This review is specific to the campaign for “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare III.” Our full review of the entire package will be posted after extensive time with the full game
While not always consistent from year to year, I have mostly enjoyed the Call of Duty campaigns. For every new entry released since the franchise’s annualization starting with 2005’s Call of Duty 2 (with the exception of the one time they skipped one in 2018’s Call of Duty: Black Ops 4), I have certainly found ways to enjoy the campaigns’ mix of chaotic, breathless action, constant explosive spectacle, and smooth gunplay. While there have certainly been quite a few campaigns that have missed the mark so significantly that I never want to play them again (for my money, the misses have been Call of Duty 3, Ghosts, and Black Ops 3), no campaign has disappointed me personally as much as last year’s Call of Duty: Modern Warfare II, the follow up to the great 2019 reboot of the Modern Warfare sub franchise.
While a little pretentious and irresponsible in how hard it pushed its “scenarios ripped straight from the headlines” angle and its presentation of war crimes, the 2019 reboot managed to bring the Modern Warfare line back to basics in a refreshing way that justified returning to the sub franchise despite the definitive way 2011’s Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 concluded. With surprising restraint and more modern technology taking the look and feel of Call of Duty to new heights, the 2019 game made me excited to see how Infinity Ward could build upon the successful restart.
While it retained the improved gunplay and visual splendor of the 2019 game, the most disappointing thing about 2022’s Call of Duty: Modern Warfare II was how it squandered its “dealing with drug cartels” premise by chasing past glories and rehashing so many gameplay scenarios from the old Modern Warfare trilogy while not doing them as well or without any meaningful additions to make them its own. Add to it sloppier level design that would start with cool ideas which would immediately overstay their welcome, some cool ideas that are barely fleshed out to make any impact, and a story which indicated that the new games wouldn’t be carving their own path anymore but would rather just retell the same story from the previous trilogy, all the potential of the 2019 game was squandered. With that, I was left wondering how the immediate story follow up would deal with the aftermath.
Flash forward almost a full year later, and we have the release of an immediate numbered follow up with Call of Duty: Modern Warfare III, now led by Sledgehammer Games. Considering the unusually quick turnaround of a direct sequel compared to the three-year-gap between 2019’s game and last year’s entry, one could wonder: is one year enough time to improve upon the missteps from last year’s campaign and also add enough meaningful additions worthy of a sequel? Or does the “it began as a DLC before becoming a full game” scenario rear its ugly head?
Unfortunately, the worst case scenario came true.
Hard as it may try, the Call of Duty: Modern Warfare III campaign fails to justify its existence as a full follow-up to last year’s game, with the new additions coming off as sloppy and tacked on despite the potential of the new ideas. While the fundamentals of Call of Duty are still sound enough to provide a decently fun time for the fleeting 3-4 hours it takes to complete, all the potential from the 2019 reboot has been thoroughly squandered. The campaign suffers more creative bankruptcy than usual with more rehashing of past glories and plot points, along with the potential of the new additions being thoroughly undercut by being copy/pasted lift-ups from other modes in the game.
As teased at the end of Modern Warfare II, the story centers around Vladimir Makarov (the original villain from the latter two games from the original Modern Warfare trilogy, making his rebooted appearance here) escaping from his life sentence with the help of the ultra-nationalist terrorist group “Konni” to take advantage of the regional unrest developing in the fictional regions of Verdansk, Kastovia, and the fictional country of Urzikstan. Creating similar atrocities hearkening back to his actions of the original trilogy, it is up to Captain John Price, Soap MacTavish, Ghost, and the rest of Task Force 141 to track down Makarov and end his reign of terror.
Just as one could assume it would go based on the ending of last year’s game, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare III basically over-imposes the Makarov plot from the last two games of the last trilogy and tries cramming it all into this year’s campaign. While it is interesting how they lift some of the same scenarios and plot twists from the last trilogy and make them work with the new setting and characters of this rebooted trilogy, there is just something so vapid and soulless in seeing them basically double back and do this story again without too many really original plot points of its own.
And I reiterate: what was so cool about the 2019 reboot’s campaign was the willingness to pursue its own original plot (as flawed as it was at times) rather than backsliding and making this feel like an over-elaborate remake of the old trilogy. Last year’s game set us down that darker path, and, unfortunately, Modern Warfare III just underlines it. It’s thoroughly predictable and unsatisfying as a result.
Because the campaign needed to include a headline feature to try to justify its existence as a sequel, the big addition for the Call of Duty: Modern Warfare III campaign is a handful of missions dubbed “open combat missions.” Billed as the series’ first attempt at including sandbox-style missions instead of the series’ tried and true linear set pieces and spectacle, their inclusion is interesting because if you have played the series since the early days of Call of Duty 2, the franchise has previously experimented with levels where you can tackle the objectives in any order you want. Obviously, the size and scale of these missions are certainly bigger than other times, but they are absolutely not this groundbreaking new addition as initially billed.
If there is something positive about the open combat missions, it is how they underline how the gameplay and combat mechanics for Call of Duty work well outside of their usual scripted, linear environments. If you have ever dabbled in the more sandbox nature of other modes like Warzone and DMZ, the open combat missions do give you the same kind of freedom that allows your character to move through the environment without many restrictions. The third mission, “Reactor,” felt like the one that more fully realized the open gameplay idea, as the scenario to find a way to destroy three helicopters and the size of the area allowed me to go through the level in such a Just Cause way that I saw some of the potential of open gameplay with Call of Duty in single player that many people find when they play Warzone.
Therein lies the problem.
As cool as the idea of open gameplay missions are for a franchise whose campaigns are so known for their scripted linearity, the big problem of how the open combat missions are presented is that they do feel like Sledgehammer/Infinity Ward took some levels of the Spec Ops mode or map areas from Warzone and just retrofitted them into the campaign. The gameplay loop of finding your way around the maps to loot weapons and armor plates feels so straight-up lifted from those modes that when I left the high from that third level, I started seeing the shortcuts they took to make this campaign with these levels.
The idea of open sandbox Call of Duty is sound, but how it got implemented into the campaign feels very tacked on. The fact that the look and feel of the game from a presentation level feels very different from the traditional levels to these open combat scenarios really lampshades the disjointed nature of their inclusion.
It’s in that disjointed nature where the open combat missions really fall flat for me. Because they seem lifted from those other modes, there is just such a lack of polish to how they play out, making many of them feel as if they lack the fulfillment of the ambition of sandbox play. Despite the push for replayability and the idea that they could be tackled in an all guns blazing approach or a stealthy manner, I just do not see how in its current form you can even stealth through these levels in their entirety.
There is a certain broken nature to the enemy AI where they can be dumb as bricks, but then they will see you for no logical reason, making these levels devolve into one-man horde modes. And the AI behavior is where you see how these levels were lifted from those other modes where AI is really bad in comparison. The idea of a Call of Duty campaign that is more open in nature is definitely a good one, but in the future it deserves way more love and care than how it was presented here. The fact that these levels could easily show up as is in other modes just shows a level of homogeneity that makes it all feel lazier than it should be.
As for the linear levels, they do play out like you expect a Call of Duty campaign to go, nothing more, nothing less. At its core, Call of Duty campaigns are always fun to play, and these levels do stay the course and deliver the usual tried and true formula. Unlike last year’s game, these levels offer no new meaningful additions, such as last year’s armored enemies (which come back in full force, unfortunately), so if you are fine with playing these style of campaign levels that work exactly like last year and live next to the open combat missions, that’s exactly what you get.
What is really unfortunate is the doubling down on rehashing scenarios seen in games from all the way back in 2007 and 2009, and still managing to make these scenarios feel less compelling than before. There is a mission once again riffing on “All Ghillied Up” without delivering the level of pace and tension that made that level an all time classic. You also get another AC-130 mission that plays out similarly to the level from last year’s game, though at least the level goes much quicker than last year, which felt endless and messy after a while.
And with a lack of any meaningful original set piece moments or original levels (like the going quiet levels of the 2019 game), these levels feel very “by the numbers” and are utterly forgettable. And with a campaign final level that whimpers into a rushed anticlimactic ending that pretends to deliver a big emotional moment but falls flat because it’s a riff from the game with the same name from 12 years ago, it is very hard to not feel ambivalent at the quality of the whole thing, especially when it’s over super quickly.
At least it all still looks, sounds, and plays great. The Call of Duty franchise definitely got a much needed technological facelift with the Modern Warfare 2019 reboot, and, 4 years later, the tech upgrades still mostly impress with the smooth framerates, high levels of fidelity and detail, authentic sound design, and silky smooth gameplay. While there are elements in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare III from a visual artistry standpoint that makes it look slightly more bland and less beautiful than many of its contemporaries, from a photo-realism perspective it does still get it right more often than not.
As mentioned previously, during the open combat missions you can totally see how the visual quality takes a hit and looks like the multiplayer modes compared to the better looking linear levels, but at least the framerate side of things holds up on the PlayStation 5 version of the game. And compared to many visual glitches that were prevalent in last year’s game, those have been cleaned up in this installment. At first glance, the excellent presentation braces the game up enough to make it feel like it’s better than the elements that hold it back.
I will always appreciate that campaigns for Call of Duty have still continued to be made when it’s clear that the “meat and potatoes” of the franchise has really been the multiplayer for many years (and let’s not forget when Black Ops 4 could have really signaled the end of the line when they didn’t include one). And, at the very least, the 2019 reboot and Treyarch’s Black Ops: Cold War were at least trying something to make the campaigns feel fresh and like they were being taken seriously as one of the core pillars for the franchise with their entries each and every year.
Unfortunately, with the underwhelming Vanguard, the disappointing backslide of Modern Warfare II, and the hodgepodge, unmemorable nature of this year’s Modern Warfare III, I’m starting to get worried about a continued backslide in quality for an element in this franchise that I usually like and had enjoyed some good years with in recent times. While at a fundamental level the campaigns are still fun due to the underlying nature of the game, it’s disconcerting that the fundamentals are not enough to hold the line when so many elements are bringing the quality down.
While at the very least this year’s campaign didn’t ever really feel like it had elements that were overstaying their welcome, and it experimented a bit with a different kind of mission format that, from a visual presentation standpoint, didn’t feel quite as unpolished as last year’s game, it’s still not enough to prevent it from being one of the weakest campaigns in the series. Yes, even without overstaying your welcome, you’ve got to be memorable, and this campaign just wasn’t. Experimenting with a different format is a good idea, but copying and pasting elements of other modes and presenting them as new ideas for a campaign is not the way.
If you still enjoy Call of Duty at a fundamental level, this campaign provides enough of what makes playing one of these campaigns fun. But if you hope to see the series’ campaign design feel like it’s not simply going through the motions, rehashing past glories and not half-baking potential new ideas, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare III will leave you wanting. Depending on how the multiplayer side of it goes (the beta shows signs of promise and concern), and if their open world zombie experiment works, there may still be something that makes this year’s entry worth it. But as of right now, from the campaign’s perspective, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare III is an easy miss.
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