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Call of Duty: Modern Warfare Review: Simplistic Yet Satisfying

It doesn't get more modern than this.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare
(Image: © Activision)

Our Verdict

Though it probably won't win new fans, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2019 is a polished dose of more of the same high-octane FPS action that series loyalists have come to expect.

For

  • High-end production values
  • Cross-platform play
  • Varied competitive modes
  • Fair amount of content

Against

  • Silly, cliche campaign
  • Brain-dead AI
  • Uneven map design
  • Underwhelming co-op

The Call of Duty: Modern Warfare reboot is here, and it's something, all right. Much like previous Call of Duty games, there's not a truly compelling single-player draw this time around, but if you can stomach the so-so campaign, there's the usual brand of hyper-addictive, kill-trading multiplayer waiting right around the corner.

Is said multiplayer fantastic fun? To recycle an old thought I crafted to describe Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare's multiplayer back in the day, it's a lot like potato chips: inoffensive, easy to graze on for hours and, though not ridiculously exciting, relatively tasty. In short, if you've liked previous Call of Duty games, prepare for more esports-approved comfort food. For curious onlookers, consider waiting for a serious sale, or passing altogether in favor of a more sincere take on modern warfare like Spec Ops: The Line.

Modern Warfare campaign

As is tradition for military first-person shooters, Modern Warfare features a straightforward single-player campaign where — you guessed it — big trouble is brewing in the Middle East (again), and only a pair of well-endowed soldiers from Western nations can cancel the apocalypse.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare

Modern Warfare features a straightforward single-player campaign. (Image credit: Activision)

Is it revolutionary? No. But is it representative of modern warfare, as the game's title suggests? You bet. The single-player story features suicide bombers, public lynchings from cranes and spec ops home invasions; it goes the whole nine yards to remind you, the player, that war is still hell in 2019. One mission even has you use night-vision goggles to gun down a house full of terrorists, with your midnight raid is serenaded by the loud crying of a baby who's in one of the rooms you have to carve up.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare

The player survives numerous Fast & Furious-esque cinematic set pieces. (Image credit: Activision)

Needless to say, the serious nature of situations like these does not mesh terribly well with CoD's goofy, ludonarratively dissonant gameplay — which, unlike its story about the hardships of combating terrorism — is completely detached from reality. In the same game where field commanders are forced to sacrifice one hostage to save many, the player's character can eat bullets like candy, healing via sheer willpower and a deep breath (an actual audio cue in the game signifies that you're healthy again). Not to mention, the player survives numerous Fast & Furious-esque cinematic set pieces, which contrasts poorly with the unlucky civilian characters who get routinely executed by terrorists in grisly, realistic fashion.

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So, while the campaign on the whole is an unintentional black comedy at best and mildly uncomfortable mix of American Sniper and Tropic Thunder at worst, I wouldn't say it's devoid of entertainment. It's just devoid of educational value or emotional intelligence.

On an unconditionally positive note, Sarah Schachner has composed an excellent score for Modern Warfare, which blends standard Call of Duty musical tropes with the agony-inducing stylings of Jóhann Jóhannsson's Sicario score. Props to her.

Modern Warfare gameplay

Modern Warfare's gameplay can be divided into two categories: the single-player campaign and the multiplayer modes.

The single-player gameplay is basically a linear, guided sightseeing tour through some B-grade action movie sequences. You'll be spoon fed victory in lots of scripted bits and most of the rest of the time you'll just be asked to hold down right trigger to mow down baddies in hallways. Once in a while the game opens up and offers levels with some breathing room, but it's rare. Most levels feature some sort of military gadget gimmick that's used a few times, then forgotten about.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare

The single-player gameplay is basically a linear, guided sightseeing tour through some B-grade action movie sequences. (Image credit: Activision)

The difficulty in single player is odd — the AI are individually brain dead and will often wait patiently for you to kill them, yet the damage they do in packs is wild. This means death never feels like the result of a carefully planned difficulty curve by the developers, but rather a result of bad luck. In that sense, the core gameplay loop of shoot, reload, then shoot again lacks the amount of satisfaction it should offer in the single-player portion of MW.

However, that core gameplay loop thrives in multiplayer, since the quantity of brain-dead combatants drastically decreases (though somehow, some way, a few will always end up on your team).

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare

Its core gameplay loop thrives in multiplayer. (Image credit: Activision)

Guns are satisfyingly hefty, the physics are arcade-y but grounded in reality enough to be immersive, and best of all, there's a satisfying "click" — which is audible as well as visible — when you kill someone. These ingredients provide the addictive foundation for all of MW's many, many multiplayer modes. There's a 2v2 mode for real badasses who like a challenge, a 64-player Ground War mode that acts as a shameless ode to rival franchise Battlefield, 20-player team deathmatches and a lengthy list of other modes designed for standard 12-ish player counts. It's madness!

My favorite mode at the moment is Headquarters, wherein players must capture an HQ and hold it down against the enemy, then rush to capture the next one, once the current HQ expires. As opposed to the usual aimless running and kill trading of Call of Duty, Headquarters mode provides some inventive structure to the basic CoD formula and, when coupled with the franchise's satisfying physics and gunplay, makes for a surprisingly competitive addition to Modern Warfare.

One competitive snaggle that I didn't like was some of the map design. A few maps, such as the one set in a railway yard, are overly crowded and designed to be "I saw you first" kill-trading competitions. There's nothing competitive about playing peekaboo with guns, contrary to the level designers' best intentions. Some maps are smart about this and know where to implement choke points and open areas, but others drop the ball entirely, so be wary of that.

Modern Warfare cross play and co-op

One thing that's not competitive in the slightest, and one thing I love, is the implementation of cross play. For the first time ever, PC, PS4 and Xbox One players can all play CoD multiplayer together, fighting with and against each other in the very same matches. This means I get to use my keyboard, mouse and PC-exclusive field of view setting to absolutely trounce console players. All in the name of good fun, of course. Plus, cross play does wonders for the community's size and helps keep all game modes populated. And for those on consoles afraid of keyboard warriors, rest easy; cross play is an opt-in feature.

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The last portion of MW's multiplayer is the co-op component, which is relegated to just a few tacked-on missions loaded with hordes of the brain-dead AI from the single-player campaign, so don't rush out to buy this game just for co-op. I knew I was unimpressed with Modern Warfare's cooperative mode when I realized I was playing on a map lifted directly from the single-player campaign, which felt just a touch too lazy to be enjoyable. 

PS4 owners get a special co-op mode all to themselves called Survival, which is a dedicated horde mode, as if the other co-op offerings didn't already scratch that itch. For those who want Survival on PC and Xbox One, the mode won't arrive until October 2020 — right around the time the next annual Call of Duty should be releasing and replacing this one in the limelight.

Bottom line

If you like Call of Duty, you're going to like this new take on Modern Warfare. It has all the tropes and trappings you've grown to love, along with a few new guns, gadgets and maps sprinkled on top. Plus, it has a ham-fisted, headshake-inducing campaign that's sure to perplex and amuse in that unique way only a CoD story can. Multiplayer is as strong as ever, and really, that's the most important thing for many fans, so go and enjoy the chaotic cross-play goodness. And be sure to try out Gunfight and Headquarters; they're objectively the best modes in the game (according to me).