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Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 (2023) review - video games can do better


Call of Duty Modern Warfare 3 official artwork showing Captain Price in front of a red and black background
Image credit: Activision
An exercise in extracting value from its players rather than providing it, the new Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 is what happens when this industry is at its worst.

I should start with some sympathy. As you might've already read in our Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 campaign review, this 2023 reboot has, reportedly, been developed in about half the time of a usual Call of Duty. It was also reliably reported to have started life as a mere expansion for last year's also-rebooted Modern Warfare 2, rather than a full game (vaguely rebuked by Sledgehammer studio head Aaron Halon). And its developers have, we're told, been made to work evenings and weekends in the weeks leading up to its release. All of this shows; none of it is its developers' fault.

But this is the worst Call of Duty in some time. Its typical prestige, mega-budget gloss and fastidious attention to the craft - whatever you may think of that craft itself - is either missing in action or otherwise overshadowed. It's a game towered over by an amalgamation of the series' worst tendencies - no, more than that, by an entire industry's worst tendencies - a position from which no amount of retro multiplayer map nostalgia and battle pass tat can help it emerge.

As ever with modern Call of Duty, the new Modern Warfare 3 comes in a few parts, assembled clumsily - and, honestly, bafflingly, at least to me - in a kind of perpetual launcher dubbed CoD HQ. For your 70 smackers you'll get an all-new single-player campaign, more of the same traditional multiplayer, and a freshly resurrected Zombies mode.

A campaign trailer for Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 (2023)Watch on YouTube

The campaign, as we've talked about in more depth in our MW3 campaign review, is a disappointment this year. Its new open play area missions, which present you with a mix of Far Cry-style outpost sieges, Hitman-style assassination play areas or more linear, but strangely metroidvania-like, quests that see you carry freshly looted gear into new playthroughs, pale in comparison to the more open-ended games that inspired it. They underwhelm from every angle, from their deeply limited stealth mechanics to the lack of playfulness and invention in the overall level design.

Its more traditional, linear missions have their moments of beautiful fidelity - sunbeams gleaming through wintry forests, for instance, or some gorgeous underwater sequences - but fail to reach the heights of the original Modern Warfare games' bombast, or replicate the outlandish set-pieces of the early-noughties era Bond and Michael Bay that inspired them. There are no avalanche jet ski races here, no assault on the White House or Black Hawk Down.

Its story is also a mess, stitching together a reworked second half of the original Modern Warfare 2, including the return of General Shepherd and bad guy Makarov, into a narrative without meaning or purpose. The emotional beats are there - a reworked version of No Russian is what you might call "dramatic", a plot development near the end is "sad", some character moments are "cool" - but these take place in a kind of formless structural vacuum. It's the end result of war extracted from its context for passive entertainment. Media designed to titillate its audience but strictly not to be engaged with by them, something that aims to manipulate you into feeling certain things at certain times, while at the same time thinking nothing, ever.

Call of Duty Modern Warfare 3 screenshot of Captain Price in a car during a pre-mission cutscene, being briefed by Shepherd on Makarov.
Image credit: Activision / Eurogamer
Call of Duty Modern Warfare 3 screenshot of a supply crate in a campaign mission
Image credit: Activision / Eurogamer.
The boys are back, again. And they've brought Warzone mechanics.

All of this comes with some frustration, because clearly there is talent here. Modern Warfare 3 looks, from a pure "point at the faces and ask, can you believe that's a video game?" perspective, quite spectacular. Its sound design remains exceptional, the king of ft-ft-ft headshot noises and silenced sniper kerthunks, but also the little squeals of an eased-open door as you sneak through a building, or pad your way through a prison having emerged there from the open sea. All the technical craft is there, it's just put in service of nothing.

Many will argue that's typical of Call of Duty - MW3's missing bombast aside - and certainly in the last decade or so I'd be hard pressed to disagree. Usually, the rescue act is performed by its multiplayer, the famously tight, relentlessly addictive merry-go-round of twitch-shooter action that's been running rings since 2007. But this year that's also an uncharacteristic weak-spot.

There are a few reasons. For one, MW3 has launched into a range of design issues. Several maps have been pulled from rotation, such as Quarry, Rundown and Scrapyard in Hardpoint mode, because of issues with some deeply frustrating spawn locations. In my experience, plenty more still have problems, with players on the other team often spawning directly in my line of fire as I'm shooting their allies, or myself spawning into direct fire or within lethal range of soon-to-explode grenades.

Call of Duty Modern Warfare 3 screenshot of someone with the Groot skin while waiting for a multiplayer round to start
Call of Duty Modern Warfare 3 screenshot of the gunsmith page
Multiplayer's arrived with the usual to-be-patched gripes about things like visibility for special skins, and differing opinions on weapon unlock progression. Personally, I find the slower progression compensated for well by the very usable default loadouts. But ultimately it's all just extrinsic motivation for something that should be fun on its own. | Image credit: Activision / Eurogamer.

As for the maps themselves, the strongest by far are the returning classics, like MW2's brilliantly poised Highrise. The classic modes are still as moreish as they’ve ever been, the ultimate snackable evening-killer that I could still play through forever. But new additions to the map roster are some of the weakest. MW3's Ground War maps for instance - at least the two that are live at the time of writing - are vast and jumbled, lacking the smartly directional "lanes" of the MW2 reboot's equivalents like Sa'id, Santa Seña or Sariff Bay. More frustrating is the fact just two are available at launch, where MW2 had five.

And even more astonishing than that: Modern Warfare 3's headline addition, War Mode, has one map. So far in MW3, War Mode - actually another returning mode again, this time from 2017's Call of Duty: WW2 - is effectively a direct replication of Payload from Overwatch. After capturing two points near the start, the attacking team must then escort a tank through a narrow passage to its final destination, and then jump down into an underground bunker to disarm two missile launches. The defending team tries to stop them, building some optional, rudimentary, pre-positioned defences like turrets or tank traps and holding out for as long as they possibly can, and then the two switch.

It's great fun at first - the ability to destroy or reconstruct certain destructible walls makes for a nice added game of cat-and-mouse while fighting over the first pair of points, and the combat at certain choke zones, combined with MW3's unwaveringly short time-to-kill, is frantic in the best way. There are nice subtleties to small corners of the map - lines of sight I'm still discovering, new ways to catch out tank escorts as they turn a corner - and the pacing is excellent, flowing mercilessly from one stage to the next. But the sense of victory or defeat is largely non-existent: if you disarm the missiles in say eight minutes, and then the other team takes 13 minutes, you'll still be met with a "defeat" screen because they managed to disarm them at all. Combined with the very different makeup of a six-player Call of Duty team (namely, people who want to sprint into combat and shoot) and a six-player Overwatch one (in an ideal world, six different roles built around objective play) and any impression of tactical, thoughtful cooperation or achievement is quickly vanquished.

Call of Duty Modern Warfare 3 screenshot of the player building a turret in War Mode
Call of Duty Modern Warfare 3 screenshot of the player scending a cord up to the top of a yellow crane for sniping in multiplayer
I quite like War Mode, but with just one map for now I'm already a little tired of it. | Image credit: Activision / Eurogamer.

Above all though, launching this mode with just one map - even if there are more "vast, purpose-built landscapes" to come down the line - is desperately disappointing, and the sparse, poorly-received new maps for other modes, combined with the return of classics like Rust and Highrise, does nothing to abate the sense that MW3's multiplayer really could have been an expansion for MW2 - especially when it's original Modern Warfare 2 maps we're seeing return.

Finally, there's the cult-favourite Zombies mode, a reworking of the pre-existing DMZ mode, where squads of three play in a large mutual map, Battle Royale style, earning in-mode currency for completing missions collected from around the map itself, and then surviving until exfiltration. The twist of course being the addition of the living dead.

Call of Duty's zombies have always been a somewhat comical personal challenge for me, given my still-unwavering fear of anything remotely horror-adjacent, but they've also always been a temptation. This is CoD's strange, deeply arcadey spinoff, that's always been best played on a friend's sofa in the early hours of a morning, giggled at from between the stricken boxes of a budget takeaway, and has also always seemed worthy of its own game, where there's room to grow into its own thing. Because of this I will always want to play this mode in spite of myself, for its identity, the surprise that it still exists, and the offbeat, deeply tacky, overtly tongue-in-cheek tone. But this year's hasn't grabbed me.

For one, there's a lingering sense of things being both over-developed and under-designed - as in, a mode where there is a lot of stuff but not a lot of connective tissue to knit it all together. Systems butt against systems, metagames stack on top of subgames. Play Zombies for five minutes without a deeply rehearsed knowledge of DMZ and its nuances and you'll soon be utterly inundated by noise: garish, colour-coded inventory junk, jabbering radio exposition, byzantine menus and everything but a good introduction to what you should be doing and when. Find your feet, and you'll be able to make your way further in-land on the Zombies map, where crossing the river sees you step up from level one shufflers to level two undead, the kind that dart about and wear inexplicable amounts of armour.

Call of Duty Modern Warfare 3 screenshot of a Tombstone vending machine in Zombies mode
Image credit: Activision / Eurogamer.

From a mechanical perspective the step-up in difficulty feels just a bit too high - at least without a deeply min-maxed loadout, tuned well as you go. A proper squad of three also helps. But something's a little off somewhere if what’s still ostensibly the arcade mode, a title reserved for games that are self-explanatory and pick-up-and-play, becomes the loot-grinding hardcore mode for a community's sweatiest players.

For its flaws, Zombies is probably Modern Warfare 3's most interesting mode. But it remains messy and, for the casual player, disjointed. Unlike the classic Zombies of old, too, it feels utterly disconnected next to a deeply self-serious campaign, only made relevant by Modern Warfare 3's aggressively ugly Halloween theme for its current season.

The less said about Modern Warfare 3's battle pass the better - but unfortunately I can't avoid it here, and nor can anyone who plays the game. Opening Modern Warfare 3, or even finishing a single round, will see you constantly blasted with full-screen battle pass adverts - adverts for a selection of objectively hideous cosmetics available to you for around £8.50, or a premium one with more gubbins and some level skips the low, low price of 25 quid.

Call of Duty Modern Warfare 3 screenshot of a very garish advert for Battle Pass rewards
Call of Duty Modern Warfare 3 screenshot of the battle pass and its sectors
WANT TO PLAY? WANT TO PLAY? WANT TO PLAY? | Image credit: Activision / Eurogamer.

Normally, I'm loath to mention pricing in a video game review on Eurogamer, particularly in the context of not just cost but the notion of "value", where value is too often equated with quantity or length over the actual substance of what you'll play, or the very real human cost of making it. With Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 however, value is everything, and the sense of constant bartering and exchange between publisher and player - of not only your money for "content", but the attempt to extract and acquire your attention from you yourself - has never felt more central to the game. For a long time, value has been Call of Duty's main selling point: three games in one, often reviewed or talked about, thanks to staggered access or embargoes or just the genuine belief that they're big enough to warrant it, as three separate games too.

Talk about Call of Duty on its own terms, then, and how does it fare? Really Modern Warfare 3 is a major annual update to what has for some years now been a single live service game, a fact concealed beneath its Matryoshka doll of sub-game menus. Accurate reports or not, it does feel like a premium expansion that some - in fact, specifically the most successful - of Call of Duty's rivals might offer for free. How does it look next to a new season of the free-to-play Apex Legends, say, or Fortnite, or Cyberpunk 2077: Phantom Liberty? Or more brutal a comparison still, the free, relentlessly evolving maps and modes of League of Legends? Not good, fellow consumer.

This is where the series' worst tendencies, and the worst of the industry itself, come back into play. For some time Call of Duty has been utterly obsessed with the past, relentlessly remastering and recreating the most well-known games - the most beloved IP - from its back catalogue to the point of near total obfuscation. Not only is it hard to buy and play the true original Modern Warfares now, but it's harder to find much information about them, thanks to their search engine results burial beneath the self-cannibalised search terms. Their stories have been eviscerated, replaced with sights and sounds that vaguely form the same silhouette, the same outline of the past, but which drift apart into thin air the moment you reach out to grab at them.

Call of Duty Modern Warfare 3 screenshot of a hideous Creepy Clown skin reward from the battle pass
Image credit: Activision / Eurogamer.

This isn't great, but it's the industry vices that are the real menace. "A labour of love" from its developers or not - what game isn't? - Modern Warfare 3's total vapidity comes from its obvious true objective, to extract value from its audience while attempting to appear as though it provides it. Modern Warfare 3 exists - as disappointing full game, rather than generous expansion - to appease a desire for immediate and unwavering growth, a positive number on the right sheet at the right time of year (particularly, I'd ungenerously suggest, if that sheet might be predicting pre-order numbers, and that time of year might be the lead up to a stock market acquisition.)

Play it, batting aside the relentless, radioactive greens and hyperactive oranges of its menus, the ever-present tab for the store, the new seasons that will inevitably come marching on to fracture the community and invoke fear of missing out on more, the lingering reminder that its developers crunched to get this out on time, that its parent company never fully allayed the concerns about a desperately poor workplace culture of sexual harassment, and that it remains, especially at a time like now, uncomfortably close to the United States military industrial complex, and it's impossible not to feel commodified.

Amongst all this, you'll still often find Call of Duty acting as the de facto face of video games. At a family gathering recently, the kind with distant connections of distant in-law relatives, someone with a passing knowledge of the industry asked me how it was - "the new one, War… Warfare 3? Just came out, right?" What do you say in a situation like that? I stuttered out something about it being fine, a bit of an off year, feels quite rushed out. What a slightly unkind, but probably still correct part of me wishes I'd said was: If a free service means you're the product, imagine if you'd then paid for it as well.

A copy of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 was provided for review by Activision.

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