It’s saying something that here at Codec Moments we’ve all bought into the latest in this franchise. For the last few years we’ve been a bit nonplussed with the offerings from any of the core developers. Sledgehammer, Raven and Treyarch have thrown up technically competent titles, but none have really reached the heights of the juggernaut that was the original PS3/Xbox 360 trilogy from Infinity Ward. The lure of midnight store openings and playing until dawn breaks in these dark winter months is still there for the hardcore, but has been missing for us for some time. Can things be different with this prequel – we refuse to call it a soft reboot because it’s not – with the promise of a return to campaign form after last years massive omission, and some real thought into what made the multiplayer so addictive? We’re hopeful that Modern Warfare is enough to pull us back from the brink of COD fatigue, though that’s all in Activision’s hands.
It’s not the done thing to talk about the single player in a Call of Duty game is it? Mostly those I chat to are insistent on telling me their K/D ratio, how many times they’ve prestige’d and how they were pwning n00bs like a mofo the night before. Yet that’s not what I’ve bought into the series for in the past. For me it’s been about the single player campaign and the curated bombastic experience that the teams behind the action deliver. Of course there’s always a toe dipped into the online action, there’s no way that can be avoided in this genre, but it’s not the core reason for buying the game. Modern Warfare has been no different in driving the purchasing mentality, and fortunately there’s been a big push for the story mode by Activision to show that they’ve been listening to the audience… and no doubt the sales figures from last year. Pulling on the surprising star power of Capt. Price, there’s a finely crafted tale about heroic allies facing off against villainous terrorists across several countries and through varying shades of political acceptance, with the odd attempt at causing controversy. It’s good, though by the end there’s a familiar feeling of it being cut short deliberately in order to leave something for the next game.
With the setting of Modern Warfare being current, drifting away from the sci-fi shenanigans of the last few titles, it’s easy to draw parallels with Call of Duty 4, 5 and 6, though that would be selling things a bit short. Sure, the way the missions are structured are heavily influenced by what’s gone before, yet the significant overhaul the engine has had means there’s more nuance and subtlety in play than you’d expect. There’s the standard swapping between SAS, US Special Forces and militia forces to give different viewpoints and variety, though this time the type of gameplay is heavily weighted to each faction. The US are typically loud and overpowered, the militia are makeshift and fighting for survival against well trained foes, and the SAS are stealth operatives. It’s the latter that leaves the biggest impression because the time spent clearing rooms with the colour palette defined by the anaemic green of nightvision goggles is wonderfully tense. Tight confined spaces and working as a team based on the audio cues from the AI really creates an atmosphere that is hard to beat, and it makes the run and gun sections feel all the more chaotic. It is still largely linear, so it comes as a surprise when quite late on there’s an open-ish level that gives choices of objectives. It’s great, though really should have been earlier, and maybe with another couple of levels that allow that sort of freedom.
Of course, the inspiration for a lot of the scenarios come from previous games and movies, with only a couple that stand out as genuinely unique. There’s more than one that sails close to being “All Ghillied Up” in nature; a stage that feels like the opening of Medal of Honor: Frontline; and although it’s spectacular to play, there’s a clone of 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi. Dip into the co-op modes and it’s easy to stumble across Black Hawk Down. This doesn’t mean they aren’t well designed and entertaining, it’s just that it feels more like a greatest hits compilation with a story linking the set pieces. To a degree this ends up affecting the attachment that’s supposed to be formed with the characters, and their fates end up falling a little flat as it’s not managed to weave the tale tightly enough to make you care. Not wanting to trivialise the real life terrible events that create child soldiers, but even the section that deals with what can inspire and make an insurgent doesn’t manage to have the impact that deep down you know it should. Modern Warfare wanders up and down the line that defines those grey areas where one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter, it might even kick some sand over it a little, but it refuses to cross it and that reduces the impact of one of the narrative threads.
Of course, if none of the solo campaign sounds appealing and you just want to hurl abuse at players that are better than you, get sworn at by 11 year olds, and be aroused at the level of gun porn, then multiplayer is where it’s at. This time though, the griefing is threefold with Modern Warfare embracing cross-play. For the first time in the series PS4, Xbox One and PC can all play together, as long as the right options are selected and controller choice isn’t an issue. It works too. Jokes about the mentality of the stereotypical CoD gamer aside, the inclusion of being able to join in with anyone that owns the game on any platform really opens up the possibilities for playing with friends normally restricted to a specific pool, or for finding others that play in a similar way. It’s probably a perception thing, it just feels bigger for it. Most notably this comes in Ground War – which is pretty much a copy of Battlefield’s Domination mode – where larger open maps are riddled with gamers and bullets in the fight for capturing the control points. All the other standard modes return, and there’s a couple of new offerings alongside with smaller scale games for 2-on-2 which most will experience whilst waiting for the game to download. Strangely, fan favourite Gun Game is missing, and there’s been no mention of the once “must-have” Battle Royale mode. Equally, there’s no sign of loot boxes either, though there’s still time for them to make an appearance.
For those that like the more co-operative side of FPS games, Special Ops contains quite a few modes to get stuck into. The classic Spec Ops game is the aforementioned Black Hawk Down scenario, Survival is currently PS4 only for a year, and then there’s a set of co-op missions that form a story post-solo campaign. All the modes support teams of four, and if there’s an empty slot in the squad it’s not long before the matchmaking drops a helping hand in assuming it’s in the public domain. It’s needed without a doubt because these modes are rock hard. Mine and Ali’s record in one level was the full team being wiped out in under 15 seconds, and as a Codec Moments full squad we’ve struggled with the co-op campaign. Weirdly, this doesn’t make them off-putting, there’s a decent hook that entices a retry and forces closer communication and tactical use of the special abilities unlocked through ranking up. Failure is frequent, though incremental progress has been a defining characteristic of the series for years, so it’s not unexpected. One tip is around the voice comms: it works for cross-play though is very tinny and distant, so if everyone is on the same platform it’s worth using the system party chat. Levelling up happens across all the multiplayer modes for both characters and weapons, though it feels like gun upgrades come faster in the competitive areas, and these will be needed to pass the tougher co-op missions.
With gameplay hitting all the right marks, visuals being excellent (particularly in the scaled 4K HDR presentation), and progression seeming reasonably balanced, it’d be fair to say things are all rosy with Modern Warfare? Not exactly. The most noticeable thing is the install and patching. Sorry disc purchasers, you’ll not actually have the game on there, the 100 gb or so that makes it up needs to be downloaded on top of the meagre amount that comes from the Bluray, and the copying to the internal drive can take an age. Outside some 2-on-2 with the AI, none of the game can be played until this is all finished. Once it’s done though, expect regular patches and server disconnects to interrupt the solo campaign or any thoughts of a quick game. This is built for the multiplayer and therefore everything else suffers to support that. The audio mix is unbalanced with sound in a headset not feeling particularly clean, and the fairly frequent need to adjust the fade between voice and game gets annoying. Similarly, it evokes the same feeling when you’re enjoying the beautiful cutscenes and the framerate tanks as it loads level data in the background. Probably the most disappointing thing though is the lack of incentive to replay the campaign. It’s not often anyone laments the lack of collectables, but it could really have done with something to promote getting back in and enjoying the work that has gone into it.
I’ve levelled a lot of criticism at Modern Warfare here, and that’s because after 16 games there’s an expectation that they’d be getting everything right. Infinity Ward have made 7 of these and know exactly what they’re doing for spectacle, playability and feel. The whole game is underpinned by experience and skill, and that’s what’s made it easy to be harsh about the superfluous pieces that don’t actually affect the main aim – buttery smooth twitch shooter action. This is the first Call of Duty since Modern Warfare 2 that I’ve pre-ordered, I’ve been pulled aboard the hype train and have no regrets. Sure, I want some things to be better, but in the grand scheme this is an excellent game that restores some faith in where the series is going. It’s not ground-breaking and has some missed opportunities, but it captures the essence of what made this series so influential… and that is Price-less.
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare is out now on PC, PS4 and Xbox One for around £45.