Call of Duty is a franchise that’s difficult to imagine ever disappearing from the gaming landscape. Even if World War 3 broke out and most of the population was obliterated in nuclear hellfire, I feel like there’d still be a Call of Duty game released in November, and that’s the way I like it. This year’s entry takes us back to the Modern Warfare sub-franchise originally responsible for the series’ meteoric rise and changing the face of multiplayer gaming forever. In many ways this latest entry successfully revives the morally grey and gritty feel of its forebears, but a divisive and unfocused multiplayer experience fails to make this one a homerun.
Black Ops 4 shook things up a little last year, and I’m not just talking about enemy health bars and hour-long time to kills. No, Black Ops 4 made the brave decision to completely drop the obligatory blockbuster campaign that the Call of Duty franchise is generally known for. At the time I didn’t really miss it, as the adversarial multiplayer is where it’s at for me and mine. But after finishing Modern Warfare’s harrowing campaign, Call of Duty has proven it can still tell a good (read: bad) war story with the best of them.
Lethal Powerpoint presentation
Modern Warfare tells a story of home-grown terrorism and endless wars told through the perspectives of people caught in a struggle for freedom. It asks what it takes to justify extreme acts on either side of a conflict, and whether there is ever a good or just way to wage war, no matter the ends or means. Set before the original Modern Warfare trilogy and centring around the fictional country of Urzikstan and their struggle against a foreign occupying power (Russia in this instance), Modern Warfare appeals to a new generation who have not only grown up with the omnipresent notion of terrorism, but are simultaneously trying to understand the machinations behind the making of terrorists. While Urzikstan is not an actual place, it represents at different times several countries like Syria, Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan. The Urzikstan freedom fighters at times embody the Mujahideen fighters in the Soviet-Afghan war (Rambo 3 was actually an educational film, didn’t you know?), or the stateless Kurds. It is unflinching as an allegory for the multiple conflicts and bad blood that exist as a result of hostile invasion and colonisation over centuries that persist to this very day. It’s arguable that America gets off incredibly lightly in its involvement with stirring up hornets’ nests in the Middle East (and their continued involvement), with Russia being front and centre as the bad guy here. But Modern Warfare is at least nuanced in how it pulls from modern history, even if it does give the US a free pass.
Through its tight and tense eight-hour campaign Modern Warfare pulls no punches, featuring torture, chemical warfare, mass killings and infanticide. Even though the mechanics are fairly basic FPS stock, with very few bells and whistles compared to recent titles like DOOM and Wolfenstein, it still manages to quicken the heartbeat and strike an emotional chord. I didn’t know I needed another blockbuster Call of Duty campaign until I played Modern Warfare, and now I don’t want another title without one. As a side note, I’m willing to play any campaign which features Captain Price, because that cheeky bastard is a deadset legend.
Modern Warfare asks what it takes to justify extreme acts on either side of a conflict, and whether there is ever a good or just way to wage war, no matter the ends or means
A game of musical chairs where no one wins
That smile, that goddamn smile
Modern Warfare’s multiplayer offering is an odd beast. The return of killstreaks and brilliant additions like diverse gun feel and deep customisation, as well as increased environmental detail and graphical fidelity are outweighed by ridiculous map design and an overly short time to kill that throw the balance. Just as the campaign delves into how terrorists are made, the multiplayer is an examination of how campers are made, as it slows the pace to a trickle and makes traversing its complex maps such a dangerous affair that it’s better just to stay put. Much of the fluidity and pace I associate with Call of Duty is simply lost in Modern Warfare, and while my opinion is of course subjective, the multiplayer offering is simply not a Call of Duty I recognise, or really enjoy.
Ramazza is possibly the worst map ever conceived
The biggest departure from the Call of Duty formula and the source of much of my distaste is definitely in its map design, which for the most part is simply awful. Perhaps three-lane map design did need a bit of a shakeup, but…not like this. Maps in general are much bigger and feature tons of environmental clutter, intersecting lines of sight and different levels of verticality. Each map has a seemingly random geometry that has to be memorised down to its precise detail if you’ve got any hope of succeeding. Learning a map is of course part and parcel of any multiplayer experience, but the flow of some of the maps is almost non-existent, and learning their ludicrous hiding spots and danger areas feels unintuitive. Because the time to kill is so short, it is necessary that you slow absolutely everything down; running and gunning is extremely difficult to pull off and balance is heavily tipped towards a slow and considered approach with an assault rifle rather than rushing with SMGs and shotguns. Enemies can be lurking in so many different spots that once you enter an area you have to sweep dozens of potential lines of sight, and the fear of taking a random bullet to the face from one of five doorways or windows on multiple levels across the street is palpable.
Team Deathmatch and Domination are still the principle modes in Call of Duty where you’ll find most players, and the game features a great playlist filter that I hope becomes a mainstay for the series. With this filter you can search for multiple modes simultaneously, rather than having to queue for a specific mode. In a welcome move, the 10v10 TDM and Domination modes can now be filtered out (a feature that seemed to very quickly appear after launch), which is good because they were the antithesis of a Call of Duty experience. The weakness of the same woefully convoluted design ethos from the smaller maps is magnified one million-fold in the sprawling maps of the twenty-player games. It does mean that one incredibly viable option is to sit back with a sniper rifle and try not to fall asleep as you wait for some hapless fool to wander into your crosshairs, and a glance to your left and right will reveal plenty of teammates doing the same thing. The larger open maps like Euphrates River are also prime for spawn trapping. Playlist filtering is a double-edged sword though, as if you only want the classic 6v6 experience you only have a pitiful six maps to play on.
Azhir Caves is a highlight
If 10 v 10 wasn’t big enough for you, then there is also Ground War, which features 32 v 32 matches very similar to Battlefield’s marquee Conquest mode, but with none of the nuance or clever design. If you’ve ever wanted to see ten players sniping on a clifftop with a tank camping next to them raining fiery death then this is the mode for you. Where Battlefield made you feel like small contributions in the field could help turn the tides of war and the objective was king, Ground War is more of a mindless frenzy in a target-rich environment. There’s some fun to be had amongst the mayhem, but it’s not a mode I’m keen to frequent.
One thing I do love about Modern Warfare’s multiplayer is how the guns feel and operate, and the deep customisation options available. Weapons have a satisfying heft to them when you shoot, and also feature recoil (a feature long thought lost in the franchise), meaning skilled shooting and mastery of a particular weapon’s recoil pattern is essential. As you use a weapon, various attachments will become available, but in an interesting twist some of these attachments have pros and cons. You might be able to decrease recoil on the powerful AK47 or increase the damage range of the PKM LMG, but these often come at the cost of reduced movement or Aim Down Sight speed. Your primary weapon can have five of these attachments in total, and with the crazy amounts of combinations you can come up with it really makes a gun feel like your gun. It also encourages learning the intricacies of a weapon that catches your fancy and sticking with it, as levelling and improving your weapon consistently provides you with more options and feeds into a satisfying sense of progression.
Perhaps three-lane map design did need a bit of a shakeup, but…not like this
Ground War: Welcome to the shit show
Lastly, a point I’ve made in every single review of Call of Duty review since the dawn of time – give us connection quality transparency. Ping trackers and an indication of where a server is located (and whether it is a dedicated or a listen server) would be an incredibly basic place to start, and things like jitter and packet loss are also metrics that would be useful to display. Battlefield has been providing connectivity warnings in these specific categories (high ping, ping variation, packet loss etc.) for a long time, and perhaps instead of trying to copy its Conquest mode, Modern Warfare should have copied that feature instead. Also, while we’re talking about stat tracking, the fact that you can’t see the amount of deaths in TDM (where it matters) but can in Domination (where it doesn’t) is maddening. You can however see the amount of god-awful pointless assists in TDM, which makes me think the developers are deliberately trolling their audience.
Modern Warfare’s campaign is a triumph. It’s tight, tense and focused with a great sense of pace. It doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel in terms of the mechanics, but in the end it doesn’t have to; this is classic Call of Duty for the modern era. The multiplayer tries it hands at innovation and succeeds valiantly in important areas such as weapon customisation and feel, but fails miserably in equally important areas of map design and flow. The pace suffers as a result, and the freedom and fluidity is largely lost in favour of paranoid window and doorway checking. Coupled with the fact that the maps are in short supply (especially if you don’t care for the large 10 v 10 ones), Modern Warfare’s multiplayer is something that’s likely to wear fairly thin well before the next DLC drop.
Reviewed on PS4 // Review code supplied by publisher