The Modern Warfare soft reboot is a brilliant return to form for the increasingly bloated franchise
Call of Duty was once the pinnacle of first person shooters. When Call of Duty 2 came onto the scene as a major launch title for the Xbox 360, it felt like a major step forward in gaming, with an exhilarating campaign set in WWII (which was all the rage at the time), stunning visuals, brilliant gunplay and a beefy multiplayer component. After a lukewarm third entry in the series was released by another developer in Treyarch, series kingpin Infinity Ward came back to enthrall the masses with a leap forward into the present era with the fourth entry, Modern Warfare.
Modern Warfare was a massive commercial and mainstream success and it's sequel MW2 improved upon the original in virtually every way to make it one of the best selling and best shooters of all time, in what would become the pinnacle of the franchise.
After that release is where things started to fall apart - several of the biggest names involved in the series' creation left Activision and lawsuits ensued, leaving Infinity Ward a shell of its former self. While Infinity Ward (and later Sledgehammer games, a newer studio that helped put out the by-the-numbers sequel Modern Warfare 3) ran the modern setting into the ground with lazy development practices and repetitive games in MW3 and Ghosts, Treyarch continued to issue entries in the past with another WWII setting (which also featured a new zombies game mode that proved popular with some fans) and then the beginning of their own sub-series, Black Ops which was initially set during the cold war.
After the third Modern Warfare game, Treyarch split their Black Ops entry into one featuring the 1980s, as well as a leap forward in time to 2025, which proved popular. That was the next frontier of the franchise, as Sledgehammer games would follow with the near future-set Advanced Warfare, which had a solid if cliche campaign starring the now-disgraced Kevin Spacey as the lead bad guy. Black Ops 3 would move further into the future with a fully sci-fi campaign (that was terrible by the way) and the increasing complexity and systems in play led to its multiplayer modes feeling more and more unbalanced and needlessly complicated.
Infinity Ward would return to form at least for its single-player narrative chops with Infinite Warfare, which flung the series even further into the future and featured gunfights in outer space. The gameplay was solid and the campaign was shockingly well done, but its convoluted and annoying multiplayer ultimately had fans feeling fed up with the franchise and the increasingly bland multiplayer offerings.
Responding to fan backlash, Activision had Sledgehammer Games return the series to its roots with the inventively named Call of Duty: WWII, which did a solid job of cleansing the palette but offered a rather generic campaign and all-too familiar multiplayer, even if it was better and more fondly received than the last few entries. With Black Ops 4, Treyarch abandoned the campaign entirely and focused exclusively on multiplayer, which wasn't necessarily a bad thing as it still offered a ton of content, but overall it wasn't much of an improvement from Black Ops 3 and had a shoehorned in Battle Royale mode to boot. It definitely had a large fanbase particularly with its more cringey cartoonish aspects (post-match podiums let you show off your custom characters with dances and such, constant cringey one-liners spouted from the generic character's mouths during gameplay, and so forth) but that tone and an ever increasing peddling of loot boxes and microtransactions alienated the series longtime fans who wished for a return to a serious shooter.
Finally getting the message, Activision would issue a semi-reboot to return the series to its heights - a modern setting, simplified systems that removed all the bloat from the increasingly convoluted series, a serious and relevant story with a mature tone, and a complete distancing away from greedy microtransaction gimmicks. While calling it simply Modern Warfare didn't inspire much confidence, as gamers saw more and more of the game over the months preceeding its launch, the hype reached a fever pitch - Call of Duty was back.
A Series Reborn
Infinity Ward knew simply re-doing their classic series wasn't going to cut it (after all, there was a remastered version of the original Modern Warfare already) - instead, they were going to have to rebuild it from the ground up while moving it forward and into relevancy once more.
That all started with a completely new engine - Activision had become well-known for lazy development cycles in order to keep costs down and ensure a COD title hit store shelves every year, but with three studios now actively working on their own titles in the franchise and thus having a three year development cycle for each game, and considering the billions in revenue the series generates, it was time to stop patching the same old game engine that had been used since the last generation of consoles.
Infinity Ward thus created a brand new engine to bring the series up to par with the latest AAA titles, and boy was it worth it.
The visuals in 2019's Modern Warfare are gorgeous. Running in full 4K at a rock solid 60 frames per second on an Xbox One X, the graphics are as lifelike as we've ever seen in any game. Character models are stunningly rendered and textured, environments are meticulously detailed and expansive, smoke, lighting and particle effects are top-notch, and the explosions featured would make even Michael Bay blush.
The sound design is equally impressive, from the clink of a molotov cocktail's glass bottle smashing into the side of a building, to the clatter of 7.62mm casings hitting the floor after a burst of fire, to the great voice acting from the entire cast to the brilliant background score ratcheting up the intensity during tense moments.
Animations are incredibly fluid and smooth, and the attention to detail is astonishing. Whether you're walking up individual steps to clear the next floor of a house (something that's so simple yet always difficult to pull off in videogames when you bother to look at where the character models are stepping), sprinting into a slide on your knees to pull up behind cover, knifing a terrorist repeatedly in the neck with your knife, or witnessing a grenade send an ally's arm flying off in a spray of blood, the physics and animations in the game are incredible and immerse you fully in the game's intense combat.
While Call of Duty fans will feel right at home, a ton of new details and improvements have been implemented to the renowned gunplay. You can now reload most weapons while still aiming down your sights and keeping enemy movement in your vision, a little touch that makes a world of difference. A smart new feature is the mounting system, which allows you to post on cover (whether it be horizontal like on a window sill or car's hood, or vertical, like on a door frame) to greatly reduce recoil and weapon sway while firing, and similarly keeps your weapon in position when you choose to reload. You can snap in and out of mounted position in an instant and the simple feature can mean the difference between wasting a clip of ammo and taking out an entire squad.
Speaking of gunplay, the authenticity and detail in the latest Call of Duty is any gun lover's dream. From the satisfying racking of the M4A1's slide each time you spawn in a multiplayer session, to the heavy recoil and loud thwak of an HDR sniper rifle's .50 caliber round being sent through a foe's eye socket, to the light smoke rising from the barrel of an orange-tinged PKM barrel after filling a house with bullet holes, to the clack of a 725 shotgun buckling in half and expelling its spent shells after blasting an enemy off their feet, the plethora of real-world firearms are all painstakingly recreated with care that even a gun-averse bystander can appreciate.
That extends to the effects they have on their targets - buildings get riddled with holes, chunks of stone and building materials crumble off when hit, heavy rounds pierce through thin cover such as wood and find their home in flesh, explosions turn enemy combatants into bloody heaps and take off entire limbs (in the campaign at least, it's somewhat toned down for the multiplayer portions), and allies and enemies alike respond to getting hit in different locations believably; hit a foe in the leg and they will stumble or fall down, hit them in the arm and they may drop their weapon and be forced to draw their sidearm with their other hand.
The gameplay is polished and refined to perfection and it is simply one of the best feeling and looking shooters ever created.
Bringing the Campaign Back in Style
With last year's Black Ops 4 eschewing a single player component entirely (though with how bad Black Ops 3's campaign was, it may have been better that way), Infinity Ward's focus on the campaign for its Modern Warfare reset was a refreshing and highly anticipated endeavor. Arguably peaking with Modern Warfare 2 (although Infinite Warfare's campaign was criminally underappreciated and really quite good), fans of a thrilling action-packed shooter campaign have been left looking outside of the COD franchise for their fix in recent years.
I can safely say that Infinity Ward has topped even the highest hopes and delivered arguably the greatest campaign in the series' history.
The silly and bombastic tone of some of Call of Duty's recent entries (looking at you, Black Ops) is completely scrapped in order to return to the mature, intense stories that stirred up so much controversy in years past. In previous installments, when the series decided to take a controversial or possibly "triggering" route, most notably in Modern Warfare 2's infamous "No Russian" level which has you and several other fully armed terrorists mowing down civilians in an airport, they have opted to provide plenty of warning in the game's menus and allowed players who wish to skip the controversial elements to bypass those levels entirely without missing out on any unlocks or achievements.
Here, any time you go to boot up the campaign you're met with a warning about the mature content in the campaign and must click "I understand" in order to play, with no option to skip levels because unlike in previous entries, these elements are present throughout the 6-8 hour campaign and are an integral part of the narrative. The heavy plotline is handled excellently and lends weight to a story that so often in shooters is far from reality and irrelevent to real events.
The story revolves around a select crew of CIA operatives and British SAS forces who team up with rebel forces in the fictional country of Urzikstan to combat the Al-Qatala terrorist group (which takes queues from real groups like Al Qaeda and ISIS) and their Russian allies. The plot echoes a lot of threads from real world conflicts in recent times, mainly involving Syria, including the use of chemical weapons on civilians. The portrayal of the Russian forces in the game has garnered criticism, but it should be noted that events in the game essentially lead the Russians to disown the general and his troops responsible when they learn of their misdeeds, not that members of the dishonest media mention that in their articles slamming Infinity Ward for their portrayal of Russia (especially ironic given the media's constant fearmongering about Russia).
The intense story truly feels like you'd imagine getting to play a big budget modern war movie would feel like, with its narrative direction confident and deep without ever getting too convoluted to follow or too far fetched. In fact part of what makes it so compelling is its authenticity - while of course parts are game-ified and your war fighting prowess is embellished just like in every Hollywood movie about war ever made, the game is incredibly grounded and believable. If you like movies such as Zero Dark Thirty and 13 Hours, or even the Jack Ryan series on Amazon Prime, you'll love Modern Warfare's story and production values and feel right at home.
The campaign sees you play as three different characters through its action packed runtime; a CIA operative, an SAS Sergeant, and the leader of the rebel group in Urzikstan as they all play critical roles in the conflict at different times and locations. Captain Price, a beloved character from the original two Modern Warfare games, makes a return and serves as your trusted CO for most of the story - several other characters from the Modern Warfare series are referenced and through this Infinity Ward enforces the fact that the game still takes place in the same canonical universe as the earlier Modern Warfare entries. Luckily, players who haven't played any of the other games won't miss a beat and basically just lose out on a few easter eggs and callbacks - this is a brand new and independent story.
Without spoiling anything important, the campaign will see you taking out terrorists in the streets of London in the middle of a massive terrorist assault that takes ques from real attacks in the UK and France, the harrowing experience of a little girl waking up buried in rubble after bombings levelled an entire block and making her daring escape from her village's occupation alongside her brother in a brutal fight for survival, and getting your hands dirty in close-quarters scraps through collapsing underground tunnels running underneath a terrorist compound.
The only sequence that was less than stellar throughout the entire story was a torture scene in which the player is waterboarded - instead of showing the scene or rendering you helpless, you can move your vision side to side to avoid the water head-on and take breaths when the water's missing, turning it essentially into a mini-game that really doesn't capture the terrifying experience and just serves to make the torturers seem incompetent. They could have let you move your head side to side but be suffocated regardless to illustrate how scary waterboarding is to those who are subjected to it, but instead the scene fails to capture the tone intended.
Waterboarding misstep aside, the missions you partake in provide tons of brilliant visuals and gameplay variety - one mission sees you assaulting a terrorist air base with rebel forces, flying RC planes strapped with bricks of C4 into helicopters and buildings to aid your ground assault; another has you following armoured tanks in a raid on a terrorist compound, using a laser to paint targets for air support to rain down hell from above on; another sees you sneaking around in the dead of night at an estate, killing power to different buildings to take advantage of your night vision goggles and laser sights and picking off guards with suppressed weapons on your search to find and capture your target while Captain Price covers you with his famous sniper rifle from a distance.
Two of my personal favourite segments in the campaign recreate famous incidents from recent years, lending an air of authenticity and an extra treat to fans of good war movies.
In "Clean House", you are part of a team that raids a high-value terrorist target's hideout in the Middle East. In the middle of the night and equipped with night vision, Captain Price leads your squad into the multi-storey house, cutting the power and clearing each floor systematically. Infinity Ward really captured the tactics and professionalism exhibited by special ops forces, as well as the split-second decision making required - bursting through a door you'll need to make snap decisions as you identify threats and non-combatants, with those lines blurred constantly in the level. You and your squad move from room to room, taking out hostiles as they reach for weapons or fire shotguns through doors as you approach them, securing unarmed women and children in the process. The layout and many aspects of the raid are near identical to the raid on Osama Bin Laden's hideout as shown in Zero Dark Thirty, and it's an exhilarating mission to get to play through and one that offers an extra dose of realism to a campaign steeped in it.
Another mission at one point has you and your allies forced to defend their positions at a safehouse with a field of tall grass and myriad cover between you and buildings in the surrounding village. Vehicles begin to arrive and forces surround your position, only to shoot out the lights in the fields and plunge you into darkness. As you hunker down on the rooftop of the safehouse, you pop flares to illuminate the area and expose the dozens of targets moving through the fields toward your position before an all-out firefight breaks out. It's a visual treat and a clear homage to the infamous Benghazi seige; anyone who has seen 13 Hours will love the resemblance and the game's stellar graphics render the scene incredibly, really showcasing the sublime lighting and particle effects in particular.
Infinity Ward not only successfully took Call of Duty back to its grounded roots, they delivered the highest quality and most impressive campaign in the series history. While Call of Duty's single player aspects tend to be overlooked due to its multiplayer component's popularity, Modern Warfare delivers one of the best campaigns in first person shooter history that deserves to be experienced by everyone not easily triggered.
As you've probably guessed by now, Modern Warfare's multiplayer is a return to form and that's largely due to its embrace of the basics that made the series so good in the first place. Gone are the overly complicated loadouts filled with restrictions like the Pick10 system, gone are the excess gameplay mechanics that make simple combat too complex and take away from the skill involved, and gone are the loot boxes and microtransation-stuffed customization options that have plagued so many games in recent years.
For Modern Warfare, the multiplayer offering is stripped back to what fans of the original two MW games will fondly remember.
For your character loadouts, you get a primary weapon, a secondary weapon, a lethal (types of grenade, claymore, C4, etc) and non-lethal (stun/flash/smoke grenade, spawn beacon, etc) equipment slot, and 3 perk slots. Your weapons can have up to 5 attachments equipped with one attachment of each type (different muzzles, optics, underbarrels, stocks, perks, etc) which are unlocked by your weapon level - as you use a specific weapon to get kills, you unlock attachments for that weapon. The gunsmith menu where you can swap out attachments also has options for applying different camouflage and designs to your guns, adding an icon, or even a weapon charm which are all unlocked by levelling up the weapon and your overall level, letting players customize their gear without breaking the lifelike aesthetic (thankfully, there's no flashing neon or fire effects to be found).
The perks on offer are mostly the same as what could be found in the early Modern Warfare games, with options such as faster reloading, camouflage to hide you from enemy radar and thermal scopes, unlimited sprint, allowing you to equip an extra grenade, or even knocking one kill off the requirement cost of killstreaks.
Of course, killstreaks return and in a literal sense - scorestreaks are thankfully gone. Scorestreaks were good in theory, as they allowed players to call in their streak rewards off of scoring objectives and getting points for other feats rather than just focusing on kills, but in practice they just made those streak rewards so abundant and annoying it killed the flow of matches and stopped being rewarding.
For those that don't know what killstreaks are, players choose 3 different rewards from an assortment of options (with more unlocking as you level up), each with a different amount of kills required to unlock their usage in a game. Earn that amount of kills in a row in a game without dying, and that reward is unlocked to use for a limited time during the match. These range from lower streaks like a UAV which pulses every few seconds and shows enemy positions on your minimap for a short period or a Counter-UAV to block out the opponent's mini-map entirely for a while, to longer streaks like an automated turret, a chopper gunner which lets the player take the gunner position of an AC-130 overhead for a short while and wreak havoc from above, and the holy grail awarded for a whopping 25 straight kills: the nuke, which drops a tactical nuke on the map and results in an automatic win for your team, regardless of the score.
Higher killstreaks can still be very devastating and turn the tide of a game, but they aren't as dominant as recent entries and players are supplied with lots of options to try and limit their damage or take them down before their time is up. Of course if one team is dominating they can be a frustrating added-on obstacle for the losing side, but typically most games have a decent competitiveness given the good matchmaking system finding teams of similar skill.
The weapons and attachments/perks available to players is extensive and there are literally tons of options to customize your favourite guns into being your personalized killing machines, and for the most part they're well balanced. There are a few exceptions however - the 725 shotgun in particular is immensely powerful and results in one-shot kills even 25+ feet away from the target, making it a no brainer for close- to mid-range fighting. While some have pointed out it's pretty accurate to real-life, it's not balanced in terms of gameplay and is disproportionately powerful compared to other weapons, so much so that almost every player with the weapon unlocked is using it online.