Shaun Munro reviews Call of Duty: Modern Warfare…
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare is a game built on huge foundational contradictions. On one hand it expresses a clear desire to return to the series’ roots following increasingly adventurous – and divisive – departures from the Michael Bay-inspired military fetishism of prior installments.
But on the other, this year’s installment also makes a number of tweaks to the expected multiplayer suite which likely won’t go down well with long-time players. And that’s just one of the paradoxes present in a game that’s desperately torn between decrying the horrors of war in its grim campaign and revelling in mass-scale carnage in its online offering.
In the latter case that’s hardly a conundrum specific to this game or even this franchise; the Battlefield series has similarly struggled to reconcile the dissonance between a “war is bad” single-player narrative and a multiplayer equivalent which relishes in crippling explosions and thunderous shootouts.
Yet given that Modern Warfare eagerly marketed itself as the gritty, contemplative antithesis of the series’ silly recent forays into sci-fi and also last year’s cynical Black Ops IIII – which didn’t even feature a campaign – it placed a particular onus upon itself to carve out a more meaningful story. While few were demanding The Deer Hunter in video game form, this tension between contemporary taste and the medium’s penchant for cathartic bloodlust is felt throughout.
It’s absolutely fair to say that, for many, the game’s somewhat schizophrenic nature won’t be much of an issue. The campaign is, despite a baffling always-online requirement for PC players, a major return to form after several years on the daft skids, serving as a half-homage to the original Modern Warfare while also rustling up many of its own unique sorties to provoke players. There’s nothing nearly as controversial as Modern Warfare 2‘s infamous “No Russian” mission, though deeply harrowing moments regularly abound, wholly enhanced by the game’s shiny new engine, which delivers a major graphical overhaul.
Rooting this year’s campaign left of the usual military propagandism is the presence of Farah Karim, a rebel leader seeking to liberate her (fictional) home nation of Urzikstan, and she’s far and away the most interesting character here, enough that it’s a shame we’re not playing as her rather than a familiar-looking white American soldier simply called Alex. Talking of reminiscent white guys, long-time fans will surely relish the appearance of a returning, mustachioed Captain Price.
The campaign clocks in at around 5 hours in length, a typical play-time for a Call of Duty story, and for most it will simply serve as a snappy amuse-bouche ahead of the meatier multiplayer suite. This year’s online outlay marks a major shift for the series, introducing a 64-player Ground War mode that, while ultimately an ersatz imitation of Battlefield‘s gigantic, map-spanning tug-of-war gameplay, nevertheless makes good on the increased player count fans have been requesting ever since the original Modern Warfare.
There are issues holding back not only Ground War but online play as a whole, however, specifically a brutally low time-to-kill, which often results in the player being mowed down in a hail of gunfire – or, more frustratingly, an errant sniper bullet – before they’ve had even a moment to react.
There’s little opportunity for extended gunfights where victory can come from either side; it’s incredibly rare for the man who shoots second to come out on top. It doesn’t help that spawns are literally all over the place and the mini-map no longer registers gunfire as is standard for the franchise, in turn encouraging camping and ensuring that the Rambo approach rarely proves as rewarding.
Many of the usual modes are back, of course – Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch, Domination, and so on – yet it’s also curious just how many beloved modes haven’t yet been fed into the rotation by Infinity Ward. Those hoping to dive in and hoover up dog tags in Kill Confirmed, for instance, will be alarmed by its absence, with no clear indication from the developer when it or other much-loved modes will be added.
But small compensation is provided by ludicrously entertaining new modes such as Gunfight, a deliciously tense 2v2 cage match of sorts, with player loadouts being randomised each round. Then there’s Realism mode, which takes typical multiplayer modes and deletes all the taken-for-granted visual indicators (namely the HUD), forcing players to rely primarily on their own cunning and nous.
Collectively these modes certainly represent an impressive amount of addictive value, even if the fan response to many of the philosophical design changes – most of them unnecessary and questionable at best – is sure to be fiercely divisive. But if you can live with the twitchier time-to-kill above all else, the moment-to-moment gunplay feels extremely tight and tactile.
Call of Duty has typically boasted an ancillary co-op mode to accompany the competitive multiplayer, and this year that takes the form of Spec Ops, ditching the much-loved Zombies offering fans practically expect at this point.
Sadly this is probably the game’s most overt and unquestionable failure, for in addition to lacking the gonzo personality of Zombies, Spec Ops verges on the infuriatingly tough, with swarming A.I. hordes sure to make brief business of all but the most skilled and co-ordinated four-person teams. When you marry blandness with prohibitive difficulty, it isn’t easy to imagine many sticking with this “added value” mode for very long.
What can’t really be argued, however, is that Modern Warfare is the most technically accomplished entry into a franchise which, if we’re honest, has felt visually and mechanically dated for many, many years now.
Fans have been begging for a new engine since the PS3 days, and this game does a remarkable job of showing it off. Though multiplayer visuals certainly take a hit compared to the genuinely gorgeous campaign – especially in the body-dense Ground War – this is still the most fluid-looking Call of Duty multiplayer experience yet. And it’s matched by a goosebump-raising soundscape at all times.
It’s easy to appreciate how this game will split the fanbase; those hoping for a nostalgic reprise of the original Modern Warfare may not find it faithful enough, while those who have enjoyed the more ambitious recent entries might see it as overly safe-playing. It isn’t a game that does many things superbly, but it does a lot well, and clearly, with some post-release fixing-up, it could evolve into something great.
If not quite the storming, fully persuasive return-to-form some were hoping for, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare overcomes some questionable design choices to deliver a densely-packed, slickly addictive military shooter.
+ Campaign is the series’ best in a long time.
+ Ground War delivers epic chaos.
+ Addictive multiplayer suite.
+ New engine is a major improvement.
+ Astounding sound design.
– Always-online for PC players.
– Multiplayer is frustratingly twitchy and strangely designed.
– Missing features from previous games.
– Spec Ops is a lackluster Zombies replacement.
Reviewed on PC (also available on PS4 and Xbox One).
Shaun Munro – Follow me on Twitter for more video game rambling.