Call Of Duty: Modern Warfare Review: The Return Of The King

Modern Warfare is the reboot the Call of Duty series needed - bold and brave... but still somewhat problematic

Release Date: October 25, 2019Platform: Xbox One (reviewed), PC, PS4Developer: Infinity WardPublisher: ActivisionGenre: First-Person Shooter

Call Of Duty hasn’t taken a year off from its annual release schedule since the franchise began all the way back in 2003 – but there had been suggestions that the series had become stale. Thankfully, this year’s title, Modern Warfare, shakes loose the sleeping giant and offers the best overall content package for fans of the storied shooter in the last decade.

The tagline for this latest installment is “Go Dark”, and the latest campaign sets its stall out early in that regard – after a cold open, we see a terrorist prepare to detonate himself on a busy London street, just feet from a parent and her child. It’s a chilling taste of what’s to come, and Modern Warfare’s campaign is full of memorable moments – and not always in the “fist-pumping, oh my god did you see that” way.

Over the course of the five-to-seven hour single-player mode, you’ll witness the deaths of dozens of innocents – from the streets of London, to the fictional nation of Urzikstan, everything feels tinged with hopelessness. As with other campaigns in the series’ history, perspective shifts between characters, and standout Kyle Garrick (an SAS Sergeant present at the time of the aforementioned London attacks) comments on the futility of attempting to wage war with terrorism – “we can know when and where, but not how” he comments, as the capital city is ripped to shreds by explosion and gunfire.

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Even moments such as infiltrating a safe house in the dead of night, the kind of thing that would’ve elicited excited reactions in the original Modern Warfare feel permeated by this bleak outlook. Taking the building floor by floor, unsuspecting enemies reach for weapons, while civilian mothers do their best to protect their infant children. Of course, players are almost always led by the nose in these set-pieces, with little room for non-scripted sequences. This reboot still offers moments of triumph – they’re just fewer and further between.

One mission sees a short homage to the AC-130 mission of the 2007 title of roughly the same name, and it almost feels like a microcosm of the game as a whole. Modern Warfare does its best to pay its respects to the original game but often feels like it struggles to get out of the sizeable shadow that led to the franchise’s meteoric rise. There’s also the somewhat troublesome political machinations presented. In a game as unflinching as this, the narrative up to launch had been that Modern Warfare is apolitical in nature. Unfortunately, somewhere between the jingoism and the jargon, there’s an unhealthy fudging of facts – “The Highway of Death” massacre of the Gulf War is repurposed as Russia’s doing, with the USA framed as the hero of the piece.

With a game so set on offering realism, “going dark” and offering various characters the chance to “get their hands dirty to keep the world clean”, it feels like reimagining history is a step too far. It may not affect everyone in the same way, but it feels like something worth noting. Thankfully, there’s plenty to like about the actual gameplay of Modern Warfare’s campaign. For one, doors now present a choice – players can bash them, or gently open them to throw grenades or flashbangs through. Add to that the ability to “mount” guns on a corner, and it can be really satisfying (particularly on harder difficulties) to play very cautiously to clear a room using every tactical trick in the book.

A special mention here to the sound and visual design of Modern Warfare. Many will scoff at the possibility of a Call Of Duty title being described as anything better than “functional” in terms of visuals, but the new engine introduced offers some truly incredible lighting and particle effects. Just as impressive is the use of sound, and while quieter missions lend themselves to more atmospheric environmental cues (like falling rain and soft footprints), the way bullets sound when they hit concrete and grenades shake urban streets can easily make you flinch with the right headset on.

There are some frame-rate hitches throughout the campaign (usually when everything is exploding at once), but for the most part, this is one of the year’s best-looking games. For all the bombast and emotional gut-punching of the campaign, it’s in multiplayer that most will find themselves for the majority of their time playing Modern Warfare – and we’re pleased to report that it’s well worth the investment.

Further Reading: 45 Best Video Games to Play in 2019

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For starters, there’s cross-play – so you can play with friends on other platforms, and Activision has finally removed the need for a season pass, with new maps being added for free over time. The big difference in Modern Warfare is the pace of play. Guns no longer feel as snappy, requiring a split-second longer to aim down the sights. This means getting the drop on an enemy feels more important than ever, and with a more restricted movement set than last year’s Black Ops 4 (no grapple hooks, thank goodness), it feels like Call Of Duty going back to basics. You don’t have to be as cautious as you would in something like Counter-Strike (although it pays to be careful in “Realism Mode”), but you’ll certainly find yourself peeking around corners more than you may have before.

Of course, there are fresh ideas here, too. Doors can be used just as they can in the campaign, while you can sabotage lighting on the new “Night Mode” maps (or switch them on to blind those wearing goggles). Mounting weapons on corners is also helpful for defending objectives, as is the ability to reload while aiming through your scope. Those last two are key because Modern Warfare places more of a premium on objective-based modes. Ground War has seen the biggest shakeup, now supporting 64 players across both of its maps. They aren’t as sprawling as something like Battlefield’s areas of engagement, but they do offer ample opportunity to use sniper rifles, climb buildings, and use vehicles such as APCs.

Unfortunately, spawn points on maps do feel a little too conducive to camping – but we’d imagine this will be tweaked in the coming weeks. For now, it can be annoying – although maps are generally of a size where you’ll usually spawn somewhere else soon enough. Our favorite addition to the game is the new 2 v 2 gunfight mode, a chance to buddy up with a friend or random ally online for a four-player duel. Rounds only last for forty seconds, and it’s the most addictive addition the franchise has seen in years.

Rounding out the package is the return of Spec-Ops, a mode not seen since Modern Warfare 3 back in 2011. We weren’t able to cover the PlayStation-exclusive Survival mode, but the rest of the mode follows on from the campaign’s story. There are bite-sized missions to play through as part of Missions, but the real meat here is in the multi-objective Operations.

These involve extracting hostages, destroying targets and surviving ever-increasing odds with a loadout shared from your multiplayer setup as well as one of six character classes such as Medic (able to heal comrades more quickly) and Heavy (able to provide armor to teammates). It can be a fun way to spend an evening with friends, and more content is coming, but for now it feels more like a change of pace from multiplayer (which it shares progression with) rather than offering an enticing reason to jump in.

Alas, we can’t help but feel a strange tinge of disappointment – Modern Warfare’s tactical, boots on the ground, breach and clear style of combat feels ripe for a Battle Royale mode. We’ll keep our fingers crossed for the future.

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Infinity Ward set a high bar for itself when rebooting the most beloved of the Call Of Duty sub-series, even referring to this year’s title as simply Modern Warfare – especially given the way fans still flocked to the remaster of the 2007 original just three years ago. It was justified though – Modern Warfare is the best Call Of Duty title in years, offering a rollercoaster campaign, tactical multiplayer, and a fun, if short-lived, spec-ops mode.

4.5 Stars