There’s no easy way to get to the roof. Tough. That’s where the target is, so that’s where I need to go. Between us is a vertical labyrinth of dilapidated buildings and rickety scaffolding cobbled together by a group of terrorists who know enough to plant explosive traps all along the way. What the traps don’t catch, the mercenaries will, armed to the teeth and ready for anything.
I fight my way through nine stories of bombs and bullets, but just as I reach the rooftop, I hear a soldier swing in on a zipline behind me. I whip around and light him up. Turns out, it was one of my guys. The screen goes dark. “Friendly fire will not be tolerated.” Game over, try again. Fine with me, I’m having fun. But will it last?
On paper, there’s a lot wrong with this year’s entry. Top of the list is the woeful production schedule, Bloomberg reports, which cut the development cycle in half from three years to about 18 months. That had predictable results. Longtime fans branded Modern Warfare 3 as DLC masquerading as a full game. I don’t think that’s an entirely fair assessment, but their complaints are valid.
The campaign is about half the length you’d expect, coming in around 3-5 hours. The multiplayer maps come from 2009’s Modern Warfare 2. The user interface is stuffed with ads for the Battle Pass and other microtransactions. The truth is, there’s always a lot going on in any Call of Duty game. Sometimes too much. The experience ranges wildly depending on what you want. (Camo-grinding weapon collectors play differently than dads and their drinking buddies.) If there is one truism I learned from my time in MW3 it's this: the less you care, the more fun you’ll have.
The reviews were in long before I booted up the Modern Warfare 3 campaign. It was a sea of mediocrity, 4s and 5s and shrug emojis. Detractors labeled the campaign as both bad and short.
Short? Yes. You can whip through the main story without breaking a sweat.
Bad? Not so much. It’s a generic story that sees players character-hopping across familiar faces like Soap, Price, Ghost, and Gaz as the infamous Task Force 141 heads to a bevy of dangerous military hotspots. Urzikstan returns. So does Verdansk. They’re in pursuit of returning baddie Vladimir Makorov, fresh from his prison break and once again hellbent on spilling civilian blood to ignite a bigger conflict. You’re always foiling his plots, whether it's launching chemical weapons or blowing up high-speed trains.
Modern Warfare 3 isn’t going to win any narrative awards at the BAFTAs, but I found the story beats easy to follow amidst the flurry of military jargon. The stakes (and twists) were always clear. The visuals and performances are as cinematic as anything I’ve seen this year. Unfortunately, returning villain Vladimir Makorov is never given much time to build to anything, and the story wraps up with a literal bang that feels out-of-context given the breezy nature of the plot.
The much-maligned Open Combat Missions, an open-world variant on the more traditional linear maps, were fairly criticized. There is virtually no incentive for stealth, and it’s all too easy to mow down NPCs as they funnel like lemmings into your sights. The world felt empty. Your only impetus to explore is unlocking new weapons and gear for another run.
Who wants to play this twice? Of the fourteen different campaign missions, only a handful are memorable, most feel like the same vanilla warehouses and military hangars patrolled by an AI with a double-digit IQ. There are no boss fights and no big set pieces, but I’ve never met anyone who only plays COD for the campaign. It’s mostly forgettable, but not outright terrible, and remains the best place to start if you haven’t played in a while.
Multiplayer Is … Fine
Against all odds, this is still the best multiplayer shooter of the year (shoutout to Redfall and Payday 3 for fumbling the bag). The pace, the feel of each weapon, and the ludicrously good audio all combine to make that multi-billion-dollar cosmic gumbo we’ve come to expect. For the significant portion of its audience that wants to come home at the end of the day, crack a few beers, and game the night away, Modern Warfare 3 absolutely delivers.
The core multiplayer experience — Team Deathmatch — is the star of the show. And it’s great. Activision brought back maps from a 14-year-old release that fans often point to as among the best in the series while making enough modifications to keep things interesting. The different game modes provide plenty of variety in terms of playstyle and strategy, and the return of the minimap and increased mobility make this the fastest-paced entry in recent memory.
As I said up top, the less you care the more fun you’ll have. It didn’t bother me that my K/D ratio sucked and that I didn’t understand the avalanche of loadout options. (I got by just fine picking up the discarded weapons the “good” players drop all over the place.) Eventually, I found my groove, got a few streaks, and carried my weight in the more objective-based modes like Hardpoint. My adrenaline was pumping and my friends were trash-talking. When I called it a night, there was a smile on my face. Can you ask for much more than that?
Longtime fans may ask for more than that. If you’re a serious Call of Duty player there’s a lot to pick apart in Modern Warfare 3. The armory system is a mess, challenges are all over the place, and a disorganized UI isn’t helping anyone track goals or manage what they’ve earned. It’s also got an enormous, vocal fanbase full of people who want different things. There will be plenty of updates in the coming weeks and months to try to find a balance that makes as many fans as happy as possible. But for casuals like me? We’re good.
Dead Map Walking
Modern Warfare 3 puts its own spin on Zombies, the fan-favorite mode made famous in the Black Ops series. Instead of waves of enemies and unlockable maps, MW3 Zombies switches to extraction-based story missions on a wide open map partitioned into difficulty zones. It’s a bold new direction that ultimately doesn’t pay off. Asking players to commit to 120-plus minutes of non-stop gaming across three acts, especially when failure means losing everything, is a bit much.
This new Zombies mode lacks the pacing and purpose to keep you there. The gameplay loop involves opening up the map, putting a ping on one of the dozens of different “contracts” available, and then traveling to its location while fighting off zombies. Once you’re there, you can accept the mission, which are all variants of standard multiplayer tropes like king of the hill, payloads, etc. You have zombies, obviously, but also AI mercenaries. Completing contracts and gathering loot earns you Essence, a currency you can use to unlock stronger weapons and gear to venture further into the more difficult areas of the map.
When you’ve got a solid three-man squad and you’re knocking out contracts on the massive new Urzikstan map, you can see the potential. The problem is too many things have to go right for it to be a good time. If you’re playing with randoms, you know it's hit-or-miss when it comes to teamwork, competency, and objective awareness. Even on a good squad, it’s easy to get overwhelmed, which is admittedly by design but still doesn’t take the sting out of starting from scratch after sinking so much time into it.
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 doesn’t come close to the quality you’d expect from a franchise with this sort of reputation celebrating its 20th year. The campaign is too short (especially at $70), which undermines what could’ve been a great story, and lacks any standout moments or compelling reasons to revisit it. The new Zombies approach has potential but isn’t quite there yet. There’s still fun to be had, especially given how little we’ve seen elsewhere in the genre this year. A solid multiplayer foundation can’t support the weight of everything else that’s been piled on top in an attempt to legitimize what is, unfortunately, one of the worst entries we’ve seen.
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 is available now on PS5, PS4 4, Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S, and Microsoft Windows.
INVERSE VIDEO GAME REVIEW ETHOS: Every Inverse video game review answers two questions: Is this game worth your time? Are you getting what you pay for? We have no tolerance for endless fetch quests, clunky mechanics, or bugs that dilute the experience. We care deeply about a game’s design, world-building, character arcs, and storytelling come together. Inverse will never punch down, but we aren’t afraid to punch up. We love magic and science-fiction in equal measure, and as much as we love experiencing rich stories and worlds through games, we won’t ignore the real-world context in which those games are made.