Modern Warfare 3 has perhaps the worst Call of Duty single-player campaign I’ve played. It’s shallow, dull, and plays less like the greatest hits and more like underbaked cover versions of missions past. It’s too busy looking back at former glories rather than focusing on making any new moments worth remembering, wrapped up in a borderline incoherent story with nothing to say. The only part we haven’t seen in a campaign before falls flat, bizarrely cobbling together pieces of the Warzone mode into actively bad sandbox missions, abandoning all of what made Call of Duty so great at its peak and instead delivering a dull string of missions that amount to a thoroughly disappointing handful of hours.
Sledgehammer Games’ big new addition this time around is the introduction of “open combat missions,” which make up half of the story’s chapters. They’re multi-objective arenas that aim to let you tackle tasks in any order and by whatever method suits your playstyle best. Unfortunately, they’re symptomatic of Modern Warfare 3’s flawed approach as a whole, opting for a thin veil of openness and choice over Call of Duty’s once-trademark blockbuster storytelling. It’s a shame because you can see a scenario where these missions could’ve reached the heights of 2019’s Lights Out – a great example of how to handle non-linear objectives in an FPS level – but unfortunately, that high mark is missed here. They rarely feel curated or authored, but instead are just spaces you’re dropped into and basically told to make your own fun.
Every IGN Call of Duty Review
This sandbox approach doesn’t fit what I’m looking for in a Call of Duty single-player story at all, and feels at odds with what made the original Modern Warfare trilogy the height of cinematic shooters. More than ever, this year’s campaign bears an uncomfortable resemblance to its multiplayer companion, as Warzone’s and DMZ’s open-world approach bleeds further into the level design, to its detriment. Modern Warfare 3 even relies on the same mechanics – scavenging for better weapons and gear from stashes and tailoring your loadout at a drop box – communicated by a near-identical UI. If I wanted this, I’d just drop into the battle royale solo and run around opening boxes and fighting enemies that are actually interesting.
It does give you a bit more freedom when it comes to approaching each mission as you scour weapons caches for new tools to do the job with. Choosing whether to go loud or quiet does create a veil of stamping your own style onto things, but no matter how stealthily you approach the situation you’re only really delaying the inevitable firefights against seemingly endlessly spawning enemies. And once you are spotted you’ll have a near-impossible job trying to lose them.
There’s an interesting idea in here somewhere, but it all just feels hastily put together and fairly cookie-cutter when it comes to actual variety or innovation. These are criminally all solo character missions, too, with communication to team members limited to radio chatter. As a result, there’s zero sense of camaraderie, as that original Call of Duty pillar of squad mentality and fighting with your AI teammates is brought crashing down.
With three practically identical objectives to be completed in each of these open combat missions, they all end up blending into a rinse-and-repeat experience I felt like I was playing over and over, just in different locations. I did discover occasional joy in figuring out alternative methods to complete some tasks, such as finding a mortar strike and using it to destroy one of three enemy helicopters instead of defaulting to the provided C4. One particular chapter, titled Highrise, managed to deliver relatively consistent excitement as I ascended multiple floors of an apartment building, hunting down a target The Raid-style. But in all honesty, the enjoyment I garnered from this mission type was fleeting, and I soon found myself producing a small, audible sigh each time the words “open combat mission” appeared on the screen.
There are a handful of more traditional Call of Duty-style linear missions, though, and those offer more consistent fun, but they have neither great highs nor lows. The best is a journey across a frozen tundra involving a snowstorm-decorated shootout at a shipyard. One stealth-focused mission delivers very faint echoes of the CoD classic All Ghillied Up thanks to its potential for two-for-one headshots, but as many imitators have found out since, sniping and a whole lot of laying down in the grass does not necessarily a great mission make, failing to capture the same level of tension that iconic mission provided.
The campaign’s opener takes place in a dark, rainy gulag transplanted directly from Warzone’s Verdansk map. It holds promise and can’t help but conjure up memories of the original Modern Warfare 2’s Captain Price rescue mission, but it sadly never reaches the same level of excitement, due to enemy encounters being incredibly simplistic in nature. Once again, this proves how much this campaign is caught between trying to look to the past for familiar thrills, and failing when looking forward and creating new mission types.
A prime example of this struggle is another stealth infiltration mission (there are too many of them) which encourages you to holster your gun completely in a rather dull exercise that mostly consists of strolling around another Verdansk landmark (this time its northern airfield) and suffering insta-fail death screens if you dare step within six feet of someone. It’s yet another example of Modern Warfare 3 feeling like a patchwork of old fabrics as new exciting locations are a rarity and pieces of Verdansk are recycled to diminishing effect. In total, it makes for a fairly forgettable set of missions this time around, even when it’s trying its best to unsettle you with its story.
There’s a reluctance to tell that story through gameplay. Instead, you carve your way through enemies before underwritten cutscenes move the plot along. This formula persists throughout and doesn’t allow for moments like the Eiffel Tower falling around you in 2011’s MW3, or Shock and Awe’s explosive ending from the original Modern Warfare to occur here, instead reserving all of the scenes of (limited) impact for cinematics. They’re undeniably beautifully rendered, complete with lifelike character models, but they do make for more of a story you end up watching unfold, rather than feeling like you’re an active participant in. It’s another example of what the original No Russian in MW2 did so well – putting you at the centre of its atrocities – but instead, you’re often kept at arm’s length, resulting in an emotionally distant experience.
That being said, a similar trick is pulled here, with this version’s take on No Russian placing you once again amid a horrific terrorist incident. It’s an arresting event that at least tries to put you in the shoes of a hero, albeit with a predictable tragic outcome looming. Of course, context is important. When I first saw Clean House from 2019’s Modern Warfare isolated from the rest of that campaign I found it jarring, but within the context of that story as a whole it’s clear to see it’s one of the most effective missions in the series. The same could be said for the original No Russian from 2009; an undoubtedly harrowing level, but one of Call of Duty’s more impactful from a storytelling perspective.
But where No Russian was effective as a catalyst for a great story, this year’s take on it ultimately ends up being fairly inconsequential in the grand scheme of the plot. It just feels like it’s there for the sake of it. Its only achievement is to let you know that Makarov is a bad person, as if that nail hadn’t been hit on the head enough times already. It attempts to say nothing further than “terrorism is bad” as innocent lives fuel yet another conflict. It’s a shame that the campaign doesn’t look to explore these themes further, especially in a time when the issues it takes on are so prescient. Instead, Modern Warfare 3 opts to engineer pure shock rather than smartly comment on the morally complex topics it eagerly takes advantage of for entertainment value.
Now obviously, the team at Sledgehammer could not have foreseen the recent tragic acts of terrorism that would impact our real world, the violent response to it, and the countless innocent civilian lives lost. These are all themes that Modern Warfare 3 broaches, though, and with them at the forefront of our minds currently, these issues feel as pertinent as ever and ones that should be handled with sensitivity. It’s not an easy situation to navigate, but one you inherently put yourself in when choosing to include such provocative material.
The Top 10 Call of Duty Campaigns
Call of Duty has never been especially poignant, but it has had its moments: 2007’s Modern Warfare and its sequels turned the lens towards the hearts of darkness inside governments and 2019’s attempted commentary on the use of chemical weapons to mixed success, for instance. But this time around the point of the story is muddy at best. Of course, the main purpose of these campaigns is to entertain, but as previously stated it doesn’t do a fantastic job of that either, and so it’s also disappointing that this take on hot-button issues such as terrorism and information warfare doesn’t even attempt a slightly deeper look below the surface.
Makarov himself has undergone a reinvention, but not for the better. Forget all you knew about the sinister, layered antagonist of old who possessed an IQ capable of playing nations’ governments of one another. This time around he’s a thin layer of clown makeup away from jetting off to cause mayhem in Gotham. This new anarchic approach to the character is one-dimensional, and though admirably performed by Julian Kostov who musters the occasional chilling line delivery, is unaided by a script begging for nuance. It doesn’t do the once-great villain justice, relegating him to a shallow character who comes and goes in the blink of an eye.
It makes for a four-hour story of limited thrills with fairly obvious twists and nostalgia plays. It promises excitement, but is frustratingly vacuous at its core. You spend so little time on missions accompanied by your squadmates that any emotional connections forged between yourself and Price, Soap, Gaz, or Ghost feel completely manufactured and ineffective, especially when it attempts to generate any sense of peril. And before you know it, Modern Warfare 3 just… ends. Without any true resolution or definitive closure to the looming threat, it simply rolls the credits. It’s a quite sudden finale to a woefully underwritten story, capped off with a laughable sunrise-backdropped cutscene.
But credit must be given where it’s due, and even though it’s completely expected of a Call of Duty game, I have to say that the gunplay along the way is thankfully great: smooth, snappy, and sounding superb. The fizz and eventual clunk of each bullet as they reach their destination is fantastic. Those destinations, though, are likely the endless waves of cannon fodder being thrown your way. Enemy AI, seemingly betrayed by the shift from linear to more sandbox-style areas, often appears dumb as bricks as they run out of cover with abandon and into the deadly arms of gunfire like it’s a long-lost friend. It’s very kind of them to sit absolutely still while you line up sniper shot after sniper shot, noticing their friends’ heads burst around them but doing absolutely nothing to avoid the same fate themselves.
There’s a real lack of variety to these encounters, too, as you’ll mostly be running around semi-open areas scrambling for cover as your boots are only taken off the ground for one tedious (and apparently now customary) AC-130 gunship mission. Considering the one experiment Modern Warfare 3 conducts – the open combat missions – is something of a bust, the lack of thinking outside the box elsewhere is a real disappointment as we’re led through a story that does the bare minimum to keep your attention.