NEED TO KNOW
What is it? A direct sequel to Modern Warfare 2
Release date November 10, 2023
Expect to pay $70/£65
Developer Sledgehammer Games, Treyarch
Publisher Activision Blizzard
Reviewed on GeForce RTX 2080 Super, Core i9 9900KS, 32GB RAM
Steam Deck Unsupported
Link Official site
Rain or shine, the Call of Duty must flow. It’s a mantra that’s served Activision well for 20 years as Call of Duty grew from yet another WW2 shooter to the best-selling franchise of all time. For 18 of those years the series has maintained a streak of annual releases, regularly shattering previous records with only the occasional bump in the road when a less-good, but still fun entry came along.
Modern Warfare 3 is bigger than a bump—it’s an indictment of the Call of Duty machine, a rushed product created to fill a $70 gap in Activision’s calendar and sold as something (reports suggest) it was never meant to be. Let’s not mince words: this is an expansion in everything but name and price. But even if it were more substantial, I’m not convinced that Modern Warfare 3 would be satisfying. Despite riding the coattails of last year’s excellent Modern Warfare 2, catering to potent 2009 nostalgia, and bringing welcome improvements to Gunsmith, many of Sledgehammer Games’ original contributions come off as superfluous, or simply not as good as what we had before.
This is a series low point. It’s the first time that CoD’s $70 barrier to entry has felt like an insult to longtime players, and yet, the series’ live service model means fans who want to participate in Call of Duty’s events and battle passes for the next year have no alternative. Outside of Warzone, Modern Warfare 3 is where the Call of Duty action will be throughout 2024, for better and worse.
Modern Warfare 3’s unusual makeup is immediately obvious in multiplayer. For the first time in series history, there are no original 6v6 maps at launch. Instead, Sledgehammer reached into the CoD vault and remade all 16 launch maps from the original Modern Warfare 2 (2009). This nostalgia payload was one of the first things announced about MW3, and damn it, it got me really excited. The cultural penetration of Call of Duty for teens of the late 2000s cannot be overstated, and MW2 was arguably its peak. Even as personal doubts around this year’s CoD simmered, I maintained that the warm embrace of maps I haven’t seen in 14 years could alone justify Modern Warfare 3’s existence. Eh, not really.
I’m having a good time revisiting favorite maps, and I can’t say enough nice things about Sledgehammer’s attention to detail in crafting them. Terminal, Highrise, Favela, and Sub Base near-perfectly recapture the vibe of the originals.
Maybe because so many of us already know these maps from those formative years we spent marauding through them with energy drinks at our sides, Modern Warfare 3 might be the most immediately sweaty Call of Duty I’ve played, though much of that impression could be laid on competitive-friendly updates to movement (more on that later).
The problem with Modern Warfare 3’s maps is a predictable one: they don’t all hold up. Getting 16 maps at launch (plus a few more for non-standard modes) is a rare treat in our modern age of service shooters, but honestly, there are a lot of stinkers that probably should’ve stayed in the aughts: Estate, essentially one big hill with a house on top that always devolves into a sniper mosh pit, can go straight in the bin, as can the bowl-shaped meat grinder Afghan, the wonky sightlines of Underpass, and the laughably inconsistent spawn killings of Scrapyard. They’re just… very 2009.
It’s strange seeing Infinity Ward’s old work retooled with new CoD in mind. Sometimes the old and the new clash in confusing ways, like how the old maps now have functional doors like in modern CoDs, but they also still have fake doors in the same spots they used to, creating awkward moments where I’m not sure which buildings I can and can’t go inside.
I have jumbled feelings about Sledgehammer’s throwback maps. On one hand, they’re exactly what I hoped: true to the originals and a feel-good bullet point that longtime fans can rally behind. But it cost us the usual volley of brand new maps, and I’m missing that more than I expected. It’s bittersweet to already have every map “figured out,” and disheartening to take off the rose-tinted glasses on classics I thought I loved. There’s an overdose of familiarity going on here that’s making this map pool stale long before Call of Duty’s usual “best by” date. Were this a map pack for last year’s Modern Warfare 2 reboot like it certainly seems was the plan at some point, it’d be one of the greatest single add-ons in FPS history. But as a map pool carrying the weight of an entire standalone game? It’s just fine.
Modern Warfare 3’s new guns inspire a similar shrug. The arsenal of around 30 launch weapons are a mix of reimagined guns from MW3 (2011) and original twists on old designs. At least, I think there are some old favorites in there—Modern Warfare 3, more than any CoD of recent memory, has a serious case of boring guns. A good third of the new ones are assault rifles and “battle rifles” (which are just ARs that shoot slower) that closely share a design language, or in several cases are the same gun with slight tweaks.
Modern Warfare 2 recycled its guns in the same way with its “weapon platform” concept, but it also made room for variety in M4 variants, the AK family, bullpups, integrated silencers, and an entire fleet of MP5s that had distinct strengths and weaknesses.
Modern Warfare 3’s guns blur together, hard. Half of the time I can’t tell which ultra-popular assault rifle killed me: the fast-firing MTZ with steady recoil and an extended magazine, or the fast-firing MCW with steady recoil and an extended magazine. Overlapping functionally is nothing new in CoD, but personality is something that Infinity Ward and Treyarch usually get right—even if the differences between an M4 and an AK boil down to centimeters on a stat sheet, style generates a gravitational pull to our favorites. It was the concussive roar, battle-worn scratches, and confident reload of Modern Warfare 2’s M4 that made it my go-to just as much as its damage value, but I’m not feeling the same pull toward any particular gun this year. Sledgehammer’s weapons are boxy, fresh-off-the-assembly-line machines, none of which stand out.
Some categories of guns seem like they were included without much consideration, or out of obligation. I can’t figure out why I’d ever use an SMG in Modern Warfare 3 when they’re just worse assault rifles, and the 33% increase in player HP since last year has dulled the appeal of single-shot marksman rifles. The absence of both during my first week of matches suggest the community agrees. It’s a small comfort that Modern Warfare 3’s “carry forward” feature means I can still use all those cool guns I leveled up a year ago, though as I swap back to my trusty Basilisk revolver, I wonder why I’m playing Modern Warfare 3 just to experience Modern Warfare 2 again.
I’m a fan of the few truly novel twists on traditional guns, like the Longbow, a quirky AK-47-shaped sniper rifle with a bolt-action that defies all convention, and the COR-45 handgun that can be converted into a secondary SMG with a special “Aftermarket” attachment.
These are all different guns in Modern Warfare 3 pic.twitter.com/bWAqrXaRvONovember 15, 2023
It’s in these details where Sledgehammer has done great work. MW3’s handful of Aftermarket Parts go the extra mile in meaningfully changing how a gun behaves, or enabling hybrid playstyles, like a dot sight with an integrated laser for improved hipfire. Call of Duty desperately needs more attachments like this to make Gunsmith matter, because its current sea of suppressors, grips, handles, and stocks that minutely see-saw the same three stats up and down is doing absolutely nothing for me these days.
I’m less excited about the sledgehammer taken to Modern Warfare 2’s movement. Infinity Ward made the controversial choice to slow down operators and nerfed common movement techniques in hopes of encouraging more thoughtful, tactical play. I think it worked, but Sledgehammer had the opposite idea. One week against the “movement kings” of Modern Warfare 3 has shown how minor changes to mobility can disrupt CoD’s whole flow. Empowered by quick mantling, slide cancelling, and generous mid-air accuracy, my matches are full of players who lean on these cheesy techniques to “outplay” those who prefer to keep their boots on the ground (me).
The sweatiest corners of Call of Duty’s community will tell you these are skillful maneuvers that make MW3 a deeper game. Maybe so, but they also make the action overly twitchy, unpredictable, and obnoxious.
The biggest casualty of Modern Warfare 3’s thrown-togetherness is the campaign. It speaks to how consistent Call of Duty campaigns usually are—with 10-15 minute missions, a blend of stealth action and frantic battles, a tidy conclusion at hour five or six—that you can pretty quickly tell something is off this time. The story, a loose retelling of the Makarov story from the Modern Warfare 2 (2009), introduces a new mission format that borrows traits from Warzone: the Open Combat Mission.
Open Combat crops up as early as mission two of the story, and trade CoD’s usual flavor of follow-the-leader missions for solo infiltrations into small, but dense sandbox maps. It’s a little strange at first to be looting armor plates and pinging enemy squads in Campaign, but the format really works.
I loved getting to stretch my legs in a PvE environment and get rewarded for exploring. Regular Campaign missions offer their own kind of fun in constantly swapping out your guns for whatever enemies drop, but it felt great to chase those moments with an Open Combat Mission with weapon caches containing fully kitted rifles, launchers, and gaudy gold-plated Deagles every few feet. Firefights aren’t as rote with enemies dynamically flooding into the map from every direction, and I was encouraged to try different approaches after dying.
As a distraction from Call of Duty’s main vehicle for storytelling, Open Combat Missions are a small triumph. They’re brief, but pack a lot of variety into small spaces and never get bogged down by NPCs who move at a snail’s pace. The problem is that they’re not distractions, or side adventures. Open Combat makes up around half of Modern Warfare 3’s four-hour runtime, and a lot of them come across as filler to pad out a mission list noticeably light on longer, traditional story missions.
The few story missions we do get lack Call of Duty’s usual showmanship. A Hitman-like infiltration level ends minutes after it begins. An intense plane hijacking, while better conceived than MW2’s infamous “No Russian” level, is practically a cutscene that’s, once again, strangely short.
The awkward pacing has a huge effect on the story, too, an area of CoD that I’m historically not very picky about, but flows so poorly in MW3 that it became distracting. Because so much of the campaign is spent in disjointed Open Combat levels with little storytelling inside of them, interstitial scenes of jpgs of the gang’s faces talking over radio end up doing all the contextual heavy lifting. Price’s rivalry with Makrov is underbaked and uninteresting, characters take field trips across the globe for thin reasons, and storylines that begin in Modern Warfare’s last two reboots conveniently wrap up in ways that feel like Sledgehammer is painting over missions it wasn’t given time to make.
The weird times culminate in a poorly conceived, underexplained, and baffling finale mission that I can’t possibly imagine matches Activision’s original vision for this reboot trilogy. This is a campaign to forget.
I know it’s a weird year for Call of Duty when the only mode that I’m feeling the itch to play is Zombies. Activision conscripted Treyarch, the CoD studio known for the Black Ops series and its distinct zombie maps, to develop Modern Warfare Zombies. Instead of Treyarch’s usual style of enclosed buildings with creature spawners in every window, Modern Warfare Zombies repurposes Warzone’s new map, Urzikstan, and Modern Warfare 2’s popular DMZ format for a sandbox take on Zombies that trades urgency for agency.
Squads of three deploy on the massive map with no particular goal. Sparse patches of zombies wander in the open while more lethal clusters lie in wait inside buildings. Like DMZ’s extraction shooter rules, players are free to pick up contracts that serve as micro-missions, like defending a zombie-purging machine, transporting supplies across the map, or clearing out infested complexes. Survival is ultimately the name of the game, but you can choose to extract from the map whenever you want and keep whatever you looted for the next run.
That bit might be a dealbreaker if the untimed survival gauntlets of Black Ops Zombies is the main thing you enjoy about the mode, but I’m finding a lot to like about Modern Warfare Zombies. It’s definitely its own thing, but Treyarch did a commendable job adapting familiar concepts and powerups to uncharted territory. Yes, it’s weird that you can just drive away from a zombie horde instead of having to skillfully kite them through hallways, but the gratifying hum of a Pack-a-Punched rifle remains divine, and I’m still blowing all my credits on the chance of a raygun in the random box.
It’s a genre mashup that should feel as forced and improvised as the pitch suggests, but Treyarch’s talent for PvE experiences prevails. This unconventional Zombies variant is actually the best thing going for Modern Warfare 3.
But I don’t really boot up Call of Duty for its PvE. Multiplayer is where it’s at, and this year I’m not feeling it. As I aimlessly hop between modes, fiddling with guns that bore me to tears, mourning old favorites rendered useless by 150 health pools, and contending with caffeinated teens encouraged to slide or hop into every gunfight, I’m realizing that if it weren’t my job to cover this series, I’d probably uninstall Modern Warfare 3 and cross my fingers for next year.
It’s plain to see that this disjointed, vaporous vision of Modern Warfare 3 was not the product of years of meticulous planning. It was a pivot driven by tradition and the hubris of executives puppeteering the fleet of tireless Call of Duty creators who collaborate to do the impossible every year. Modern Warfare 3 is an absolutely unessential chapter in the series’ 20-year history, and I suggest you skip it. I wonder how Call of Duty’s new masters at Microsoft will react.