One scene near the end of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3’s story – no spoilers here, not that there’s anything to spoil – features a CIA agent heavily redacting all the key details of what you just played through. I let go of the idea that Call of Duty might do much of interest, or even consequence, with its story some time ago, but that’s as on-the-nose an analogy as you could ever ask for with Modern Warfare 3.
Even by its own gradually lowering standards, Modern Warfare 3’s retconned, chopped-up, and hastily taped-together reworking of the Shepherd-and-Makarov tale from 2009’s original Modern Warfare 2 is a mess. Picking up directly after 2022’s Modern Warfare 2, which it turns out just reworked half the story (not that you’d really know from playing it), MW3 finishes the job by cutting out any remaining interesting parts and comprehensively sanitising whatever’s left. What was an already barely-there parable about real systems and their related wars has instead been swapped out for a glossy, extraordinarily well-presented, but utterly vapid tale about nothing and nobody. Most disappointingly of all, the typical bombast and relentless forward energy of its linear campaigns, that usually acts as good-enough cover fire for the narrative gaps in Call of Duty, is missing here, too.
Walking it back a bit for one moment though, I should probably start with some sympathy. Reliable reporting suggested this year’s Modern Warfare 3 originally started life as a Modern Warfare 2 expansion. Blame, if we’re being as blunt as to point fingers here, should really go to whatever circumstances or whichever decision-makers caused those plans to change, as developer Sledgehammer, stepping in for Infinity Ward this time, has clearly had to rush things along. Modern Warfare 3’s story is also on the short side, and while that’s never been much of a problem for Call of Duties gone by – for a lot of people the promise of a tight eight hours of closely directed action is exactly what they play these games for – it all adds up to a fairly obvious picture of a game rushed out with less time than it really requires.
That’s most evident in Modern Warfare 3’s new “open combat” missions, roughly a third of those in the game, where you’ll find yourself parachuted into a large-ish open space with the illusion of choice for how to complete your objective. Typically, that means several clusters of enemies gathered around three or four sub-objectives marked on your map, and between them various caches of Warzone-style tiered weapons to loot, a range of pickups and perks like UAV scanners, armour plates or proximity mines, the occasional loadout-selector crate and, crucially, Tactical Bottles, for throwing to distract a guard’s attention.
It’s actually a nice idea. Since the first Modern Warfare – the first first Modern Warfare – Call of Duty’s always had a hint of optional stealth about it. For a long time that typically found itself in specifically linear, stealth-only missions, while all the choice came in multiplayer: attaching a silencer to my old MP5 and kitting myself out with UAV scanner-blocking perks for a few sprints around the flanks of maps like Vacant or Backlot is a fond memory of mine, from back in the day. In Warzone meanwhile, the ability to sneak about, climbing from under-equipped underdog to undetectable angel of death is an essential part of the sweaty tension that makes battle royales so compelling. And over the years, Call of Duty’s clearly been trying to work that sense of choice into its campaigns, to mixed success – stealth missions in last year’s MW2 were some of its very best (Recon by Fire) and very worst (Alone).
But it’s also an idea that feels destined to fail. While Call of Duty has the equipment for stealth – silencers, throwing knives, ghillie suits, Tactical Bottles – and the obvious pedigree with open combat, in these “weapons free” missions you’ll regularly find things transitioning from one to the other, and the series just doesn’t have the chops to back those more systemic ambitions up. Enemy detection for instance is over-simple and illogical: enemies holding radios in their hands will spot you, seemingly call in the observation so an alarm will sound, the entire base will mobilise, only for everyone to reset as if nothing happened if you quickly flee the scene. There’s little reactivity to bodies or ability to hide them – stuff I was doing in, say, Splinter Cell, decades ago – and few opportunities for systemic interplay beyond throwing and/or shooting explosive barrels.
What’s more, big murder basins presented as playgrounds of player choice or coastal oligarch mansions riddled with suited guards immediately lead you to the thought of immersive sims, like Dishonoured or Hitman – games that have mastered this format so superlatively that they’ve started to riff on their own formulas. Where Call of Duty is introducing basic rock-throwing mechanics and dropping in some borrowed, out-of-context Warzone features, the likes of Deathloop have been taking Arkane Studios’ industry-leading stealth-action and throwing in some time-bending roguelite mechanics on top, just for fun.
Confusingly, even Modern Warfare 3’s more linear missions carry this halfhearted sneak-and-scavenge philosophy across. Highrise, a technically “open combat” level about two-thirds of the way through that sees you take on a cluster of linked tower blocks riddled with heavily-armed enemies, is a bit of a riff on The Raid and a high-point for some signature close-quarters action, but those strange detection mechanics make for an annoying distraction – should I be trying to sneak my way through this? Will all those enemies from lower floors come up and attack me from the rear if I sneak past them but get detected higher up? I still don’t know the answer to either.
Production values here are undeniably high – at times beyond high; much of this game, from forest blizzards, to extraordinarily believable, lifelike performances from its cast, to underground tunnels lit with emergency-red glow, looks genuinely incredible – but the missions themselves rarely match the actual set-pieces of previous Modern Warfares, or the sinister espionage grime of Sledgehammer’s early Black Ops tone, often feeling like distant references to them (another stealth bomber mission!) without the sense of bombast or surprise.
Meanwhile, some odd Warzone features persist as well: when you find an item, like a unique weapon or a tool like an Ascender, which lets you rapidly whistle up hanging ropes, those can then be added to your loadout if you die and respawn, available from the beginning of the mission. On the one hand, it’s a nice, almost metroidvania-like solution for a self-imposed problem sometimes making you restart the entire mission from scratch on death – suddenly I can hop on a rope and shoot straight to the top floor – and clearly they’re designed for giving these missions a sense of replayability, where obsessive completionists can go back and compulsively hoover up any weapons they missed last time. But on the other, they move these missions even further from the kind of authored, delicately paced action this series is known for, and require a barely manageable amount of suspended disbelief in the process – I’m playing a cinematic race against the clock with a decidedly linear story, but also, kind of a roguelike? Where I respawn with rewards kept from beyond the grave?
Back to that story, and what a mess. This new Modern Warfare series’ goal has been to effectively tell a whole new story inspired by the original Modern Warfare games, loosely based on the same key events and featuring some returning characters, in the way JJ Abrams’ Star Trek films have Captain Kirk and Spock running around shouting at Khan again, but different. But its secondary goal has been to retcon any possible political, philosophical, artistic, or otherwise even remotely thoughtful reading of those original games too, by taking what was feasibly an anti-war story that hit its climax with the first Modern Warfare 2, in its infamous and misunderstood No Russian level, and paving over those elements with nihilistic emptiness.
Feasibly, in the original story, General Shepherd was a stand-in for the warmongers of the early noughties, and Russia’s resulting invasion of the US could be read as a symbolic reversal of the US’ own contemporary wars on foreign soil. You might already feel that’s all fubar, but the goal of this new Modern Warfare 3 is to ensure it’s now impossible not to think so. Here there’s no system, no government, and only really the idea of Britain or the USA (the game primarily plays out in two fictional places, and Russia.) Bad guys are just bad guys – individual rotten apples to be arrested (or extrajudicially killed), with Call of Duty failing to make the hardly-demanding leap from “rotten apple” to “spoiled bunch”. Again, this is Call of Duty of course. Its goal is replicating the epic, mindless action of its cinematic inspirations, and epic, mindless action, as those inspirations like The Raid or The Rock or even James Bond prove, can be very fun. Modern Warfare 3 can also be very fun, at times. The problem is those films aren’t about wars. And they’re particularly not about modern wars.
The inspirations that are – Sicario, clearly – don’t always have to take an overt stance, but they do have to at least engage with their material (a big difference between Sicario, directed by Denis Villeneuve and something of a government thriller with a bit of action, and Sicario 2: not directed by Villeneuve; just action). The alternative, as you find with Modern Warfare 3, is an extraordinarily pretty romancing of good guys with guns – Alpha Team are undeniably likeable, all blokey camaraderie and reliably well-pitched banter – rooting out international bad eggs with impunity and lots of facial recognition cameras. Untethered from any kind of wider meaning, at its worst feels very, very close to propaganda. At its best, with that vapid story combining with hit-and-miss stealth and borrowed widgets from Warzone, Modern Warfare 3’s campaign is just a muddle.
A copy of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 was provided for review by Activision.
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