Call of Duty: Modern Warfare III review – exhilarating game engineering rescues a tired format

Now celebrating its 20th anniversary, the Call of Duty series has always been a game of two halves. The first: a cinematic dash through several chaptered set-pieces. You inhabit the action hero – cannons to the left of them, flame-throwers to the right – diving through checkpoints en route to a denouement involving Nazis, nuclear weapons or space lasers, depending on the era in which the game is set. The second: Call of Duty rendered not as a film but as a sport, a merry-go-round of endlessly cycling competitive matches played in teams of friends or strangers, vying to be the first team, or individual, to snipe or spray their way to the top of the scoreboard.

Modern Warfare III builds on this fundamental template. On the first count, it’s something of a disappointment: a campaign of broadly lacklustre missions, for which, reportedly, the team did not have sufficient time (the story was to be set in Mexico, until Activision executives allegedly told the development team to re-orient and re-brand the game). A different story emerges from the inferno of the game’s multiplayer modes, however, which revive some of the series’ best-loved maps, introduce a slew of new locations, add finessing tweaks to your character’s movement, and combine this with a revamped system of weapon attachments that encourages players to craft a tool to suit their preferred play style.

The game is certainly slick and fast-paced, a cartoonish counterpoint to the dour war sims that appeal to more literal-minded players. You sprint and slide, leaping across scenery, smashing through glass windows, returning to the fight in an instant whenever you’re gunned down. MWIII brings back “slide-cancelling”, whereby you can instantly return to your feet mid-skid, which brings a new dynamism and speed to matches.

Still, it’s difficult to know precisely where MWIII starts and its predecessors end. In recent years the series has subtly shifted shape to become a live service game with regular updates. You still check into Call of Duty HQ, much like you did last month, and select from a range of competitive and collaborative modes to suit every whim and interest. The boxed release feels like an anachronism, a marketing hook more than a meaningful evolution, one designed to provide another revenue stream for a game that already nickel and dimes its players with season passes, digital costumes and “skins” for your favoured weapons.

That said, MWIII’s maps, especially the returning fan favourites, almost justify the expense. A deadly sniper battle across a snow-blanketed railway terminal; a capture-the-checkpoint scuffle amid a brightly coloured South American favela; a three-team, die-once-and-you’re-out fracas around a dusty oil well: these are endlessly enjoyable arenas, and the game perfectly matches you with players on either side of your skill level to encourage you to improve, while ensuing you don’t become crestfallen.

For players who prefer a more co-operative approach, MWIII’s standout mode is Zombies, a major and brilliant overhaul of last year’s tentative DMZ, in which a team of three drop into a city, scavenge for materials, upgrade their weapons, fight zombies and, ideally, exfiltrate the map with all the loot before the timer runs down. The deeper into the city the team ventures, the greater the challenge and rewards. A proficient group will move through the ruined city as a single unit, completing little missions, incrementally upgrading their offensive and defensive capabilities, and occasionally running into other trios of players who are trying to do the same. It’s tremendous fun, and fully realises DMZ’s potential by essentially relocating the concept to the post-apocalyptic world of The Last of Us.

While Warzone, Call of Duty’s immensely popular battle royale mode, is yet to be brought under the MWIII umbrella, players can currently work together in War Mode, which pitches two teams of six players against one another across a vast map. Defenders attempt to hold back advancing invaders, who must pass thresholds and meet objectives in order to move the frontline back into enemy terrain, escorting a tank through pocked streets before leaping into a missile bunker to upload codes and a prevent a launch. It’s a toy-soldier representation of frontline warfare whose closest real-life equivalent is rugby or American Football, where success is primarily measured in yards, not kills.

Reviewing a Call of Duty game today is a bit like reviewing a military theme park: it’s impossible to give a holistic appraisal. You might find the rollercoasters thrilling, the ferris wheel tiresome, and the hotdogs tasty, but consider its murky ties to the US military-industrial complex deeply problematic. Certainly, however, the game has expanded in such diverse and deliberate directions that most players will find at least one diversion to suit their tastes and play styles, and for this the developers are to be commended. Wrangling an annual series into a persistent online framework is obviously an unwieldy challenge for artists, designers and programmers alike, as they seek to marry the past and future of video game delivery. Within those difficult, arguably misguided constraints, MWIII is, campaign aside, a minor triumph of engineering and design.

  • Call of Duty: Modern Warfare III is out now; from £59.99