There are two ways to tackle this. First, we can choose to look at Modern Warfare with our typical grumpiness and lament the obvious lack of new ideas and the continued reliance on tight, tiny corridor levels and one-off set-pieces. There's nothing new here, we can write, dismissing Modern Warfare as a series which has coasted on the size of its explosions and basic moreishness of its multiplayer mode for far too long. It's popular, sure, but it's not big, clever or new.
The other way to approach Modern Warfare 3 is with a mind that, while not exactly more shallow in its expectations, is at least more open to being impressed by explosions and car crashes. This approach recognises that Modern Warfare 3 doesn't have to rival Baudelaire in depth, nor Sartre in complexity - if it wants to be bombastic then it's enough for it to achieve that. Pow! Boom! Who cares about the tight linearity of the corridors when emptying them of baddies is this much fun?
Burst our bubbles
The truth of the matter, though, is that both viewpoints are incomplete. The reactionary melodramatic that resides in most games journalists wants to instinctively resort to either one or the other, but the reality of Modern Warfare 3 is best expressed somewhere in between. MW3 is insipid and uninspired, but also fun. It's exciting and new, but also formulaic.
This shouldn't come as a surprise. Call of Duty has been this way for years and, while the passing of responsibility between Infinity Ward and Treyarch has caused minor fluctuations in quality, Call of Duty has also been an anchoring constant for the industry. It has never mattered whether the games were set in World War II or some quasi-now; whether they pitted you against zombies or terrorists. Call of Duty has always been the same and it has always been fun.
The Modern Warfare 3 trailer. You've seen it before, right?
Sitting down to play Modern Warfare 3's Spec Ops mode, this is summed up by Robert Bowling's forewarning about some of the enemies we'll face in the coming wave-defence game. There are dogs with C4 strapped to their bodies, he says, explaining that Spec Ops' lack of context and story means we shouldn't get too upset by their inclusion. At first, we roll our eyes - what's next, zombie Nazi dogs too? Then we find ourselves enjoying the canine slaughter regardless. Modern Warfare 3 is stupid, but it's also fun in the basic way that's made it hard to launch legitimate critical attacks on the series since 2003.
Elsewhere, the singleplayer mode continues in the same vein. An SAS mission called Mind The Gap jumps out immediately because of way it has the SAS battling would-be bombers on the London Underground and, again, a preamble distances the in-game battle from any real events. Moments later we watch the level play out and it's immediately clear that Activision's position is defensible - underground car chases, helicopters and derailing trains are more evocative of 1994's film Speed than the 7/7 bombings. Still, an audience wearied by the constant Churn of Duty can't help but let MW2's No Russian cynically come to mind as another case where the series courted controversy. Even here, in the tabloid headlines and the defensive frothing of game journalists, nothing ever changes for Call of Duty.