Call of Duty: Modern Warfare Review

By Blair Nokes on October 24, 2019

For the Call of Duty franchise, the Modern Warfare series has a very distinguished ancestry for the first person shooting genre. Beginning with the release of Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare back in 2007, Activision and the developers at Infinity Ward ushered in a new benchmark and new standard of first person shooting, which at the time was over-saturated with World War II titles. Bringing the conflict to a modern setting set the next trend for other competing games to follow suit. Fans of series became attached to the characters they created, the environments they were placed in, and the shock-and-awe moments that certain chapters presented, truly showcasing the grittier and darker sides of combat.

It wasn’t too long before the modern setting became the new norm that replaced World War II, and as a result, futuristic warfare became the standard, which then brought players back to the start of the cycle with Call of Duty: World War II. Activision took a large, and rather risky departure from the traditional formula last year with the release of Black Ops 4 – a title that omitted any single player content and instead offered players a plethora of multiplayer content, including their first foray into the increasingly popular Battle Royale genre with Blackout. At the time, I gave the game glowing praise, though I did mention that the lack of a single player story was definitely missed. Black Ops 4 also rubbed some fans the wrong way with their market system, locking certain weapons behind a timed paywall, on top of other micro transactions and the typical map packs.

Infinity Ward (and Activision) certainly paid attention and listened to the criticisms. In an effort to bring things back to where – for many gamers – the series was at its very best, Infinity Ward were proud to announce Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. It’s a return to form in more ways than one, bringing back a single player campaign and promising a multiplayer free from the same paywall structure by ditching the season’s pass and enabling the company to distribute free post-launch content to all players. It’s a bold move in an industry that seems to have fully embraced downloadable content that consumers pay for a premium, and one that has definitely had fans excited.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare serves as a soft-reboot of the famous franchise; it’s wiping the slate clean and starting with a new story taking place in 2019, with reimagined characters and fan favourites, like Captain John Price. While it was a little jarring to disassociate the timelines, I found this ultimately to be a fresh approach at reviving the Modern Warfare brand; it brings things into the now and doesn’t need to explain any gaps in time from the events of Modern Warfare 3 – the former series’ conclusion.

Because of the modern setting, some have been rather discomforted by displaying gratuitous violence in in a timeframe that’s “too current” with what’s happening in our world and the atrocities we may hear in the news. While the story does pit players into action heavy segments, it’s not as reliant on high octane set pieces that the franchise is known for.

Instead, it makes an effort to hone in on the tragedies of war, delving into more taboo and provocative topics associated with war, putting players into situations that seek to elicit a deeper emotional response than in prior instalments. In certain cases, players will be left with morally complex choices that highlight the unethical decisions one may have to make in situations when the stakes are high. Asking a player “what would you do, in this scenario?” is a fantastic approach to let players truly feel the weight of their actions in a genre that more often puts morality in the back seat in favour of bombastic action sequences and an endless kill count.

To avoid any controversy with the ongoing conflict in the Middle East, Infinity Ward decided to set the majority of the narrative’s conflict within the fictional country of Urzikstan rather than any real-life location. While I do understand the need to avoid depictions that may seem insensitive, the game also showcases bombings in London’s Piccadilly Circus and other real world locations, so it’s harder to get behind the need for one place that’s fictional when everything else seems to be very grounded in the real world. Regardless, I can’t help but applaud Infinity Ward for going above and beyond the typical approach to a first person shooter’s narrative, and their striving for a more approach mature storytelling. They chose to craft a narrative highlighting that morality in the modern battlefield is less black and white, and far more grey.

The main campaign has players assume the roles of three main characters: Alex, a CIA agent embedded with the Urzikstani Liberation Force, Sergeant Kyle Garrick of London’s Metropolitan Police Service, and Farah Karim – leader of the Urzikstani Liberation Force. Spread out over fourteen chapters, the game takes you across the world in an attempt to locate the whereabouts of stolen chemical weapons from a terrorist organization known as the Al-Qatala, led by Omar “The Wolf” Sulaman, who has been radicalized to remove the Russian forces that seem to have occupied Urzikstan for the better part of twenty years. Sulaman’s determination to inflict mass casualties at any cost puts him in direct opposition with the Urzikstani Liberation Force – a militia organization formed to respond to the foreign subjugation Russia has inflicted on the country and to combat the domestic terrorism inflicted by the Al-Qatala. The Russian forces are led by a eccentric General named Roman Barkov. Fearing Urzikstan as a “breeding ground” for terrorism, he decided that it was in Russia’s best interest to insert their forces and act as their “administrator.”

Of the main characters, I found Farah to definitely be one of the most interesting, primarily because we’re exposed to more of her dark and terrifying backstory. One level in particular focuses an incredibly traumatic experience of Farah’s childhood as she awakens underneath the rubble of what appears to be the aftermath of an artillery strike, and witnesses her village struck with nerve gas that poisoned the civilians, pets and livestock. You and your brother are tasked with trying to flee the area. It’s a delve into the blacker areas of warfare all told from the perspective of a child, and the level itself was exceptionally designed, as Farah and her brother Hadir witness the chaos and destruction of a foreign invasion, and the death, decay and rot of chemical warfare.

The story, while leaning on the shorter side, kept me hooked from start to finish. Each of the fourteen chapters are completely unique, with no two levels feeling similar. You start the game by trying to intercept a potential chemical weapons heist, and from there the game expands to include establishing an ambush mission, conducting stealth operations at night, responding to hostage situations, engaging in sniper missions (complete with impressively detailed physics) while you defend your position, and much more. I personally really enjoyed how many of the levels had an open-ended approach, where multiple paths led to the same conclusion. It allows and encourages players to explore.

As mentioned before, the campaign did feel shorter than the most recent campaign in World War II, clocking at around 6 hours on Realism – the game’s hardest difficulty. That being said, the game does note that the story continues in the cooperative Spec-Ops mode (which will be discussed later), and there’s also a drive for replay value as the game rewards you with multiplayer benefits provided you meet the criteria of what Infinity Ward calls their “Collateral Damage Assessment.” At a cursory glance, this metric seems to be determined based on factors like civilian casualties and friendlies lost in firefights, but there could be other factors to consider. There are several moments where an NPC will verbally yell out the name of a person lost in a firefight, or an enemy will take a civilian hostage. You’re given a short window of opportunity to interact positively or negatively that will ultimately impact your final grade in that level. I consider this one of the campaign’s strongest achievements as it helps build a player’s sense of understanding for what it means to operate and act as a soldier, making important life or death calls in split-second scenarios. It adds a level of intimacy as I felt more responsible for what happened, and if someone perished, I felt as though I could have done things differently. This felt like a vast improvement from what Sledgehammer Games did with World War II, where players were given repetitive scenarios where a soldier NPC was downed, giving you the brief opportunity to risk your life to drag them to safety. With Modern Warfare, the assessment alludes that there are more decision-making instances that you need to be wary of going through any given level, and pay close attention to your actions as opposed to going through the motions of a shooting gallery, which many shooters fall victim to. It expects you to maintain situational awareness of the level, and to pay closer attention to the NPCs that follow you.

Multiplayer in this game looks to be phenomenal, sporting 21 maps out of the box and a plethora of competitive modes to please a variety of Call of Duty players. Team Deathmatch, Domination, Search and Destroy, Free-For-All, Kill Confirmed, Headquarters, and Gunfight all return as playable modes. Cyber Attack is a new mode for the series, which essentially acts like a variant of Search and Destroy where you’re planting EMPs to disrupt the opposing team’s data systems. Gunfight also has a new variant called Gunfight: OSP, where all players start with no weapons and need to find weapons around the map, not unlike 8Quake 3 Arena*. NVG is another new mode, that essentially just takes 4 existing maps and reduce the lighting and visibility, forcing players to utilize their night vision goggles.

Perhaps one of the most talked-about improvements to the core multiplayer component is that, for the first time, Call of Duty online will be cross platform. Now players can squad up together on the Xbox One, Playstation 4 and PC. Not only that, but for the first time all content will be released simultaneously for all platforms; no more waiting for timed map packs that are only available on one platform for a set amount of time. The obvious exception to this is Spec-Ops’ Survival mode, which will be exclusive to Playstation 4 owners for one year.

Character loadouts have made some significant changes in Modern Warfare, most notably with the inclusion of Field Upgrades. These are rechargeable items you can use for your class. Certain classic perks like Stopping Power have now been repurposed as a rechargeable Field Upgrade, which seems like a sensible decision; turning abusable static Perks into timed, limited buffs should reduce the potency. Each Field Upgrade has a variable recharge rate: Slow, Medium and Fast. Fast recharging Field Upgrades like Tactical Inserts have a significantly lower cooldown time than Slow Field Upgrades like Stopping Power. Perks are still existent, so you can combine them in conjunction with these Field Upgrades to maximize your custom loadouts to fit as many roles as you would like.

One interesting aspect they’ve decided to implement into the core multiplayer maps is the ability to open and close doors, similar to what you can do in Blackout. This offers several strategic advantages like seeing where players have been, or to close them and give the illusion that no one has been there. The maps themselves seem to be much larger in design, on average. There are multiple paths and routes to take, tons of narrow corridors to trap people in a firefight, and verticality to offer various vantage points for long distance combat.

Ground War makes a triumphant return, only now it’s been scaled up to impressive levels. Originally released as an 12-18 player mode in Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare title, GroundWar has more recently been adopted to serve as the foundation of Black Ops 4’s Blackout mode, beefing the player count to 50v50 in a Battle Royale setting. In Modern Warfare, Ground War consists of large-scale maps that support up to 100 players, and similar to Black Ops 4, will include air and ground vehicles for travel. Where I feel this personally outshines Blackout is that there are respawns for the mode; while Blackout was fun, and I understand the premise and intensity of elimination style gameplay, allowing players to get back into the action feels like a step in the right direction, as it’s less time waiting idly for a match to finish, and more time to actually play and enjoy the game.

Rather than adding another Zombie cooperative mode, Infinity Ward decided to revisit their Spec-Ops cooperative mode, and take it to new heights. This will be a four player cooperative mode, where players assume one of six class-based roles: Heavy, Engineer, Medic, Assault, Recon and Demolition. It’s imperative that you coordinate with your team to ensure you have a strategically thought out spread of classes so you’ll function adequately and competently throughout. Levels are large-scale maps, akin to what you’ll experience in Ground War, complete with access to vehicles for faster travel. Each Spec-Ops mission or objective will force you to switch up your playstyle mid-game; one objective will have you on a reconnaissance mission to scan and retrieve shipping logs for crates, where others will have you defend a position while you try and hack into their communications devices. How you approach each mission will also yield unique consequences, as enemies will react to your choices. Attacking head-on may deploy more forces, including tanks, helicopters or Juggernauts; alternatively, fortifying one position and refusing to advance will promote the enemy forces to advance and box you in. One feature is that experience gained is shared across modes; weapon experience and levels will carry over to the core multiplayer modes, which is a great way to streamline progression compared to previous Call of Duty games. While Spec-Ops is largely open to all platforms, there will be a Survival mode within that’s exclusive to the Playstation 4.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare was built using a new engine for the game, and it really shows. The lighting in this instalment is particularly spectacular, with impressive black levels for night time missions, and the ability to interact with light fixtures to reduce your visibility; the fire effects also look volumetric and incredibly bright. The character models are exceptionally detailed, with hair follicles and facial pores adding a great depth of realism. Character movement and weapons have also been reworked to add an exceptional sense of realism, adding a terrific sense of weight per weapon class. This also transitions to the core multiplayer where the movement feels less like the arcade-like gameplay Call of Duty is typically known for, and now feels more weighted and realistic, which is a change I really appreciate.

For me, the absolute star of Modern Warfare’s presentation is with the sound design. Rather than using artificially engineered sounds to make it seem like you’re firing a bullet, this time around Infinity Ward have decided to go above and beyond in terms of realism. They sought to record sounds from complex environments, like an abandoned mine, in an desert, deep in the woods; all of these settings produce vastly different sounds for each weapon fired, and these were some of the many lengths taken to get the incredible sound quality I got to experience. Not only that, but an extremely cool addition is that sound in this game actually travels the speed of sound; so if you’re farther away from an explosion and a teammate is closer, they’ll be able to hear it a fractions of a second sooner, depending on their relative distance.

They have also overhauled their physics engine to get weapons that fire digitally bullets out of a muzzle at the pull of a trigger, as opposed to the common Hitscan – a calculation that finds a point at which a given line (a bullet) intersects with a game object (a target) - that most shooters implement; the caliber of each weapon also dictates the velocity, recoil and bullet penetration to far more realistic degrees than in any previous Call of Duty title. The chapter Highway of Death is a fantastic use of the bullet physics mentioned.

Final Thoughts

As a general fan of the series since Call of Duty: Finest Hour dropped on the PS2, I’m always excited to sink my teeth into the next instalment this 16 year old franchise. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare not only exceeded my expectations for the quality of the game, but blew me away as far as their intentions were with their revised philosophies on post-game content goes. I think this is by and large the most welcoming Call of Duty for all gamers; getting rid of the season’s pass and rethinking how microtransactions ought to function, on top of developing cross platform capabilities all seem like Infinity Ward wanted to truly develop the most accessible and unified Call of Duty experience. Couple that with a solid single player story that seems to have abandoned the traditional action blockbuster route and instead tried at a more mature, emotionally driven narrative, and Modern Warfare is easily one of the strongest Call of Duty entries in recent memory.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare was reviewed using a PS4 Digital Copy provided by Activision. You can find additional information about Gaming Union's ethics policy here.
Fantastic sound design.
Impressive physics system.
Ground war seems to be a great improvement on Blackout.
Adding in crossplay between different platforms, and releasing post-launch content like maps and modes for free is a very smart move.
A strong single player campaign and an dark and gritty story to go with it.
Campaign is on the shorter side, even on the hardest difficulty.
Odd to add one fictional location while depicting the destruction of other real world location.
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