Let me just get this one out of the way right up front: Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 is vastly superior to Battlefield 3. And not just on the Xbox 360, though I'll never play the PC version of either game. Yes, I understand that BF3's more modern graphics engine could possibly look better than MW3 on a high-end gaming rig. Have fun with that. But MW3 is simply the better game, with a vastly more exciting single player campaign and the most addictive multiplayer experience ever made. Game over. It's that simple.

But determining why it is that more of the same works for the latest Call of Duty in ways that it does not in tired retreads like Gears of War 3 and Battlefield 3 requires a bit of explanation. After all, MW3 looks, acts, and plays much like its predecessors. Why isn't that a bad thing?

Because Activision got everything right this time. Everything.

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For example, there's a sequence near the beginning of the Modern Warfare 3 single player campaign in which you charge through a building in a besieged, World War III-era New York skyscraper, attack the enemies on the rooftops, use remote controlled predator drones to attack those on other rooftops, and then engage in a crazy, between-the-buildings helicopter dogfight. It's a beautiful, heavily scripted, and cinematic experience similar to those found in the recently-released Battlefield 3. But it was superior in every way imaginable to anything in that other game. And by the time it was over, I was grinning like a madman and enjoying every second of it.

When this happened, it was 3:30 am on the morning that MW3 was released. I stayed up through the night, first to purchase Modern Warfare 3 at a local Best Buy's midnight opening, waited in line for over an hour, and then played both the single player and multiplayer experiences until after 4 am. And if you're looking for the real difference between the lackluster but professionally made Battlefield 3 and the exhilarating and just perfectly honed MW3, there it is. Both were eagerly anticipated, but only MW3 makes me want to keep playing past the point where it doesn't even make sense anymore.

What the heck, I'll take it even further. In BF3, you're fighting what amounts to World War III, too, sure, but it's mostly happening in Iran, and where's the drama in that?? With MW3, the Russians have invaded the United States and are actually winning as the game starts, having destroyed Washington D.C. in the previous title. Even in the single player game, which many hardcore gamers simply ignore for the longer-lasting multiplayer experience, the stakes are higher, the game is better, and the drama feels, well, real. And then the action moves to London, Paris, Prague, and Berlin. It's really a World War.

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The set pieces in this game are incredible and come at you again, and again, and again. Helicopter battles. Sub battles. A crazy fall down a mountain while buildings collapse around you, culminating in a fall into a river. An airplane hijacking where pressure is lost, and you shoot opponents while floating weightless amid flotsam ... And then the plane breaks apart mid-battle and crashes with you in it. Awesome.

(Check out my Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 screenshot gallery for some exciting imagery from the game.)

It's not perfect, of course. Some sequences are perhaps overly familiar, including a sneak through an African village that long-time MW fans will recognize as a homage of sorts to the ghillie suit routine in the first Modern Warfare. (And then it happens again in Prague. Twice. Hm.) Trucks that drive by you when you hide, and then you stand up to see that the route they drove is in fact blocked; so they must have disappeared into thin air. And of course the endless enemy respawns if you don't always plow ahead. Nothing serious. But those things are there.

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The single player game is also very long, which seems to be a trend these days. In this case, that's fine, since the single player campaign is so engrossing and well made.

Some have complained that the Call of Duty games are too scripted, and that since you don't have any real impact on the plot--you either achieve the goals of a given section or don't--these games aren't even games, but are rather interactive movies. Whatever. Call of Duty has been like this since the beginning, and now, a decade in, it's the best-selling game franchise on earth, and for a good reason. These games are incredibly fun to experience. If you want to play a game of chance, play Checkers. Or Poker.

There's more to MW3 than single player, of course. As with previous MW games, MW3 features a Spec Ops mode where you can compete against others to complete timed or scored mini-missions. And multiplayer returns largely intact, and it works like MW2 multiplayer, with none of the improvement I've enjoyed in the past two Treyarch games, World at War and Black Ops, like variable point assists. But MW multiplayer is well-loved for a reason, and things improve--and get more complex--this go-round with custom classes (each with primary and secondary load-outs, new strike packages, perks, and death streaks), challenges, accolades (sort of like achievements, but just within the game), prestige modes, and more. There's a lot there, and the levels look and play well. I know I'll be enjoying this game, with subsequent map packs and other downloadable content (DLC) for months to come.

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Speaking of DLC, there is one controversial bit to this game, a new yearly subscription service called Call of Duty Elite. It provides sort of a super-set of the online stats you see in the game, but really built out and complex, similar to the data you could study around games like baseball or football. But the real purpose of Elite, I believe, is to take advantage of those huge COD fans, like myself, that simply buy every bit of DLC--typically map packs, to date--that Activision delivers between games. And by buying into Elite at $99 a year, you get any MW3 DLC for "free." I'm told there will be a lot of it. I joined, of course, so we'll see how that goes.

Final thoughts

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 is the single greatest video game experience released this year, with a tremendous single player campaign that continues and completes the storyline from the previous two games (MW and MW2). It also features play-extending Spec Ops and multiplayer modes which will keep Call of Duty diehards like myself busy for months and months to come. MW3 is the best game yet in the MW series and stands among the very best Call of Duty games released so far. And it's a heck of a lot more enjoyable than either Gears of War 3 or Battlefield 3 even though, like those titles, it is a simple continuation of its predecessors. Modern Warfare 3 doesn't break any new ground, but it doesn't need to: I love it just the way it is. Highly, highly recommended.