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11/10/23 Activision
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11/10/23 Activision

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Call of Duty: Modern Warfare III (XS)

By Lee Mehr 30th Dec 2023 | 6,342 views 

"Ramirez! Consume product and then get excited for next product!"

Reviewer's Note: Given the story's fundamental flaws, there's no way of avoiding MAJOR SPOILERS here.  Read on at your own risk.

After mining through a billion service agreements with your lawyers to ensure you aren't selling your soul to a corporation, you'll eventually reach the Call of Duty (CoD) hub.  Rather than hopping straight into the thing you've paid for (Call of Duty: Modern Warfare III in this case), you're plopped into the game launcher to select your next destination, which also includes a few past titles.  It's rather ironic what this communicates about Activision and this series: it's less interested in getting players to the next chapter and more about grouping what your account ID is permitted to access.  From the very start, it's unintentionally implying Sledgehammer Games' latest is more of a content delivery vehicle than a true sequel. 
It starts out well enough.  Retooling one of the series' most popular prison breaks, the tutorial mission sets up the ceremonious return of Vladimir Makarov – who's now donning a Ben Shapiro skin suit for some reason.  So let's just say, for the sake of argument, you want to establish the main antagonist's determination and despotism.  How do you do it?  Well, how about publicly ending your second-in-command who momentarily & sensibly questioned your orders during an ever-evolving combat situation?  This style of cringe-inducing execution (pardon the pun) is emblematic of the story's need for edgy attention.

Similar to the original Modern Warfare series, Makarov's intentions of igniting a broader conflict begin with antagonizing the Motherland.  Committing terrorism at home while pinning the blame on neighboring country Urzikstan seems like the perfect way to ignite that ultra-nationalist zeal once again.  On its face, that geo-political context isn't insane to think about, especially given the ongoing Russo-Ukrainian War.  There's subtle acknowledgment of this connection with Makarov's Konni Group emulating a real-life Russian PMC emblem too.  But even in the face of that, it's useless to extrapolate much beyond a surface-level connection given writing this inept and cowardly.

There's no getting around the idiot plot from the start: a known terrorist who's previously slaughtered Russian citizens escapes prison and then other various attacks occur within days of each other.  There's no way of avoiding potential culpability and dumping it all on a supposed foreign adversary without ludicrous levels of convenience.  But because there has to be some rendition of "No Russian" here, we get a scenario that strains credulity.  So, then the subsequent fallout centers around preventing the international world from blaming the wrong culprit, which shouldn't be an issue anyways.

The narrative goes from straining credulity to outright self-parody in even funnier ways.  Not just one, but two off-screen character resurrections are revealed in the 2nd mission here: Alex (Modern Warfare) and Graves (Modern Warfare II).  Since I didn't catch this before, it turns out this was revealed in prior Warzone seasonal update cutscenes.  It's funny too since both of them just shrug off the suggestion that they were blown to smithereens with an "ah… forget about it" aura.  In this reboot series, the only surefire way for a named character to die is a headshot.  It's also hilarious to think about the insistence – whether from this goulash of writers or Activision – of having these two interchangeable action figures returning, as if fans were clamoring to hear more Kentucky-fried jokes from a military contractor who ordered the wholesale slaughter of a South American town.

The reason these particulars are so fascinating is because of how they feed into Modern Warfare III's grander problems.  Even storytelling 101 staples feel insultingly mismanaged: certain moments of potential narrative tension are immediately resolved on their own, the artificial ways information is withheld from certain characters, poor understanding of payoffs, wildly inconsistent tone, and so on.  Everything quickly starts to feel like a conveyer belt of contrivances – one after the other – while ensuring the bare minimum of loose ends are handled by the end.  It's impossible to feel anything with so many terrible fumbles.

None of this is to suggest Modern Warfare 3 (2011) was a modern-day War & Peace; the patently absurd World War 3 plot shows its shlocky action intentions.  Setting its own contrivances aside, it still worked because of stellar presentation and tangible stakes.  All of the cogs clicking in tandem – flashback sequences, shifting POVs, etc. – managed to build up to a climax that felt earned.  Modern Warfare III utterly fails to copy someone else's homework.  There's so little propulsion or cinematic flair to the vast majority of this runtime; hell, even simple tension from a soundtrack is apparently too much to ask for.  The singular bright spot would be the voice actors earning their paycheck while having to gargle through the usual Alpha-Whiskey-Tango dialogue.  

Part of this mismanagement stems directly from "Warzone-ifying" its truncated, four-hour campaign too.  Yes, we've gone beyond armor kits for enemies to roughly half of all campaign levels being recycled Warzone map slices.  On its face, that setup sounds like a breath of fresh air; balancing between the series' rote linearity and open-ended experimentation could be a great step forward.  Who knows?  Maybe even baking in something like Warren Spector's "One City Block" pitch could make these areas feel like living micro-worlds capable of altering based on your decisions.

Of course, this being a CoD title on a tight schedule all but guarantees it won't be much more than a desultory mismatch.  You're still doing the typical 'destroy 3 vehicles' or 'plant 3 trackers' mission that’s oftentimes capped off with a brief linear segment – which feel like last-minute additions.  When you're in the sandbox, there's technically no checkpoint.  Well, I should say there’s a "soft checkpoint" system.  Should you gather different materiel before dying, be it weapons in special drop-boxes, attachments, or devices like a rope-ascender, those come back with you to the beginning.  It's a nice idea that enables some moments of genuine experimentation, especially with stealth.  Unfortunately, the core design of a solo player in these open areas is too wonky: enemy detection systems between safe/suspicious/caught feel loosey-goosey, they care more about raising an alarm when seeing you than after spotting a random dead body, their Daredevil-esque accuracy when you're caught is just there to compensate for their general stupidity, and so on.  It's also funny how nearly every mission implies friendlies on the ground to provide support and yet… they're nowhere to be found while fighting.

Naturally, the other half of linear missions follow an expected checklist (see: hello AC-130 Gunship).  Perhaps at this point everyone's setting themselves up for disappointment if they expect the threequel to a rebooted series to experiment.  But even by restrained standards, it's wild to think of how poorly this song and dance goes.  Sure, most of the tryhard storytelling beats from the first are puerile, and the second's execution remains uneven, but at least there was something there to investigate.  Here, there's the equivalent of a Fortnite title update with quicker movement mechanics – which just look like you’re doped up on Ritalin – yet there are no other tangible quirks beyond more Warzone.  Even previous gimmicks like dialogue choices are trimmed down to one instance with no wrong answer.  It perfectly epitomizes the campaign as a whole: it's so uniquely uncommitted to any concept that hasn't been processed several times over.

Warzone spilling into new arenas sums up Modern Warfare III Zombies, or "Operation Deadbolt" as it’s called.  The concept is relatively straightforward: the Urzikstan map is now littered with the undead following a mysterious chemical weapon being unleashed.  Within this expansive quarantine zone are three color-coded threat levels; unsurprisingly, the outer band contains the lowest-level enemies, while tougher opponents are closer to ground zero.  You (and potentially several buddies) have a 45-minute window to complete various tasks that range from asset protection to destroying enemy convoys, and then a 15-minute Shutdown Event, though you can call for extraction before that.

For the purists who endured what Zombies became in Vanguard, they likely won't be pleased by this deviation either.  Sure, there's better enemy variety, and staples like Pack-a-Punch machines are there at launch; that said, difficulty centered on location (like an MMO) rather than increasing rounds fundamentally changes the design ethos of its formative years.  Similarly, mixing the undead with armed mercenaries can ruffle some feathers, especially if fighting devolves into a mosh pit.  Under the right conditions, I think there are potential benefits in tinkering with the formula.  It's a shame that never comes to fruition here.  Even with Vanguard in mind, I struggle to think of being more… blasé about Zombies than I am here.  It's not even awful per se, but rather no nuance properly gels to become anything more than another ingredient for its own sake. 

A greater, more immediate put-off for me is the obnoxious Tier mission structure.  It's simple enough in theory: continuing the "Dark Aether" narrative, you need to complete specific challenges in order to unlock special story missions and cinematics.  The catch is you have to follow those tiered challenges in their designated order to unlock.  So, let's say I happen upon a random stranger in my instance (it’s PVE only) and decide to tag along for their Act 1 finale mission.  Even though I did the same work in getting there and watched the same cutscene, none of this is acknowledged on my challenge sheet; even worse, the work other colleagues had done prior to meeting said stranger was annulled because of not extracting in a specific location.  That realization was the primary motivator for me dropping Zombies so quickly.  If you're not going to respect my time, I have no reason to put up with your bullshit.  Plain and simple.

The ever-present Skinner box of competitive modes remains stagnant but can threaten to be absorbing.  Like campaign and co-op, recycled content is an issue again in the form of Modern Warfare 2 (2009) maps here.  They've been remastered well enough, but a fundamental quirk is how exploitable they feel with revamped movement mechanics without expanding a map's overall size.  Balance is busted in favor of the potential to act like you’re on a coke binge.  It's a weird template for someone who grew up with the originals, but I also can’t deny there's some charm to it on certain modes.  It's also nice how tactics have evolved past spamming noob tubes from the olden days. 

For any compliment I want to give there’s a wretched quality waiting to pounce back into my mind.  The artificially-gated tier challenges in Zombies slither their way into multiplayer via Armory Unlocks.  Want to acquire weapons, utility, killstreaks, & more that match your playstyle?  Well, select up to three choices (max) and then grind whatever daily challenges are posted.  There's no way any multiplayer designer believes this is better than leveling up and allowing players to bank points as they please.  Even gating materiel to a player's level is preferable, since gaining xp is more flexible than having to get 5 frag kills or 10 friendlies resupplying with my ammo boxes.

This is sandwiched with the unfortunate supra-monetary maneuvers that've become the "Fortnite-ifying" standard.  You know the deal: a battle pass and separate cosmetic store for brand items at wild prices.  It's a genuine shame too since the multiplayer variety, be it Normal or Custom, has been decent thus far and there's room for stronger iteration.  It'd even be interesting to see if Sledgehammer & connected support studios had the chops to make new quality maps with these new mechanics.  

2023 has been a tough year for quality higher-budget shooters and Sledgehammer Games exemplifies that claim.  Unlike other examples, like Redfall & Crime Boss: Rockay City, it's more a bad game in principle rather than in execution.  It should be manifestly impossible for a game with this mechanical baseline and punchy audio-visual design to fumble so egregiously across so many avenues.  It's almost a feat unto itself!  From the opening service agreements to the end credits, anyone can implicitly perceive this feeling like a hurried expansion with an exorbitant retail price ($70).  Even by the tempered expectations of this fatigued franchise, Modern Warfare III deserves nothing less than a dishonorable discharge.

Contractor by trade and writer by hobby, Lee's obnoxious criticisms have found a way to be featured across several gaming sites: N4G, VGChartz, Gaming Nexus, DarkStation, and TechRaptor! He started gaming in the mid-90s and has had the privilege in playing many games across a plethora of platforms. Reader warning: each click given to his articles only helps to inflate his Texas-sized ego. Proceed with caution.

VGChartz Verdict


This review is based on a digital copy of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare III (Vault Edition) for the XS, provided by the publisher.

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