Call of Duty: Modern Warfare Review

Modern Warfare makes meaningful tech upgrades to the Call of Duty franchise, making it look and sound better than ever while still maintaining its crisp, exciting gameplay.

Qualitatively, the Call of Duty franchise has been on a bit of a roll lately. WWII felt like that first attempt at hitting the panic button with its back-to-basics approach. Black Ops 4 seemed like a different type of panic might have plagued its development, but the franchise's first foray into the battle royale genre was pretty good and the competitive multiplayer made good on the whole operators/abilities angle Treyarch started trying back in Black Ops 3. So where does that leave Call of Duty: Modern Warfare? Is it... back-to-back-to-basics, perhaps? Yes and no.

Sure, yeah, it's a game that attempts to recapture the magic of that first really massive Call of Duty game by taking its name and a few of its characters and integrating them into an all-new campaign. If you were looking for some kind of analogy here, it kind of reminds me of that Star Trek reboot. It's going to occasionally reference events that came from Modern Warfare's past, but it's a different universe and, assuming they continue down the line to make a sequel, it'll maybe even retell some of the stories from those old games. The campaign is pretty solid, gameplay-wise, with plenty of the standard move-and-shoot gameplay that you’d expect along with a handful of fun little diversions and tools to play around with. Yes, you’ll rain down shots from above on helpless enemies below, but you’ll also use RC planes strapped to C4 to knock down helicopters. The game even manages to make its obligatory sniper mission feel pretty fun while still forcing you to account for wind and distance when lining up your shots.

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Modern Warfare takes an action movie approach to its story, which occasionally comes off as reckless when paired with the game’s often-grim subject matter. Also, the game’s length (probably around six-to-eight hours for most players, though you could certainly shoot through it faster than that) means that every facet of the story feels abbreviated. Two characters develop something of a personal attachment to each other, but before any of that goes anywhere, the game ends. The game does still find time for some flashbacks, though, which have you doing “fun” things like playing as a small girl who survives a Russian invasion and subsequent gas attack and grows up in captivity only to be featured in a waterboarding minigame. The game doesn’t necessarily play things up for shock value, but at the same time it doesn’t really linger on any of its heavier moments to give them much weight. As such, I found it hard to get too worked up one way or the other. It’s a fun video game, but its hook of “how bad will the good guys have to become in order to catch the actual bad guys” doesn’t especially hold up to critical scrutiny.

The competitive multiplayer feels bigger and better than its predecessors, though this is mostly achieved via a bunch of smart tweaks that don’t initially sound like a big deal. You can now mount to corners and low walls, giving you a way to keep most of your body behind a wall and peek out, letting you enter rooms a little more tactically. The modes have been given a bit of an overhaul, with Headquarters returning to the fold. Most of the game’s modes are now placed into a centralized hopper that you can filter down if you, for example, don’t ever way to play Search & Destroy but are fine with any Team Deathmatch, Cyber War, or Domination match that might be available. This is pretty similar to Titanfall 2’s mode selection interface, which also worked well. Some modes also get broken out of that main quick play list, so you can easily line up a Ground War match. Ground War has even more of a Battlefield-esque feel this time out, with 64-player matches on larger maps that hold five control points. You can parachute off of high buildings here, there are a few vehicles, and all of the killstreaks that players keep calling in make things feel ridiculously chaotic. It’s a weird, fun experience, seeing Call of Duty at this larger scale. Realism mode is also cool as it sort of splits the difference between regular matches and the traditional hardcore match. Realism more or less eliminates the HUD, forcing you to focus more on what’s in front of you and only giving you tactical information when your team has a UAV up in the air. There are also night versions of some multiplayer maps, which is a fun twist, but I haven’t seen these pop up in the game’s public matchmaking yet.

Unlocking items and options in multiplayer often feels like it changes for change’s sake from year to year, but Modern Warfare’s take on perks and attachments both feels new and better than what’s come before. Instead of a big, crazy pick 10 system, you can pick your three perks--these are things that might make you run faster, or perhaps become invisible to enemy radar—and level up as normal. But you’ll also select a field upgrade, which is a new ability that charges on a meter. These might be something as simple as throwing down an ammo box or you might opt for Dead Silence, which appears in this year’s game as an active ability rather than as a perk. This silences your footsteps, which seems more useful this year since enemy footsteps are weirdly loud… making them more tactically important in the process.

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Gun attachments move to a sort of “pick 5” system, where guns have multiple attachment spots and you can put, say, a scope on there for one point, an extended magazine on there for more bullets, stocks, grips, and so on. Guns also have a perk slot on them, so a lot of gun-specific perks that would have previously existed in the traditional perk slots show up here, along with some new ones. So you could take one that increases your melee speed, or full metal jacket bullets that do extra damage to vehicles and killstreaks, and so on. Most attachments have trade-offs to them, like fitting a scope on a weapon might make aiming down sights take slightly longer, and so on, which makes gun customization feel like a more thoughtful process than it has in years past. Overall it feels like you have more control over how your particular version of a gun will handle, which is nice.

There's also a new two-on-two mode called gunfight. It's designed to be a quick, round-based experience that takes place on its own small maps. The premise is simple--eliminate the other team or, should a game go to overtime, try to capture a flag in the center of the map. Loadouts of guns and items are predetermined and rotate multiple times through a match, giving it some variety as you go. It's a neat idea that evokes both fighting games and the old, great Rocket Arena mod for Quake.

The third main mode in Modern Warfare is a co-op mode, and it’s bad. This was billed as something that would potentially resemble the Spec Ops mode found in Modern Warfare 2, but the main mode is just a mess. These are four-player operations set in large, wide-open levels. Objectives will pop up on your HUD and you’ll have to make your way over there and place some scramblers on a server rack or shoot some guys or whatever. Since people seem to be into quitting this mode mid-mission, most of the time I’d spawn into a mission already in progress, but I’d spawn way back at the beginning, requiring me to waste a ton of time just running over to where the action is. The action itself is awful, too. The maps are open, but enemies just keep magically appearing behind pillars when you turn around, and more or less popping out of thin air, just out of view of the camera. So you’re taking fire from all sides and the whole thing just feels phony. It’s also intensely buggy as of this writing, so at times we’ve fallen through the world, spawned into a broken map that refused to list any objectives or spawn any enemies, and so on. Even if it worked as intended, it doesn’t seem like it’d be much fun.

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The co-op mode also offers a seemingly endless take on the campaign’s sniper mission, where four players fight off waves of enemies until they get bored and quit. The PS4 version also gets an exclusive survival mode where you shoot down waves of enemies on the multiplayer maps. This mode is actually functional, but not much fun, either. It’s a shame to see the Spec Ops name--which was a legendary mode back in the original Modern Warfare--get squandered so thoroughly here.

While Modern Warfare certainly has its issues, I’m having a really terrific time with it. The audiovisual aspects of the game have received significant upgrades. It’s a great-looking game with really strong sound design. That stuff helped make the campaign worth seeing, and it’s part of why I keep coming back to the competitive multiplayer, too. The meaningful tweaks to the leveling process matched up with some solid map design and great modes certainly don’t hurt, either. It’s a real shame that the co-op is pretty much dead on arrival, but the rest of the game is still absolutely worth looking at.