Call of Duty Modern Warfare Review: Marching in the Shadow of Call of Duty 4

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare has real potential, but a lackluster campaign and frustrating design decisions make for an experience we've seen done better before.

2019's Call of Duty: Modern Warfare has a lot to live up to. Too much, probably, for most fans of the series who remember 2007's Call of Duty 4

In many ways, this new title can't possibly be the CoD 4 of our time. The original game helped reinvent — or straight up define — the multiplayer FPS space entirely. This new Modern Warfare doesn't attempt to one-up its predecessor or any of the other games in the series. Instead, it opts to pay homage to them the best it can.

Success on that front is tough to come by. The campaign tries to equate shock value with establishing character moments, lacks a robust and memorable cast, and generally fails to create a world of its own.

The multiplayer is also a mixed bag. There are plenty of moments where players feel powerful, and where the gunplay and pacing work wonders for the proverbial fun factor. Sadly, the maps, along with several core design philosophies, get in the way of making Modern Warfare the modern take it could be.

The co-op Spec Ops mode, though one of the three pillars of gameplay present on the game's main menu, is more a side dish that's good a few times with friends. It, like the story and multiplayer components, fails to stand alone in a game trying to be so much more than the sum of its parts.

A Story Needs So Much More

Historically, Call of Duty campaigns are short affairs, with mildly political stories told across five or six hours. Their casts are usually small, but each character receives some defining moment. The story is also typically sprinkled with more minor arcs that round out each character's personality. 

The stories in Call of Duty 4 and Modern Warfare 2, though briefly told, still managed to capture the imagination. Through compelling inciting incidents and unique beats, players experienced intense but deftly crafted narratives punctuated by quiet moments of relative calm. The pace, in other words, gave players the time to reflect on their choices, on the events that had just occurred. It gave them time to wonder what might come next.

This year's Modern Warfare has few such moments. Everything is some form of high-stress scenario, whether things happen "quietly" or not. More importantly, when the story has such levity, it's usually relegated to pre-rendered cutscenes. And where a better story might allow events to show the state of a character's mind, we are told it, bluntly and pointedly.

That's not to say there isn't subtlety to be found in Modern Warfare. The first house-clearing mission makes no overt statements. Instead, it allows the people in the house to speak through their actions.

It's a striking sequence, one that made me uncomfortable with its gravity and the knowledge of its reality. There is no music, only the sounds of people, some of whom know what is coming, others who want it to go away. By the end of the mission, I understood what kind of message Modern Warfare wished to send, and I hoped it could do so without losing itself to more established tropes.

On the whole, I would be disappointed. But when the game called on me to do a second room-by-room house clearing, my initial discomfort had waned to a mild apathy. I assume that was at least partly the point.

The trouble was, my apathy at that moment wasn't relegated to only acting through the sequence. It had also grown to encompass everything else I'd done previously, lulling me into the mindset of, "Well, I'm playing Call of Duty again." 

Endless waves of faceless enemies. A cartoonishly evil villain I knew I'd end up dramatically killing. Characters trying to convey more complex emotions than those of a cardboard cutout. All of the story beats I've seen a thousand times before. 

Some of that I could forgive if I didn't feel like the game was preaching to me at almost every turn. Rather than allow me to make my assumptions and value judgments, Modern Warfare told me what I should think about this or that terrible thing. Even the moments that were supposed to be poignant ended up feeling precious, too wrapped up in their gravitas to understand that sometimes less is more.

All of that said, I won't go so far as to say the campaign is bad by recent Call of Duty standards. It's probably better than most of what we've had since the original two Modern Warfare titles. But I cannot call it "well done" when a game like Titanfall 2 exists and packs more character and narrative quality into a shorter timeframe.

2019's Modern Warfare has its moments, and when they land, they land well. It's just a shame they only do it one or two times, and only for a short while.

A Team Too Far

The multiplayer aspects of Modern Warfare — Spec Ops and the competitive online modes — suffer from many of the same ills as the single-player.  

Spec Ops, for its part, is too short to build on the story told in the campaign, and what story exists is somehow even less interesting. This mode is more a sequence of challenge encounters than anything resembling a narrative, though that might be the point.

"Classic" Spec Ops in Modern Warfare 2 and Modern Warfare followed a similar system, extracting different arena's from the campaign and putting players through different takes on how they played.

Like the new campaign, however, Spec Ops feels like it's missing a solid direction, lacking as it is in anything to keep players invested over time. The fact that the reward structure won't be ready until November doesn't help either. Perhaps the worst sin Spec Ops commits is how unforgiving it is. Earlier iterations allowed some room for error, and if you made a mistake, there was still some way to salvage the situation.

In Modern Warfare, a single wrong choice can and will end otherwise good runs, especially as a solo player. It sometimes feels like "No team, no Spec Ops," and even though I could field a full squad, sometimes I want to try something for myself. I have no doubt I could beat every level on my own, but unlike previous games, I don't have any desire to.

Modern Warfare's multiplayer eschews much of the design philosophies that define earlier Call of Duty titles in favor of a slower, more measured experience. Footsteps are louder and easier to follow. Holding a position is more effective than covering the whole map. Patience is rewarded over all-out aggression. In a game where everything else worked toward that end, I would probably be over the moon for it.

That's not the case here. 

First and foremost, because of the more "realistic" color palettes on both maps and player models, sometimes I can't see my enemies beyond the browns and grays all around them. 

Then my character calls out "Enemies in the area!", as though I should know where and how to look down a sightline where they could be any number of gray splotches on my screen.

Secondly, the maps leave a lot to be desired. They lack easy ways to move between lanes, and most of the areas cater to long-distance engagements. Cover is haphazardly placed, entire sections of some maps are unused, and there are too many places to hide that serve no purpose beyond being hiding places.

The spawn system is also aggravating, especially so on the larger maps. Sometimes you will spawn in at the far end of the map and need to run for 30 seconds or more to get in on the action. Other times, on the same maps, you'll spawn right across from an enemy, or even looking directly at them.

Weapon balance needs a significant tuning pass, as well. Right now, not even a week from release, the community has settled on a viable meta. It's called the M4A1 assault rifle. There is little reason to use anything else, unless you want to use the 725 shotgun, itself a broken mess than can one-shot people from ludicrous distances. 

Using either gun, broken though they are, is incredibly satisfying. Using most of the weapons in Modern Warfare is a lot of fun. They're punchy, weighty, they sound great, and racking up even a few kills grants a feeling I don't think I've experienced in any other shooter of recent memory.

The killstreaks are fantastic, too. They're tougher to get, but when you do, you feel powerful, raining death and destruction with the press of a button. The higher-value streaks can and will melt entire teams at least twice over, which makes earning them worth the struggle. They'd be even better if the maps were better suited for airborne support.

I can say I enjoyed my time with the multiplayer generally, but not in the same way I have with previous games. It lacks the pizazz I'm looking for, and the frustrating parts are so much more frequent than the fun ones. It's a shame because when this game does shine, it does so brightly.

 

Pros:
  • Great gunplay 
  • A moving score 
  • Moments of brilliance that almost make the entire experience
Cons
  • Lackluster story and characters
  • Below-average map design
  • Frustrating mechanics that get in the way of moment-to-moment fun

If you want Call of Duty: Modern Warfare to be the return to form the series seems to need, I think you'll be disappointed. From its story to its multiplayer, there are too many things that needed addressing before release, and too many aggravations with what we can play.

As it currently stands, I would give the game a few months to fix what issues it can. There's a real gem buried in here. I hope we see it someday.

[Note: A copy of Call of Duty Modern Warfare was provided by Activision for the purposes of this review.]

Our Rating
7
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare has real potential, but a lackluster campaign and frustrating design decisions make for an experience we've seen done better before.
Reviewed On: PC

Contributor

John Schutt has been playing games for almost 25 years, starting with Super Mario 64 and progressing to every genre under the sun. He spent almost 4 years writing for strategy and satire site TopTierTactics under the moniker Xiant, and somehow managed to find time to get an MFA in Creative Writing in between all the gaming. His specialty is action games, but his first love will always be the RPG. Oh, and his avatar is, was, and will always be a squirrel, a trend he's carried as long as he's had a Steam account, and for some time before that.

Published Oct. 31st 2019

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