For the first time in a few years, it seems like Call of Duty has stopped peeking at other shooters’ homework for inspiration. It’s not to say it hasn’t been successful with taking on trending modes and mechanics, like when Treyarch’s Black Ops 4 ditched the campaign and introduced an amazing battle royale mode. This year, though, Infinity Ward pulls from its own history for Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. And as a result, it’s delivered excellent gunplay to pair with an intense and effective campaign and a fantastic weapon customization system in multiplayer. Something it didn’t learn, though, is that even a great arsenal can’t make up for poor map design, especially when there’s such a limited selection available at launch. Missteps in multiplayer and Spec Ops are like suppression fire that keep Modern Warfare from taking the high ground of its classic namesake, but everything else suggests that the series is now heading in a promising direction.
After taking a year off in 2018, Call of Duty’s single-player campaign has come roaring back in the revival of the Modern Warfare name. For my money, this is the best campaign the series has seen since 2010’s Black Ops; and if that sounds like a backhanded compliment, I don’t mean it as one. Though it stops short of being as provocative and button-pushing as it seemed poised to be, it is nevertheless an extremely well-designed first-person shooter that refreshes the franchise format just enough with a few cool new ideas and some smart new takes on others we haven’t seen in years. The plot of Modern Warfare’s rebooted storyline starts out trying to blur the lines between good and bad, but it ends up quickly establishing the good guys as very clearly good. The US team is led by memorably mustachioed fan-favorite Captain John Price, while the sister and brother duo of Farah and Hamir head up an insurgency movement fighting to push Russian forces out of their fictional home country of Urzikstan. That’s not to say that uncomfortable, morally gray things don’t happen in this campaign; they do, and sometimes those events are directly in your control. Unarmed women die. Children are shot. Civilians can catch bullets. Suicide bombers are a threat. But even in Modern Warfare’s biggest moment – a showdown with a generically named enemy lieutenant called The Butcher – Infinity Ward wanders near the moral line but never actually steps up to or over it. That’s disappointing because I’d really hoped this story would really have something meaningful to say about the soul-affecting nature of war in a time when the United States has been involved in so many conflicts for so long. Still, just because Modern Warfare doesn’t have a lot of bite behind its bark doesn’t mean it’s not a great action ride. It is one of the best linear first-person shooter campaigns I’ve played in a good while, thanks to an exciting pace across its five-ish-hour story that, notably, is always mixing up the gameplay. Sure, we’ve done the run-of-the-mill street battles a million times before in this series, but here you’re never doing them for very long without something unexpected happening. Modern Warfare delights most when it surprises, like when you have to engage intense close-quarters combat to clean out the enemy from small, multi-story houses – often when it’s pitch-black outside of your night-vision goggles. Or when you fly explosive-rigged drones into enemy helicopters or paint targets for missile strikes.
As someone who’s played every single Call of Duty campaign and really missed it last year, the new Modern Warfare is exactly the kind of single-player revival I’ve been looking for. It introduces welcome new kinds of gameplay moments while executing familiar ones exceptionally well. Sure, its story may not be as provocative as it seems to want to be, but it reestablishes a strong identity for this 16-year-old franchise with a showcase solo shooter experience. Amidst a growing pile of battle royales and looter shooters that just don’t scratch that same itchy trigger finger, it felt just like old times.
Giving the latest Call of Duty effectively the same name as one of the most revered multiplayer shooters of all time is a bold move. Right out of the gate, it creates sky-high expectations that are challenging to actually fulfill. And while Call of Duty: Modern Warfare does look excellent and has some good new and improved features, like the enhanced weapon customization, the disappointing selection of maps encourages bad behavior and it’s missing some things I’d expected to see in a 2019 Call of Duty. I’m having fun with Modern Warfare multiplayer, but it doesn’t quite live up to its recent predecessors. Your opinion of crouching in a hiding spot and waiting for someone to wander into your trap or dealing with people laying the same trap will probably play a big role in shaping your opinion of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare’s modes right now. In my in-match hours, I’ve seen how the community has adapted to this new warzone, and camping is certainly a big part of it. The 10 core maps are paired with what feels like a slightly slower movement, fast time-to-kill, killstreaks over scorestreaks, and generally tight corners and abundance of hidey holes make it easy to set up shop and wait for kills. I personally don’t partake in that sort of thing or love dealing with campers, but so long as you’re making use of the anti-camper equipment provided in Modern Warfare’s arsenal they shouldn’t be too much of a problem. You can pinpoint stationary enemies through personal radars, team UAVs, snapshot grenades, and heartbeat sensors. Vision has always been important in Call of Duty multiplayer, and it’s even more so in Modern Warfare thanks to all these maze-like maps. I like that a few of those gadgets are early unlocks and are also easy to destroy, but what I like even more are Field Upgrades, which can be equipped before and during a match and charge over time. They’re incredibly useful, especially if you’re taking the time to strategize with them rather than just picking the basic Munitions Box. For instance, the remote-controlled Recon Drone allows you to mark enemies for a short time, which is especially useful for finding enemy hiding spots in more objective-oriented modes. Then something like Dead Silence will even let you temporarily quiet your footsteps and move a tiny bit faster to sneak around and get the kill you’re looking for. One of the things that I’ve always loved about Call of Duty multiplayer is its player independence, and how a single kill leader can easily make up for dead weight at the bottom of the team’s list. The problem is that in instances where a team needs coordination to break out of an enemy team’s tight grasp, there aren’t a whole lot of tools available. In a better version of this game with better maps, though, this wouldn’t be an issue nor is it something players should be scrambling to solve or exploit.
Improving the Game
I think something like a ping system could go a long way in situations like this, and it baffles me that a shooter has come out in a post-Apex Legends world without one. Especially with games such as Call of Duty, which are supposed to be at the forefront of multiplayer gaming, it’s a huge omission. And not only is it a great tool for coordination, but it could also solve one of this series’ most-griped about problems: annoying players ruining the voice chat for everybody by spewing hate and generally irritating noises into everybody’s headsets. Enabling team communication while limiting the vocabulary to only game-relevant terms would go a long way in making me want to care about helping random teammates. I let out an audible groan whenever the Euphrates Bridge map pops up, no matter the game mode. It’s an awful map with a huge bridge running through the middle and heavily favors any team that camps the bridge. I’m also not much of a fan of St. Petrograd, which is also primed for camping and annoying spawn camping tactics. Some of its passageways are difficult to use and its points of engagement are limited in a tiring way. In fact, while they’re generally fine, I’ve grown more disappointed with the 10 maps and four nighttime variants the longer I’ve played. There’s no way to avoid the maps you dislike, either, since the long-standing feature that lets everyone in a matching vote which map appears next is absent in Modern Warfare. I’m assuming this is because all normal modes are lumped into a quick queue feature that lets you select which modes you want to play rather than just queuing for one by default. But while I liked this at first, I’d much rather have the option to vote for maps and not have everybody drop out when a dud appears. I’m also sad that in over 100 matches played, I’ve only seen a night mode map once. Once! According to the custom maps list, there are four whole night map variants in there. Infinity Ward didn’t post anything in particular about them being turned off or inaccessible, so I have to wonder why they’re not showing up in the rotation. It’s especially aggravating because they’re by far one of the most interesting parts of Modern Warfare’s multiplayer, even if your teammates don’t understand that their lasers reveal everyone’s position. To be fair, there are some maps I do like: Arklov Peak and Rammaza are at the top of my list. The former has a good number of encounter spots for both long and close-range weapons. Rammaza is a dense map that feels a little more traditional in its three-lane design. It’s on the smaller side, but I like how it offers a lot of points for flanking.
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare’s scaled-up version of Ground War is a chaotic good time, and Realism quiets things down a bit to present a uniquely delightful challenge. The rest of Modern Warfare’s multiplayer ranges from great additions like Gunfight and its in-depth weapon customization, to mediocre with modes like Spec Ops. Across most of them, unfortunately, mediocre maps make spawn camping a frustrating problem and escaping the ones where you know you’ll have a bad time is more challenging with removed map voting. But there sure is a lot to do in Modern Warfare, and that variety is important to keep things feeling fresh after the occasional unexpected low points.
Overall, the campaign is Call of Duty: Modern Warfare’s strength. Its well-designed missions make for excellent weapon testing grounds and feature a slew of interesting mechanics that wouldn’t work anywhere else. Some of its best parts come about because of the secretive nature of this war, and that includes some heavy moments that are generally done well. The multiplayer, meanwhile, maintains its smooth gunplay and has great weapon customization to go with it, but those don’t matter when having to play on this disappointing batch of launch maps. Still, Modern Warfare’s gorgeous new Realism mode, the large-scale Ground War, and quick and dirty Gunfight help mix things up for a good time.