In 2007, Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare released to high critical and audience acclaim. Two years later, the team at Infinity Ward went nuclear, releasing Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. At the time, Modern Warfare 2 (MW2) would be held as the most massive media release ever, selling over 22 million units, and revenue that topped over $1 Billion.
Another two years later, the stakes would be raised even more, with the release of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 (MW3). Unfortunately, the third time was not the charm for Infinity Ward, with MW3 being comparatively the worst received of the sub-series (although to be fair, an 88 on Metacritic is by no means a bomb). From here, many would argue when the series began to take a turn for the worst. Many long term players and fans would move on to different games, the Call of Duty franchise as a whole no longer interesting them with its year after year release.
But here we are, almost ten years later in 2019, and Infinity Ward has once again stepped up to the plate, attempting to recreate the magic of past Modern Warfare titles, releasing Call of Duty: Modern Warfare (MW), a title to act as a reboot for the sub-series. Were they successful? Has Infinity Ward managed to rekindle the flames of old, or is Modern Warfare a ghost in the shell of its past self?
Find out in our review of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare below.
A review code was provided to Culture of Gaming for the purpose of this review. Platform for review: PC.
First Things First
As always, when reviewing a PC title, I like to start with the “menu test.” That is, the opportunity to tweak settings before being pushed into the game. MW passes, and after a blaringly loud developer introduction sequence, and a few basic settings like brightness calibration, I was brought to a 3 point main menu. Single Player, Multiplayer, and CO-OP. An options button resided as well.
Delving into the game options, I was surprised to see how little tweaking it actually required. MW performed brilliantly auto-detecting hardware and settings, even getting my non-standard monitor resolution correct (most games detect it and set by default 1080p, despite the signal resolution being 4K), and even having pre tuned the more fine graphics settings. In the top right, I noticed a gauge to track the estimated VRAM usage on my GPU.
Scrolling through the settings, I agreed with most, if not all, of the choices. I noticed useful tooltips describing what each setting did, and recommended options to best work in harmony with other options depending on what they were set to. A couple of minor tweaks later (turning down film grain, depth of field, and other minor personal preferential options), I was ready to “go dark,” and booted up the campaign.
Leading off with a pre-rendered cutscene, I was already met with my first real technical issue. And unfortunately, it severely detracted from the experience. After about 5-10 seconds of runtime for the cutscene, a severe stuttering and frame drop occurred. While it eventually recovered, it resulted in audio desync. This made it hard to really pay attention to the now disembodied voices attempting to brief on trying to seize Russian chemical weapons.
Credit where credit is due, the transition from the cutscene to actual in-engine gameplay was buttery smooth. I was placed into the shoes of “Alex,” a CIA operator embedded with a US Marine Raider team, set in a pre-dawn East European forest. Approaching the target compound with a minor hiccup, Alex and the team observes the movements and verifies the identity of the offer, before calling in an airstrike to soften the defenses. Luckily the atmosphere wasn’t 100% reliant on the cutscene that came before this mission. The more hushed voices of the Marines, as well as the framework being set of “it’s really important we don’t actually kill Russians, or else World War 3” in the mission contributed to establishing the “grey area” the rest of the game would attempt to operate in.
Military drama unfolds as the goals in the first mission go belly up. Despite the stakes, no doubt being high (after all, chemical weapons are horrible), already the premise is much more grounded than previous titles. In CoD 4, you were chasing nukes. In MW2, you were dealing with a full-scale invasion of the US Eastern seaboard. And in MW3, globetrotting to try and stop World War 3 from escalating even further. But MW is a new start for the series, and I will say I appreciated the more grounded and realistic premise of the overall storyline presented in MW.
More to the first level, it more or less samples of how the rest of the campaign will play out, from pacing to tonality. There will be full force, guns blazing missions, and there will be night based, high tension stealthier missions, with little to no in-between. Even the overall darker tone in the writing is present. You’re met with enemy combatants who are burning to death, an unfortunate by-product of the previously mentioned airstrike. The player is given the opportunity to “put them down,” and end their suffering.
Throughout the first mission, however, I began to see missed opportunities. Despite room breach sequences, it never put the player in the front seat of the breaching action. Something I personally hoped would return, ala MW2. And perhaps this is nitpicking, but the first mission doesn’t end with high tension, by the skin of the teeth moment like CoD 4. The result was I felt like I just sort of lucked into my character surviving, the now third party enemies running away due to not wanting to piss off the Americans.
While the past Modern Warfare titles could be justifiably critiqued for being too “Hollywood,” MW could be justifiably critiqued for being too grounded. I believe a balance could have been struck, with the previously mentioned more believable tone mixed in with little moments that jump out into that Hollywood space. Instead, when given opportunities, Modern Warfare opts to remain firmly on the ground.
Past the first mission, the campaign is marred by an inconsistency of level design and pacing and jumps between offering plenty of direction, and in other levels, not enough. For example, the mission “Clean House”—where your player character and a SAS Counter-Terror team led by Captain Price conduct a night raid on the housing of a domestic terror cell (responsible for the attack seen a couple of missions prior)—is a heavily directed, incredibly linear mission, with little to no room for free player variation. Yet, I personally felt it demonstrated what Modern Warfare wanted to be the best, in terms of direction.
Contrasting this with a more “open war” mission like “Proxy War”—a large scale guerilla assault on an airfield—where you’re more or less left to your own devices to just clear enemies wave by wave and advance to a position where your goal resides for the mission.
These more open missions also tended to last the longest, but in my opinion, went on for just a little too long. They relied heavily on falling back into the classic gameplay loop of “advance here, clear a wave of enemies, advance again, clear a wave of enemies, repeat.” What would have really improved these sorts of missions would have been adding something to push the player better forward. Certain previous Call of Duty titles used to have the mechanic of never-ending respawning enemies until the player advanced out of the area. While I don’t think it’s actually present in MW’s campaign, it can certainly feel like it at times.
Modern Warfare tended to shine when the levels had a stronger direction toward the objective.
The Grey Area
Modern Warfare set out to portray some of the more grittier realities of war, and operate in a grey area. This is a departure from the past series, where the enemies were quite clearly enemies, always being uniformed and clearly hostile military-aged males. Some of the more harsh and harder to swallow realities of war were absent in the previous titles, but are now present in MW.
To its credit, Modern Warfare handles these realities in an incredibly mature way. It recognizes that these things are unfortunately, things that happen, but they still happen, and the game doesn’t give them a second thought. That may come as shocking to some players, but I personally am glad MW handled it the way it did. It makes the motifs it’s trying to convey all the more powerful.
Some will interpret this as lacking the maturity to provide a meaningful commentary on these issues, but I view it differently, seeing it more as “this is something that happens, make of it what you will.” Scattered throughout the storyline, and sometimes being the direct cause of an event, were issues that real-world soldiers have complained about while serving. Things like failure to act on actionable intel or unfavorable rules of engagement, leading to a greater loss of life. It’s all there, making it all the more realistic.
War is hell. It can drive extremist ideologies to the point where non-traditional combatants take up arms, and that’s exactly what MW portrays. The writing clearly took the now rebooted sub-series in a new direction, and perhaps will be representative of a step up in maturity for the greater Call of Duty franchise.
The Double-Edged Sword
As previously mentioned, MW has one of the most grounded, and reality-based takes on war by comparison to the previous titles. Perhaps one of the most visceral things about the campaign was the environmental/level design. From portraying domestic terror in an all too real London to a night raid in what appeared to be a replica of Osama bin Laden’s infamous compound, all of MW’s missions were recognizably rooted in some degree of past real-world precedent, and the campaign feels all the more believable because of it.
While I praise the game for a more grounded, realistic approach, it also suffers because of it. While I still felt badass in the shoes of an elite special forces operator, there were many times when I thought, “Oh, that would have been so cool if I ended up doing that instead,” much like the previously mentioned lack of structured room breaching.
It’s these little missed opportunities present throughout the campaign that detract from the experience in what is overall an incredibly well put together experience.
Of course, the thing that drives the experience is the engine. MW made it known that it had undergone significant engine improvements while in development, and it really shows. Despite the noticeable improvements, there are still artifacts of the old present. While the structured character animation is good and much improved, often times when the player wouldn’t really be paying attention, it falls back to what looked like the same classic canned running animations present in the series for years now.
To that point, one thing that oddly stuck out to me was the burning fire animation. While literally just about everything about the fire had been improved, the illumination to texture to smoke, the animation looked to be about the same as it was in World At War. I blame my countless hour’s easter egg hunting in Der Riese for picking out this particular effect.
Modern Warfare looks the best franchise ever has, and it runs incredibly well. I had no problems maintaining 4K 60FPS on PC, with maxed-out settings. The title is incredibly well optimized, with no major performance issues occurring during my time actually playing the game. The biggest issue I personally encountered was the previously mentioned cutscene stutter issue. While that was the largest issue I personally faced, I would also note to the crashing and dev error codes other players on a variety of hardware setups are experiencing.
Finally, I would really like to highlight the sound design. MW is by far the best any Call of Duty game has sounded. The explosions, guns, everything. It all sounds powerful and real. The exceptional sound design does a lot to draw the player into the experience, and MW is all the better for it.
Modern Warfare represents a change in direction for the multiplayer. It would seem as though MW wanted a slower, more methodical pacing to multiplayer, and that’s apparent in the design choices taken. For example, the map design.
Gone are the basic “3 Lane” classic designs from most, if not all, multiplayer maps. Instead, there are maps with plenty of paths everywhere, and plenty of corners, cover, and other ways to go about. The result of this design is more believable, realistic environments. This also carries with it an almost fundamental change to the way the multiplayer needs to be played.
If you try to play Modern Warfare multiplayer the same way you played past titles, you will not have a good time. This new design, however, is clearly experimental, and it’s not without its faults. While still speaking of maps, I think they all work for the most part, save for “Piccadilly Circus.” That particular map, at least in my opinion, needs a bit more severe of a design rework. The rest of the maps could probably do with objective placement tweaks if the developers think tweaking is needed.
Past the maps, the class and gun customizability system is top-notch. While the fundamental systems will still feel familiar to players of the previous Call of Duty, I’d like to highlight the gunsmith system. It is what every weapon experience system in past titles has tried or wanted to be. Infinity Ward absolutely nailed this system, and it offers a level of customizability, both in appearance and stat tweaking through attachments that I believe is unprecedented in previous titles.
Multiplayer isn’t entirely without other issues, however. I do need to call attention to the netcode. It’s not incredible and often leads to situations where it seems like an opponent killed you by only firing a few shots. Or the latency is such, even with a sub-30 ping, that you sometimes find yourself dying around corners. While Call of Duty has never been known for its spectacular netcode, it’s a shame that with so many other technical improvements made in other areas of the game, this didn’t seem to be one of them.
Overall, the multiplayer is a very fun, and well put together experience, that I believe the community will really need some time to adjust to, as it represents a bit of a departure from previous Call of Duty multiplayers.
Lastly, the CO-OP mode, Spec Ops, is a fun cooperative experience that briefly continues from the ending of the single player campaign. If you don’t have friends, you can matchmake with other players. Some of the missions are decently challenging but can be a fun break from the competitive multiplayer.
Modern Warfare represents a significant step in the right direction for the franchise. Innovating in the places, the franchise has remained stagnant for so many years, as well as paying proper homage to the Modern Warfares of old. Certain missions, and obviously characters, will look familiar to veterans of the franchise. And given the ending of the campaign, I personally can’t wait for where Infinity Ward takes the new Modern Warfare franchise, as well as how next year’s Call of Duty will follow up.
Spec Ops CO-OP is always a welcome addition to an already solid game, and multiplayer is overall good. But it could benefit from several iterative tweaks as the game, and the player base matures to the new style introduced.
Modern Warfare is clearly a labor of love by the team at Infinity Ward and is the solid shot of adrenalin the franchise needed. We may never get the golden days of MW2 back, but damn if Modern Warfare isn’t close.
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- THE GOOD
- Great Engine Improvements
- Overall Strong Single Player
- Emphasis On Grounded Realism
- Multiplayer Is Good Change Up From Past Titles
- CO-OP Is A Fun Challenge
- THE BAD
- Certain Missions Revert Back To
- Cutscene Stuttering
- Certain Multiplayer Maps
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare is a fantastic return to form for the series, and will hopefully kick off a new era of Call of Duty titles. With an array of noticeable engine improvements, and a clear effort given into crafting a fun single player experience. Multiplayer is a solid experience that will benefit from tweaks, as well as a mature meta. Despite all the good, there are still certain issues that unfortunately detracted from the overall experience.