How Modern Warfare 3’s open combat missions change the rules of engagement

 A cinematic scene from Modern Warfare 3.
A cinematic scene from Modern Warfare 3.

The latest Call of Duty is shaping up to be something of a blast from the past. Titled Modern Warfare 3, this upcoming installment in the blockbuster first-person shooter series is a direct sequel to 2022’s Modern Warfare 2 and the third overall entry in the refreshed Modern Warfare universe.

Although the storyline was reset with 2019’s reboot of the Modern Warfare sub-series, everything we’ve seen of Modern Warfare 3 so far suggests a big reliance on nostalgia for those original games. Packed with shiny remakes of multiplayer maps from the first Modern Warfare 2 (the 2009 title), it’s clear that developer Sledgehammer Games aims to entice lapsed fans with the tantalizing prospect of revisiting iconic locales like Rust and Favela in online play.

What sets this new entry apart from things that we’ve seen before, however, is its single-player campaign which introduces Open Combat Missions (OCMs) for the very first time. A whole new way to play, OCMs offer an open-ended alternative to the more traditionally linear Call of Duty mission structure giving players the freedom to to roam around the map and tackle objectives as they please.

Intrigued by what this means both for the series and studio, we sat down with Dave Swenson, creative director at Sledgehammer Games, and Shelby Carleton, the game’s narrative designer, to find out more.

Play your way

A cinematic scene from Modern Warfare 3
A cinematic scene from Modern Warfare 3

Having previously developed entries like Advanced Warfare and Vanguard, the shift to something more open-ended has been a big change of pace for the studio. “It’s been really exciting,” explains Swenson, “I keep saying that this is the game we’ve always wanted to make."

“We're storytellers so we love telling an engaging story but in an interactive medium,” he continues, “I think what makes things engaging is players having some choice in the matter and being able to choose how they got there.”

In fact, the desire to introduce more player choice was what prompted the creation of OCMs in the first place. “That was the original thought, right? That it would be so cool if we could do that,” says Swenson. “It would be so hard too so that's where you jump in, you're like ‘Okay, can we do this?’”

Despite needing “a lot of work” in their early stages, the missions soon “started to come together.” “It was like ‘Oh my god, we can do this. This is great. This is a lot of fun,’” he recalls, “like I said, this is the game we always wanted made and now we're finally able to make it.”

Adapt and respond

Task Force 141 from Modern Warfare 3
Task Force 141 from Modern Warfare 3

Call of Duty campaigns are known for their cinematic storytelling and Swenson emphasizes that players can still expect plenty of story content this time around. “It has all the story, it has all the character,” he says, “but now I'm not pulled along. Instead, I'm using my agency.”

This is something that Carleton has been very careful to consider in her work as narrative designer. “We wanted to have the narrative respond in some way to the choices that you're making. Whether you're going loud, you're going quiet or you're stealthing, you're gonna have characters responding to that."

“There's even different ways of completing the level. You can do things in whatever order so some levels will have characters recognise that,” she adds. “I remember just sending designers [a message] like ‘please give me a list of all the ways you can die in this level so that we can account for them.’ Sometimes you'll die guns blazing, sometimes you'll die in stealth.” Writing dialogue that would take into account so many player actions was an arduous task. “You're trying to have all of these lines to cover all of these situations,” she explains. “It was certainly, from that perspective, a challenge.”

During the development process, large boards were assembled to map out myriad possible routes a player could take as they explored a level. “We planned it out on the boards that we had, like all of these possibilities and boxes. You'll never see it, it’s so embarrassing to look at.” she recounts. “This is the mess before the beautiful thing comes out of it but I think we pulled it off.”

Moments of reflection

Ghost and Soap from Modern Warfare 3
Ghost and Soap from Modern Warfare 3

We were also curious to see what the team is personally most excited for fans to experience for themselves. “I really love those quieter moments,” says Carleton, recalling a specific poignant moment in the campaign. “There's so much to Call of Duty,” she explains, “the conflict, the low points, the bombastic action and, in all of the games across the franchise, I always look for those quieter moments. They really stand out to me as having a lot of heart and bringing something different to each of the games.”

Swenson, on the other hand, is most interested in seeing what players make of the OCMs. “I am really excited for open combat missions. I think that as I've been building the game, playing a lot, I keep craving going back and I have.”

With so many possible approaches, he is also interested to see what kinds of tactics community members will discover and share. “Maybe this Call of Duty's campaign is the most YouTube-able campaign,” he explains, “I think fans [will be] capturing and sharing with others how they're completing objectives in crazy, inventive ways that we haven't even thought of. I'm really excited for that.”

Introducing some of the dynamic action found in open-world games like Far Cry 6 seems like the perfect evolution for the Call of Duty formula and we’re also very much looking forward to finding out exactly what kinds of strategies we will discover when Modern Warfare 3 launches on November 10.

For shooter recommendations, visit our list of the best FPS games. For more titles to look forward to, visit our list of all the upcoming games in 2023 and beyond.