“Call of Duty” has become gamers’ loud November custom, and “Modern Warfare 3” just about guarantees it will continue to be so for some time.

Despite losing much of its staff following “Modern Warfare 2,” Infinity Ward has teamed with Sledgehammer Games to deliver another solid installment in the eminent shooter series. At times rote, other times numbing, the game nonetheless sustains the “Modern Warfare” tradition of a frenetically fun globe-trotting campaign, ensnaring competitive multiplayer and a robust cooperative Special Ops mode.

The campaign story continues Capts. Price and McTavish’s hunt for Russian ultranationalist Vladimir Makarov, who seeks to escalate the catastrophic war between his country and much of the west just as both sides begin reaching out for peace. Like previous “Modern Warfare” games, the campaign is a mosaic of worldwide malady. Players step into the boots of a U.S. soldier trading bullets with Russian troops over kiosk counters in the New York Stock Exchange, a private bodyguard to the Russian president and more. The action follows suit, switching from a close-quarters shoot-out aboard a submarine in the East River to wiping out tanks from a gunship in downtown London, and presenting every proximity of engagement in between.

(Of particular repute in the campaign is one sequence where, as an American tourist in London, players watch their character’s wife and daughter die in a dirty bomb explosion. The scene follows the tradition of “MW2’s” “No Russian” level as a lightning rod for controversy, and this time, the scene has no redeeming value with which to shield itself. “No Russian” was worthwhile because of the moment when players realized they had been gunning down civilians when the game didn’t compel them to. It was a mildly thoughtful insight into the nature of player choice. This scene, too derivative to stir the player’s emotions, seems designed only to stir those of outraged critics.)

The “Modern Warfare 3” campaign is of comparable quality to that of “Black Ops.” Both benefit from balanced pacing that breaks up the main body of shoot-outs with exploration and hand-holding stealth. Though Treyarch’s game overdosed on absurdity and cinematic contrivance, the latest “Call of Duty” suffers from a relative lack of spectacle. It’s not for lack of trying: Warring forces topple the Eiffel Tower in true “Team America” fashion. But after years of similar sights in “Call of Duty,” this one just carried no weight.

The heavy presence of the ice-cold Capt. Price in the narrative also saps it of the brotherly spirit that made defending Washington, D.C. a galvanizing blast in “Modern Warfare 2.” The grizzled old warrior is just a charisma-less, unfeeling and unlikeable.

The competitive multiplayer returns mostly unaltered from “Modern Warfare 2.” There are some holdovers from “Black Ops,” such as One in the Chamber mode (now available only in private matches), but because the series alternates developers, features like CODPoints and its associated wager matches and contracts have been discontinued. Thus players once again unlock weapons and perks at the will of the developer’s leveling system, so settling on an ideal loadout may take longer. The 16-map roster also lacks any memorable locations like Nuketown or Terminal, and most attract the same desperate run-and-gun strategy from the majority of players.

But the multiplayer arena isn’t a total downgrade. A restructured killstreak system measures points, not just kills, and players can choose from assault or support rewards when they build momentum. Kill Confirmed adds a fun strategic wrinkle to traditional deathmatch frenzies by counting not deaths, but the amount of dog tags players collect from their victims. The mode’s real curveball is that players can swipe their teammates’ dog tags to deny the enemy points. The new Prestige Shop also incentivizes long-term play with perks like two hours of double XP. And truly devoted players can join the new “Call of Duty Elite” subscription service integrated into “Modern Warfare 3” to analyze their performance and network with other diehards.

Special Ops marks a massive improvement to cooperative multiplayer. Not only can players complete missions culled or adapted from the campaign with a friend, as they could in “Modern Warfare 2,” but they can also repel waves of enemies in a new survival mode that resembles “Gears of War 3’s” Horde 2.0. The money players earn from kills can be spent on ammunition, armor and air support, and a new leveling system specific to Special Ops unlocks additional weapons as players put more time into playing with friends. It’s just enough freshness to preserve “Call of Duty” for a little while longer.

David Wilcox



Twitter @drwilcox

Xbox Live, PSN: davewiththeid