Time was that you knew exactly what you were going to get from a new Call of Duty game. After the original Modern Warfare took the world by storm in 2007, each year brought a new game, alternating developers and narrative arcs, a remixed multiplayer, and a tight 6-8 hour campaign that pushed one spectacular set piece after another (and with the odd controversial moment thrown in to get the tabloids excited). That’s not the case anymore, though, with much greater highs and lows from one game to the next, and this year’s Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 looks to be a prime example of this.
Similar to Modern Warfare 2 last year, the campaign is already available for those you pre-order and snag early access, and given how they’re pretty much the best (and only) real option for single player military action these days, you might be tempted. However, this campaign is shorter than most – the most common figure I’ve seen is 4 hours, though it took me a bit longer than that – and takes some unwelcome turns along the way. And no, I’m not talking about the obligatory tabloid baiting that the current era games invariably feature.
Having been teased at the end of MW2 (2022), Vladimir Makarov is now on the loose of this rebooted timeline, and he’s backed by a seemingly endless supply of ultranationalists to do his bidding. MW3, then, is a mad dash to track him down and stop the many things he thinks would look better on fire from ending up that way.
There’s plenty of familiar faces returning from the last two games, and you’ll accompany them through various heavily scripted, but still immensely satisfying missions with increasingly desperate stakes. Say what you want about Call of Duty (and we are about to), but these are always full of excellent voice performances with just enough military jargon to sell a Hollywood version of military ops, combined with tense combat and high stakes – that’s exactly what a Call of Duty campaign should be. Not only that, but the cutscenes that thread these missions together verge on being fully photorealistic.
These are typically great if military action is your thing, but that’s only maybe half the missions available in this campaign. Modern Warfare 3 has what are called “open combat” missions, which are like if a Warzone designer and single player mission designer were forced to share a computer and got their files mixed up.
Open combat missions effectively carve out a bit of the larger Verdansk map for Warzone 2.0, sprinkle these locations with a handful of objectives and enemies and drop you down in the middle. Early on you’re tasked with stealing GPS transmitters and tracking codes from two inexplicably separate areas, for example, and then you’re dropped on the map with a tacmap and told to go do it. You’ve got someone feeding you intel over the radio, but other than that, that’s the mission.
There’s a few issues here, and that’s even with putting the recycling of the Warzone map completely to one side. The biggest problem is that these issues have multiple objective, but often no checkpointing. Did you just spend half an hour getting to the last objective and then die? Too bad, now you’re doing the whole mission over again. It’s immensely frustrating. There’s also the strange use of battle royale-style equipment scavenging – aren’t these meant to be incredibly well-equipped spec ops? – and the bizarre fact that your gear unlocks carry across through death. Captain Price must have a temporal anomaly in his pocket…
The main problem for the campaign is that these just don’t feel like Call of Duty. COD campaigns are known for their tightly scripted rollercoasters, but open combat missions feel more like Far Cry. You could commend Sledgehammer for trying something different, but you can’t help but feel that the only reason for their existence is an executive level demand that they save money. One or two of these missions to break things up would be nice, but relying on them this much just feels like they’re scrimping on motion capture and voice actor rates – they don’t need to script any complex encounters, they just drop you into the map and away you go.
Truth be told, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 isn’t really a standalone game anymore thanks to all of the multiplayer content that will be carried forward with the full release this week, and it all being wrapped up in the Call of Duty HQ. This is where you end up when you “start” Modern Warfare 3 from the PS5 home page, where you can then pick any of the more recent COD games, but also means that you have to launch the game a second time. MW3 then has its own little in-game update that will then mean you do multiple in-game restarts before you can actually play.
Following recent trends, this game is a huge install, with over 100GB for the base data, then the two campaign packs and Warzone on top, taking up 182GB of space so far. Multiplayer isn’t even installed yet, but at least you won’t need to have the campaign packs taking up space for long.
So Modern Warfare 3’s campaign is half what you expect, and half Far Cry on the Warzone map. More than this, it also just feels incomplete, as the game’s narrative arc simply ends without a resolution, leaving characters and narrative threads to be picked up in a Modern Warfare 4. If you’re considering pre-ordering so you can play the campaign early, it’s not really worth doing so unless you’re a really die hard fan, but then the vast majority of people are buying Call of Duty to get at the multiplayer.
More on that in our full review later after release.