Review: Call of Duty: Modern Warfare hits and misses many of its marks

An exciting and frustrating mixed bag.

NOTE: For our Call of Duty: Modern Warfare review, we’re going to break it into two parts: Campaign and multiplayer. For this page, you’ll find our thoughts on the campaign. The second page will talk about gunplay and the multiplayer as a whole.

Without further ado, let’s jump right into it.

Call of Duty is a series that has always been criticized for being “the same” year over year. In 2014, we saw the series go into the future and since then, it has only embraced the future. Now, we’re back to Modern Warfare and while it’s familiar, it’s also very new and different.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare places us in the shoes of various soldiers in October and November 2019. The world is tense following a horrific terrorist attack and a deadly chemical nerve agent has gone missing. It’s up to you to find out where it is and intercept it before it can be used in a catastrophic incident.

It’s a rather traditional story that does nothing particularly new on the surface but Infinity Ward’s execution is what elevates it above many other stories in the franchise and genre. They swap out the tried and true Michael Bay vibes for those reminiscent of a more contemporary war film like Zero Dark Thirty. The big threat and core plot is mere window dressing for what the game is actually about, it’s the themes that help convincingly sell this story into something far more than an action-packed popcorn blockbuster.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare is a story about soldiers in a war or world that is not black and white. This is a story about the morally right thing not always being the correct solution to a problem. This is a story about the mentality of a soldier.

With that comes a cast of both new and returning players to the Modern Warfare subfranchise. The oldies are as good as they’ve ever been but often the newbies fail to make an impression. They serve the story they’re here for but will I remember CIA agent Alex like I remembered Gaz, Ghost, or Soap? Unlikely. Where Call of Duty: Modern Warfare makes itself memorable is in the moments these characters find themselves.

Modern Warfare pushes a narrative that isn’t complex in its initial presentation but is layered with hard-hitting questions that weigh heavily on the player constantly.

Not only are you shown traumatic things such as soul-shaking terrorist attacks that rattle you internally with the echoing gunshots, screaming, and streets covered in blood but you’re put in stressful situations. When I saw the game back at E3, I questioned if the game would be able to effectively execute its themes in gameplay. After playing it myself, I can say Modern Warfare made me feel things that few other games have ever felt.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare

It weaves in its themes very carefully with gameplay by knowing when to pull back on the theatrics. The most effective missions are those with Captain Price where you’re raiding an incredibly compact house with your NVGs on. The music is non-existent, the HUD is kept to a minimum, it turns into something authentic.

With real soldiers acting out the scene in front of you and photorealistic graphics, you’re immersed into something that you’ve heard and seen about time and time again on TV. You have to be quick to pull the trigger to save a life or yourself but also be quick to determine what’s not an actual threat. You have to be able to aware of your surroundings and check corners and much more. These moments are ones that cause you to clamp down on your controller like your holding a rifle that determines life or death for you.

Even further, in missions that are more “traditional”, you’ll still have to be quick. Modern Warfare doesn’t keep these moments too sparse or stash them in missions where they should be expected, it carefully sprinkles them to keep that authentic feeling. Judgement calls are a constant, not a rarity.

You’ll be sprinting down a hallway of a building in a warzone and all of a sudden, there’s someone grabbing a civilian and pointing a gun at their head. Very quickly you have to stop, aim, and take the enemy out without killing the civilian. If you’re not as cautious, you can either shoot right through the civilian or the enemy can kill them on their own terms.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare

You’re not going to be able to save everyone throughout the campaign and the game forces you to realize this. It holds you by the head and makes you watch as people die right in front of you while guilting you or making you feel a sense of responsibility. It’s horrible, it’s painful, and it’s real. They want to drive home the theme of heroes not always being able to be heroic. Real war doesn’t have guitar riffs after moments of badass triumph. Real war has feelings of emptiness after you’ve tried so hard but ultimately failed.

While video games are never going to be able to 100% accurately capture “real war”, Modern Warfare goes to great lengths to bring a level of understanding of what atrocities are happening in our world today.

The brutality and viciousness are impactful, causing moments of uncomfortable awe. They knew just where to pull back as to not be all about shock value. It always feels like it’s bordering on the tone of MW2’s No Russian mission without crossing over to stir up controversy or to feel too tone-deaf.

Even when it’s not about saving others, Modern Warfare drives a consistent feeling of deadly tension throughout. There are tripwires, enemies tactically positioning themselves or flanking you, grenades being used to flush you out of cover, and much more.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare

Infinity Ward has described Modern Warfare as soldiers being placed in imperfect situations with the expectation of solving them perfectly. You feel that theme throughout, whether that’s trying to pick out mortar teams firing on you from miles away or being told to clear a building filled with enemies and civilians with no mistakes.

Despite all of this authenticity, it’s hard to say Modern Warfare is as “realistic” as it may think it is. There are sequences where they turn waterboarding into awkward gamified mechanics and other moments that feel jarring as you keep rapidly switching between really well-executed moments to moments that feel rushed.

Even when you kill a civilian by mistake, the game sometimes fails you with a game over screen and makes you try again. In real life, you’d be court marshaled. When you replay these moments, you know exactly what to do. It deflates all the tension, makes it feel very scripted and structured, and as if your hand is being held too tightly. There’s a glaring disconnect where the game has grand ambitions and nails them to such an extreme in some areas but fails horribly in others.