Call of Duty has outshone and outlasted the competition in video games for two decades because it makes the everyday soldier into a hero and it puts you at the center of spectacular combat missions.
With this year’s reboot of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare III, the developers at Sledgehammer Games and the rest of Activision’s Call of Duty teams made an admirable attempt to give fans what they want. The devs made a high-stakes single-player campaign, but the runtime for the campaign is really short.
The real test for the whole game comes on November 10 when everybody gets access to both the single-player and multiplayer modes, as well as a new Zombies mode. However, once in a while, the edginess of a single-player campaign really matters, like in the 2019 game Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, which started the whole reboot of the Modern Warfare series that includes this year’s Modern Warfare III. But some of the fire that made Modern Warfare the most popular Call of Duty of all has burned out now.
There’s a lot at stake. As of last year, Activision’s first-person shooter combat franchise had hit $30 billion in lifetime revenue and 425 million premium copies sold to date. Now that it’s under the ownership of Microsoft, Activision Blizzard wants to keep on impressing everyone with its never-ending hit game, which now has more than 3,000 developers working on it. No less than 10 studios worked on it.
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Rob Kostich, president of Activision, told me that the modern warfare era offers a lot of flexibility in combat, weapons and storytelling — and that is what has resonated with fans in recent years. But he knows that Activision has to earn its fans every year.
The Modern Warfare franchise
The biggest part of the franchise is Modern Warfare, and this game continues the reboot of the Modern Warfare trilogy from more than a decade ago.
Modern Warfare III brings back the familiar crew of the secret Task Force 141, led by Captain John Price and CIA overseer Kate Laswell, with appearances from Farah Karim, Alex Keller, John “Soap” MacTavish Kyle “Gaz” Garrick and Ghost. General Herschel Shepherd makes an appearance to represent the worst of U.S. military brass, who puts his soldiers in harm’s way, dodges responsibility and makes alliances when the ends justify the means. The tension between Shepherd and the task force is a nod toward honoring soldiers over bureaucrats and politicians in uniform. Fortunately, the task force has bigger enemies elsewhere, and so are once again fighting under the notion that the enemy of my enemy is my friend.
There are just 14 missions in the Modern Warfare III campaign story, compared to 17 in Modern Warfare II. This one is so short it feels like Call of Duty: Cold War, the 2020 game that only had 10 missions plus some optional content. I finished Modern Warfare III after just one evening and one morning of play. And I usually take longer because I have to play missions over and over again (on hardened level) to get through them. I didn’t log the exact number of hours.
But while other folks have complained about the length of the campaign, I didn’t mind it so much. After all, as a player, you’ll get your money’s worth from the hours and hours of multiplayer sessions available for this game, as well as the free-to-play Warzone that is kind of like a companion. If the campaign is good, then the length of the campaign shouldn’t matter as much. And if the shortness really bugs you, you should play the campaign on the hardest level.
This game felt like it had a lot of gravity because it had one of the worst villains who is so very easy to hate. If there is any political connection between the story and the real world, it shows in the choice of the villain: Vladimir Makarov, a Russian ultranationalist. Makarov wants to start a world war by staging massacres where a party that isn’t guilty gets blamed for the atrocity.
And we learn that a Russian billionaire has been bankrolling Makarov’s own vast private army, which can take state terror to a new level. Some of this may sound all too real as the Ukrainians fight a real war with Russia, but it is the kind of blurring of fiction and reality that Call of Duty has been known for. Perhaps wisely and safely for Activision, the game doesn’t venture into making a political statement about any current events, even though it seems eerily too real in some ways.
Call of Duty’s graphics have always had an amazing balance of artistry and speed, and that’s no different in this one as it hums along at 60 frames a second. I played it on a PC with an AMD Ryzen 9 7900X 12-Core Processor running at 4.70 GHz. The machine had 96.0 GB of RAM and an Nvida GeForce RTX 4090.
It ran at 60Hz on 3840 x 2160 resolution, and it never crashed on me in single-player mode. It did crash multiple times while I played the beta some weeks back, particularly in the ground war mode. The graphics looked pretty amazing and the weaponry responsiveness was superb. While you may argue that Battlefield’s graphics are better and its battlegrounds larger, I think the speed of Call of Duty and the gritty close-combat firefights still give it an edge.
The good thing about the game is that most of the combat is solid in the campaign. Getting the gunplay and speedy combat right is the reason why Call of Duty has been so popular for decades.
There is a lot of variety. In the very first mission, you take over a prison (from the Verdansk map in Warzone) in stealth mode, and you can take out guards who are preoccupied with a prison riot by shimmying down a rope from above. Then the riot breaks into a full-blown breakout battle.
You can sneak into an airplane crash site and fight in a stealth mode. You can start missions with combat loadouts that you’ve earned along the way, or restart a mission with arms that you’ve picked up in an earlier run. You can also go in guns blazing. You can fire down on an army of terrorists from the safety of an AC-130 gunship aircraft.
On the other hand, many of the AI soldiers aren’t as smart as you’d like them to be. They often shoot you in the back and stand there. Rather than take you out, they wait for you to shoot back. This makes sense if you’re wearing armor, but playing on the hardened level (one above normal), it seemed a bit too easy. The AI never sneaks up on you and takes you out with a melee stroke. Instead, the AI soldiers run out of cover and become sitting ducks for you to take down. The worst threat they pose is that there are too many of them and they can eventually overwhelm you, kind of like Zombies do. Of course, you do run into the occasional heavily armored Juggernaut, who doesn’t need to hide and is very difficult to bring down as you have to land a bunch of headshots and perhaps grenade explosions to take out.
Among the single-player missions, one of the best is where you fight through a frozen wilderness, hunting down snipers in a kind of cat-and-mouse game. And the cinematics are a high point of the game, as they convey the outcomes of your gameplay missions and reveal the character of the heroes and villains.
If there’s anything missing, it’s some of the spectacular set pieces that Call of Duty is known for. The prison breakout gets the rivers of blood flowing, but there are more spectacular scenes from the past that have involved things like rappelling down a skyscraper, crashing through glass windows, or diving from a helicopter as it spins around and crashes. Call of Duty often gave Uncharted a run for its money when it came to spectacular set pieces.
And while I mentioned the villainous Vladimir Makarov as an evil character, it should be noted that this Makarov is scary because of his actions, not his looks. In fact, this fellow is somewhat clean-shaven and reminds me more of Doogie Howser actor Neil Patrick Harris. (Makarov is voiced by actor Julian Kostov). Makarov came off as both charming and charismatic, rather than just plain psychotic this time around. For me, it was distracting to have someone who looked like a comedic actor.
One of my pet peeves about narrative campaigns is when they don’t respect what happened before in the previous story. Like bringing back a character who died in a previous game without explanation. This game is guilty of that narrative crime, as it revives one bad character from the past rebooted Modern Warfare game who really should be dead already.
This is one of those tricks that makes the player skeptical of developer intentions. If we don’t see the body, is that character really dead? And if a character is really memorable, would the developers really kill off that character? Once the developers play this trick, they lose all narrative credibility.
I think the devs of this year’s game handled one sensitive and controversial part of the game better than the Infinity Ward team did in the past. Longtime Call of Duty fans will remember the “No Russian” mission in the 2009 game Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. In this older game, the player participates in a mass shooting at a Russian airport, gunning down civilians. You play the mission as an undercover agent — one of the “good guys” — who is forced to join in the massacre in an attempt at not blowing cover. Nevertheless, it was downright creepy to put players into the first-person shooter role in a massacre.
That older game sparked significant controversy for its graphic portrayal of a mass shooting where you have no choice but to gun down civilians yourself. The massacre made players think, but I didn’t like the way it was done, giving you no choice about participating in a massacre. And I felt it crossed the line between making an entertaining game and trying to make a statement with gratuitous violence. That line is where Call of Duty always skates to the edge, and it is at its best when it stops short of it.
This scene was up for renewal since this reboot of the Modern Warfare franchise also brought back Vladimir Makarov, the instigator of the No Russian mission and a terrorist leader. But fortunately, because of the choices the game developers made, I don’t have to review this new scene in the same way.
In this new campaign, Makarov is ruthless, taking down a civilian airliner in the hopes of blaming it on terrorists from the fictional nation of Urkistan, which is under attack by Makarov’s private military corporation Konni Group.
And then there is another massacre that is the equivalent of No Russian at a soccer stadium inside the Verdansk map, which is familiar to Warzone players. In this “open combat” mission, you have to make your way past fleeing civilians who are being massacred by Makarovs soldiers. If you shoot a civilian in this game, the mission ends in a failure. You are there to help the civilians flee the slaughter, rather than participate in it. At a time when we have a lot of senseless violence in the world to argue about, I am glad we don’t have one more atrocity to discuss in a personal way — would you participate in a massacre if forced to do so — in a fictional game.
Open combat missions
This stadium massacre scene is one case where the “open combat” mission makes sense and is handled correctly. The other open combat missions aren’t as good, as they don’t carry the same gravity. It feels instead like you’re just playing on a big Warzone map, which is in fact what you are doing. These maps have multiple objectives where you can handle objectives tasks in any order and how you like. But they’re not really fun if you are fighting against AI soldiers instead of human ones.
GameSpot’s reviewed aptly noted that these open combat missions are disappointing because they lack the moment-by-moment tension of a tense atmosphere and frequent cinematics that you find in normal campaign missions. In the second mission, Precious Cargo, you notice this in the transition from a terrible death scene to what amounts to a looting mission in DMZ multiplayer mode in Warzone.
It’s nice they’re trying to make the Warzone maps relevant. And it’s great to honor the classic maps for the nostalgia value. You can fight by picking up weapons from Warzone-like chests across the map. You can go in shooting or play stealth. But you often don’t have the right stealth weapons handy to stay in stealth mode for a long time. So eventually you have to take on a whole army across the maps. This kind of battle offers some fresh challenges, but sadly the AI of the enemies isn’t up to the task here.
In fact, the use of multiplayer or Warzone maps seems like a low-budget measure to reuse maps in these open combat missions. You can see the resource contention between a game like Warzone that has to be constantly refreshed with a premier title that has to come out every year.
When you note that there are 16 classic maps included in the repertoire of this year’s maps, it seems like Activision has gone too far in recycling old content with this game. The best mission was a unique one dubbed Highrise, where you ascend through a building using any means you can to find a target who is running away from you — as you take out his army inside the building.
When you’re making your way through a campaign, you want everything to be fresh, not recycled. And you want it to carry gravity of a make or break mission, and so making it take place on a map that you play over and over again takes away from that gravity. And while it’s great to have access to familiar weapons in your Warzone loadout, it’s also deflating. You can use a “self-revive” if you are taken down in the open combat mission. And so while a bad guy is standing over you, you can use it and then shoot the bad guy and then continue with the missions. There is a certain ridiculousness to that.
The ending of the game leaves a lot to be desired, though an extra scene in the middle of the credits brings some closure. But it felt like the game itself should have delivered that conclusion.
Overall, it balanced out and the rest of the campaign was well done. As I mentioned, most players really care more about multiplayer than the single-player campaign. For me, I’ve always liked how the single-player story motivates you to play the multiplayer. And so it really does matter to me. I don’t know if my objections here mean that I don’t like the game overall. I feel like I’m a superfan who nitpicks endlessly while still pouring a lot of time into playing Call of Duty every year.
But I do hope the developers know when they’ve hit the mark and met expectations or missed the target.
I give this single-player campaign 3.5 stars out of five, which is the worst score I’ve ever given a Call of Duty Game. I’ll amend the score after I’ve played more multiplayer combat.
Disclosure: Activision gave me a copy of the game for purposes of this review.
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