The globe-hopping plot in "Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3" picks up where 2009's "Modern Warfare 2" left off.

Though it doesn’t reinvent the wheel, Infinity Ward and Sledgehammer Games’ “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3” is a tuned and tested distillation of everything that’s made the series popular so far. Its arcade-style gameplay, deep leveling system and tried-and-true multiplayer have already made the franchise something of a national sport. They’ll keep millions of players coming back night after night, at least until the next “COD” hits a year from now.

Though it’s heavily scripted and linear, the single-player campaign plays like a better action movie than what we got in Treyarch’s “Call of Duty: Black Ops” or DICE’s “Battlefield 3.” The globe-spanning plot continues events from the previous two “Modern Warfare” games, putting players in the role of various manly men fighting World War III against a Russia run by a group of ultranationalist terrorists.

The level design and gunplay is satisfying and encourages players to push forward, but the campaign struggles to invest players in the narrative. We’re already fighting an in-progress World War III, but it’s not enough for Infinity Ward to tell us, “Go save the world.” Instead, we get a series of ham-fisted scenes meant to up the stakes and generate some kind of emotional response. They’re all so over the top, however, they blend together into a bland soup of ridiculous spectacle.

A scene in which your efforts inadvertently topple a prominent European landmark is unintentionally funny in a “Team America: World Police” kind of way. No one seems to acknowledge its destruction, even though the in-game camera frames it like it’s supposed to be a Big Moment. World capitals are razed with alarming frequency, but it’s all in a days work for Price, Soap, Frost and pals.

In another scene, you can almost hear Infinity Ward saying, “You thought it was edgy when we had you take part in a massacre of civilians in ‘Modern Warfare 2?’ How about a front-row seat to a terrorist attack where you film your child as she’s killed?” Difficult-to-stomach, thought-provoking content should be encouraged, but the artless scene feels like an interactive snuff film.

That said, few people buy “Call of Duty” games for their six-hour campaigns. Much more time will be spent in multiplayer and in the one- or two-player Spec-Ops modes.

These modes are the finely tuned pixel crack the series has become famous for. As in past “COD” games, you’ll earn experience points as you play Spec-Ops and multiplayer, and you’ll consistently be a handful of games away from attaining another level and unlocking a new game type, gun, accessory, emblem, tattoo, set of shoelaces or unicorn sticker for your gun. Though the constant doling out of slight rewards is a bald-faced, transparent way to keep us coming back for more, it works anyway.

The Spec-Ops games, which have a separate experience/leveling system from what you get in multiplayer, allow one or two players to complete new missions on levels from the campaign or fight off waves of computer-controlled enemies. These were fun enough, though it’d be nice to tackle the survival mode with more than two players.

Casual players like me will appreciate the overhauled “streaks” in multiplayer, one of few major changes. The revamped system allows players to choose between “assault” or “support” rewards that are doled out when a certain number of points are attained in a match. (In a nice concession to “Modern Warfare 3’s” more objective-based modes, the streaks are point-based rather than kill-based.) The assault package is similar to past “Call of Duty” games’ streak systems. In that suite, your streak resets upon death, so you won’t be able to unlock bonuses such as predator drones or attack helicopters unless you can stay alive long enough to rack up big scores.

Those of us who quickly meet our ends at the hands of more experienced, skilled players can choose the support suite, which is more team-oriented and doesn’t reset upon death. This allows us to still help our teams and experience the joy of in-game rewards without taking anything away from elite players. It feels more balanced and fair than past “COD” games, which often felt like they punished players simply for being new.

While it’s experiencing growing pains that have rendered it unavailable to many players, the new “Call of Duty Elite” platform aims to allow gamers to obsess over nearly every aspect of online play. Once Activision has stabilized the service, players will be able to break down their performance with particular weapons, check out where they die the most on each multiplayer map, upload videos, join clans and groups and compete for prizes. Some of these features are free, while others require a subscription fee that also includes access to a year’s worth of downloadable add-ons.

One thing that should set “Elite” apart from similar services such as Electronic Arts’ “Battlelog” for “Battlefield 3” is the presence of an application that runs right on your game console. There’s no need for console players to go running to a PC after the match is over to see a detailed breakdown of their stats. Everything is right there. Or, rather, everything will be right there once Activision works out the bugs.

“Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3,” rated M, is $60 on the PC, Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. For this review, I played a copy of the game provided by Activision.

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