There are cycles everywhere: water cycle, life cycle, moon phases, and Call of Duty. While the long-running shooter franchise has made changes over the years—zombies, robots, wall-running, spaceships, and jetpacks—the trend has been toward fast and loud. With so much speed, the series was on the verge of spinning itself dry. That changes with this new reboot, but not drastically enough that it’s unrecognizable. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare is a capable reset from the original development studio, changing the status quo in multiplayer to make competitors rethink their movements. Its campaign gets up close and personal, although still prone to franchise clichés. With fewer technical issues, it might have circled back around to when the series was on top.
Captain Price trimmed his beard for another war
The campaign is a reboot of Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare with similar themes and returning faces. Across the six hours, you will take control of three allies: Alex, Garrick, and Farah. Only one is American, although the bad guys are still Russian, so tradition is hard to break. The CIA operative, Alex, is a shallow grunt that follows orders in the fictional middle-east country of Urzikstan. Garrick is a member of the SAS and falls under the tutelage of the iconic, and well-bearded, Captain Price as terrorists target London. Farah is the most interesting of all three; she grew up in war-torn streets and suffered at the hands of Russian forces. Although we see Farah’s tortuous history via two flashbacks, her modern adventures are underrepresented and distant. In addition, the game loops through three different main foes, at the cost of cohesion.
While the lack of singular focus makes it jumbled, it helps variety. We get nearly the full gamut of missions. Alex is whisked to a bombed town overlooking a highway for a good sniper experience. Garrick dons his night-vision goggles for sneaky covert action around an estate in the best mission of the game. And Farah escapes her confines after a bit of in-your-face torture. Other missions include a foot chase and using a chopper gunner to decimate an airfield crawling with targets. One sequence has no shooting at all, as you guide a friendly through enemy patrols from linked security cameras like Watch Dogs with more war crimes. About the only thing missing from this reboot is a high-speed chase.
Instead of speed, there are some tense and well-crafted house incursions. Here the pacing drops to a crawl as soldiers creep through a multi-storey house, clearing each room and eliminating threats with help from night-vision goggles. Civilians scurry into view and some opt to grab weapons. With night-vision quirks, tight rooms, and hidden corners, it is like a firing range simulation. Choreography is sublime, with soldiers climbing the stairs in synchronization to obscure footsteps. These slower moments bring the action close enough to taste. They also show that reducing the revolutions per minute is not detrimental to the franchise.
House incursions are a highlight, in the low-light
Controversial scenes have rotated through the series for a while now and the new game joins in with countless civilian deaths. The number of innocents killed across the campaign is annoying when most cannot be saved. Three hooded figures are hung from a truck in Urzikstan, and even if you kill every soldier in the area—dozens of the blighters—the innocents still perish. Other times you’ll die trying to help or be stranded behind bullet-proof glass, forced to look on—war is hell, do you hear me! The frequency of generic bad guys killing unknown civilians reaches critical mass at the halfway point and becomes stale for the remainder.
Despite many civilian deaths, the campaign is a good experience and above average for the series. It’s nice to see it return after last year’s absence. Sure the AI are dumb, but scripting ensures they rarely live long enough to spell their own name. Shooting is satisfying and there are enough fun moments in the campaign to make it worth playing before diving into the online component.
Multiplayer has some pacing changes, with more emphasis on sound cues and open map design. Footsteps are loud, benefitting those waiting and listening, and automatic player callouts raise situational awareness. A tactical run is a handy speed boost but adds a trigger delay. The mini-map is less useful, as enemy fire shows up as incoherent blips on a compass. When it comes to actually shooting targets, it is now possible to attach to corners and peak around for quelled recoil. These alterations are impossible to quantify individually, but together they create a slower, almost tactical, game—one that encourages players to sit in a corner and wait. More aggressive types need to check before they charge or use sounds to hide their approach.
Just as tactical as waiting for a bus, only with more red jelly
Make no mistake, this is still Call of Duty with its perks, killstreaks, rapid deaths, regenerating health, kill cameras, and care packages. Various grenades return to the core action and the Molotov flames are delightful. The Pick-10 system has been scrapped (again), so most players will have a fairly standard loadout of two weapons, three perks, one grenade, a tactical, and a field upgrade. Recharging field upgrades are typically docile, with things like silent footsteps, an ammo box, and a recon drone. There is excellent weapon customization via a gunsmith that features scopes, grips, lasers, and more. Killstreaks are varied. At the lower end they focus on surveillance and inaccurate ranged attacks that need line of sight. With more kills comes more carnage thanks to gunships, sentry guns, VTOLs, and support choppers. Despite the tweaks, the game is not leagues slower or different than its predecessors, but the pecking order has changed.
Map design is a big contributing factor to the more cautious gameplay. There are four different sizes to better suit the varying player counts, from 2v2 to 32v32. Instead of isolated action lanes, there are more crossroads, open streets, and innumerable sight lines. The action is less predictable and maps take longer to learn. Death can come from just about anywhere once you move from cover, so positioning and forethought is rewarded.
The new 2v2 Gunfight mode uses small arenas to create stressful action. All four players are given the same randomized loadout and health does not recharge. Taking just a few steps from spawn might bring opponents in visual range. Rounds can be over in seconds. Usually it becomes a game of cat and mouse as there is trepidation and baiting with gunfire and grenades. Gunfight is surprisingly replayable despite the tiny maps.
Gunfight makes for some close encounters between four unkind individuals
Standard 6v6 is still the main focus, given the many modes available across the medium-sized maps. Domination, TDM, Kill Confirmed, Hardpoint, Search and Destroy, and Headquarters all return in mostly the same form as before, although with more hesitation when going for objectives. Cyber Attack is a new mode and it has a neutral bomb to plant at the enemy base. Players only have one life, but can be revived to elongate battles. Another new mode, night-vision, is quite appropriate considering its prevalence in the campaign. It plunges maps into darkness, minimizes the HUD, and gives everybody lasers for a tighter experience. Maps are good for all the standard modes, and they are packed with detail and flanking routes. They break away from obvious symmetry while still having balance. Levels like Hackney Yard and Gun Runner are the quintessential franchise experience, just with less rigid action channels. Many of the standard maps have good verticality too, with rooftops and open windows.
When it comes to 10v10 games—only available for TDM and Domination—the levels increase in size and complexity. This is unlike the 9v9 modes of old that jammed players in like sardines. While there are only four big maps, it takes many rounds to adapt to their intricacies. Skirmishes take place almost anywhere. One large map, Aniyah Palace, is so big that it takes a while to get back into the action. On the other hand, the Euphrates Bridge map is horrible because of chokepoints and the ease at which one team can be trapped in their spawn.
Spawning is an issue in modes like Domination and TDM. Teams enter the battle from opposite corners and respawn in the same place for the entire match. The London map, Piccadilly, puts one side at the end of a long street with poor exits. Spawn-trapping is common and persistent. Dying is like Groundhog Day, even when there are potentially many spots to enter the fray safely.
Larger maps have more places to hide, if you can get out of spawn
Ground War has different spawning challenges because players can select where they want to enter the largest mode in the game. This is all-out warfare with 32 players per side, vehicles, and squads of four on huge maps containing flag capture points. You can spawn on a squad member, or a flag, or inside infantry-fighting vehicle. It is a chaotic version of Battlefield’s conquest without as much finesse; there are no dedicated classes to encourage teamwork. One good idea is that flags cannot be spawned on when they’re being captured. The mode is also self-aware; when one team is being crushed, it nukes the entire map to limit embarrassment.
Ground War is raw in that it takes the standard gameplay and scales it up with little concern for the result. It can be refreshing, but the audio is simply drowning with activity—flag status, killstreak actions, vehicle reinforcements, and random chatter. When you add in all the explosions, the noise barrage is ridiculous. There are currently three maps for Ground War. One is a quarry location: plain in design with a ridge for tank snipers and cluttered warehouses for infantry to get lost inside. Another is a city area with dozens of rooftops to control and tanks fighting in the streets, assuming they can avoid the indestructible trash cans. The final map is open farmland with players taking up defensive positions in quaint houses. Ground War is the worst performing of all modes and not just because of the much lower framerates. Network delays are painfully obvious, and even with low latency it is not smooth.
Modern Warfare has a lot of online modes and maps. It throws many things at the wall and hopes that something sticks. Most of it does, like a Semtex grenade, so there is something for all, whether you like it tight, standard, or chaotic. But, with so many modes, it is hard to find consistency.
There is also a four-player cooperative mode called Special Ops. This is different from the original incarnation in Modern Warfare 2 from 2009, and not in a good way. There are no campaign-like missions this time. One “classic” level involves defending a hilltop against waves of generic bad guys. The other four missions put players into much larger areas to perform boring tasks while enemies spawn from every which direction. There is some appeal to the setup, as you are given complete autonomy to approach from any direction, either stealthily, or guns blazing. Stealth does not usually last long with random players.
Spec Ops drops players into part of a huge level, so they can die often
The four main Spec Ops missions are chunks from a huge Verdansk map (parts of which are featured in Ground War). You can explore buildings for killstreaks and munitions, like a battle royale game. Once at the objective, you’ll need to hack computers, carry a VIP, execute high-value targets, and escort a vehicle. Hundreds of enemies will appear from behind you. Juggernauts will come, and choppers, and snipers, and mortars, and tanks, and suicide bombers. The mode is difficult, even if players stick together—especially if they stick together. It is often more effective for one player to hide in a sniper tower. If that player can survive in perpetuity, others will respawn every minute and missions can be finished via attrition. The excessive challenge and generic open-world style of Spec Ops makes it inferior to the original.
Despite a wealth of content, Modern Warfare released in a completely unacceptable technical state on PC and still has issues. In the first week after launch, it averaged one crash every thirty minutes; Spec Ops was unplayable. A patch reduced the crashing but did not eliminate it. Awful stuttering ruins the story cutscenes. Even the menu gets horrible lag when leaving and joining games. Some online matches had 2-5 second input delays that could only be reduced by manually setting the executable to normal priority via the Windows task manager. Plus there are other annoyances like weapon levels resetting and munitions disappearing in co-op. The game needs a few more patches.
One good technical feature is that the game now supports crossplay between all three platforms (PC, Xbox One, and PS4). It seems to work fine, so far. In the long term this will mean cooperative play and less popular modes will remain viable on the PC, which has struggled to hold numbers in the past. The other good news is that maps released in the future will be free for all players—two have been released already. Hopefully the inevitable microtransactions are not obnoxious. In a few months from now, the game should be more polished and have more things to throw at the wall.
After all this carnage, you might have to answer questions in The Hague
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare is a solid reboot, packed with features. The campaign is a strong return, with some meticulous breaching sequences and good mission variety. Multiplayer has many different modes and maps that cover a broad spectrum of experiences. It also features open map design and gameplay tweaks that affect the pace. Spec Ops is too difficult, with enemies spawning from behind players in open maps, and disappointing when compared to its predecessor. It’s just a shame that such a detail-orientated game has so many technical issues. In the future, after bugs are patched and more content arrives, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare will spin around to find its mark in the corner.