch a brief glimpse of a New York crippled by ongoing bombings. Bowling then delves into the depths of the breached submarine, eventually escaping via a high-speed dinghy across an obstacle strewn bay.

Skipping over the Atlantic, we pick up with the British SAS staking out a harbour at which it is believed charity shipments are being used as a front for smuggling by some high-profile targets. Fighting ensues, culminating in the on-rails chase of a hijacked tube train through the London underground system. Bombardment of the tube train eventually leads to it being derailed and careen off-track into the path of Bowling’s commandeered vehicle, causing it to crash. The protagonist blacks out and the dark screen is emblazoned with the Modern Warfare 3 logo.

It’s fast paced, tightly-scripted and extravagantly bombastic. It’s undeniably Modern Warfare.

It’s clear that Infinity Ward knows its audience very well and, to its credit, looks to be working alongside Sledgehammer Games and Raven Software to broaden the multiplayer aspects of the franchise, with the expectation of welcoming new players into its fold.

EA has been talking a good fight recently - pitting Battlefield 3 against Activision’s behemoth - but with the introduction of its online multi-platform Call of Duty Elite service to further enhance the multiplayer experience and the first fan-dedicated event in Call of Duty XP, Activision is looking to simultaneously explode brand awareness and land a crippling pre-emptive strike. Actions speak louder than words, after all.

Call of Duty has always been something of a niche franchise; one that boasts a devout following of several million gamers. Modern Warfare 3, with its extra bells and whistles, will undoubtedly swell those numbers and in a few months, and when EA and Activision go head-to-head with their own visions of conflict, we’ll witness what happens when two tribes go to war.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 launches worldwide on 8 November for PC, PS3 and 360.

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