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Call Of Duty Modern Warfare III review: a low point in the series’ 20-year history

We’d have happily skipped a year, thanks

Published: 17 Nov 2023

Guess what? There’s a new Call of Duty game out. It’s become an annual winter tradition for the last two decades, up there with watching a Harry Potter movie with a big tub of Quality Street, or the entire national infrastructure being brought to its knees by about seven snowflakes. We need these little rituals to get us through the cold, dark months - or rather, we usually do. But something’s gone wrong with COD. So much so the best thing for it at this point, much like many twenty-year-olds, is to take itself on a gap year.

Let’s get a couple of things out of the way. No, developer Sledgehammer Games hasn’t suddenly forgotten how to make great shooters. Without a doubt, it remains stacked with hardworking and talented individuals who did their best within the constraints of the project. They don’t deserve hate or harassment because they’re name’s on this game. That’s not how bad games work.

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Second, this is still a Call Of Duty game so the absolute nuts and bolts - the shooting, the visuals, the ear-shattering sound design - are all still pretty fantastic. Unfortunately, it’s all the stuff around it that lets it down. You know - the game.

Modern COD is a suite of different experiences, and as such Modern Warfare III brings you a solo campaign, a Zombies mode and online multiplayer. If even one of these modes moved the franchise forward in some way or showed off a brilliant but unrefined new idea, that’d be respectable. But in all three component parts, it feels over-familiar and stale, relying on former glories and established blueprints far too much.

We’re not being figurative there. The maps in online multiplayer are remakes of Modern Warfare 2’s 2009 roster. And listen, nostalgia’s great and everything. DeLoreans. Tamagotchis. Love all that. But when the developer’s already had to pull several of those maps out of rotation in Hardpoint and Cutthroat playlists because the spawn points were leaving players sitting ducks to spawn-kills, you get the sense this trip down memory lane wasn’t embarked on with the proper provisions.

Fair’s fair, though: the new 3v3v3 Cutthroat mode is a good laugh. And since you only need two mates online to form a squad, it’s easy to get into a game and maintain really tight comms. So chalk that one up as a tiny win.

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The 6v6 War and 32v32 Ground War modes are harder to love. If you can find five squadmates, you’re rewarded for tactical, co-ordinated movements in War mode, but in public lobbies with strangers it’s simply another twitch-shooting quick-draw mode. The latter is COD doing Battlefield, filling decent-sized maps with players and expecting something tense and tactical to emerge from it. Even Battlefield struggles to achieve that, and that’s been the series’ raison d’etre forever. This game… struggles more.

Next up is Zombies mode, which takes a lot of its cues from the DMZ mode that debuted in COD: Warzone 2.0. Turn up at a specific point of a massive map, shoot everyone to fulfil an objective, head off towards the next marker, rinse and repeat. That Tarkov-style action works against smart AI opponents with guns who can flank and surprise you, but it gets repetitive much more quickly against clusters of undead moseying leisurely towards you.

Maybe it’s old-school thinking, but we’ve always focused most of our attention on COD’s singleplayer campaigns over the years. It’s here that the series has shocked, wowed, and seared itself into our memory with brilliant Hollywood setpieces, controversial sequences and some genuinely enjoyable, if pulpy, plotting.

There are many reasons this year’s campaign doesn’t move the needle. Firstly, it’s inherently a bit odd that the franchise’s iconic characters like Soap, Price, Gaz et al, are all one big ensemble cast like the Expendables now, and that the game’s trying to dine out on their star value, because COD’s protagonists were originally intended as military everymen. They were deliberately disposable and anonymous, tiny cogs in war’s giant uncaring machine. This series used to have something to say about armed conflict. Now it’s just doing its best impression of a big movie franchise, but it’s doing so without the bombastic set-pieces and the moments that subvert your expectations. The plot - longtime big bad Makarov’s back and he wants to nuke everyone, if you were interested - just kind of plods along.

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It’s short. And that in itself wouldn’t be a problem if each mission felt distinct and really honed by a great design concept, but they all feel forgettable and low stakes. Worse, they’re padded out with quasi-open world sections that borrow from Warzone. You’re given a big chunk of map to traverse, pockets of enemies, and drops with better weapons so you can upgrade your armoury as you go. You can imagine a game, a better one than this, where that works. But it needed more finessing. It needed some more design to ensure that your encounters felt meaningful, that they were exciting and got you to change your approach each time. They don’t. They feel, if we’re speaking plainly, like filler.

And that brings us back to where we started. Sledgehammer Games probably knew this before all of us blood-sucking critics got our claws into the game. The studio knows how to make amazing experiences. But as we’re seeing across the triple-A landscape, it’s getting increasingly challenging to make them. And to make them to an annual cadence, even with two primary studios and a huge list of ‘with help from’s, it’s clearly just not possible to retain COD’s quality using this business model.

Please, Activision, give us all a year off. We won’t forget about COD, we promise. Give your incredible developers time to work on new and tricky ideas. The stuff they’ve been putting on the backburner to get another rushed release out. The outlook is pretty grim if something doesn’t change here.

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