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What started as a standard WW2 shooter is now one of the best-selling franchises of all time. Activision’s obsession with keeping the tap flowing has given us annual releases that flip-flop between serviceable and outstanding. I was particularly impressed by the bombastic campaigns of Modern Warfare 3’s predecessors that upheld its legacy. But for the first time in its 20-year history, Call of Duty’s latest entry drops below even the most basic of expectations.
No one expected Modern Warfare 3’s campaign to be a scathing critique of war or have JRPG-grade twists. At a time when oppression is rife both in headlines and beyond them, there’s a lot to be said about a franchise steeped in blood. But after bringing back characters across two excellent Modern Warfare titles, the promises owed to both newcomers and legacy fans weren’t met with a payoff. Instead, players got setpieces duct-taped to short and dull missions with no satisfying conclusion. While $70 is a tall asking price, 2023 is when it really felt like an insult to returning players. MW3’s reputation is saved from total ruin by its ever-solid multiplayer backed by nostalgia and a misnamed Zombies mode. A reworked Gunsmith helps these two pillars prevent the franchise from tumbling into irrelevance.
There’s merit in the argument that most players skip the campaign. And while I’m grateful that the single-player mode wasn’t dropped like in Battlefield 2042, it’s clear that Task Force 141’s hunt for Makarov was rushed to completion. With that in mind, I’ve split this review into campaign, multiplayer, and Zombies segments. While I’ve sunk a good amount of time into these across the years, I’ve asked our resident CoD expert Jay to weigh in as well.
Its short campaign fumbles both legacy ammo and modern ideas
The old on-rails CoD campaigns with their setpieces wedged between linear corridors and tidy endings weren’t perfect. But when it came to delivering memorable moments backed up by bombastic action, Call of Duty delivered. In MW2 (2009), John Price’s speech with ‘we go forward like a breath exhaled from the Earth’ floored me as a kid. Losing squadmates felt brutal, especially one death that nearly shook me out of my chair. The newer Modern Warfare and Modern Warfare 2 attempted to capture this lightning in a bottle. MW3, however, cannot be considered as such an attempt.
Its first and perhaps most severe blunder is the addition of Open Combat Missions. Borrowing heavily from Warzone, Sledgehammer Games believed this would shake up the original mission structure of tight environments that held your hand as you wrangled between corrupt governments, terrorists, and mercenary armies-for-hire. In theory, a battleground with unique weapons hidden in caches and choose-your-own objectives sounds refreshing. I might have even enjoyed them if they were infrequent. Instead, I spent half of MW3’s four-hour runtime in filler missions that lacked checkpoints and padded out an already short game. The objectives were ironically linear and felt like a tutorial for would-be Warzone players.
As for the bespoke missions, they lacked the handcrafted feel of earlier titles. Some of that might be down to nostalgia but the lack of motives and a satisfying conclusion amplify this drought. At no point did I feel the weight of overwhelming odds or Price’s anger towards Makarov. The death of an important character is glossed over in a minute while it was given ample respect and grief in MW3 (2011). Modern Warfare 3 isn’t just forgettable, it’s a campaign I want to forget.
Extraction Zombies gives up some thrills and gains some too
Modern Warfare 3’s Zombies sits in an interesting position. While its DMZ inspirations are clear, it still gets a lot right. Developed by the Zombies veterans at Treyarch, expectations were high for the latest iteration of the fan-favorite mode. In MW3, the repurposed Warzone map of Urzikstan houses both open-world contracts and DMZ-like extractions alongside hordes of Zombies. As you complete contracts, you gain access to gear and weapon upgrades needed to access more dangerous areas of the map with even bigger rewards. It’s an idea that certainly works. But it sits at a crossroads.
Jay describes this Zombies sentiment perfectly. He likens it to ‘marmite, but that stick of marmite has some mold on the side.’ And he echoes the community’s feelings where ‘one half hates it and the other half does definitely like it, but they’re aware that it’s just not right.’ While we agree that nothing tops the round-based Zombies of yore, the new mode did grow on us. Getting powerful thanks to weapon rarities, Ammo Mods, and Wonder Weapons felt exciting. And performing an exfil to retain boosts for the next run is a neat twist on Zombies progression. In Jay’s words, ‘parachuting down into a Tier 3 zone has my heart racing faster than a double shot of espresso.’ While I’ve never been one for camo skin grinds, the new Zombies offers a clear path to demonstrating how many hours you’ve sunk into it.
The only real issue I came across was the mode’s implementation of a timer. While this makes exfil a priority, it’s at odds with the untimed survival rounds of its predecessors. Being able to drive vehicles over zombies and mercenaries also feels weird. But seeing MW3’s Zombies as its own thing lets you ease into these unique additions. When I realized I’d appreciate it more under another name, I began to appreciate Treyarch’s talent for making things work. Blending old and new ideas is no simple task and Zombies remains a satisfying experience.
Multiplayer feels like a home that got a decor upgrade
Leaning hard into history, Sledgehammer Games opens the MW2 (2009) cookie jar for remakes of all 16 maps that shipped at launch. To no one’s surprise, this got fans excited for a true return to form for the franchise. Millions grew up in firefights across Terminal and Favela, no small factor in establishing MW2 (2009) as a cultural juggernaut. In Jay’s words, ‘Modern Warfare 3 feels like the MW2 (2009) remake we all wanted but never got, clouded by the fluffy addition of Modern Warfare 2 (2022) weapons.’
That second point holds true for players returning from last year’s solid Modern Warfare 2. Legacy players can ‘jump straight back into this Call of Duty knowing all of the vantage points, little Easter eggs, and silly head glitches, giving you what I like to call the veterans discount against the newbies.’ Jay believes that this is the game MW2 fans asked for. He didn’t mince words when he noted that ‘many are realizing that the old MW2 wasn’t what they really enjoyed, it was the time period they were in.’ And while I haven’t sunk as many hours into MW2’s old maps, I’m inclined to agree from a multiplayer perspective.
Guns feel incredible and slide cancelling is on the menu again. Quick mantling and decent mid-air accuracy mean that players are back to jumping like frogs and adopting the infamous snake glitch. Gameplay is as sweaty and twitchy as it’s ever been but some players are already up in arms over the increase in health to 150. This makes securing kills harder with old favourites but I personally dig the idea of being able to fight back. My affection for a longer TTK (Time To Kill) is something I bring along from my hours in Halo ranked matches. In MW3, the first shot doesn’t dictate the end result anymore unless it’s from a sniper.
While most guns blur into their categories for me, there are clear favourites dominating the meta already. The chore of min-maxing stats with attachments is here as well. Weapons like the rapid-fire Longbow sniper and aftermarket variants are more memorable than the usual suspects. Thanks to the increase in health, players prefer assault rifles to the nimble SMGs and once-lethal marksman rifles. Different damage values based on where you land your shots add nuance but also make kills inconsistent.
Unlocking new camos is straightforward despite the game’s massive arsenal of weapons thanks to a new challenge and Armory Unlock system. And the maps themselves are excellent outside of some janky decisions that bridge the old maps with some of Modern Warfare’s, well, modern ideas. Doors are great but not every door in MW3 can be opened, resulting in an occasional whack-a-mole check. Jay had plenty of praise for MW3’s well-designed maps. ‘The maps have been recreated beautifully whilst preserving a lot of their initial appeal. That lick of fresh paint breathes a lot of life to the original MW2 maps.’
A balancing act whose value depends on your priorities
Now that the dust has settled, there are two sides to the ‘glorified DLC’ coin. A lacklustre campaign does little to warrant MW3’s $70 price tag. But a competent Zombies mode and solid multiplayer components even the balance, especially since most of your time will be spent here. Jay, whose primary focus is multiplayer, agrees. ‘On the surface, yes, it’s pure fan service. Hitting a 360 no scope off that damn crane on Highrise will never not max out my endorphin count.’
Modern Warfare 3 is a worrying misfire with a shoehorned campaign, saved only by excellent gunplay in multiplayer and its reworked Zombies. There’s a nostalgia element at play here and MW3 scratches that ‘good old days’ itch with iconic maps and weapons. With the task of redemption falling squarely on multiplayer, MW3 questions the annual Call of Duty cycle itself.
Reviewed on PC.