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Call of Duty Modern Warfare III – Campaign Review 

The new Modern Warfare represents a low point for Call of Duty on numerous fronts.
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 Review

It’s 2011. I am reviewing Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3. It has, I write, sharpened and refined many elements of the series’ snappy combat, and the mission design across its campaigns is bombastic and exciting. But it has lost something, too. There’s one section of the game that stands out as a potent metaphor – you run through an art gallery, explosions rocking the building and making the paintings drop to the ground as you blast enemies away. It feels like unintended symbolism of a series that has forsaken any of the nuance or thoughtfulness of earlier series entries in favour of endless escalation. I like the game quite a bit, despite this, and I give it an 8/10 in Hyper magazine.

It’s 2023. I am reviewing Call of Duty: Modern Warfare III. I have long given up on the notion that Call of Duty is going to do anything thoughtful or nuanced ever again; when I play a new installment, my main hope is that this one will do something interesting, something new, and that it won’t feel like a celebration of the military-entertainment complex. Modern Warfare III fails on both counts. I find myself longing for the enjoyable messiness of the original Modern Warfare 3.

Roughly half the missions in Modern Warfare III‘s campaign are classic Call of Duty – move through a level, shoot everyone, and occasionally engage with a gameplay gimmick. There is one “undercover” social stealth mission, a format that worked well the one time they tried it in Black Ops Cold War – it is maybe two minutes long, and the pass/fail stealth conditions feel arbitrary. There’s a bog-standard AC-130 gunship mission, one of those first-person narrative-focused missions that Call of Duty has gotten quite good at, and then a surprisingly small number of straightforward “move through and kill everyone” missions, the kind Call of Duty is known for. 

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Image: Sledgehammer Games / Activision Blizzard

These missions are all very familiar – not bad, not mind-blowing, just very familiar. There are no new all-timers, nothing shocking, no big unique twists. There’s less of everything, and the campaign wraps up very fast. I find myself, honestly, with very little to say about it. Missions have the snappy combat and good gun feel that Call of Duty has had for such a long time, but you could also insert them into either of the previous two Modern Warfare games without them feeling out of place, or standing out as particularly special. The enemy AI is still terrible, the level designs remain strong, the visual and sound design are very impressive. When Modern Warfare III is at its absolute best, its… not bad.

But Modern Warfare III isn’t entirely devoid of new ideas. Six of the campaign missions – out of 14 total – are designated as “Open Combat” missions, which is this campaign’s big innovation. The setup here is interesting: you’re dropped into a large open map and given objectives to complete in any order; fulfil them and you’ll get a checkpoint and a second set of objectives. Throughout each Open Combat level you can find loot drops, and should you die and start again, you can choose from any loot you’ve collected in the level, giving each mission a roguelike element. They’re based on elements of the DMZ and Spec Ops multiplayer modes from previous titles, which I have not played. The DNA is clear, though, because it certainly feels like I should be tackling these missions with at least one other person.

These Open Combat missions in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare III are largely terrible. Call of Duty games have had terrible campaign levels before (I have never forgotten that one level of Black Ops II where the guy goes berserk and runs through the level with a machete screaming “Josefina!” over and over again), but Open Combat takes up such a huge portion of the game here. The idea is to try to complete your objectives without raising too much of an alarm, lest you be swarmed by enemies and combat vehicles (some of which you can drive yourself).

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Image: Sledgehammer Games / Activision Blizzard

But while the Open Combat missions are structured like something out of an immersive sim, they’re still using Call of Duty mechanics – you can’t really be clever, and it’s all but impossible not to escalate things. That might be fine if the checkpointing wasn’t so awful – having to restart the mission because you got blindsided by a grenade right at the objective is infuriating. I usually play through Call of Duty missions at Hardened or Veteran difficulty, and learn from my mistakes until I find my way through an encounter; in Open Combat missions, I learned to try once or twice on the lower Regular difficulty, before switching down to Recruit (the easiest option) just to get through it. There is no coherency between design and mechanics here, and these missions evoked only frustration.

There’s one big positive I found in this year’s Call of Duty – the accessibility options, which are given prominence on the pause screen, are quite in-depth and very easy to access. You can adjust these settings on the fly during gameplay, opening the game up to more players. We’re seeing more AAA publishers take accessibility seriously lately; until it becomes the expected norm, it’s still very much worth calling out for praise.

Otherwise, on a basic level – if we’re just talking about the parts of Call of Duty where you switch your brain off and aim down the sights – it’s below average. But that’s not the only reason I came away from Modern Warfare III with a feeling of unease. Three entries in, this Modern Warfare reboot is mired in a convoluted plot about the least interesting people on the planet trying to prevent another very uninteresting man from making a bunch of stuff explode. Vladimir Makarov, the bad guy from 2009’s Modern Warfare 2, is back as the main bad guy in this one, and boy is he boring. 

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I’m sure that if I went digging, Makarov has some sort of key philosophy that drives him. But in the game, I could only read his motivation as a deep, abiding love for terrorism. This guy just loves to explode people and places, and he has a near-supernatural talent for making it happen. Makarov is a sort of “perfect terrorist”, a bad guy with no nuance, designed to be hated rather than to be compelling. He’s the Joker but without the jokes. The Joker, of course, is a great foil for Batman because he plays against Batman’s strengths – he’s unpredictable, acts without clear patterns, and forces into question Batman’s policy against killing his enemies.

Modern Warfare III’s story is as if Joker’s main opposition was an international task force of the least interesting people alive. This was an issue with the original Makarov, too – he’s not just a bad guy, he’s a bad character for this sort of game, too cartoonishly evil for a world that’s meant to be grounded in a “modern” aesthetic. Modern Warfare III is besotted with Makarov; the entire game revolves around him in one way or another. There is never any question that these gruff, boring dudes (and two gruff, boring women) are the good guys, and he’s the bad guy. Everything will be better, the game argues, if they can just kill this one bad dude.

For a few years now, I have thought of Call of Duty campaigns as a sort of guilty pleasure. If I can pack enough thoughts away and just appreciate the feel of combat, if I can look away from the increasingly muddled worldview these games present and try not to think too much about how it relates to my own understanding of the world, if I can file away the possibility that this series is a key propaganda tool for the military-industrial complex, maybe I can still have a good time.

This year, most of the “pleasure” is drained away, and only the guilt remains. I suspect that even a good Call of Duty game would have felt a bit uncomfortable had it been released in the middle of an ongoing genocide that Western political powers have largely washed their hands of, but that doesn’t mean that I would not have enjoyed it.

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Image: Sledgehammer Games / Activision Blizzard

It’s not for me to say that anyone should feel any guilt for liking Call of Duty – I have at least dabbled in every mainline release in the series since the very first Modern Warfare after all, and I don’t think that makes me a bad person. When Call of Duty is good, it really taps into some core primal sense of satisfaction. But when the campaign isn’t good, it’s a lot harder to overlook the series’ bigger problems.

I think back to the original 2007 Modern Warfare‘s Death from Above level – a mission where you mount an attack from an AC-130, raining fire down upon your enemy at no risk to yourself. A mission designed to highlight the mundane terror of impersonal slaughter, the overlap between Call of Duty’s heightened video game violence and how wars are actually being fought – it was intentionally chilling, without banging you over the head with an explicit message. AC-130 missions have returned in subsequent games to diminished returns; in Modern Warfare III, the AC-130 mission is a triumphant penultimate mission, where your destructive force is celebrated unironically. These missions now feel stale, devoid of meaning, far less interesting and inventive.

The most potent symbolism Modern Warfare III can achieve all happens outside of the missions.  The game takes up an absurd amount of storage space – my current install is 156GB, and that’s with selective installs. As I delete other games, it feels like Call of Duty is performing a hostile takeover of my console.

When you load up the game, the list of studios involved in the making of the game is almost comically long – the reports that this game was developed under extreme time pressure (which Sledgehammer has softly refuted) ring in one’s head. Past those logos, the opening menus present a ghastly amount of store content, $30 costumes to dress up as a pumpkin, or to show off how much you love Diablo, another Activision-published game, in multiplayer. Call of Duty is now an ecosystem, a burgeoning metaverse, albeit one with gun sponsorship deals.

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Image: Sledgehammer Games / Activision Blizzard

This is just a review of the campaign, by the way, because at this point I know better than to review a Call of Duty multiplayer game at launch. I jumped into a few Team Deathmatch games and had, more or less, the same fun I always have jumping into a few quick Team Deathmatch games at launch.

Call of Duty multiplayer has always been, at its core, an entertaining experience, one that shifts and changes over the year, sometimes metastasizing into something quite bad, sometimes staying relatively enjoyable. If you’re here for multiplayer and you’re on the fence, wait and see if people on Reddit are calling this “the best CoD in years” in a few months time.

Regardless of your relationship to Call of Duty, your feelings about military shooters, your investment in the rebooted Modern Warfare saga, or how much or little you like to play the new Call of Duty online multiplayer every year, the Modern Warfare III campaign feels more like an indicator of a series in decline than a misstep. Microsoft, which recently completed a purchase of Activision, is banking heavily on the future of Call of Duty, and the annual release schedule is unlikely to slow down any time soon. As a long-time player, though, I find myself thinking that it might finally be time to step away.

2 Stars: ★★

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare III (2023)
Platforms: PC, PS5, PS4, Xbox Series X/S, Xbox One
Developer: Sledgehammer Games
Publisher: Activision Blizzard
Release Date: 10 November 2023

The PS5 version of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare III was provided and played for the purposes of this review. GamesHub reviews are rated on a 5-point scale. GamesHub has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content. GamesHub may earn a small percentage of commission for products purchased via affiliate links.

James O'Connor has written about games for a long time. He has written for games, as a narrative designer, for less time. Against his better judgement, he's on Twitter: @Jickle