Platforms: PS4 (reviewed), Xbox One, PC

It’s been a good long while since I’ve been as legitimately excited for a new Call of Duty game as I was about Infinity Ward’s Modern Warfare reboot. On paper, the game certainly sounded promising. Not only would it update the 2007 original’s storyline and characters, it would also bring back revamped versions of classic multiplayer modes and features, including the ‘Special Ops’ cooperative experience, while also sprinkling in brand new features like an intense 2v2 competitive ‘Gunfight’ mode and a massive Battlefield-esque take on Ground War.

When you experience them piecemeal, many of Modern Warfare’s gameplay features work as intended and can even be fun under the right circumstances. Taken as a whole, however, this new reboot just doesn’t click with me the way I was hoping it would. I suppose I should have known better since I was similarly burned by Infinity Ward’s 2013 entry Call of Duty: Ghosts. The Modern Warfare reboot has no shortage of potential, but in its current state it’s definitely not the slam dunk Infinity Ward was hoping it’d be.

The Story Campaign

During the run-up to launch, Infinity Ward talked a lot about how Modern Warfare’s newly updated story would be incredibly dark and brutal, that it wouldn’t pull any punches. In that regard, the studio definitely kept its promise.

Modern Warfare’s story campaign kicks off by throwing players directly into the deep end of a two-pronged conflict. First, a terrorist group called Al Qatala (I’m sure you can guess which real-life terrorist organization Infinity Ward got that name from) steals several canisters of a deadly chemical weapon from a Russian facility, implicating the United States in the process and raising U.S-Russia tensions to the brink of war. Meanwhile, a separate Al Qatala terrorist cell launches a surprise attack on London’s Piccadilly district, an attack punctuated by suicide bombings, street-level gunfire, and the murder of many innocent civilians.

And that’s just the first 15 minutes.

Throughout the campaign, players mainly control two core protagonists: a CIA operative who’s only ever referred to as simply “Alex,” and a former London police sergeant-turned-SAS soldier named Kyle Garrick. Alex is mainly situated in the fictional middle-eastern province of Urzikstan where he helps a local resistance group led by a woman named Farah Karim and her brother Hadir as they push back against both Al Qatala and the occupying Russian extremists who blame Urzikstan locals for the theft of their chemical weapons. Garrick, meanwhile, teams up with none other than SAS Captain John Price as they pursue a ruthless Al Qatala lieutenant called ‘The Butcher’ who also happens to be the right hand man to the group’s leader, a man known only as ‘The Wolf.’

Each “mission” in the Modern Warfare reboot’s campaign is actually made up of smaller gameplay vignettes that cut between Alex’s and Garrick’s perspectives. In one mission, for example, you start out as Alex helping Farah disable a pair of Russian helicopters before switching over to Garrick as he and Price stage a nighttime raid on a townhouse to learn The Wolf’s location.

The short overall length of individual mission segments combined with the distinct gameplay elements they each contain ensure that the campaign never falls into a lull. However, they also make it hard to follow the story’s finer points, especially when new characters and events are thrown at the player at such a rapid pace, barely giving them time to digest what’s happening before they’re thrust into a new firefight or stealth mission.

Thankfully, the four main characters, Alex, Farah, Garrick, and Price, are all compelling presences despite how little the player learns about their history. This becomes especially true once the two storylines converge and the four characters all team up for the campaign’s climax.

I don’t think Infinity Ward goes too far with the amount of shock and violence contained in the reboot’s campaign (though it does ride the line at times), but I also don’t think the campaign itself manages to convey any sort of compelling message or lesson. The overall theme Infinity Ward seems to be going with is that “war is awful since it means good people have to do bad things,” but that’s not exactly original, nor is it meaty enough to justify all the violence the game asks the player to inflict.

Alongside its more troubling material and muddied sense of moral philosophy, the Modern Warfare reboot’s campaign contains plenty of the trademark spectacle fans have come to expect, not to mention stellar performances from the actors chosen to portray the campaign’s core cast. It’s also a surprisingly short campaign (roughly 4-5 hours in length), which may be a good or bad thing depending on how much you enjoy the story. Playing through the campaign also unlocks a few of the playable operators for the reboot’s multiplayer/co-op modes, though as I’m about to discuss, there are some noticeable strings attached to that incentive.              

Multiplayer/Co-Op

I’ve waxed poetic before about my misgivings with the typical Call of Duty multiplayer format, and for the Modern Warfare reboot those misgivings sadly stand alongside other issues which apply solely to the reboot itself. As I mentioned above, there are some bright spots to be found within the reboot’s take on multiplayer, but Infinity Ward doesn’t try to reinvent the Call of Duty multiplayer wheel as much as I wish it did.

First, there’s the multiplayer operator system which honestly feels a little half-baked. Taking a page out of Treyarch’s Black Ops book, the Modern Warfare reboot features 18 different operators spread across two opposing factions. Within each faction, these operators are further separated into three sub-factions with three operators apiece. Each operator has a distinct voice, appearance, and backstory, but none of them are as memorable as, say, the operators from Call of Duty: Black Ops 3 and Black Ops 4.

Each operator also has a series of pre-assembled alternate outfits, but that’s really the only visual customization that players will find (at least until the Modern Warfare reboot gets its promised battle pass system sometime in the near future). Both factions also have a more generic “default” operator, but the default operators can’t be visually customized at all. I’m hoping visual customization for the default operators will be added at some point, but for now its absence feels like a missed opportunity for players who enjoy personalizing their own multiplayer avatars.

One thing I will say about the reboot’s competitive multiplayer suite is that it definitely has something for everyone. Traditionalists can stick to the Quickplay playlist which includes a rotating selection of core modes like Team Deathmatch, Domination, and Stronghold. There are also dedicated playlists for the new 2v2 Gunfight mode, the large-scale Ground War mode, a ‘Cyber Attack’ mode which is basically a modified version of Search and Destroy, and a ‘Realism’ variant of the Quickplay playlist.

As its name infers, the Realism playlist offers a more realistic experience, though in this case “realistic” basically just means stripping out HUD elements and disabling the mini-map. It’s not quite Modern Warfare’s version of a Hardcore playlist since there’s no friendly fire, but it is incredibly immersive since you have to pay closer attention to audio cues and manually remember when you have deployable equipment on hand.

I also enjoyed not being able to tell how badly my team was losing (which, unsurprisingly, happened a lot) in the Realism playlist, but the thing I enjoyed the most was the reduced effectiveness of kill streaks. Since there’s no visible radar, kill streaks like UAV’s are useless in the Realism playlist, which means that, unlike in virtually every other playlist, it’s harder for one team to quickly snowball an insurmountable advantage over the other.

I get that kill streaks are a key part of the Call of Duty DNA, but I’ve never agreed with the idea of granting such blatant and powerful advantages to players who are already winning, often robbing the losing team of whatever slim chance they had of making a comeback in the process. I’m not going to turn this review into a for/against kill streaks rant, but I think most players would agree that, as one example in particular, the near-constant presence of kill streaks upsets the balance of Modern Warfare’s take on large-scale multiplayer, the 64-player Ground War.

I was initially excited to try out Ground War since it’s clearly modeled after DICE’s Battlefield series, of which I am a very big fan. However, while Modern Warfare’s Ground War does channel strong Battlefield vibes, there are three distinct factors that would inevitably drive me away every time I gave the mode another shot. First, the aforementioned kill streaks which, in Ground War, are literally being called in every few seconds. Second, the fact that most players tend to ignore the capture point objectives in favor of kills (not terribly surprising given the fact that even a handful of kills grants far more XP than capturing an objective). Third, the insanely low TTK (“time to kill”) which is technically another hallmark of Call of Duty in general, but also especially egregious in Modern Warfare.

I’ve played my fair share of shooters so I know how intense it can be to engage another player in a firefight. But when I lose a gun battle in, say, Destiny 2, or Rainbow Six Siege, or, heck, Battlefield V, I can usually tell where I went wrong. I might have aimed a little too low or a little too high, or I might have gone for the hipfire when I should have taken a second to aim. In Modern Warfare’s multiplayer, I’m lucky if I even have a chance to get such feedback since I’m often already dead by the time I spot another player.

I’m in my thirties now so maybe my twitch reflexes aren’t what they used to be, but going by posts like this and others on Modern Warfare’s subreddit, the general agreement seems to be that the reboot has a particularly low TTK when compared to other Call of Duty games (most players apparently agree that’s a good thing too). I can’t speak for other players, but I personally don’t enjoy getting insta-melted by another player in the millisecond after we spot each other. Seriously, there were so many times where I’d round a corner, blink, and then suddenly I was staring at my avatar’s corpse.

I remember one particularly brutal Ground War game were my team was (naturally) getting wrecked because nobody was really concerned with capturing the objectives. It seemed like no matter where I spawned an enemy sniper would instantly headshot me, and whenever I tried to take a point on my own (foolish, I know), an enemy camper would one-shot me. I know that blowouts happen in any competitive multiplayer game, but the sheer degree to which the enemy team was able to thrash me without my being able to react or retaliate at all was frustrating to say the least.

Perhaps the most frustrating thing about Modern Warfare’s multiplayer of all, though, is how dissatisfying the Special Ops cooperative experience feels. In fairness to Infinity Ward, there is at least some variety to the sorts of co-op scenarios you can play through. Along with four different Special Ops missions which involve exploring an open map, completing objectives, and fighting roving bands of enemies, there’s also a ‘Classic Special Ops’ experience which, as far as I can tell, recreates specific moments from the story campaign. If you’re on PS4, you can also play a wave-based ‘Survival’ experience (Survival is PS4-exclusive during Modern Warfare’s first year of operation).

Of course, all three of the above modes have their own caveats and limitations. Classic Special Ops feels like an unfinished throwaway mode, especially since it doesn’t offer any XP progression or other rewards (at least for now), making me wonder why Infinity Ward bothered making it at all. Survival operates using a Counter-Strike-esque system where cash is awarded for killing enemies and used to buy match-specific weapons and equipment, which means players can’t use their own customized multiplayer loadouts. And lastly, the standard Special Ops missions currently only have one difficulty setting which is jacked up so high that it’s virtually impossible to successfully complete a mission with a random squad of matchmade teammates.

Again, the intense difficulty of the standard Special Ops missions seems to be something that most players actually like going by Modern Warfare’s subreddit, but personally I’m not a fan. It’s tough to find any long-term enjoyment when I can’t even beat the very first mission because the game throws hundreds of AI soldiers at my measly squad of four and our limited resources. I was hoping the Special Ops missions would be tuned so that even a solo player could theoretically complete them, but I see now that Infinity Ward went as hard in the opposite direction as it possibly could.

Operational Effectiveness

I know I’ve spent the majority of this review bemoaning the Modern Warfare reboot’s shortcomings, but I honestly do feel the game has potential if Infinity Ward is willing to tweak a few things. I’m sure that Infinity Ward will make changes based on player feedback, and I’m hopeful that the Modern Warfare I’m playing several months or maybe even a year from now will be closer to the original vision I had in my head.

It’s true that Modern Warfare at launch hasn’t exactly blown me away, but that doesn’t mean I’m ready to write it off completely, just the opposite in fact. I acknowledge I’ll have to make my own peace with the game’s low TTK and inclusion of kill streaks, but between Ground War, the 2v2 Gunfight mode, the Realism playlist, and of course the Special Ops cooperative suite, there’s still so much about the reboot I want to invest in. My only hope is that Infinity Ward feels a genuine desire to refine the Modern Warfare reboot into a game that players of all stripes, not just the hardcore elite, will want to keep coming back to.