Call of Duty games typically never stray far from expectations, for better or worse. Ever since Activision pushed the series away from its sole WWII focus and into more modern eras, the franchise has been a consistent component of each year’s industry lineup. Recent years have seen the publisher try to recapture the lofty peak that followed the FPS series’ shift in 2007, as evidenced by the reboot of the Modern Warfare trilogy. Just as they did back in 2011, Sledgehammer Games is responsible for the third Modern Warfare installment, once again trying to follow in the footsteps of Activision’s golden child, Infinity Ward.
The Modern Warfare reboots had a strong start in 2019, but stumbled a bit with the second entry. While the campaign in both maintained the high-octane action expected from the franchise, the changes to multiplayer in the sequel ultimately divided the community. Sledgehammer not only has to uphold the reimagined tale of an extremely nostalgic saga, but all eyes are on the developer to see if they are able to bring the multiplayer experience more in line with the highly vocal player feedback from the past year.
A Cam-pain to Play Through
Let’s start with the campaign, an aspect of Call of Duty games that many either breeze through or skip entirely in favor of the core multiplayer offerings. Sledgehammer may be taking on Modern Warfare 3 once again, but this reboot’s campaign is more of a Modern Warfare 2.5. While Modern Warfare 3 covers some of the same material as its 12-year old counterpart, it mostly builds off Infinity Ward’s recent outing by introducing age-old villain Makarov… and that’s about it. The campaign clocks in just shy of five hours, the shortest of the campaigns we have seen from the reboots thus far (and the series in general over the past several years).
Everything comes to a close rather quickly right around the point that the story feels like it’s still in the rising action portion of its narrative arc. Worse yet, an extremely important plot point is used as a post-credits scene, which can be missed entirely if you skip the credits and forget to check the unlocked cinematics. I wish I could say that’s the worst offense committed by the campaign, but the truth is that highlighted issue only scratches the surface of how badly the single player section misses the mark.
The Modern Warfare 3 campaign is, in a word, boring. Sledgehammer sought to shake-up the expected flow of bombastic set pieces by implementing several Open Combat Missions. The intention of this new mission type is to provide the player freedom to navigate larger environments and take on their objectives in whatever manner they see fit. Given that the locales tied to these particular missions are torn segments from the Warzone/DMZ Urzikstan map, it all feels rather lazy.
There is much more that could have been done to transform these Warzone spaces, but they are transplanted as-is — it’s not the last place you’ll find the assets reused in this year’s package either. For what they are, Call of Duty campaigns are usually at their best when they provide structure that leads players to those explosive moments for which the series is known. Open Combat Missions work against those moments, all but eliminating their presence, and trend toward more of a Warzone tutorial.
Sledgehammer’s stab at the Zombies mode fares slightly better, but it still throws out much of what fans have come to love. Gone is the round-based onslaught of increasingly difficulty zombies spanning memorable maps like Der Riese and Nacht Der Untoten. Now, players are dropped into a PvE-only DMZ spin-off mode. That’s right; the Warzone map returns here, too. Multiple squads populate the map and are given 45 minutes to complete contracts, gather gear and push into tougher zones teeming with the undead. It’s still the DMZ extraction mode many of us have familiarized ourselves with, but without any worry of being gunned down by another real player. Pack-a-Punch machines are scattered throughout Urzikstan, waiting to give player weaponry a bit more oomph.
The zombies takeover of DMZ changes up how players progress through the map. The outer region contains low-level hordes, much like you would find in the earliest rounds of the series’ past zombies modes. Entering the orange zone kicks things up a notch with even deadlier opposition. The core of the map houses a red region, which is waiting to test collected gear and obtained upgrades. Named bosses and still-human PMCs are also present around the expansive environment as added challenges to supplement the common appearance of shambling dead and explosive hellhounds.
This all-new Zombies enables players to choose their own pacing; there’s nothing forcing anyone to venture into those more dangerous zones. You can spend an entire round simply skirting the safer region of the map, kitting out your operator for future runs. In this regard, Sledgehammer’s Zombies works. Admittedly, it’s hard not to see this as the natural next step for Black Ops Cold War‘s Outbreak. That said, this evolution is still missing much of the soul of its predecessors. One can only hope Sledgehammer gives Zombies its fair share of attention and finds meaningful ways to expand on it over the course of the next year.
Two Steps Back, One Step Forward
Lastly, we have the multiplayer. Out of the three components that comprise Modern Warfare 3, the multiplayer is the best of the bunch. You can either see that as a win or a sign of how far the other areas have fallen. Modern Warfare 2 made several unpopular choices with its multiplayer by focusing on the tactical side of combat. The lower time-to-kill and movement restrictions, such as the elimination of slide cancelling, didn’t sit well with longtime fans. Sledgehammer has rolled those changes back, giving us a multiplayer experience that sits somewhere between Modern Warfare 2 and Black Ops Cold War.
Slide cancelling is back, tiered reloads are gone, mantling is much faster and the TTK has been raised. It certainly feels closer to classic Call of Duty multiplayer, especially in terms of movement, than the direction Infinity Ward was headed. That “classic” vibe also comes in the form of a slew of old-school Modern Warfare 2 (2009) maps including Highrise, Estate, Terminal and Rust. In fact, 16 of those former maps in total have been remastered for Modern Warfare 3. It’s clear that nostalgia is a big focus for Sledgehammer, both in recreating a more familiar multiplayer flow and the backdrops containing the action.
The multiplayer is, in several ways, an improvement over last year. But it’s hard to praise it much when Sledgehammer simply stripped away the controversial parts implemented by Infinity Ward. It seems moving forward meant taking steps backward. Although it’s fine to admit when something doesn’t work, the removal of those pieces was not replaced by anything notable. What has been achieved here feels like a fine-tuning of the Modern Warfare 2 multiplayer by erasing the community’s flagged lesser aspects, but the foundation hasn’t been built upon in new, meaningful ways. I’m left asking, what mark has Sledgehammer left here?
Modern Warfare 3 feels like a stopgap game. We have a campaign with the depth of an expansion, a zombies mode that repurposes the DMZ framework, and a multiplayer that had to find its identity by working backwards from Modern Warfare 2. There are no standout areas that truly excel, but among the bunch multiplayer is clearly the winner. Given that multiplayer is what hopes to hold player engagement long-term, this installment saves itself from being a total loss.
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 Review Verdict
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3: Modern Warfare 3 is a puzzling installment. Sure, it has the usual combination of single player, co-op and competitive multiplayer modes that we have come to expect from each title, but Sledgehammer Games has given us a game that has the least justification to be a full-priced standalone game. There's a heavy feeling of repetition as the Warzone map is overutilized across virtually every area of the game, but at least the multiplayer looks like it has a chance to stand more firmly due to the excised features of its predecessor. – Joshua
Editor’s Note: Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 was reviewed on PC, and a copy was provided to us for review purposes.