Infinity Ward rekindles the Modern Warfare magic with a more tactical first-person shooter - for better and for worse.
There's a lot going on with Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. A lot that's good, a lot that's bad and plenty in between. Overall, the developers at Infinity Ward have done a fine job reestablishing the once titanic Modern Warfare sub-brand with this "soft reboot". But, at launch, this is a game of potential. It is not the finished article.
Let's start with the good. Modern Warfare feels fantastic in your hands. Guns pack a real punch, their recoil meaningful and realistic. They're loud - as they should be - and distinctive. The audio work here is impressive - hats off to the sound designers at Infinity Ward. Modern Warfare is one of the best-sounding first-person shooters I've ever played.
The reload animations are superb. I love the way you save a clip you haven't run dry for later with the same hand you replace it with. I love the way gun barrels smoke after extended fire. I love the way scopes actually magnify what you're looking at. The M4A1 assault rifle, an early favourite for multiplayer, is the most sickly sweet Call of Duty gun I've fired in years. Aim down sights and squeeze that right trigger, snappy, fluid and satisfying. Call of Duty has always been a wonderful game in which to fire a virtual gun, and Modern Warfare may be the best in the series for it. But something weird happens when you take your firecrackers out into the field - and I'm not sure it's a good weird.
Modern Warfare gets back to the subseries' roots by shooting for a more tactical gameplay experience. What's interesting is how the developers have changed the way Call of Duty plays and works to make it so. A lot of it has to do with the map design and the expanded player count. Let's start with the maps. Modern Warfare's maps are full of crap. Literally. There are ruined buildings everywhere. Nooks and crannies all over the shop. Windows. Oh, the windows! They're everywhere. And doors you can open and close!
And many of the maps are big, swollen to accommodate 10v10, 20v20, and, in the new Ground War mode, 32v32 matches. So what you've got, really, are these big maps packed with fantastic hiding spots. Every window is a potential sniper. Every door a potential claymore to the face. Tread carefully, brave adventurer, because that dark cave could be about to kill you, right in the face, without remorse - and probably from behind some tarpaulin.
The Modern Warfare multiplayer experience is not for the faint of heart. This is a lethal game with a low time to kill and limited mobility. You're dead in the blink of an eye, a single bullet to your toe enough to send your ragdoll flying over the horizon. Modern Warfare's minimap displays friendlies, but not enemies (you need killstreaks for that). Your footsteps sound like those of a very angry and very large duck. And, even if you do get the drop on a hard-scoping camper, your character will announce you've spotted them, alerting said hard-scoping camper to your presence.
The upshot is Modern Warfare is a game about camping, claymores and caution. This is the Modern Warfare experience many fans who played the first two games in the subseries will be familiar with - for better and for worse. But there has been an adjustment period, it's fair to say, among many players, fuelled by a decade spent running and gunning in three lane-maps.
My enjoyment of multiplayer is map dependent. Some of the maps are - and there's no nice way of saying this - bad. Just frustratingly bad. 10v10 map Euphrates Bridge, which revolves around a bridge, surprisingly enough, is a sniper's paradise - or hellhole, if you're on the receiving end. Most of my time on this map is spent respawning, dying to a sniper shot, respawning and dying to a sniper shot. Such is war, I suppose, but not video games.
Azhir Cave, which includes a cave with multiple entrance points, can feel like pulling teeth as those who control the cave do so from such a dominant position, their iron sights trained on the outside, shooting from the safety of the dark at all who dare to peek inside. Piccadilly just doesn't seem well thought-out at all, its gaggle of abandoned London buses providing powerful protection for those lucky enough to control the left-hand side of the map. Most of my matches on Piccadilly have descended into spawn camping. It's not fun.
I do enjoy standard team deathmatch in this game, though, when I land on a map I like. Hackney Yard is a blast, mainly because it's small and there are fewer opportunities for camping. I feel like when this map turns up, most of the players subconsciously throw caution to the wind and think, let's just run around shooting each other. This is Call of Duty at its best, the brilliant gunplay with the safety off. The problem, I think, is while many of Modern Warfare's maps are designed to encourage tactical play, people - understandably - play to win, and the most effective way of winning is to play dirty. This is not particularly conducive to fun.
Ground War, Modern Warfare's big new multiplayer mode for 64 players, has been called Infinity Ward's Battlefield killer, but the developers at DICE need not worry. Here, loads of players fight for control of a handful of capture points, using helicopters and tanks to grind out the opposing team. But Modern Warfare's gameplay does not suit this mode at all. There's little rhyme or reason to the carnage. A team wins because they seem more resistant to entropy than the opposing team. You spend a lot of time getting to the action only to have little impact. And yes, snipers rule - from the rooftops of skyscrapers, mostly.
I feel like I'm coming down too hard on Modern Warfare's multiplayer. Infinity Ward should be applauded for shaking things up, and I do believe that with time, players will get used to and even come to love some of its maps. I do enjoy playing multiplayer, despite its glaring flaws. It's something I will stick with. Even now, as I type this, I'm thinking about dipping back in, clearing objectives and unlocking weapon skins.
And I should give Infinity Ward, and - shock! - Activision credit for Modern Warfare's progression systems and monetisation. This is a game without a lot of the terrible things that have afflicted previous games in the series. There is no community-splitting season pass. Cross-platform play is enabled. I, a PlayStation 4 player, can play with my Xbox One and PC-owning friends, which is truly wonderful. And, get this, there are no loot boxes. No loot boxes! Modern Warfare is like an old friend who left a decade ago for some research mission in the Antarctic, now returned, oblivious to the evils of the modern world. This old friend plays and thinks as they did back in the day, when the world was a simpler place, and it is an intoxicating reunion.
And then there's campaign, which, for all the pre-release marketing hype about it being gritty and uncomfortable, is just another Modern Warfare campaign that won't live long in the memory. The developers at Infinity Ward have declared the story, which is about a "fictional" Russia-bordering country pulled apart by a proxy war, to have nothing to do with politics. This is such obvious nonsense I don't want to spend energy countering the claim.
The highlights are the night vision levels. The first, which charges you, Captain Price and a few other soldiers with infiltrating a Camden house packed with terrorists, is stunning in terms of visuals and execution. Your first playthrough of this tense, almost horror game climb up the stairs of a house in which innocents may or may not try to kill you is a genuine thrill. But it is a fleeting one. Modern Warfare's campaign, which is, ostensibly, about the hunt to retrieve chemical weapons from a terrorist organisation, is all too often a slog. In the wide open levels you find yourself moving around the outskirts of the play space, picking off enemies whack-a-mole style until you've thinned the herd enough to push forward. It's uninteresting.
When I finished the campaign I asked myself whether it had anything interesting to say about the moral dilemma of modern warfare. It had not. The set pieces designed to shock the player are betrayed by the very gameplay the player must utilise to complete them. There is a set piece in which you, as a child who has just witnessed the gruesome death of her parents at the hands of pantomime Russian villains, must stealth through vents in your house, stabbing the legs of a Russian soldier (aim for the weak spot!) three times (the video game boss battle rule of three!) before he dies.
These shock moments descend into farce when you realise you're playing a mini-game. Another set piece, which sees a pantomime Russian villain waterboard you, asks you to move left and right to dodge the water. "You're good at this, aren't you?" quips the capital E evil Russian general. Well yes, I am mate, because I'm using a thumbstick. And the less said about the CCTV stealth section the better.
Even worse, the characters do not seem to care about some of the terrible things they do in the name of duty. Modern Warfare nearly got to me with its smartly-executed Piccadilly Circus terrorist attack level, which sees you play as a British soldier amid the chaos of civilian-looking suicide bombers, panicking policemen and screaming innocents. As a Londonder, this level hit close to home. A wave of sadness washes over me when I think about the 7th July London bombings, of my unanswered phone calls to my wife who worked in Oxford Circus at the time. I have no problem with Infinity Ward thrusting the player inside this kind of situation, inside the carnage, the nonsensical murder. But if the soldier you play as isn't bothered by what's going on, why should I be? Perhaps he's putting on a brave face for Captain Price, the gerbil-looking fan-favourite Modern Warfare veteran. But I could have done with a cutscene in which one of the soldiers stops for a second to say, "Guys, I need a sec to deal with what just happened. Just a sec. Guys? Guys?!"
Modern Warfare's campaign is fine, then, as yet another Modern Warfare campaign. It's a rollercoaster ride, it looks incredible (honestly, the Camden Town level is something else) and it hurtles along at a pace, stopping only for exposition-heavy cutscenes and a soupçon of stealth. Farah Karim steals the show. This highly-skilled and determined freedom fighter is well-realised, with great voice acting and convincing dialogue. Crucially, she's playable in flashback missions that drive home her motivation in the present day. But Farah cannot carry the team on her own. The truth is, there is nothing here that moves the conversation on from Death from Above, the incredible gunship level from 2007's Modern Warfare that said all that needs to be said about problematic military methods.
Modern Warfare's long-term draw is of course multiplayer, and as I approach the soft level cap my feelings on it are mixed. Despite all of its flaws it has got under my skin. At the heart of it is a fun and satisfying gun game that, on the right map, rekindles the magic of old-school Modern Warfare. Unfortunately, when you find yourself on the wrong map, you feel like quitting.
There's a tinge of disappointment here with Modern Warfare at launch. I'm playing it in the hope that what is soon to come will pull all the right levers in all the right directions, turning this good Call of Duty into a great one. And there's plenty waiting in the wings: Modern Warfare's battle pass, which Activision has said will come in free and premium forms, will hopefully fuel progression in a post-prestige world. More, better-fitting multiplayer maps are essential (Infinity Ward pulled the night vision MP maps shortly after the game launched and at the time of publication, they have yet to return). And then there's the inevitable battle royale. Undoubtedly, there's an exciting potential to Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. Until that potential is realised, though, Modern Warfare remains a shooter that is at odds with itself. When it's good, it's great. When it's bad it's frustrating. Everything in between is, well, Call of Duty.