Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 is the game Modern Warfare 2 should have been

Modern Warfare 3 backtracks on movement and overburdened progression, making the last year feel like a waste

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 follows what’s been a frustrating 12-month period for the franchise. After the highs of Modern Warfare (2020), Black Ops: Cold War, and even Vanguard to some extent, last year’s Modern Warfare 2 put the breaks on the momentous success the franchise has had for 20 years.

Now, Infinity Ward’s Modern Warfare 2 has quickly been succeeded by Modern Warfare 3, made by Sledgehammer in a decision met with a lot of pushback. Initially, it was widely believed that 2023’s Call of Duty would be pushed back a year, opening the floor to DLC and supplemental content for Modern Warfare 2 and Warzone 2.0. But Modern Warfare 3 arrives as a full-priced game, so does it warrant its existence?

The full package of Modern Warfare 3 includes a campaign with half-cooked ideas. The game also comes with a full multiplayer suite bolstered by nostalgia. Rather than create new maps from scratch, the 16 that are available are all remakes from Modern Warfare 2 (2009). Finally, Sledgehammer Games is reinventing the beloved ‘Zombies mode,’ making it a pseudo follow-up to DMZ. All of this is to say there’s a lot to like here, depending on what Call of Duty means to you.

Call of Duty’s annual campaign is that colossal blockbuster experience I enjoy playing every year. I look forward to the bombastic setpieces and unique levels. It’s always my gateway into the annual release where I get my first taste of the new gameplay and weapon selection. In that regard, Modern Warfare 3 is a disappointing letdown for someone who genuinely likes the characters and story of this series.

“Modern Warfare 3’s campaign is almost as short as Black Ops 4’s only by virtue that the latter launched without a campaign at all.”

The game picks up where last year’s campaign and post-launch Raids left off. Modern Warfare 3 sees the return of Task Force 141, led by Captain John Price and Sergeant “Soap” MacTavish. Accompanied by characters like Ghost, Gaz, and Farah Karim, Task Force 141 leads a series of operations to take down ultranationalist Vladimir Makarov. For the uninitiated, Makarov is the big bad of the Modern Warfare franchise, and his return in this reboot series has been widely anticipated.

The premise itself should be a bonafide win for fans. Having players face off against one of the franchise’s most notorious villains should be a significant event. However, just when the story begins to pick up steam, it’s over. Right after a pretty big moment happens, the game ends abruptly with no conclusion. The campaign, depending on difficulty, can be completed as quickly as three hours. On paper, that may not sound much different from the standard 7-8 hour fare. However, given that missions last 10-15 minutes each, the experience feels surface-level. Modern Warfare 3’s campaign is almost as short as Black Ops 4’s only by virtue that the latter launched without a campaign at all.

One of the glaring pain points of the campaign is its use of existing locations. Many missions take place in Verdansk, a setting near and dear to the hearts of Warzone players. After removing all access to Verdansk in 2021, it stings to see many locales like Prison, Stadium and Dam all remade with new assets and textures. Modern Warfare 3 even uses a theorized Warzone event as a part of its plot. Fans have been vocal in wanting it to return, yet Activision is reserving Verdansk for Call of Duty: Warzone Mobile. Whether a proper return is in the cards remains to be seen. After seeing the improvements made to these POIs, Modern Warfare 3 made me nostalgic for the original Warzone experience.

Interspersed throughout the Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 campaign are new ‘Open Combat’ missions. These are the most open-ended missions seen in Call of Duty, incorporating a lot of core aspects from DMZ and Warzone. You’re tasked with completing an objective in a larger, open areas with several collectible weapons and field upgrades. It’s DMZ without friends. If that sounds like a drag to you, it’s because it is. The Open Combat missions are there to pad out the campaign’s playtime. You’re incentivized to collect 20-plus weapons and items. However, the core objective (which is usually interacting with 3-4 objects and hitting an exfil) can be done in 10 minutes.

“Movement is brought back to parity with 2020’s Modern Warfare. Slide and reload cancelling and other staples of the competitive scene are back and feel exceptional to use.”

Where I believe Modern Warfare 3 justifies its existence is outside of its campaign. This year’s multiplayer not only offers new progression systems, weapons, and tuning, but also some much-needed backtracking. Last year’s Modern Warfare 2 deviated from the series’ more fast-paced and frenetic movements. In exchange, the gameplay felt slower and more tactile. This became grating over months and so Modern Warfare 3 opted to bring these back to appease fans.

While the campaign is expendable, this year’s multiplayer suite and quality-of-life changes are a true highlight. I quickly lost my fondness for the changes made to Modern Warfare 2. This year’s entry sees the return of red dots on the minimap. This feature has been intrinsic to Call of Duty and never should have been taken away. Movement is brought back to parity with 2020’s Modern Warfare 2. Slide and reload cancelling and other staples of the competitive scene are back and feel exceptional to use. It goes back to the old saying, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Call of Duty’s movement can feel unparalleled if developers let players get a little crazy with sliding and dolphin-diving.

Addressing the map selection — it’s true, all sixteen maps in Modern Warfare 3 are remakes of 2009’s Modern Warfare 2. This includes everything from the iconic Rust to Estate, Quarry, Highrise, and more. They aren’t all 1:1 upresed remakes, however. Sledgehammer Games and the support teams have made slight alterations to make them more contemporary while the overall layouts are retained.

You’re now able to mantle and climb objects and obstacles that weren’t accessible back in the day. While I understand the argument against paying for maps we already experienced, these are all some of the best Call of Duty maps ever designed. None of the new maps from previous years come close to the balancing and layouts of Terminal or Afghan. These maps all feel like home to me, so coming back to them with a fresh coat of paint has been a truly fun experience.

Elsewhere, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 has once again gone back to the drawing board with its progression system. This year’s entry ditched the overly obtuse and frustrating Platform system of Modern Warfare 2. It now includes a slightly less obtuse and frustrating ‘Armory’ system. While natural progression to max rank 55 gives players certain unlocks, many weapons, field upgrades, killstreaks, etc. are locked to the Armory.

To unlock them, players must complete ‘Daily Challenges’ to amass points for a given item. In most cases, equipment requires three points, meaning that at a bare minimum, you can unlock one item per day by completing dailies. Additional points are awarded by winning matches. Of course, we’re still plagued with skill-based matchmaking in multiplayer, so results may vary on how many bonus points you’ll end up receiving each day.

“Zombies threads a line between a laid-back social mode with friends and a white-knuckled experience.”

The game also offers a serviceable number of game modes at launch. Of course, you have your standard selection of Team Deathmatch, Domination, Gun Game, etc. Unlike last year, we’re offered the ‘Hardcore’ mode at launch which should make many players happy. (Ranked is unfortunately not available as of yet.) The notable new inclusion is Cutthroat, a 3v3v3 mode. It’s a mixture of Search and Destroy and Hardpoint.

Each team must fight to wipe the other two out or capture the flag on the map. Without respawns, communication and strategy goes a long way. Modern Warfare 3 also sees the return of larger-scale game modes. Ground War and Invasion introduce brand new maps, which don’t stand out all that much. However, the core gameplay continues to impress, supporting upwards of 20 players per team.

Rounding out Modern Warfare 3 is the new Zombies mode, which should be called DMZombies. Developer Treyarch took inspiration from last year’s DMZ mode and mixed it with the usual flavours of Zombies. ‘Operation Deadbolt’ has teams of three flying into the new Urzikstan map to complete missions, and gather weapons and equipment. All the while, players must fend off hordes of zombies and high-level enemy variants. Zombies threads a line between a laid-back social mode with friends and a white-knuckled experience.

The map is broken into three major sections. The outer rim of Urzikstan is the low-tier zone where zombies can be taken down with ease. As you progress deeper into the middle of the map, it’ll become more treacherous, with Zombies adorned with armour and enemy variants like the Mangler and Mimic becoming more common. To face this zombie apocalypse, I teamed up with some friends and completed contracts to gain currency to Pack-a-Punch weapons and collect Mystery Box items. As expected, this game mode is best played with friends. Though, it’s honestly not too overwhelming or difficult to drop in solo. Thankfully, it’s entirely PvE-based, so there’s no threat of another team wiping you out while surviving the zombie onslaught.

“Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 doesn’t take any major leaps forward but in a way, I almost prefer it this way. In fact, this is the game I wish I had been playing for the past 12 months.”

It’s a pretty unique spin on both DMZ and the long-running zombies mode. Based on the 5-8 hours I’ve spent, I’ve noticed that Treyarch has balanced a lot of what deterred me from DMZ. Enemies are no longer bullet sponges while ammo and armour drops are common, meaning I spent more time completing objectives rather than searching for an armour plate. The first series of missions are also all tutorial-based. After that, the game tasks players to use specific ammo types, take down mercenary convoys, and other more involved tasks. The new Zombies mode certainly strays far from what players may be expecting. For me, this has been the highlight of this year’s entry so far.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 doesn’t take any major leaps forward but in a way, I almost prefer it this way. In fact, this is the game I wish I had been playing for the past 12 months. The campaign, if it had to be this short, should have been an epilogue to Modern Warfare 2’s story, bridging the gap to a new mainline venture. Above all else, the backtracking and course correction to the multiplayer components were long overdue. However, I feel confident in saying the community is in a good place ahead of ‘Season 1’ and the Warzone integration. It’ll be interesting to see how Zombies expands and grows over the next year as I think there are interesting seeds planted that may pay off in a big way in the future.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 is available for $89.99 for the Xbox Series X/S, PlayStation 5, PlayStation 4 and PC.

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Image credit: Activision