Review: Call of Duty Modern Warfare is the tense, intimate thrill the series needed

It’s been more than a decade since the original Call of Duty: Modern Warfare rappelled into the hearts, minds, and trigger fingers of first-person shooter fans everywhere. From the perspective of a fresh-faced recruit to Task Force 141, alongside the mustachioed Captain Price and crew, players rocketed off across Europe and the Middle East to breach and clear in pretty glorious fashion. Now, in 2019, after tackling ’Nam, drone warfare, outer space, and even a trip back to WWII, the series is finally returning to (mostly) modern day, and it’s a return to form that anyone who’s grown immensely tired of previous entries’ increasingly bombastic nature will appreciate—mostly.

The campaign: A return to excellence, mostly

The moon is a sliver in the sky, and much like the trees in this forest, my squadmates and I cast long shadows over unsuspecting militants. It all begins typically enough for a Call of Duty game. A hapless group of enemy soldiers hear the snapping of a twig, and are suddenly cut down in a hail of moderately silenced fire. It’s a somewhat misleading reintroduction to Modern Warfare, as we’re quickly scanning a refinery allegedly filled with poisonous gas canisters, then calling in a massive airstrike to obliterate it and anyone inside.

At this moment, it all seems like another Call of Duty game. We’re going loud, we’re breaching, and a wave of enemies has started making its way toward us. Great, another open area full of bad guys to eliminate. A bit too classic for Call of Duty as of late.

Instead, I’m cut down in roughly three shots, far quicker than in any previous Call of Duty. Thus my reeducation begins, with Modern Warfare quickly establishing its slower pace and more deliberate movement.

It’s not enough to simply turn a corner and mow down a group of terrorists. You’re now simply way more vulnerable. Modern Warfare adds a “mount” mechanic that helps in this respect, encouraging you to dig into cover and steady your aim, to peek around corners before committing to advancing. It turns what would have been a wide open battlefield in most previous COD games into a much more intimate affair, and this is where this new Modern Warfare’s strengths lie.

Later on, I’m sitting in the backseat of an unmarked British police vehicle, all eyes on a van stuck in traffic not 30 yards ahead of us. In a moment evoking Sicario’s border crossing scene, our slow advance on our suspects is cut short by a lookout, and chaos begins to envelop everything around us. Though this battlefield feels more open-ended than the one I just left, everywhere I look, something significant is happening. A man flees into cover, a terrorist bomber cries out in glory before rushing a series of parked cars and exploding into fire, and his companions fire from the second-floor windows of a bookstore.

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Modern Warfare’s story this time around is one you’ll find very familiar. There’s a terrorist plot afoot to blow up the western world, a civil war in a Middle Eastern country, and various benefactors and bombers all worth chasing down. It’s all carried by the earnest action movie heroics of Captain Price and a freedom fighter named Farah, who both drive much of the emotion behind the broader strokes. Though you play as Farah in a few standout sequences, it’s through the eyes of a U.S. Troy Baker knockoff (sporting a mustache that must make him part of the Captain Price fan club) and a young black British cop that we see the story unfold. Not-Troy-Baker is at least as painlessly generic as any other COD protagonist, and while our British cop gets lots of cool stuff to do as a new recruit to Price’s squad, I honestly can’t remember a single thing about either of them.

Farah, on the other hand, is a nice breath of fresh air, and one that we get to explore in a way that feels satisfyingly fleshed out, rather than making her momentary wallpaper. As a companion to our primary player characters, Farah is compelling in her conviction to free her people from Russian occupation and civil war (timely, eh?) and convincingly willing to tie bombs to drones or navigate a town fraught with in-progress war crimes. In one sequence set during her childhood, we see those same horrors of war in even grander scale during a chemical attack. It all culminates in a cat-and-mouse chase between Farah and a hulking, gas-masked Russian soldier in her home. Her smaller stature allows for her to sneak underneath tables and beds, scrounging up knives and scissors for her moment to strike. It’s tense, it’s smaller-scale than any sci-fi shootout, and it just feels unique enough to be memorable.

What I began to hate so much about previous Call of Duty campaigns is that, at a certain point, they all tended to become straightforward shooter galleries. Sure, it’s cool that I’m on Mars and battling Terminator bots, but it’s just another open area to shoot dudes in.

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What 2019’s Modern Warfare campaign gets so right is the same thing its originator did. Every battlefield, no matter how big or small, is never a straightforward fight. You’ll find yourself on the roof of a two-story building, surveying a darkened field of reeds, periodically launching flares into the blackness to see if enemy insurgents are advancing upon you. It’s terrifying to watch what started out as dots on the horizon quickly turn into armed men at your doorstep. Elsewhere, you’ll assault a hospital in order to capture a high-value target, but a multitude of traps force you to take your time inching from room to room. A push across a city courtyard turns into death trap with a single sniper perched at the far end.

While there isn’t a moment equal to the original Modern Warfare’s nuke, or MW 2’s “No Russian,” the standout sequences are a couple of home infiltrations, bathed in night-vision, turning a single townhouse into a maze of corners to check and doors to creak open. Like many of Modern Warfare’s standout moments, there’s very little replayability after the novelty has passed, but each floor can feel like a minute ripped straight from the ending of Zero Dark Thirty, and is a master class in audio design and animation. Is that wood creaking from the squad member in front of me, or is someone setting up their shot in the bedroom next door? Is that woman going for her child or a gun? The tension of these moments can’t be understated; each one feels as grueling (in the best way possible) as any more drawn-out mission.

While these smaller, more intimate moments shine almost all throughout the campaign, things unfortunately get a little hazy by the end. Over the course of your journey, you’ll learn about secret terrorist plots, hidden motivations, and what villainous figures drove Farah to lead her freedom fighters, but it all culminates in a kind of wet fart of an ending. A character I expected to only play a role in flashbacks ends up becoming a primary antagonist, and in fact their eventual exit from the story is so convoluted it drove me to pause my game in confusion. The original Modern Warfare’s plot certainly didn’t make much more of its antagonist than “big Russian scary guy,” but at least you knew exactly how dire things were when he showed up on that perilous bridge. Not so with 2019’s more involved, but ultimately less intimidating antagonist.

Ultimately, this is easily the strongest Call of Duty campaign in years, and largely for the same reasons that made the original Modern Warfare a gem, turning shooters away from WWII machismo to post-9/11 grays. It’s certainly nowhere near as innovative. It’s at least as dumb as most other entries. It’s got some heart though, and it’s got some class, and even after rocketing through it in a day, I still wanted to hear some mustachioed sentient muscle tell me to “stay frosty.”

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Call of Duty Modern Warfare multiplayer: Modest, wonderfully simplified

Multiplayer, go figure, is where Modern Warfare’s changes to the basic gameplay really shine, as it also slows things down to a far more manageable pace that makes this FPS fan giddy.

Take Gunfight, the newest mode among all the core deathmatch options. In Gunfight, it’s two vs. two on a map that can barely fit a couple of APCs, with each team getting the same loadout. The geography of most maps is rigidly mirrored to make sure things stay absolutely even, but then you get maps like “Hill,” which declines from one side to the other and blocks distance vision.

The tension in these sessions is physically palpable, like the final moments of an entire battle royale condensed into 50 seconds. That your loadout changes every two rounds keeps things interesting, but it’s that purity of chance and skill that yanks those cries of victory out of your mouth when you cinch a kill with a pistol from afar. Between Modern Warfare’s review event and an earlier preview event, I’ve played so much Gunfight it’s not even funny, and I’ve yet to tire of it. When larger modes like Ground War drag on, or team deathmatch proves insurmountable, this is the mode I’ll be coming back to again and again.

There’s less to praise about Modern Warfare’s other modes, but the changes to mobility keep the pace of battle manageable, so I rarely felt like was losing unfairly. Unlike Black Ops before it, there’s no bunny hopping. War is hell, but at least it’s a mostly ground-level hell. The mounting mechanic feels like a reliable way to reduce recoil, making distance fights possible even for gamepad users like myself, and can turn tight hallway fights into something closer to those aforementioned townhouse raids. There’s a weight and a sense of lethality here that the more arcade-y COD entries never really achieved, and it’s all for the better.

To that end, map structure has been changed away from a three-lane, perfectly symmetrical design to something more natural. Markets ebb and flow with the shops that pack the streets, buildings are unevenly spaced and elevated, and things are generally just scattered about more. You know, messy, like real life. This is great for the moment-to-moment tension and thrill of a match. You’re never quite sure where a threat is until you’re close, but it does often feel like I’m chasing the tail end of a firefight than engaging in one, and I had a few too many matches that dragged on in such a way.

As much as the layout design is better, it does feel like Modern Warfare could stand to gussy up some areas. The list of maps is littered with the painfully typical bombed out buildings, concrete streets, and vaguely foreign market debris. If Activision and Infinity Ward hadn’t thrown their millions of dollars into graphical fidelity, I’d probably be criticizing these maps even more for being visually (not necessarily structurally) boring.

And for all the praise of slowing things down, it’s Apex Legends that could teach Modern Warfare a thing or two with its ping system. It’s good that it’s not in Gunfight, but Apex’s ping system could easily assuage a lot of communication issues, especially in maps that have winding layouts that can’t be easily memorized.

Ground War sits firmly on the other end of the spectrum, tossing two teams of 32 players into the fray across maps that you’d probably consider on Battlefield’s smaller end, like a modernized city teeming with skyscrapers or a large quarry and its open fields. As you can guess, it’s Battlefield, but with a Call of Duty coat of paint. It’s a bit of good fun, especially if you kit yourself out to carry two primary weapons so you can switch from sniper to mid-range, but it definitely falls prey to the same frustrations as other modes. It’s easy to see a loss coming from a mile away, and if players aren’t coordinating well enough, it can sometimes feel like you’re all alone on the map. I think a lot of multiplayer fans are going to need some time to get into this game’s groove.

Thankfully, a lot of that will be made easier by Gunsmith, Modern Warfare’s Build-a-Bear… but for guns. Play with a base weapon enough and you’ll unlock countless attachments. Each gun gets five customization slots, so you can toss a 70-bullet drum barrel on an AK, or a stock on a revolver and see your craziest dream guns come true. I had a particular bit of luck throwing an oil can on my pistol, along with a hip fire mod, and living out my fantasies as a modern John Wick. It’s more “Tacticool” than fantasy, but it helps keep you invested in a healthy variety of guns.

I never quite expected to like Call of Duty: Modern Warfare as much as I did, but here we are with a game that can mostly stand on its own merits. Multiplayer is accessible, yet by no means casual, and it’s all enough to drag a dabbler like me further in. Though the campaign doesn’t perfectly stick the landing, it finds strength in a multitude of moments that keep things intimate yet thrilling, making it almost certainly one of the series’ strongest entries. Infinity Ward is a dramatically different team than the original, but if this level of strong core design manages to maintain down the road, I eagerly await World War 3 once again.

Score: 4/5

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare is available for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC on Oct. 25. This review was written based on time spent playing the game on a PS4 Pro console at a private event organized and paid for by Activision.

Joseph Knoop

Joseph Knoop

Joseph Knoop is a gaming writer for Daily Dot, a native Chicagoan, and a slave to all things Overwatch. He co-founded the college geek culture outlet ByteBSU, then interned at Game Informer, and now writes for a bunch websites his parents have never heard of.