I remember the days when Call of Duty was a narrative-driven shooter with a very good multiplayer mode on the side. You’ve got to go back some years, admittedly, but it’s true. The evolution of the series has had it’s major ups and downs, but it’s always been a series that you could rely on for a relatively short, focused campaign full of gung-ho action, surprise deaths, and massive overblown set-pieces. And all this came with the addition of a multiplayer element that dominated the industry for a decade. Which makes it all the more upsetting that Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 has such a tacked-on campaign mode.
It begins promisingly enough, as you assault a rainy gulag torn straight from one of MW2‘s better multiplayer maps. You’re in Verdansk, and your target is Vladimir Makarov, a mastermind villain who looks like a substitute English teacher. Makarov is a mainstay villain in Call of Duty, but the version we get here does little but constantly twirl a moustache he probably can’t grow and make threatening eyes like someone hid his board rubber.
From there the campaign simply meanders, only it does it really fast somehow. We’re in and out of Somewheristan for several missions as we chase the usual Call of Duty McGuffins, sometimes missiles laced with deadly gas, sometimes 2-dimensional characters tied to Makarov’s endeavours. But this campaign feels like they removed everything but the shooting and interrogating. There’s no nuance to any of it, no building of tension despite the voice cast doing the best they can with a script that seems content to just tick the action movie boxes. Caught the bad guy? I’ll bet it was all part of his plan. Stopped his missile launch? I’ll bet he had another one ready to launch. It’s all so predictable and rushed.
The ending is a shambles, setting up either another game or DLC, that simply slams down like a security door as the tension finally begins to mount. In fact that’s quite literally what happens, as Modern Warfare 3 finally delivers the sucker punch we were dreading then drops a barricade between you and Makarov. “Yes!” I thought. “Now it’s time to make the bastard pay… wait, why are the credits rolling? It’s only been four hours! Noooo!” I didn’t expect to finish it all in one sitting, that’s for sure.
Perhaps the oddest thing is that so much effort has gone into the absolutely stunning cutscenes, and the returning hardnuts of TF-141, Price, Soap, Gaz, and Ghost have their attitudes and chemistry intact. There are glimmers of an interesting story here. Shepherd is still slimy, Laswell is still tough as nails, Farah is still an idealistic freedom fighter. But Modern Warfare 3 does nothing with any of it, content to just move you from one short blast of action to the next. I was waiting for a really stand-out moment, and there are a few that come close. A race through the London Underground dodging trains is fun, but it’s an incredibly short mission and ends with the aforementioned anti-climax. There’s a moment you have to strafe enemy troops from an attack helo as your ground team raids an airbase, but that was ruined for me by an auto-checkpoint that kept reloading me scant seconds from failure. But there’s nothing here that matches the highs of the series.
We still talk about No Russian as the most shocking moment in Call of Duty history, and there’s something like that in MW3 as you move through the Verdansk Stadium in the midst of an ongoing terrorist attack, or witness firsthand the hijacking of a passenger plane. But the nuance isn’t here. It’s all just happening. Missions like the legendary All Ghillied Up are, sadly, well in the past. The reboot franchise has had its moments, but it always felt like it was trying to recapture something. And it came close once or twice, but this feels like it’s finally just tossed in the net.
Thankfully, the gunplay is as precise, punchy, and satisfying as ever. While most guns are returning models from the previous game, there are so many options available that you can’t complain. The admiration animations whenever you pick up a new weapon get tiresome quickly, though. The action itself delivers more or less what I wanted, but even this is hamstrung by AI that feels dumber than usual, with identikit enemies that are happy to pop their heads out with clockwork regularity, and seems to throw two grenades between each bullet fired. Field upgrades like mounted turrets, airstrikes, mortar strikes, and ammunition packs are great to have, but honestly, I often forgot about them. The action is pretty straightforward and, on Regular difficulty, fairly easy throughout.
The big draw is the new freeform mission structure that turns a handful of missions into open environments with widespread objectives. It feels like you’re playing Warzone solo, and I can see what Sledgehammer is attempting, but while it’s nice to explore a zone it brings nothing overly exciting to the experience. You could grab a vehicle to get around, but the maps are too small to need one, and the lack of real direction hurts the narrative pace. I appreciate finding literal loot chests and loadout switchers, but I can’t help but feel that swapping these for tense, story-driven missions that allowed the characters to grow would have been better.
I love these characters, I really do. Price is an absolute boss, Soap has the potential for real character growth, and Ghost and Gaz represent the two sides of the group’s collective conscience. There’s a solid dynamic here, but it’s underused. Modern Warfare 3 doesn’t really excel in any department but the visuals, because Christ, is it beautiful. Fully rendered cutscenes look better than real life, and every environment is lavished with detail. And I left the settings as they were on my PC, and experienced very few instances of slowdown, even in the thick of the fighting.
The new iteration of the zombies mode feels almost as hit-and-miss as the campaign. Codenamed Operation Deadbolt, Modern Warfare 3’s Zombies lets you loose on a new Warzone map and tasks you with completing Contracts such as defending a certain area, and there are weapon drops, wall kiosks to buy guns and gear, and vehicles scattered around the map. Having such a large play-space is initially impressive, but as with the Open Combat missions in the campaign, it lacks any sense of real direction and instead just asks that you blow stuff up. Though, sometimes that’s all you need from Call of Duty.
Dropping into an open world along with multiple other players, Modern Warfare 3 presents its Zombies element as more of a sandbox. You team up to complete specific objectives, rank up, find loot, and have fun, and a chopper will periodically drop in to exfil you out. I miss the tight, claustrophobic atmosphere of previous Zombies modes, although the sandbox mode does have its own highlights.
For example, if the squad of random people you drop in with go all Geronimo on you and high-tail it away, you can squad up with other players instantly. Vehicles have a purpose in the massive maps, as the desperate breakneck race for an exfil helo can be fantastic adrenaline fodder. It also benefits greatly from knowing what it wants to be. In Zombies mode, you know what you’re supposed to be doing, and you don’t need fancy bells and whistles to convey it. You go in, kill zombies, complete objectives – and the further you travel and the longer you survive, the harder it gets until you’re facing genuinely stacked, heart-pounding odds.
As per usual, then, the main event in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 is the multiplayer mode, but even that doesn’t feel like they’ve added much to it. Spread across 16 maps it’s mostly business as usual, and the mix of play-spaces is pretty decent. Not being much of a sniper, I appreciate the amount of maps that cater to my boots-in-the-mud style, and there weren’t many that I didn’t enjoy playing on. I didn’t spend a huge amount of time with Modern Warfare 2’s multiplayer mode or Warzone, but there’s nothing here that feels worse.
That said, slide-cancelling has finally been added into the game as a mechanic, which means players like me with too many thumbs are constantly getting smashed into the skirting boards by players sliding and leaping around like gazelles. In fact, modern Warfare 3 feels faster overall, with quicker mantling and improved Tactical Sprint activation, which I felt before I knew they’d actually improved it.
If you’re coming to Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 for the multiplayer alone, though, you’re unlikely to feel disappointed. A host of new weapons, some improved iterations of what has come before, give you plenty of options in your loadout. Completing Armory challenges also gives you plenty to get stuck into, and you’ll always feel like you’re progressing towards something when you’re playing. Unlocking weapons and gear this way makes it feel more like busy work, admittedly, but if you’re playing every day across multiplayer and Zombies, the chances are you’ll be lining up daily challenges anyway. Some of them are repeatable, and while the system needs some tweaks (it would be nice if you could stack more than three of these challenges at a time, for example), it’s a good way to keep you grinding.
Once again, what keeps Call of Duty ticking is the multiplayer element. Zombies is a fun if flawed new sandbox to play around in, while the multiplayer feels as reliably enjoyable as ever, even with a few new elements that need a little work. Sadly, though, the campaign of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 signifies that we’ve hit the “straight to video” era of the reboot series. Even the suggestion that it was devised as DLC isn’t enough to excuse it. Worst of all, the ending is horribly rushed, robbing it of any real emotion or stakes. Most will come for the multiplayer, of course, and those gamers will find just as much here to get into as ever, but any attempts to rescue the narrative side of the franchise after this had better bring out every trick and treat possible.
Gunplay is tight
Poor enemy AI
Short, unexciting campaign