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Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 review: little to play and nothing to say

Soliders take cover behind a riot shield in a Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 promo image.
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3
MSRP $70.00
“Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 might just be the series' worst installment yet.”
  • Gunplay is still top-notch
  • Stellar visuals
  • Cutthroat is a highlight
  • Short, unrewarding campaign
  • Terrible UI
  • Inconsistent time-to-kill
  • Audio woes

Having exhausted essentially every potential setting, the Call of Duty franchise has been in its reboot phase over the past few years with a new take on the Modern Warfare trilogy. Despite these fresh takes never reaching the same heights as the games they’re reviving, they’ve been fun enough to warrant appreciation by both new and returning fans.

That all ends with Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3.

With meandering open-ended missions and nothing of value to say in a startlingly timely story about terrorism, Modern Warfare 3’s unremarkable campaign fails to capture the same electrifying energy of the original trilogy’s final chapter. Though multiplayer still offers best-in-the-business gunplay, the sequel’s cluttered storefront-first UI layout, lack of original maps, and exhausting design frustrations dramatically bring down the multiplayer experience.

Modern Warfare 3 isn’t just a misstep for Call of Duty — it may be the worst game in the history of the franchise.

No style, no substance

Modern Warfare 3‘s campaign picks up after last year’s Modern Warfare 2 and sees Task Force 141 return to the fray once again, this time against arguably the most memorable villain in the series’ history: the ruthless Russian terrorist Vladimir Makarov. This villain served as the overarching antagonist of the original Modern Warfare 3 (2009) and became known for his heinous acts, such as orchestrating the second game’s “No Russian” mission. His presence here should have been an exciting turn for the rebooted trilogy, yet nothing about the game’s story or characters really works in the flat four-hour campaign.

Players emotionally connect to characters, not conflicts, so we need to care about the people in our stories before we can really give a damn about the world they’re trying to save. The actors portraying Task Force 141 and their enemies are clearly talented folks who do the best with what they’re given, but their performances are stifled by a script that lacks even a modicum of gravity. I’d be hard-pressed to match more than a few characters’ names with their faces in Modern Warfare 3, let alone recall much of anything personal about them. They exist only to spew some military jargon or remind us that “Makarov bad” in short pre-mission cutscenes that rarely slow down long enough to give us even a momentary glimpse into who they are beyond “the good guys.”

A stadium on fire in Modern Warfare 3

A game doesn’t need to have an emotionally rich story or deep, fascinating characters to be good. If that were the case, Mario’s exceedingly simple goal of saving the princess for four decades wouldn’t still be landing his titles on Game of the Year lists, after all. However, that’s a colorful platformer about a plumber who can turn into an elephant, while this is a game about an effective terrorist who inflicts a rapid and devastating amount of human suffering, yet it has nothing notable to say whatsoever about that during an extraordinarily tense period of time in the world when it’s perhaps most important to do so.

Granted, for many players who don’t really care about narrative, all of this will ultimately be secondary to the meat and potatoes of a Call of Duty campaign: tight, responsive gunplay and thrilling set pieces. While Modern Warfare 3 is a bit light on the latter compared to some previous entries, it’s no surprise that it continues to nail the excellent gameplay we’ve all come to expect over the past few decades. Shooting feels as great as ever, and the selection of guns and gadgets are all plenty of fun to use. The in-game lighting, environmental textures, and character models are particularly stunning, with cutscenes reaching an uncanny valley effect that is truly staggering to behold. I only wish the game’s high production values translated to something more enjoyable to actually play.

It’s all just cheap bubble gum with flavor that dissipates before you’ve really had time to chew on it …

Unfortunately, this year’s new Open Combat Missions make up nearly half of the campaign’s levels, flirting with a Warzone-esque single-player sandbox. These outings drop you into a map and give you free rein over how to complete preset objectives. One of these asked me to work my way up each level of a tall, decrepit building — often sending me out to scale its walls on scaffolding and makeshift bridges — and is probably the most rousing mission of the entire campaign. I cleared rooms and hallways at a breakneck pace before my relentless advance culminated in an epic shootout on the roof that left me eager for more consistently stimulating content of that caliber. Spoiler alert: I didn’t get any.

Instead, this departure from strictly linear missions is more of a gimmick than a revolutionary change that often slows the game’s pace to a crawl as you wander around scavenging for items. It ultimately steals away the sense of urgency and tension the franchise is known for. The tasks are generic, such as finding intel, disarming bombs, or blowing up some helicopters — and whether you approach things stealthily or guns-a-blazing has no meaningful outcome. The numerous stashes scattered around the map at least add a bit of incentive for dedicated completionists to replay the missions, but I suspect that most other players will lack any motivation to do so. I’m concerned these missions serve as a look into what an open-world Call of Duty could look like in the future, and if this is what we should expect, I’m not so sure it’ll stick the landing.

Vehicles falling through ice in Modern Warfare 3

Modern Warfare 3 is at its best when it places you in traditional missions that funnel you to and from scripted segments, such as its opening prison break sequence. While none of these reach any notable highs for the series, a handful of them at least provide momentary thrills. Then there are the multiple missions that force you to witness the slaughter of civilians (or in one case, be an unwilling participant) in an attempt to sell us a new “No Russian.” These sequences are definitely uncomfortable in the moment, but they ring out as hollow shock and awe to be forgotten between shootouts. It’s all just cheap bubble gum with flavor that dissipates before you’ve really had time to chew on it, and you’re likely to have long forgotten it by the time it’s on the bottom of someone else’s shoe.

What’s old is newish again

Call of Duty has consistently nailed the fundamentals of run-and-gun shooting for two decades now, blending excellent game feel and pacing with memorable maps, guns, and perks that keep things feeling fresh, even if only on the surface. Most of this continues in Modern Warfare 3. Movement is fast and fluid, the gunplay produces some of the best feedback the series has ever offered, and both new and returning modes grant compelling reasons to dive in. That’s especially true of the brand-new Cutthroat mode, which provides heart-pounding 3v3v3 elimination showdowns where strategy is paramount and every shot matters. But despite its familiar ups, Modern Warfare 3 also highlights the franchise’s increasingly frustrating downs.

We’ve all learned not to expect anything massively different year over year, but it’s still shocking that Modern Warfare 3 is the first Call of Duty to launch without any original 6v6 maps. Instead, it chooses to mine nostalgia from its players with recreated maps from the original Modern Warfare 2 (2009). While exclusively repurposing old maps for a new game seems a little lazy, I can’t deny that every one of them looks absolutely stunning in all of their modernized glory, and I enjoyed seeing the ways in which they’d been retooled for a new generation.

Most changes to these locales are minor (there are now doors that can be opened, and previously uninhabitable water is now swimmable), making it exciting to interact with an old favorite location. But as I pointed out in my Modern Warfare 2 review last year, Call of Duty maps have become progressively filled with unnecessary amounts of clutter and an abundance of entryways into every area. The reworking of these classic maps ensures that trend is upheld.

Franchise veterans who grew up playing these maps may be thrown off when they find that certain obstacles or locations have been changed quite a bit, and some all-new sightlines change how firefights play out in go-to spots. Unless you’re a spawn-studying pro with the reflexes of a cat, chances are that you’ll frequently be overwhelmed by enemies firing at you from multiple angles at any one time — especially as Call of Duty pushes vertical dominance more than ever.

A soldier initiating a lunch with a phone.
Infinity Ward

This casualization of the franchise means that nearly everyone gets a chance to get at least a kill or two regardless of their skill, but it also means that the ceiling for competitive play is much higher. It demands an even more intense level of dedication and map awareness than ever to overcome this design choice and avoid cheap deaths. Alas, I’m not superhuman and can only see in front of me, so I continue to yearn for the days when shootouts relied almost entirely on my speed and aim rather than my ability to monitor a dozen sightlines at once. Your mileage may vary.

I did enjoy spurts of fun online with Modern Warfare 3 when I was able to settle into a groove and just enjoy the gunplay. As with most multiplayer gaming, it’s considerably more entertaining with friends who can strategize and laugh in equal measure alongside you. Still, there’s only so much nonsense I can tolerate before my level of irritation overtakes the joys of camaraderie. For every irksome quirk, there’s something else that compounds it to push me beyond my limits.

Just rebrand the series as what it really is at its core now: a storefront with a multiplayer mode attached.

It’s one thing that the disastrous UI makes every aspect of navigating menus as unintuitive as possible. But then I’ve also got to deal with a $70 game aggressively steering me toward microtransactions with endless ads and prompts, effectively treating me like a user instead of a player. I can shrug off how all of the guns sound pretty similar overall. But then I have to accept that the sounds of distant teammate’s footsteps are somehow louder than those of enemies right on top of me. I can stomach bad spawn points because, hey, Activision might as well just market spawn camping as a feature considering that it’s still such a prevalent issue after 20 mainline games. But then I still have to endure blood-boiling time-to-kill inconsistencies that leave me feeling baffled.

Coupling all of these aggravating elements with a single-player mode that feels cobbled together by Dr. Frankenstein, Modern Warfare 3 is the most substantial step back for a franchise that has been inching forward for nearly a decade. The short and forgettable story isn’t remotely absorbing, and its multiplayer has no identity in an ever-expanding sea of more unique shooters. But hey, at least you can spend $20 for a celebrity skin. So maybe it’s time for the company to nix the campaigns altogether and just rebrand the series as what it really is at its core now: a storefront with a multiplayer mode attached.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 was reviewed on PS5.

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Billy Givens
Billy Givens is a freelance writer with over a decade of experience writing gaming, film, and tech content. His work can be…
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