2023 will not go down as a vintage Call of Duty year. Modern Warfare III is a disappointing sequel, marred by a short single-player campaign that somehow manages to feel bloated and a new take on the much-loved Zombies mode that makes you wish they’d bring the old take back. Its saving grace is its multiplayer, which is arguably the best and most downright fun that it’s been in years. Yet even this is going to be divisive, as it throws away much of what made multiplayer in last year’s Modern Warfare II so effective. Let’s face it – Modern Warfare III will still be a must-buy for hardcore Call of Duty fans, but if you’re sitting on the fence, you can give this year's blockbuster a miss.
Let’s start with the campaign. I cracked it in around five to six hours, and that was with a lot of unnecessary exploration and some woefully inept play. More competent players that focus on the objectives could easily complete it in much less time. It continues with the story of Modern Warfare II while bringing back CoD’s most notorious villain: Makarov.
In case you don’t remember, this is the bad guy who shoots up a Russian airport in order to blame the US and kickstart World War III. For an encore, he does his best to decimate Europe’s greatest cities with the aid of chemical bombs. In the new Modern Warfare era, he’s up to something else with chemical warheads launched from Eastern Europe, false flag operations in Russia and a dirty bomb in London, but the whole plot is such a mess that it’s hard to put together or even care.
That’s a shame, because Call of Duty: Modern Warfare II did a fantastic job of bringing back the old Modern Warfare crew and mixing them together with some interesting new stars. Yet while Captain Price, Soap, Ghost, Gaz and Farah all get their chance to shine, this chapter in the story takes them nowhere – or at least, nowhere that you’d want them to end up.
More freedom, less excitement
The team at Sledgehammer Games deserve some credit for trying to take Call of Duty in a new direction. While roughly half the missions stick to the classic formula of bullet-dodging, blasting and big action set-pieces, the other half adopt a new ‘Open Combat Mission’ style, where you’re dropped into a wider, more open battlefield, and are left to complete a series of objectives in any order that you want. Along the way, you can stock up on armour plates, new weapons and useful gadgets, while tackling snipers and enemy patrols.
Despite some of the Internet commentary, these missions aren’t all bad. There’s a level of tension in feeling your way through each area, wiping out groups of evil private military goons and looting supply crates for new goodies. It’s irritating that these missions barely have any checkpoints, but you can keep the stuff you find in one run and select it for your loadout for the next.
The more unforgiving difficulty level encourages you to avoid just soaking up the damage, and instead think your way through. All the same, these levels run short of the thrills, the big moments and the cleverly orchestrated action sequences that make a great Call of Duty so exciting. Instead, the Open Combat Missions feel more like what they really are: chunks of the free-roaming Warzone mode with AI troops, objectives and a story bolted on.
The result is a campaign with some brilliant high points, like an ongoing battle through a crumbling, trap-filled apartment complex or a sniper shoot-out in the arctic tundra, but also a lot that feels like padding. Major beats of the story simply don’t work, while one key character meets a sorry fate in a way that just seems wasteful.
Speed, kills and thrills
The good news is that multiplayer is another matter. Fans expected things to stay much the same from Modern Warfare II, only with the addition of classic Call of Duty modes and maps straight from the Modern Warfare golden years. Instead, Modern Warfare III mixes things up, increasing the movement speed, reducing the amount of damage it takes to score a kill, and reinstating some of the sliding and vaulting manoeuvres that last year’s game pulled back on.
This all makes Modern Warfare III a much faster-paced game, where your mastery of speed and movement counts. The maps, both old and new, seem more focused on funneling you into action, fast, with a mix of team deathmatch and control point modes that guarantee that the next skirmish is always just around the corner. It’s great to see fan favourites like Rust and Favela return, while the new maps fit right in.
On the one hand, the change of style means you lose some of the more considered, tactical play that made Modern Warfare II’s multiplayer so satisfying, and if you prefer your Call of Duty without fancy dress costumes and ridiculous slide-and-shoot moves, then you might want to stick to last year’s game. On the other hand, Modern Warfare III is so stupidly, relentlessly action-packed that it’s practically irresistible. Sure, there are times when taking one-shot kills gets infuriating, and the various perks and customisation features grow more out of control each year, but Modern Warfare III’s multiplayer leaves a big grin on your face. It’s classic Call of Duty through and through.
What’s more, it has two large-scale battle modes that are actually enjoyable to play. War mode, returning from 2017’s Call of Duty: World War II, features two teams of 12 players battling to complete a set of objectives, or stop the other team from doing so. It takes a few runs before it falls into place, but once it does it’s a lot of fun.
Invasion, meanwhile, is just a crazy, upscaled Team Deathmatch played out with teams of 20 players plus AI-controlled troops on giant-sized maps, complete with tanks and armored jeeps. It’s Call of Duty at its most unhinged, but oddly also Call of Duty at its most relaxed, because it’s hard to take it seriously when just about anything could happen next.
Warzone meets The Walking Dead
Sadly, if the multiplayer brings Modern Warfare III up to scratch, Zombies mode knocks it down again. Instead of following the tried and tested Zombies playbook, with round after round of zombie blasting mayhem until your team is – literally – chewed up, this year’s version takes its inspiration from the Outbreak mode of Call of Duty: Black Ops – Cold War and Warzone’s DMZ extraction missions.
This means dropping with your three-soldier squad into the massive Urzikstan map, collecting weapons and loot while completing the odd mission, then making it back to your helicopter to get out. Only, as it's Zombies mode, you’re facing not just AI-controlled mercenaries, but also shambling hordes of the living dead.
The problem is that there aren’t enough zombies to go round, only turning up in any serious numbers when you’re trying to destroy or capture some objective or complete some weird pseudo-scientific task. The more challenging boss monsters up the ante, but only turn up as you push further through the game.
The map is sprawling and the gameplay confusing, and the waves of tension and release that used to characterise Zombies mode are close to gone. There’s a chance that Zombies mode will grow on me, and that patience and practice will breed a deeper understanding. Right now, though, that’s hard to imagine. Modern Warfare III has taken Call of Duty’s strangest and most entertaining game mode and turned it into another extraction shooter, where the first thing that's extracted is the fun.
All in all, it’s hard to score Modern Warfare III. The multiplayer’s great but the single-player campaign is deeply underwhelming. Zombies is a gore-splattered hit-and-miss affair. But where last year’s Modern Warfare II promised a return to Call of Duty’s glory days, this year’s effort feels like the kind of rush job sequel that started the series’ downward slide. Hardcore fans will lap up the multiplayer action, the rest of us can play something else this year.