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Call of Duty: Modern Warfare review – bold steps

Methodical multiplayer and the best Call of Duty campaign since, well, the first Modern Warfare

Our Verdict

While not every multiplayer addition is as good as it could be, Modern Warfare’s campaign sets a new gold standard for the series that will be hard for sequels to match.

It doesn’t take long for Infinity Ward to justify its reimagining of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. In the twelve years since the original released the world has seen a surge in deadly terrorist attacks – resulting in over 600 fatalities in Western Europe alone – and within a few minutes of starting Modern Warfare’s campaign, you’re placed at the scene of a massive bombing at Piccadilly Circus, right in the heart of London.

Panicked screams and wailing sirens flood your ears as you get back to your feet and draw your gun. Ahead of you are several armed terrorists shooting indiscriminately into crowds of fleeing civilians, but with distraught commuters scrambling across the street between you and your targets, it’s nigh-impossible to get a clear shot. There’s no correct call to make, no instructions of what to do, and absolutely no time for hesitation. You can and probably will kill an innocent person during this short firefight – my very first shot killed a fellow police officer – and a mistake like that will play back in your head for days.

This mission sets the tone for Call of Duty: Modern Warfare’s campaign perfectly. It’s a story about the messiness of contemporary conflict, the vast grey gulf that exists between right and wrong, and the burden that operating within such vague boundaries places on soldiers. Back in 2007 it was pretty obvious who the good guys were. This time it’s not so simple.

The campaign is filled with similarly challenging material. You’ll witness war crimes, endure torture, abandon people in the need to pursue an objective, and participate in repugnant interrogation tactics. Yes, a couple of scenes do feel misjudged, but unlike the infamous No Russian mission from Modern Warfare 2, they don’t feel like the work of a provocateur seeking controversy for its own sake and headlines at any cost. Instead, it comes across as an earnest attempt to tell a story that reflects the world in which we live. Care has been taken to ensure the game’s toughest scenes are given proper context, and it cannot be overstated how important that is when the campaign’s narrative treads so close to recent real-world events.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare review

In keeping with this serious new tone, Infinity Ward has also scaled back the frequency and bombast of set pieces. There are no vehicular chases in which you fend off an entire army, or burning buildings collapsing around you. In their place you’ll find several tense breach-and-clear missions set in claustrophobic 1:1 scale buildings (most first-person games exaggerate the size of hallways and doors, to make navigating tight spaces simpler).

Modern Warfare also boasts the best cast of any entry in the series, all brought to life with grounded performances and the most realistic mo-capped cinematics to date. Barry Sloane takes on the iconic role of Captain Price with swagger and charm to spare, while Claudia Doumit’s performance as freedom fighter Farah Karim brims with humanity and grit. From start to finish, the six-hour campaign is a polished, immaculately produced, and genuinely affecting experience that plunges players into the murkiness of modern warfare and doesn’t pull any punches. This is easily one of the best, if not the best, Call of Duty campaigns yet.

It helps that all of this has been built in a brand-new game engine, the first full engine change in over a decade. Modern Warfare looks great across all three of its modes, but the audiovisual improvements are plainest to see in the campaign. Photogrammetry tech enables a feast for the eyes, with lifelike textures ranging from minute details on weapon models (such as rubber-stippled grips) to immersive environmental touches, like realistic piles of rubble and rusted metal car doors. Every surface looks distinct, leading to some of the most convincing environments in gaming.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare review

Global volumetric lighting changes bring new levels of depth to every scene, as close-quarters firefights fill rooms with dust and explosions drown streets in thick smoke. The models of the Call of Duty: Modern Warfare weapons have been overhauled to ensure every shot feels impactful, with smoke pouring out of the ejector port, spent shells spitting into your peripheral vision, and puffs of pink bursting from enemies as your bullets punch home.

Sound design has been notched up, too – every weapon kicks up a harsh rattle that rebounds realistically according to your surroundings. Fire down an empty street and the shot can be heard echoing away from you, while indoor shootouts are a messy cacophony of rebounding pops and bangs.

Gunplay has been updated with a new and impressively fluid mounting mechanic that lets you pin your weapon to horizontal and vertical surfaces for reduced recoil, inviting you to more carefully consider your positioning in every battle. While fiddly at first, it won’t be long before you’re navigating levels, moving from mount to mount, meticulously checking corners before moving on. Reloading has been reworked as well, so you can now change magazines without leaving your aim-down-sights view – a neat immersive touch that works wonders when it comes to making firefights feel real.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare review

All of this work is present in multiplayer, too, where at times Call of Duty: Modern Warfare even looks poised to challenge Battlefield for the cinematic military shooter crown. This is mainly true in the revamped Ground War mode, which pits two teams of 32 against one another in a massive map complete with armoured vehicles and helicopters – there’s even an urban map that can host up to 100 players with fully traversable skyscrapers. This affords a welcome amount of freedom; in one game I flew a helicopter to the roof of one of those skyscrapers and did nothing but snipe pilots out of any aircraft that tried to follow. You haven’t seen flexibility like this in CoD before, and it makes for a refreshing change from core multiplayer.

Those subtle tweaks to gunplay slow down the series’ breakneck gameplay just enough for these massive battles to work, particularly when two groups are scrapping for control of a key building or point, leading to sustained firefights and that sense that you’re really fighting for every inch of ground.

Unfortunately, however, the balance isn’t always right in Ground War, particularly when it comes to armoured vehicles and killstreaks. The former are so dominant in congested areas that infantry stand little chance unless they confine themselves to buildings – some borked spawn points make matters worse as you’re often dumped right into the sights of a tank with little chance of escaping before you eat a shell. The snowball effect of killstreaks in multiplayer is also exacerbated in Ground War – with so many targets and less safe space, it’s common to see the killfeed full of VTOL jets, chopper gunners, and even gunships.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare review

Killstreaks also spoil things in Cyber Attack, Modern Warfare’s smart twist on Search and Destroy. The mode is as you remember except you can revive fallen teammates, encouraging team coordination and leading to plenty of clutch comebacks. Killstreaks can totally spoil all that. In one game, my team was on the verge of a comeback after losing the first few rounds, only for the top player on the opposite team to call in a chopper gunner, which reduced us all to hamburger before we could reach the middle of the map. It’s a design decision that’s completely at odds with the ethos of the game mode.

New modes like NVG and Realism offer more alternatives to the tried and true core multiplayer offering, but it’s hard to see either one sustaining a playerbase with their gameplay changes. NVG forces you to equip night-vision goggles to navigate dark versions of the main maps, with the catch being that they’re pretty unwieldy, so you have to use infrared lasers to aim rather than looking through your sights.

This curiously makes aiming easier as you have a perfect dot in the middle of your screen at all times. There’s also very little interplay between light and dark areas of the map and everyone gets night-vision goggles by default – ultimately, I was left wondering exactly what this mode is for. Realism fares better – the dramatically reduced time-to-kill and lack of HUD actually does make a difference, encouraging more patient play and rewarding positionally aware players with plenty of kills as gung-ho enemies sprint around the map with reckless abandon.

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One new mode that definitely hits the mark, however, is Gunfight. A razor-sharp 2v2 mode in which weapon loadouts change randomly every two rounds and maps are so small there’s absolutely nowhere to hide. You need to use a mixture of teamwork and mechanical skill to come out on top in this highly competitive mode, and the lack of advantages like killstreaks makes certain that the focus is solely on, well, the gunfights. Even if your teammate goes down in the first few seconds, the round is always salvageable, leading to plenty of breathless clutch wins and a sense that you can claw your way back into a match, no matter what.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare review

Thankfully, the standard multiplayer modes like Domination, Headquarters, and Team Deathmatch are as solid as ever, and it’s here where you’ll probably spend the bulk of your time. Time-to-kill feels fair, maps are generally balanced, and the gunplay treads a fine line between silky smooth and realistically raw. So, while some of the new modes feel unnecessary or unbalanced, there’s still plenty to love about Modern Warfare’s multiplayer offering.

Infinity Ward has stripped class creation back to basics, restricting your perk options to three (one from each of the three perk classes) and swapping out Specialist abilities for rechargeable equipment, like ammo boxes or deployable cover. This places more emphasis on Gunsmith, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare’s new attachments system, which lets you dramatically alter every weapon in the game by picking five add-ons from a list of roughly 60 per gun. Unlike in previous Calls of Duty, every attachment in Gunsmith has positive and negative effects, so it’s possible to ruin even good weapons if you make some duff attachment choices.

The flexibility offered by this system is thrilling. In Gunsmith you can turn an M4A1 into a three-round burst-fire M16, overhaul an AK-47 into an RPK, or go the other direction to create an SMG that’s practically identical to an AK-74u. Don’t like the US ACOG scope? Fine, there are several alternatives. Want more rounds in the mag? Pick any extended magazine from 50 rounds to 100, just be prepared for all the extra weight if you pick the maximum clip size. It’s a system that encourages creativity and exploration, and delivers one of the first meaningful changes to Call of Duty classes.

Spec Ops is the final piece of the puzzle, and unfortunately it’s another mixed bag. Modern Warfare’s take on the classic Modern Warfare 2 mode puts players into four-person squads and sets them loose in miniature open world areas with a series of objectives to complete, the whole time battling against a seemingly endless tide of enemies.

The first of these missions tasks you with assassinating high-priority targets around a small town in Verdansk, before sending you to scramble a number of data centres around a stadium. The environment is tedious and boasts all the character of an abandoned town in PUBG, but the biggest problem is the inconsistency of enemy spawns. As you fight from objective to objective enemies will continually appear with no apparent logic to their position, and it only takes one AI git spawning in the wrong spot to shred your whole squad.

Finishing this mission took my team of four over two hours to complete, and we only managed it because we got one of the squad to lie down in an inaccessible area, meaning that when the rest of us wiped we could spawn back in. Grinding out the objectives was exhausting and our eventual victory felt cheap because we’d gamed the system, robbing us of any sense of accomplishment.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare review

There are saving graces in Spec Ops. A later mission features a set piece so spectacular you’ll still be smiling to yourself hours later. After a short battle through an abandoned airport, your squad bundles into a jeep and speeds off down a runway to board a moving cargo plane.

You then begin an against-the-clock shootout through the plane’s interior before blowing a hole in the side of the jet and wingsuiting out. If the rest of the Spec Ops missions had as much care put into them it would likely be the highlight mode, but so far the new Spec Ops doesn’t hold a candle to the cult favourite from Modern Warfare 2.

Spec Ops is emblematic of this year’s Call of Duty package: so nearly perfect in places, but marred by a number of lacklustre additions. If Black Ops 4’s lack of single-player sidelined you last year then Modern Warfare’s superfluous modes do little to tarnish one of the best campaigns in the history of the series. And while not every mode works (yet), multiplayer offers the same addictive class progression and laser-precise gunplay for which CoD is known, this time with a more measured pace that rewards patience and tactical nous over twitch gunskill.