Call of Duty: Modern Warfare Review: Unlaced Boots on the Ground

How do you review a Call of Duty game in 2019? Some outlets, like IGN, split it up into different parts, treating each individual slice as a whole. Some write about components of it individually before slapping a score over the big trifecta. This is all because, essentially, Call of Duty often feels like three games stitched into one. Last year’s Black Ops 4 had Zombies, standard multiplayer, and the big new addition that replaced its campaign: the battle royale mode Blackout. Eventually, Blackout was even splintered into its own standalone release on PC.

This year’s Call of Duty, from Infinity Ward, shies away from this treatment. There are still three big pillars—campaign, multiplayer, and the co-op Spec Ops—but they’re more tied together now. Theoretically, it’s easy to see how they all fall under the same umbrella, unlike with last year’s Black Ops 4. Leveling up is unified across the three. When you roll credits on the campaign, you’re treated to a short teaser and a notice that “the story continues in Spec Ops.”

It doesn’t. Not really.

Modern Warfare utilizes lighting to its advantage. | Caty McCarthy/USG, Infinity Ward/Activision Blizzard

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare is a weird beast of a game. It’s dense in every area. Its multiplayer boats the largest multiplayer maps in the series’ history. Its campaign is every bit as expensive-looking as you might imagine from the shooter’s heyday. (And yes, characters still say things like “This is the cost of war.”) Spec Ops mode is dense in a bad way—the enemies you face are so bullet sponge-y that it feels nearly impossible to even finish a match of the PvE mode’s operations. To best approach this, I’m taking the most holistic approach possible for this review: this is the Soap (the good), the Price (the bad), and the Modern Warfare 3 (the ugly) of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare.

The Soap

Modern Warfare is, and yes this sounds hyperbolic, the best Call of Duty has ever felt. The guns have weight to them; the sound design is better than ever before—I can actually hear where gunfire is coming from in a directional sense now. I am now uncomfortably familiar with the measured differences between different gun optics and attachments, which feel more meaningfully different than ever before. You can cradle your gun against a corner to mount it for a more stable shot, which is something I’m using way more than I expected I would.

The new modes introduced are, by and large, a blast. On Saturday night, I played split-screen local co-op with a friend where we played the new 2v2 Gunfight. Gunfight is a mode that gets its own itty bitty maps and fall more on the traditional three-lane structure of Call of Duty’s past. In Gunfight, you get a randomized load out and use it for two rounds, upon which a new random loadout is chosen for you. The first team to win six of the quick rounds is victorious. The matches in Gunfight are quick and tense, and it had me and my friend yelling and high-fiving like we were a couple of dumb kids at a LAN party; only we were in our late 20s and drinking hard seltzer.

There are other big new modes too, like Cyber Attack, which takes heavy inspiration from Counter-Strike. In Cyber Attack, your team of six is against another team of six, as you scramble to either eliminate all players on the other side, or pick up a randomly placed bomb on the map, deliver it to a location, and guard it while it seemingly uploads. When I don’t want to zone out with Team Deathmatch, Cyber Attack is what I’m finding myself gravitating toward. Modern Warfare also introduces a “Realism” mode that subtracts the HUD entirely; it’s particularly effective on maps that force you to don your night vision goggles. After playing a bunch of Realism, though, I can’t see myself going back to it. It ultimately ends up feeling like a gimmick—albeit a neat one.

The biggest new addition, quite literally, is the Ground War mode. In it, 64 players drop into a large map, and players have numerous objectives to claim across the vast area. You can traverse on foot, or via vehicles. It’s chaos, but in a good way. I’ve been really having a great time with Ground War. In one round, I hijacked a helicopter, flew it up to the tallest skyscraper in sight, and then exchanged sniper fire with a squad posted up on another skyscraper. Ground War is silly and ridiculous, but it works.

But it all falls apart in the details around it. While Modern Warfare feels great to play in the moment to moment, it suffers in map design, in campaign aim, and in satisfying (and even working) co-op. Infinity Ward, in the run-up to Modern Warfare, stressed that it was putting its best foot forward; this was a reinvention of not just Modern Warfare, but of the Call of Duty tech as we know it. Like all first steps, it’s a clumsy one.

The Price

The first order of business is the maps: from a technical and art perspective, they are impressive. When smoke radiates from crumbled stone, it looks real; when light shines through windows and dust, it glistens—which makes sense when you consider the big hoopla made about its ray-tracing technology. To some in the community, the lighting has been a point of contention—I reckon for folks who are averse to calibrating their televisions. But when it comes to the actual design of the maps, which have cast aside the usual three-lane structure that’s been most Call of Duty maps over history, they’re frankly a mess.

Most of the new maps have a serious problem: they’re too big. Often, I find myself running around a map for a solid minute or so without running into another player. Even the normal 6v6 maps have this issue. Piccadilly Circus, for instance, is a wide open area, with a narrow tunnel built by carefully parked buses, a few buildings to enter, and that’s it. There’s hardly any cover, nor many routes to snake through. It’s maybe the worst map when it comes to spawn camping; it’s easy to either take advantage of the enemy, or be cornered yourself. A lot of the maps have one, or all of these issues.

The three lane structure was a predictable layout that’s grown tired over the years, sure, but it lessened the tendency to camp. And with the new minimap not showing you where enemy gunfire is—that’s now relegated to a compass at the top of the screen with radial red blips—players are more incentivized to stay put. This is especially apparent in the larger maps in Team Deathmatch matches.

“Going Dark” is one of the few campaign missions to carry forward the “bigger is better” mentality of its multiplayer map designs, only here it works. | Caty McCarthy/USG, Infinity Ward/Activision Blizzard

Elsewhere are the vastly larger maps that can support anywhere from 20 to 64 players, depending on what mode you’re playing, whether it’s the Battlefield-like Ground War or just a much larger Team Deathmatch or Headquarters. The large maps are done a disservice on Team Deathmatch, which usually just funnels the steep player count into one central area, since naturally everyone gravitates to where there’s gunfire.

The Modern Warfare 3

The ugly of Modern Warfare emerged over the weekend, when a well-historied streamer noticed startling parallels during a campaign mission. In 1991, on Highway 80 between Iraq and Kuwait, a United States-led coalition attacked a Iraqi forces who were escaping Kuwait. For hours, different jets attacked the rows of soldiers and vehicles. Hundreds or even thousands were estimated to be killed. The six-lane highway was dubbed the “Highway of Death.”

The Highway of Death makes a literal appearance in Modern Warfare’s campaign. Only here, it’s on the outskirts of Urzikstan, the fictional home country of your characters’ primary allies: the Urzikstan Liberation Force. And it isn’t the U.S. and our allies who destroy it: it’s Modern Warfare’s staple enemy, the Russians. Or rather, the bad Russians, as Modern Warfare is quick to have at least one Russian ally on your side, fighting for the same thing.

The campaign’s themes are confused, as I wrote last week. While its story largely reckons with the horrifying consequences of chemical warfare, its multiplayer turns around and offers white phosphorus as a killstreak. The campaign is sometimes compelling in the gross scenarios it drops you in, but it’s always happy to pat you on the back and tell you you’re the good guy in the end. The contrasts don’t work together. By its end, I found myself wishing it would just embrace being war pulp instead of trying to be super serious; instead, it just felt like Another Modern Warfare Story, only now looking for excuse after excuse to show off its impressive night vision tech. (And boy, the highlight of the campaign, “Going Dark,” is sure a prime example of that.)

There are all different shades of ugly, too. If cowardly real-world parallels don’t phase you, the glitchiness and all around unplayability of Modern Warfare’s Spec Ops might be more up your ally. I have spent hours trying to play Spec Ops, only for a glitch to hinder progress part of the way through where the world suddenly won’t load in, or where the bullet sponge enemies become overwhelming. Even when you’re on the same communication level as your teammates, it all ends up feeling pointless. Spec Ops feels the most underbaked of everything Modern Warfare has to offer. I doubt I’ll ever touch it again.

Modern Warfare is a strange game. It is at once the best Call of Duty in years, finally nailing the feel of its action that it’s struggled to refine all these years. It feels like it’s catching up with its triple-A brethren from a technological standpoint. But it also makes things worse in the realm of its co-op and the tired moments of its campaign. Multiplayer is still where Call of Duty is at its best, but the not-great maps even dampen that.

Of course, this is just the start for Modern Warfare. We still don’t know the details of its microtransaction model, only that it will utilize a battle pass-like system and abstain from any late-implemented loot boxes like its predecessor, Black Ops 4. With a year of seasonal updates and free maps planned, it will instead serve as an experiment of what’s to come. If the gameplay keeps feeling this good and the modes it introduces continue being stellar, I reckon Modern Warfare won’t leave my online gaming rotation anytime soon, even with its intense lows. As Paul Hollywood might say on The Great British Baking Show to anyone that adds spice to anything, the presentation is messy, but the flavors buried within that soggy sponge are sharp.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare steps it up in the pure game-feel department; its guns, its movement, its action: it all feels the best it’s ever been. Even with thrilling new modes like Gunfight and the Counter-Strike-like Cyber Attack, the maps and Spec Ops end up disappointing. The campaign itself remains a return to form for the staple Call of Duty campaign, for better or worse. Modern Warfare as a whole ends up feeling like it has the foundation for something better than it is right now, and in the months to come, it very well might be. But for now, it’s just merely almost there.


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