Infinity Ward made a lot of bold claims this year in the run up to Modern Warfare’s release. It’s a reboot of a classic favorite franchise, so it should feel fresh but nostalgic all the same. It’s darker and grittier than ever before, but also won’t be gratuitous. It utilizes new tech that doesn’t seem like it should be possible until next gen, yet it works on a standard launch PS4. For all of the pre-launch talk surrounding Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, it manages to coalesce when get your hands on the game.
I’m not going to dive into the all the new tech too deeply in this review, except to say that promises were kept and things shown behind closed doors previously work just as well now that they are in the light. For a more complete rundown of what’s going on under the hood, I covered Modern Warfare’s new tech extensively earlier this year, and it all holds up. In fact, now that I’ve seen it running on my own home launch PS4 multiple times (alpha, beta, and now release copy), I’m even more impressed. Yes, your launch PS4 isn’t going to look quite as good as if you had this running on a PS4 Pro, but it seems like Infinity Ward managed to squeeze out every last drop of graphical goodness that the PS4 has left. The studio easily put Modern Warfare on par with Sony exclusives in terms of the technical prowess powering the game. Guess it’s time for next-gen already, right?
Let Me Tell You a Story
After missing out on a campaign for Black Ops 4, Modern Warfare’s single-player mode is one of the highlights of this year’s Call of Duty. The premise of this reboot is “what if they had made Modern Warfare for 2019 instead of 2007?” Infinity Ward went for both healthy doses of nostalgia while also making a game that feels right at home today. Characters are repurposed, themes leap forward ten years, and Infinity Ward figured out how to create something dark, gritty, and real without being overly gratuitous or celebratory.
When Infinity Ward said Modern Warfare’s campaign was “ripped from the headlines,” they meant it. There are missions that draw heavy parallels to events like the raid on Bin Laden, Benghazi, and even America’s recent betrayal of Kurdish forces, leaving them to die on the frontlines. Somehow, however obvious the allusions are, it never felt like the game was simply trying to mimic those real-world events. Modern Warfare creates its own series of horrifying events in its own universe. It all feels natural because that’s simply the cycle of history, and not only are these things happening now, but they’ve happened before and they will happen again.
Modern Warfare’s is a story that will get you to think. Multiple moments made me contemplate me relative security here in Salt Lake City, away from conventional warfare that fills the streets of so many places abroad. It’s far easy to just keep what seems to be the world’s problems at arm’s length, but when you get boots on the ground and realize the stakes of the chess game being played, it helps to contextualize some of the news stories we see about all of those foreign conflicts.
Missions present players with hard contextualized choices with no time to think at all. Sometimes people may not even realize there was a choice, with how covertly Infinity Ward has filled the game with small consequences. These are meant to be psychological and to get you thinking. You might have killed a civilian, or they could have shot your buddy. A man jumps out from behind a car, gut reaction needs to tell you whether or not he’s a terrorist or a scared citizen. Rarely are the choices so overt as to literally make the player choose between two things, except in a couple of cases where it fits within the story and you get to decide where you “draw the line,” as it were. When you are put into situations where the safety of civilians is not your primary directive, it feels pretty good to save even one person.
In many cases Modern Warfare presents the oft-conflicting reasons that people fight. There’s a great dynamic between CIA operative Alex and the freedom fighter Farah. At one point Farah asks him where he will go next, and he responds with the military civic duty answer of “Wherever they send me.” “You don’t get to choose?” Farah’s look of disbelief mirrors some realizations I had in these moments as well. The different reasons people fight—whether duty-bound or for a specific cause—fuel the ongoing fires of conflict. I didn’t ever expect to have such deep revelations from a Call of Duty game.
Grounded in the gritty reality, Modern Warfare doesn’t pull any punches with some of the horrific things that happen on screen, and yet it never reaches a point of being violent for the sake of violence. Everything has a weight and a gravity. It’s the difference between a meaningful but brutal news report about something horrific that happened and throwing something up on YouTube just for the shock value. Infinity Ward adds context and meaning to every scene and moment in the game, and made me reflect and think deeply on more than one occasion. It’s supposed to cut deep. It’s supposed to hit hard. But it is not supposed to be celebrated, and the campaign manages that in wonderful and surprising ways.
Perhaps most surprising in a AAA game about war is the lack of hero moments. Grounding the game in reality means that you won’t have characters performing unbelievable feats just for the sake of a “cool” scene or set piece. Modern Warfare takes a step back. Instead of threats of nuclear war at home and the massive explosions that go along with it, the story is simplified. There are still plenty of explosions and gunfights, but this is less summer blockbuster war movie and more nuanced indie war film. It’s about the people and the situations, not the bangs and booms.
Modern Warfare’s campaign is a no-frills attraction, meaning that it’s just the story here. There aren’t any collectibles or audio logs to distract you. You won’t have to worry about challenges (aside from different difficulties to select and Trophies/Achievements). After turning into a roomba for the first couple of missions, I realized that I could simply enjoy the story and the tactical gameplay that backed it. I didn’t have to hunt down those video game distractions that every developer feels the need to fill their games with.
In fact, gameplay and story are interwoven throughout the campaign. Cutscenes are relegated to when people are talking, indicated by black bars at the top and bottom of the screen. In all other moments, in order to instill a sense of connection between the player and what is going on on the screen, the player retains control of some element. In one “hero moment” that stuck out to me (due to the game really not having any others), you still have control of your character, so if you don’t push forward on the control stick, your cool action-hero moment will end in your fiery death.
On paper this entire campaign is rife with potential pitfalls and problems, yet the stars aligned so perfectly as all of these elements came together. Taking a step back to a core no-frills Campaign experience feels like the right move to ensure that Modern Warfare is one to be remembered in both hearts and minds.
That Classic COD Feeling
Ah, but what is Call of Duty without the multiplayer offering? Here is where players need to create a rational disconnect between the two experiences. Yes, the multiplayer is also dark and gritty and springs from the foundations laid by the campaign, but it’s also an entertainment product designed to be played on repeat. Reconciling with those two things will make both experiences that much better.
Infinity Ward took the multiplayer back to the drawing board and rebuilt it from the ground up. They asked themselves “What makes classic Call of Duty so nostalgic for players?” and so got rid of many of the more recent elements that have begin to creep into the games, or have simply stuck around. Once again, Modern Warfare is a game that asks the question “What if Infinity Ward made Modern Warfare in 2019?” Forget the jet jumps and wall runs and scorestreaks and everything that came in the last ten years. Stripped back, what did people love most about the original Modern Warfare’s multiplayer?
The new multiplayer, while still fast-paced, slows down quite a bit and rewards more tactical and thoughtful play. Sure, you are going to have your snipe gods that can still quick-scope you from across the map, but the simple fact that sniper-ranged maps are even relevant again in Call of Duty is a miracle.
Map design has a lot to do with the reworked slower gameplay pace. Instead of relying on the old faithful three-lane structure that’s become a boring staple in Call of Duty, Modern Warfare’s maps are far more organic. I’m sure if you strictly mapped them out, there are certain symmetries and lanes, but each one is far more varied and less predictable than the past few years of map design have treated us to. Now that’s a terrifying proposition, changing up the very map layout mechanics that players have become used to, but I find that it reinvigorates my own interest in Call of Duty multiplayer in a big way. Matches actually feel like warfare rather than arcade bouts. It’s about cover and corners even even verticality in some cases. It’s about defending power points, rather than continuing to always flow along those lanes. Play aggressively like that, and you’re bound to get domed.
Mutliplayer matches scale from small 2v2 Gunfight matches (still some of my favorites) all the way up to the massive 100+ player Ground War mode. Map design is also scaled to meet the needs of the number of players, so don’t worry. 2v2 matches aren’t happening on massive open maps, and Ground War isn’t being crammed into small arenas meant for far fewer players.
There’s plenty to enjoy withing multiplayer, whether it’s scaling to different match sizes or taking on some of the levels in nightvision mode, Infinity Ward understands that this is where the bread and butter of Modern Warfare lies, and they’ve delivered. And promises of the future say that they will continue to deliver. This is a whole dose of nostalgia for classic Call of Duty, while simultaneously doing something entirely new. That seems to be the entire theme of Modern Warfare this year.
Deceptively labeled “Co-Op” on the main menu, Spec Ops is perhaps the mode least accessible to the general player. Sure, it’s co-op in the simplest sense of the term, but it’s also very difficult. In many ways, Call of Duty’s cooperative horde modes have always had that signature. Zombies, for instance, is notoriously a tough-as-nails mode. Infinity Ward was targeting a grounded realism across the entire game, which meant fighting hordes of the undead was out, so instead of Zombies mode, players get the four-player Spec Ops missions.
The four Spec Ops missions are designed with momentum in mind. You can’t simply clear out one wave of enemies and wait for reprieve before pushing forward to the next objective. You have to keep moving, keep communicating, and have patience. It’s not likely that you’ll clear these on the first time through. Think of them in a way as Modern Warfare’s Raids. They might not be as mechanic heavy as something found in the likes of Destiny, but they’ll present a challenge for even the heartiest of players.
Narratively, these missions immediately follow the campaign of the game and tell a story of their own, complete with some great Easter eggs an references for sharp-eyed and eared fans of Modern Warfare. Rather than linear level design as if this were a campaign, Spec Ops missions take place in an open-world level that almost feels like it was built with battle royale in mind. You’ll be assaulted by enemies on every side which is what keeps that forward momentum of the mode. It’s easy to get overrun when enemies can spawn from everywhere. It’s worth pushing through to see some of the brilliant set pieces. In one, you force your way onto a plane as it takes off, then parachute back to the ground after a massive shootout on the aircraft.
Though I’ve come to appreciate what the Spec Ops missions bring to the table, I think Infinity Ward is about to run into an optics problem with people not understanding just how difficult they are supposed to be. My initial impressions of Spec Ops fell very flat thanks to not having a good team to help me understand the difficulty and momentum required to progress. Players who simply jump into matchmaking are going to find a chaotic circus of failure that doesn’t accurately portray the mode.
It doesn’t help that Spec Ops is the side of the game that appears to have received the least amount of polish. Texture pop-in tends to be a real problem, odd glitches and bugs crop up occasionally, and I can’t shake the feeling that this was perhaps at one time supposed to be Modern Warfare’s battle royale map and mode, now repurposed for the Spec Ops co-op missions. Compared to the level of quality packed into the Campaign and Multiplayer, Spec Ops is the red-headed stepchild of the bunch.
Standing on a Unified Front
Achieving something unlike just about any other game out there, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare unifies every aspect of not only the game itself, but the playerbases that surround it. In-game, your account experience and progression carries across every mode. That means that no matter what you play, you’ll be earning experience for your profile and the weapons you are using. Everything feels consistently rewarding. Infinity Ward also did a great job achieving a parity between the feel of Campaign and Multiplayer.
This is also the first AAA release to launch with not only full cross-play compatibility across all platforms, but also cross-progression. That means the aforementioned experience and weapon unlocks follow you to whichever platform you decide to play on, thanks to your linked Activision account. Cross-play and progression all work entirely seamlessly. If it weren’t for the little icons in the game telling you what other platforms people are playing on, you’d never know the difference. Voice chat is a little bit tricky as there are brief moments when loading screens will cut the audio, but otherwise it allows you to easily party up with players on either PC or Xbox One (assuming you are on PS4). No more are family and friends divided just because they bought Call of Duty on different platforms.
Cross-play should also give Modern Warfare a longer tail. Instead of three disparate playerbases showing dwindling numbers as time moves on, Infinity Ward can continue to support the game for a longer period of time with a collective playerbase all housed under one roof.
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare sets a benchmark for the future of games. The amazing new technology it utilizes gives it a level of quality and polish that’s rarely seen outside of first-party studios. A bold approach on a no-frills campaign mode helps it stick the landing, while going back to the drawing board with multiplayer rekindles a classic Call of Duty feel long lost. Spec Ops is perhaps the weakest link, lacking the same polish that the other two modes got, but it still offers plenty of fun for those willing to stick with it. Modern Warfare recaptures what so many people loved about Call of Duty ten years ago, rediscovering a number of tenets that were lost along the way.
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare review code provided by publisher. Reviewed at an event held by Activision. Additional review testing done on home console. For more information, please read our Review Policy.