Call of Duty: Modern Warfare III Review
Nostalgia under the gun
While the longstanding joke that Call of Duty is the same game every year persists, franchise veterans know this has never really been true. Barring a few exceptions, each modern entry offers a new campaign, with new locations and faces, and a different co-operative experience. Even the reliable multiplayer is tweaked, starting fresh with a new arsenal and a collection of original battlegrounds to master. However, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare III makes the running joke a reality. It revisits the battles of yesteryear by repurposing, or visually upgrading, levels from previous games and fuses them into a modern package. This is perhaps appropriate for the franchise’s 20-year anniversary, but poses a challenge for a shooter that relies on some novelty. Fortunately the nostalgic compilation works quite well, even though it means Call of Duty: Modern Warfare III struggles to craft a unique identity, both online and offline.
Makarov is back to make Price pay the price
The short campaign is eager to retread old ground. For the first time, it is a direct continuation of the previous year's game, Modern Warfare II, which was a reboot of the sub-series of the same name from the late 2000s. The opening mission lets players become a bad guy to liberate the iconic villain Makarov from his Gulag prison. Then the narrative shifts to tracking the dangerous escapee as players become Ghost, Soap, Gaz, Price, and other known associates of Task Force 141. The freed Makarov has nasty plans involving stolen US missiles and a deadly green Sarin gas, and he spends most of the campaign attacking his own countrymen, as a false-flag operation and to stir up patriotism. Players get to see the reverse side of “No Russian” (from Modern Warfare 2) as they travel from the Middle-East to Sochi, although the civilian casualties rarely evoke a strong emotional response. The story is uninspired, lacking engaging characters, captivating twists, or thrilling scenarios. Even the finale stumbles, with a poor emotional scene and no proper resolution.
About half of the campaign consists of open-combat missions that let players navigate an area freely. This is not the first time the franchise has given players a wider berth; Call of Duty 2 from way back in 2005 let players approach a few objectives in any order. These open-combat missions do not have much structure, or even pockets of discrete action. Instead they are more like a mini Battle Royale mess with armor plates to apply and supply caches to find, albeit thankfully without the crafting nonsense in last year’s game. It is no wonder that most levels take place in portions of the free-to-play Call of Duty Warzone maps (both the previous Verdansk and upcoming Ursikstan). Each area is haphazardly filled with enemies that cluster together and need instructions to tie their shoelaces. The objectives are predictable and simple, but at least they can be tackled from any direction with any tools on hand.
At times these open-combat scenarios are close to being good fun, like the Gora Dam mission where you sneak around at night and snipe from elevated positions. Even the mission where players progress up a tenement building is decent, able to stalk the exterior walkways or massacre guards through hallways with a punchy incendiary shotgun. Stealth is encouraged, because going guns blazing usually brings more soldiers, although thankfully it is possible to lose full detection. Letting players pace themselves is nice, but also frequently ruined by annoying characters that insist you hurry up, even though there is no actual timer. The open-combat missions also rarely save progress, so most objectives have to be completed in one attempt. If you die, any weapons found inside those inconspicuous bright orange crates can be equipped for the next attempt.
The open-combat missions have a different scope
The standard linear missions are unfortunately worse than their open-combat counterparts, which is strange given these are the franchise’s bread and butter. Their focus is much simpler, often using heavy scripting and maybe some companions or one-off gameplay mechanics, like a bomb defusal or tracking perps via CCTV, but these add nothing of value. One bad linear mission involved infiltrating a Russian base in disguise, but if the game decides players are too close to guards, they are spotted and killed. There is a decent gunship mission, but even this is overly familiar with the same character celebrating when bodies fly like confetti. In addition to the dumb AI, regular missions throw in heavily armored opponents so players can demonstrate their understanding of the reload button; snipers in Siberia died after about 15 headshots, when they can kill you in just two. With no car chases, a rehashed story, and a lack of quality set-pieces, the tightly-scripted parts are not near the franchise’s best. And the mixed-quality open-combat missions cannot save the campaign from being disappointing overall.
The zombie offering this year is a pleasant surprise, even though it is not round-based like usual. MWZ is basically the DMZ mode from Modern Warfare II, with hordes of zombies filling a large open world. This is not the first time a bigger space has been attempted; Black Ops Cold War’s free Onslaught mode took place on large-ish maps, and MWZ reuses a few of its mechanics, like recharging abilities and some mission objectives. The MWZ map is enormous, again utilizing the upcoming Warzone map, Urzikstan. Sessions include more players than usual, with up to 24 people in squad sizes of 1-3. Playing alone is great fun, with plenty of self-revives and a way to call others for help, should you make a mistake or suffer an errant lag spike. Other players on the server are not hostile, so the atmosphere is relaxed but spooky enough, with the shambling dead that can attack en masse. The edges of the map feature low-tier zombies that get tougher and faster as you move inward, which is cool as you can opt to press in for better rewards and more challenge.
Random contracts are scattered about the map and completing them rewards essence (currency). They might involve killing a special zombie, stealing a truck, or protecting a computer from AI mercenary soldiers. The various perk Colas, offering speed boosts, extra health etc., are typically also given as rewards or can be bought outright. Essence is also gained from killing zombies and looting, with the undead dropping standard power-ups like insta-kill and double points. Thankfully ammo is rarely a concern because the undead drop it regularly, along with armor plates and throwables. Weapons can be bought from walls, but many are found inside loot caches and each can be upgraded with pack-a-punch devices that is practically required if you want to push to the map’s center. After finishing a contract or ten, looting gear and shooting hundreds of the undead, you can extract at anytime. Successful extraction lets you bank a few items, like weapon upgrades or spare Colas, and bring them next time.
Killing the undead in MWZ remains fun for hours
Overall MWZ is super enjoyable and replayable due to the depth of its mechanics and the size of the world. The framework can be easily expanded with more contract types. It would be nice if it could be played with fewer participants though, because needing to wait for 20+ others resulted in joining a few high-ping servers at non-peak times, but at least progression is shared with the competitive multiplayer. Attachments, perks, field upgrades, and even weapons can be unlocked by playing MWZ, allowing players to seamlessly transition from killing loads of zombies to dying against real human opponents.
The online competitive multiplayer is basically a continuation of last year. All of Modern Warfare II’s weapons and attachments are on hand, assuming you have unlocked them, which is also a franchise first. This nice inclusion makes the low number of new weapons easier to digest and allows returning players to jump in with something familiar. Speed and movement feels familiar straight out of the blocks, with good mantling, sliding, and decent weapon handling. Currently there is even a playlist with a handful of last year’s maps in rotation. Operators also carry over, which provides great soldier variety, but this benefit is countered by the many ridiculous cross-promotional skins (e.g. Homelander and Lilith from Diablo 4).
Perks have changed, now consisting of a primary combat vest and up to four pieces of additional gear that provides similar benefits: a demolition vest refreshes grenades continually, special gloves can scavenge ammo, a headset makes footsteps louder, and boots might reduce fall damage. This approach lets players mix-n-match nicely but with limitations to prevent overpowered combos, although the covert sneakers are incredibly useful for flanking. Also, unlike last year, there is thankfully no need to wait for a perk to activate during the match.
There are slightly longer firefights this time
Player health has increased, so enemies soak up more bullets and frag grenades have less oomph. A few new lethals expand combat strategy, like a forward-flying drone that explodes in enemy proximity and a mini thermobaric bomb that enhances other explosives. Additional field upgrades add tactical layers, like a device that auto-captures flags, which is wonderful to place on exposed objectives, and another that jams killstreaks in range. Killstreaks (optionally scorestreaks) have a few more options too, including a dive-bombing mosquito drone and a SAM turret. Most of the equipment is unlocked by doing daily challenges this year. This is annoying when they require non-typical actions, but team wins also contribute to the grindy unlock system.
The core 6v6 modes are much the same, with FFA, TDM, Domination, Kill Confirmed, Hardpoint, Control, and Search & Destroy. A new mode, Cutthroat, puts three teams of three against each other in round-based action that is a bit like Gunfight but with more intensity, though it doesn’t have much lasting appeal. Hardcore playlists are available for the six core modes, which lets players kill with just a few bullets. The new six-shot grenade launcher absolutely tears it up on hardcore, and is a great reminder of the noobtube fun/hell seen earlier in the franchise.
The sixteen core maps are remakes of the launch maps from Modern Warfare 2 (2009). This cool nostalgia trip, and the game’s continuation from last year, means the game struggles to feel like a new entry. Plus, if you fought on these maps for hundreds of hours, the thought of more might not be appealing. But the returning maps bring incredible variety, not just visually. The tiny chaotic desert map of Rust plays so differently from the open sniper grasslands in Wasteland. The circular Afghan map contrasts with the maze-like Scrapyard, despite both featuring plane fuselage. There are great pacing shifts, as 6v6 on the larger maps, such as Derail or Estate, play slower and teams stick to their respective sides, without frequent spawn flips. Most remakes are a decent visual upgrade, with more detail inside buildings, additional clutter in streets, and better foliage. A few levels are strangely bright and oversaturated, like Rundown, but this may have been done to help visual acuity and on most maps enemy players do pop nicely as black silhouettes.
The remade Invasion map looks good
Due to the speed and gameplay changes over the last fourteen years, some maps play differently. Favela’s tight alleys and rooftop battles are more free-flowing because mantling onto a car and jumping through a window means positions of power are not held for long. Leaping over chain-link fences on Highrise is a superb way to break sight lines covered by snipers. There are still definitely good spots to hold the fort, but it pays to be on the move and check all access points. So despite having played these levels for dozens of hours previously, the gameplay changes and time gap means they are fresh and great fun.
War mode returns for the first time since WWII, but unfortunately its inclusion is even less robust. It has just one medium-sized map, which is ridiculous given three were not enough to sustain the mode last time. The map, Operation Spearhead, also consists of more old levels with the remade Crossfire (Call of Duty 4) and Khandor Hideout (Modern Warfare 2019) stitched together in a way that makes sense. One team attacks in three phases: capturing two objectives, escorting a tank, and activating consoles in a missile bunker. While it provides enough entertainment for a few rounds, the fortification system is tacked on and the mode will likely fall into obscurity again.
Expect death from above in the larger modes
Ground War mode is completely different from War, and unlike how it played in Black Ops 3 and older titles, which is confusing. Like Conquest in Battlefield, Ground War has 32v32 players trying to capture flags across three large maps with some vehicles and ammo depots. Two maps are again subsets of the upcoming Warzone map. One of them, Levin Resort, offers a multi-tiered central building that facilitates awesome infantry battles, letting players remain protected but with rapid access to most flags. Unfortunately lopsided matches are rather common. Once the opposing force gets the upper hand it is hard to claw back, possibly because of the killstreak spam that is still holding the larger modes back from greatness. Invasion is the other mode that uses these three big levels. But since it is only 20v20, with AI bots to kill for points, and no flags to capture, it does not suffer quite as much from one side dominating and is more consistent.
The game is in a decent technical state at launch, aside from a few small issues. Framerate is generally good without any crashes and only a few disconnections. Visually it looks fine, not much different to last year, although there are weak spots like with ugly textures and light bleeding through multiplayer levels. Some matches had odd hit registration, leading to unusually quick or slow enemy kills. Modes with more players, like Ground War, had noticeable delays and player warping. In hectic combat situations, the game bombards the UI with medal awards that come with an annoying sound and visual clutter, although this is not as bad as in Advanced Warfare. The menus are still sluggish, mostly right after leaving games, and there are still far too many sub-menus.
Familiarity provides sharp contrast, like a 40mm cannon in thermal vision
If you do not mind revisiting familiar battlegrounds, then Call of Duty: Modern Warfare III has enough appealing qualities to warrant a closer look. Regrettably, the campaign is not one of them, with a boring narrative and weak missions, despite some occasionally intriguing open-combat scenarios that try too hard to be like Warzone. The MWZ mode delivers a surprisingly effective take on open-world zombies, with enough depth to bring players back. Multiplayer builds on last year’s game and throws a variety of great maps from when the franchise was near its peak. This nostalgic combination works better than expected. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare III might not be well remembered years from now because it is the Frankenstein’s monster of the franchise, but it shows that life can be created from old parts.