Call of Duty: Modern Warfare III Campaign Review: Activision’s First-Person Shooter Runs Out of Ammo
Over the years, Call of Duty campaigns have delivered the closest distillation of Michael Bay-style cinematic set piece action
Over the years, Call of Duty campaigns have delivered the closest distillation of Michael Bay-style cinematic set piece action in video games. The first-person military shooter franchise, perhaps the most popular series of games in the world, has increasingly tilted in favour of its money-spinning multiplayer modes, with gradual introduction of battle passes, microtransactions, and downloadable content, but some of its single player campaigns remain a benchmark for bombastic sequences in the medium. Memorable missions from Call of Duty titles are part of gaming folklore — the raw shock of a nuclear detonation, the tense deliberations of a ghillied-up sniper, and the disturbing implications of a false flag terror attack; CoD campaigns have sustained their commitment to over-the-top, knockout moments with imaginative mission design, the “Oorah” machismo of American military might, and immersive cinematics that punctuate the action.
Through the franchise’s single-player history of stirring highs and dismal lows, however, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare III’s campaign represents a new nadir. As a soft reboot of 2011’s Modern Warfare 3, and a direct sequel to last year’s Modern Warfare II, Activision’s latest shooter plays out like a greatest hits album, harkening back to iconic missions from the series, but suffers for a sore lack of originality and inventiveness throughout its short campaign. You play through sequences you’ve seen before, taking control of a gunship to rain down death from above on the targets on your thermal sensors, infiltrating a heavy guarded gulag in the night, and hunting rogue snipers in the snow. But none of them are delivered with trademark flair and extravagance we’ve come to associate with a CoD campaign. There is no standout set piece to speak of — at least none that MW III can call its own.
More egregious is the insidious integration of multiplayer ethos to single-player campaigns. In the name of gameplay variety and player freedom, Modern Warfare III brings in missions ripped right out of Call of Duty: Warzone, the Battle Royale phenomenon now synonymous with CoD identity. It’s a stretch to call these sequences ‘missions;’ they are a set of pick-from-the-hat objectives woven into weapons-free combat sections lacking any narrative thrust or cinematic appeal, taking a cut-and-dried approach to story progression instead. The game rotates its cast of characters who take up the missions, but these Warzone-style sections remain singularly bland. You blow up enemy helicopters in a nuclear power plant, defuse scattered bombs around a dam, and recover the black box at an airplane crash site — the objectives and the environment change, but the way you go about completing them remains more or less the same. In the process, Modern Warfare III cripples its own campaign, taking out narrative tension and creative high jinks and replacing them with familiar fodder.
The campaign, which took me about seven hours to complete, begins with a prison break. The game puts you in the shoes of the bad guys as you infiltrate a Russian gulag in the silence of the night with night vision goggles on to try and break out Vladimir Makarov, the main antagonist of MW III. ‘Operation 627’ is one of the more cinematic missions in the game, taking you through a tense, stealthy sequence of approaching the prison via sea, climbing up its tall walls, and then rappelling down the central section as you take out guards silently. Makarov’s menacing introduction and our prior knowledge of what he’s capable of leads to a tense set up for what could follow, but MW III quickly runs out of ammunition after the first firefight, bafflingly hurling us into back-to-back Open Combat Missions. These take-your-own-approach sequences exist on the pretence of encouraging player choice and freedom, but they are unmistakably lazy rehashes from the franchise’s online Battle Royale twin.
Open Combat Missions bring weapon chests, loadout drops, and other perks like UAV and Airstrike, right out of Warzone. Each mission is set in an open map section with three or four scattered, generic objectives that can be tackled as you please. While these sandbox-style playgrounds are functional, they’re no fun at all. There is no narrative tension, no specific identity to the level design and no curated action set pieces to break the mundanity of running around and ticking bland objectives off your list. The half-measures approach is apparent in tailored campaign missions as well, but it sorely sticks out in these open combat sequences. It doesn’t help that Open Combat Missions form about half of the total MW III campaign.
Most of these weapons-free missions blend into one another, indistinguishable from a 20-minute solo Warzone run, except there are no real players to shoot at. Out of a total six Open Combat Missions, only one stood out as distinct, both in level design and gameplay objective. Instead of a horizontal cutout of flat land like all other Warzone-style sections, “Highrise,” presents a vertical level, tasking you to scale a rundown, mercenary-infested apartment building, clearing floor-by-floor until you reach a final, frantic firefight on the rooftop. Clearly inspired by 2011’s cult action film The Raid, “Highrise” is a thrilling departure from the unimaginative drudgery of this new campaign format.
Aside from the weapons-free sequences, the regular linear missions that follow the trademark Call of Duty style fail to impress as well. Most missions act as a refresh of classic CoD campaign bits, or a new take on familiar segments from the original MW 3. “Payload” has you sneaking up on a missile base through the tall grass, taking out members of the Konni group, a Russian ultranationalist private militia introduced in the previous game, before all hell breaks loose. Parts of the sequence harken back to “All Ghillied Up” from 2007’s Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare but lack the cold-sweat tension and the narrative context of the iconic mission. In “Frozen Tundra,” you lead the infamous Task Force 141 through a blizzard to intercept Makarov’s convoy in Siberia, before your team is ambushed itself by snipers waiting in the snow. This mission, where the snowstorm worsens with each passing minute and visibility plummets towards the end, is perhaps MW III’s most visually striking.
While the latest Call of Duty skimps on over-the-top cinematic set pieces that have come to define CoD campaigns for years, it does deliver plenty of disturbing moments, as has become the series staple, too. In “Deep Cover,” you play as CIA operative Kate Laswell and infiltrate a Russian military base to contact an asset. A purely stealth mission, here you barely use your silenced piston and rely on impersonating a Russian officer and obtaining key card access to the main building in the compound. But the mission objectives are waylaid when the base comes under a chemical weapon attack. And in “Flashpoint,” Task Force 141 tries to thwart Makarov’s terror attack on a football stadium. It’s a mission with genuine shock value as you rush to take down terrorists slaughtering innocent fans in the stadium.
Modern Warfare III’s most disturbing (and perhaps the most disappointing) moment is its take on the infamous “No Russian” mission from 2009’s Modern Warfare 2. In “Passenger,” instead of indiscriminately murdering civilians at a Russian airport, Makarov and his men hijack a Russian airplane in a false flag terror attack. While the new mission is shocking in its execution, it lacks the gut-punch of “No Russian.” In the original MW 2 mission, while you could choose to not shoot at innocent passengers, you were actively involved in a gruesome terror attack. “No Russian” shocked the entire industry and stirred vigorous controversy all around the globe. It was the defining Call of Duty moment that stoked debate, provoked backlash, and pushed the medium into a new era. Up until then, video games were only rated M for Mature in words. One sensational CoD mission changed that. But MW III’s version of that harrowing mission remains mostly passive, as if afraid to hand you the control, and playing out almost entirely as a cinematic. What’s worse is that just the next mission undermines the high stakes established by “Passenger,” dismissing the damage done with a cheap cleanup job.
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare III picks up the story where the previous game left off. The multinational special operations unit Task Force 141 is on the trails of an old and dangerous foe. Russian ultranationalist Vladimir Makarov intends to plunge the planet into war, executing devastating terror attacks across the globe with the help of his private militia. Captain Price and members of the task force — “Soap,” “Ghost,” and “Gaz,” along with other allies, are playing catch-up, putting their lives on the line to thwart Makarov’s nefarious plans. The story follows familiar narrative beats from the original Modern Warfare 3, but also flits back and forth in time to add context. While the new Modern Warfare trilogy has tried to establish a more realistic and grounded identity, clearly inspired from military films like Zero Dark Thirty, I’ve always preferred the more dramatic approach of the original MW titles, where every character stood out in small but distinct ways. Makarov used to be intimidating, Price was fearless, Soap was loyal, and Ghost was an enigma. Now, they’re all military caricature, grunting and shouting at each other as they run around and play war games.
And while the cutscenes in MW III are some of the best in the business on a technical aspect, with photorealistic facial capture and rich animations, the story told through them is forgettably bland. The missions shuffle you from one objective to the next, peppering in Warzone cosplay at every chance it gets, only to lead to a thoroughly unsatisfying ending. The original Modern Warfare told a complete story, one that ended with a fitting, bombastic climax that felt like a full stop. Here, the story sputters to a non-ending and tries to leave the door open for further sequels.
What remains as good as ever is the gunplay itself. As we’ve come to expect from Call of Duty games, the first-person shooting aspect of the first-person shooter sets the bar that all other FPS games aim to clear. Guns look hyper-detailed and feel weighty to hold. The shooting is tight and controlled, yet loose enough that you don’t feel like you’re in a straitjacket. The feedback is robust, with each burst in a firefight hitting like kick from a mule. Weapon animations, reloads and other combat effects have been refined to near perfection. When you hit an enemy from distance, you can see the blood effects explode realistically in a mist. Bodies react in physics-accurate ways to explosions as they’re tossed away from the impact. And each gun retains its distinct feel — LMGs slow you down, while soft-triggered silenced pistols get the job done quick. On the PS5, weapon feedback is enhanced with the help of haptic feedback and adaptive triggers that present corresponding resistance for specific firearms.
All of this comes alive in the consistently brilliant visual presentation of the game. Quite predictably, Modern Warfare III is a stunner. From the detailed, hyper-realistic character models and rich outdoor environments to the excellent lighting that elevates even ominous indoor areas, MW III is yet another graphical showcase. The game’s sound design bears the Call of Duty seal of quality, too. The loud violence of a shotgun fired indoors, the low thrum of a helo hovering above, and the ghostly echo of sniper fire in the mountain — MW III presents detailed soundscapes for each environment and scenario. On the PS5, the game runs flawlessly, too, with barely any noticeably stuttering or frame drops.
As a technical package, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare III is a powerhouse. But then, the series has already set that standard high in previous entries and maintaining the status quo is the least you’d expect from the most profitable video game franchise in the world. With all its resources and the talent and experience at hand at the multiple studios that work on Call of Duty, Activision must deliver beyond the bare minimum. The Modern Warfare III campaign never does that. There has been a slow erosion of the single-player story mode in modern shooting games in favour of increasingly silly Fortnitification of multiplayer offerings. MW III falls further down the well by integrating popular multiplayer markers into its campaign. In its desperation to mimic the mundane familiarity of Warzone, the latest Activision shooter discards the curated drama of legacy CoD campaigns. And while the best Call of Duty stories came a few years ago, the franchise has delivered on the campaign front as recently as Modern Warfare I and Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War. This time around though, the intense gunplay and excellent visuals fail to fire up a sputtering campaign that stalls right out of the gate.
Activision had earlier decided against releasing a CoD title this year, opting instead for a “premium expansion” for Modern Warfare II. The publisher, perhaps scared of the financial repercussions of not sticking to an annual release cycle, later decided MW III to be a standalone entry. All the evidence from MW III’s campaign, however, points at little effort to do so. With rehashed missions, lazy Warzone style sections, and a sore lack of typical Call of Duty knockout set pieces, Modern Warfare III does not feel like a full game, especially at that $70 price point. The original Modern Warfare games redefined the first-person shooter genre; the trilogy’s uninspired rerun, on the other hand, represents its decay.
- Tight, responsive gunplay
- Excellent visuals
- Flawless performance
- Warzone-style Open Combat missions
- Lack of bombastic set pieces
- Bland missions and story
- Unsatisfying ending
- Cluttered, confusing menu design
Rating (out of 10): 5
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare III released November 10 on PC, PS4, PS5, Xbox One and Xbox Series S/X.