Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 misses more than it hits. A fun zombies mode and the return of fan-favorite maps from 2009’s Modern Warfare 2 can’t save Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 from its awful campaign and a multiplayer that feels like a step back from the rest of the reimagined Modern Warfare trilogy.
Zombies mode is an unexpected delight
Makarov is a great villain
Returning maps are good for nostalgia and play excellently
Multiplayer progression is confusing and meaningless
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Platform reviewed: PC
Available on: PS5, PC, Xbox Series X|S, PS4, Xbox One
Release date: November 10, 2023
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 is a disappointment. A DLC hastily repackaged as ‘full’ sequel, it’s hard to fathom why Activision decided that the best way to celebrate Call of Duty’s 20th anniversary was releasing a clearly rushed direct sequel in the Modern Warfare series, trading on fan’s goodwill to try and cover for a massive stinker.
So it goes.
There are flecks of brilliance here, and it’s clear that Activision’s collective of Call of Duty developers (Sledgehammer Games take the lead here) have talent. While there are accusations swirling around Modern Warfare 3’s development time, the full picture hasn’t emerged yet. However, there’s no denying that Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 feels rushed and, while some polish might reduce some of the friction in the first-person shooter game’s multiplayer, there are substantial flaws in the structure that no amount of post-launch support can fix.
For the first year in a long time, this is a Call of Duty game that, despite having its moments, isn’t always that fun to play and lacks a lot of the smooth gunplay that the series is known for. These elements alone make it hard to recommend Modern Warfare 3, even if the fact that Modern Warfare 2 ceasing development means many players will get dragged along for the ride.
The price isn’t right
The campaign of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 is a turgid, joyless affair that struggles to justify its roughly three-hour runtime. The saving grace is the performance of the four-man Task Force 141 crew (Price, Gaz, Ghost and his stupid skull mask, and Soap) and new villain Makarov. But then, the game is so short, that hardly any other characters get time to themselves at all.
Frustratingly, there are several characters back in the mix that you might have straight-up missed if you haven’t spent the last year plugging away in the game’s raids and paying sharp attention. Modern Warfare 2’s big-bad Graves? Last seen in the single-player game piloting a tank you’ve exploded? Faked his own death somehow, back here grinning like nothing has happened. CIA operator Alex, who left the CIA behind to join an insurgency and gave his life to detonate some explosives and save the world at the end of Modern Warfare? It didn’t take, he has a prosthetic leg here, but otherwise, he’s good to go.
Both of these reveals will be obvious if you’ve played all of the extra multiplayer content, but it will be completely lost on you if you haven’t dipped into it. Not that cohesion seems to be valued much in the story, with missions feeling more like vignettes than anything actually linked together.
The writing is fine, although the idea of a false flag operation by Russians pinning terrorist atrocities onto a Muslim-speaking country is incredibly uncomfortable in the context of the current geopolitical climate. A reference to Modern Warfare 2 (2009)’s infamous No Russian mission teased in a post-credits scene feels designed more to shock than to make an actual statement and plays out end to end in barely a minute. I wondered if this had merely failed to land but quickly realized this was the point as another mission has you fighting Russian ultranationalists that are attacking a stadium while dressed as police and paramedics.
Other missions feel like they were originally planned as cutscenes and then expanded out to deliver a few scant minutes of play. The story here - despite the cracking performances - feels half-finished and roughly sketched out.
Pulling off the perfect multiplayer flank and getting a stack of kills remains as satisfying as ever, especially when you then earn a killstreak that's going to decimate the enemy team.
Very few of the set pieces gel, a bizarre thing to discover when this is something that Call of Duty has always done well even in its more disappointing efforts. Worse still, it doesn’t even really appear like they’re trying. I found myself dreaming of the Embassy assault from Modern Warfare or the shootout on the Golden Gate Bridge in Call Of Duty: Advanced Warfare. The opening level, an assault on a prison to free a high-value prisoner, is the closest the game comes to having a set piece, but too often you’re trudging through a darkened corridor or shooting up a sewer.
Lots of this is due, presumably, to the game’s Open Combat Missions, which feel like single-player versions of the Spec Ops co-op missions seen in Modern Warfare 2. The freedom is exciting as a theoretical concept, but all too often you’ll miss an exciting combat encounter because instead of dancing to cover as designed, you snuck in the back and now have to fight off an entire army by crouching behind some trash cans.
Too many aspects of Warzone have snuck in too: you’ll have to spend a lot of your time hunting for weapons and sliding armor plates into your vest to keep you going. This is a big part of Call of Duty: Warzone, but here it kills the pace for me.
Bizarrely, different levels seem to control in different ways, too. The Open Combat Missions seem to be built in a different engine and here you can inspect your weapons but are unable to take down enemies. If I had to guess - I’m not a game developer and my word here is uninformed at best - it appears the OCMs are built to play like Warzone and exist with that framework, while the more linear missions have been built in the standard engine. It feels sloppy, and the inconsistency means that sometimes I can sneak up and perform a takedown on an enemy, and other times I have just… forgotten how to.
As a long-time enjoyer of Call of Duty’s single-player campaigns, this one isn’t just hard to defend but it’s hard to tolerate with its gross politics intertwined with missions and gunplay that feel uninteresting.
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3’s multiplayer initially shines, even if something immediately feels a little off. Drop in and you’ll be seduced because it feels like the classic Call of Duty experience, but the cracks start to show quite quickly.
Gunplay feels off, and the precision - particularly playing on a mouse and keyboard - just isn’t there which makes it feel unsatisfying. While I’ve only had a couple of days to play with Modern Warfare 3, this time has been marred with frustration as fights become unpredictable affairs.
Part of this is the introduction of movement too: the speed of just about everything has been increased and it’s now common for people to start bunnyhopping around in a gunfight until it feels more like a dogfight. Part of this speed increase seems to be that old guns and equipment returning from Modern Warfare 2 have had their animations sped up, which contributes to how off everything feels.
Sniper rifles are so back, but not in a good way. Hit someone above the waist with a sniper rifle and it is curtains. This feels satisfying when you’re the one clutching the rifle, but it’s miserable when you see just a glint of scope shine before getting polished off on any map with long sight lines.
These are all disparate issues but they come from the same root cause: it feels like the game has been optimized for the angry streamers who take to Twitch each night and talk about how the game needs to be faster and more bombastic while jerking their viewpoint around in every different direction. This is the direction Call of Duty games had been going before 2019’s Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, which slowed things down in combat considerably. For me, I think Call of Duty plays better when you have a second to think, and it really suffers here from the tweaks that will make it better for high-level players to get ridiculous kill montages for TikTok, but make it harder for most players to enjoy.
Then there’s the fact that every gun and skin from Modern Warfare 2 (2022) is returning, meaning that all of the obscure meta tweaks from that game are live here on day 1. By my second game of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3, playing at 6am after the servers had been up for an hour, I was already being accosted by people charging around with semi-automatic shotguns and riot shields strapped to their backs. Within an hour, I was strapping thermal sights and silencers to weapons I’d barely touched because my Modern Warfare 2 attachments can be slotted into Modern Warfare 3 weapons even when those weapons are barely leveled.
This is great for consumers in that that money you spent on a Nicki Minaj skin last year isn’t gone forever, but by adding all of this stuff they’ve completely broken Modern Warfare 3’s sense of progression and exploration. Why would any player feel the need to experiment with the all-new arsenal when the old one is right there and has already been fully explored? Similarly, finally unlocking a key attachment is meaningless now because you’re often already going to have strapped something from Modern Warfare 2 into the game in the first place.
While this is often the case with Call of Duty launches, the previous battlepass is still active, so you’re earning cosmetics from the last game for this one. It feels to all intents and purposes like even Activision don’t think this is a new game either, and the only people they’re trying to convince that this is a whole new world is us, the mooks they want to buy into the game for 12 months despite the fact it sucks.
I’ve still enjoyed playing it because I adore running around maps I was obsessed with during my years plaat University, and loading into a map on Terminal or Afghan gives me the warm and fuzzies even now. Thing is, Modern Warfare 3 plays very differently to Modern Warfare 2 (2009) where the maps are cadged from, and while they’re still well designed, the addition of systems like mounting will make it feel very different.
The maps are excellent though, the best bunch in a Call of Duty game in years. If anything, the reintroduction of these old maps just goes to show they don’t make them like they used to: last year’s Modern Warfare 2 played much better as a game but none of the maps come close to what’s on offer here.
Ghoul of duty
The Zombies mode, basically Modern Warfare 2’s DMZ except every player is allied now and every enemy is a zombie or a zombie-killing mercenary, is an absolute delight and is the strongest part of this year’s package by far.
It hasn’t reinvented any wheels here: Zombies staples like the pack-a-punch machine, the mystery box and on the wall weapons are still present and correct, but the world is huge and there’s large-scale co-op action as you’ll be covering your team from a nearby ridge with a rifle before noticing another team fighting a crowd of undead nearby and losing a few rounds to help them out, too.
That comfortable co-op is the bit that wins me over with the Zombies mode. One time, escaping towards the extraction point alone after my team had all died, I found myself completely outnumbered by mercenaries who had me totally outgunned. As I ran out of ammunition, another car drove past with two players in it. They beeped twice as they drove past and I lunged for the vehicle, slipping inside without them losing any speed at all. They weren’t trying to help me, they had their own thing going on, but it gave me a cool story and it felt like a fun interaction. Later, we fought shoulder to shoulder as the helicopter landed. This sort of relaxed cooperation is incredibly engaging, and it just feels pleasantly lightweight.
It’s not a meaningful leap forward on anything that DMZ was doing, but it’s a broad improvement on the DMZ formula by making the jump entirely to making it a player vs enemy mode, and it really is a lot of fun. But it’s too little too late to salvage the rest of the package that is Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3.
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 has a handful of accessibility options. These mainly relate to subtitles, which can be enabled across the campaign and multiplayer modes with the option to tweak their size and opacity. There are also a small number of HUD customization settings available, including the ability to increase or decrease its size.
PC players can benefit from comprehensive controller support, in addition to keyboard and mouse support on consoles.
How we reviewed
I played 30 hours of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3, with five hours in the campaign to reach the credits and the remaining 25 hours bouncing between the multiplayer mode and the game’s zombies mode.
Jake Tucker is the editor in chief of TechRadar Gaming and has worked at sites like NME, MCV, Trusted Reviews and many more. He collects vinyl, likes first-person shooters and turn-based tactics titles, but hates writing bios. Jake currently lives in London, and is bouncing around the city trying to eat at all of the nice restaurants.