Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 review: "Stuck paying deference to a past that it seems to barely understand"

Modern Warfare 3 multiplayer
(Image: © Activision)

GamesRadar+ Verdict

Modern Warfare 3 is one of the most underwhelming entries in Call of Duty's 20 year history. A lackluster campaign can't distract from the tired multiplayer formula. Decade old maps, messy progression, and misaligned changes to mobility and gunplay leaves MW3 lost trying to find an identity to call its own.


  • +

    Solid performance and visuals


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    Uninspired campaign and multiplayer

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    Messy progression and customization

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    Little to see or do that's genuinely new

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Modern Warfare 3 is Call of Duty in the midst of a severe identity crisis. It's as if every one of its components represents a frayed piece snatched from a different puzzle; the hastily assembled picture resembling something that's both vaguely recognizable and largely unsatisfying. The entire package is fraught with tensions, leaving one of the few remaining traditional first-person shooters on the market in an exceptionally precarious position as it celebrates its 20th anniversary.

Fast Facts

Release date: November 10, 2023
Platform(s): PC, PS5, PS4, Xbox Series X, Xbox One
Developer: Sledgehammer Games
Publisher: Activision

You feel this as you see Nicki Minaj and Skeletor bunny-hop around dusty 14-year-old maps, firing year-old weapons, monotonously grinding experience to progress through a raft of messy progression systems that should have died with Modern Warfare 2. The killcams are a confluence of after-effects as leviathans crawl over crumpling, glittering bodies; the lobbies a circus of discriminatory and sexist rhetoric as children of all ages go to war with one another in absolute defiance of Activision's employment of an AI-powered voice chat moderation system. 

That tension is there in the five-hour single-player campaign too, where a lackluster, nonlinear approach to mission design is, at best, a misguided attempt to recapture the magic of Medal of Honor: Airborne. And in Zombies, the cathartic, compulsive rhythms that once defined its cooperative carnage have been exchanged for an ill-fitting extraction shooter model built atop the still-warm corpse of Activision's abandoned DMZ mode for Warzone. Taken as a whole, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 is stuck paying deference to a past that it seems to barely understand. 

Out of sync

Modern Warfare 3 multiplayer

(Image credit: Activision)

Traditionally, Activision has given three development studios room to experiment on three-year release cycles. Infinity Ward sought to provide viable alternatives to Counter-Strike; Treyarch a refuge for the competitive class; and Sledgehammer a space to explore advanced-movement mechanics. If you didn't like one style of Call of Duty, you always knew another would follow soon enough – and in the age of Warzone, there are distractions aplenty for the disenfranchised. But Activision's decision to pursue an immediate sequel to Modern Warfare 2 (and put it in the hands of a different lead developer), without taking meaningful steps to drive the concept or underlying technology forward, means we'll always be wondering what could have been. 

Infinity Ward should be praised for trying to push Call of Duty in a different direction with its return to Modern Warfare, slowing the time-to-kill and removing any impulse to remove boots from the ground. A stark shift in pace, and the best the franchise had been in some time. Modern Warfare 3 doesn't just fail to iterate on these ideals, it does away with them. Sledgehammer has realigned the fundamentals: increasing base health, raising TTK, and widening mobility. You're free to sprint and slide and skip around without penalty, and while play is speedier it doesn't feel that much slicker. 

There are times when Modern Warfare 3 feels like a capable, albeit uninspired and inoffensive, arcade shooter. And there are other moments where it's more of an unwitting return to the series' awkward adolescent years – where the popularity of Halo 3 and resurgence of arena shooters gradually altered player behavior, subsequently eroding a once-grounded approach to combat. There's a twitchiness to the movement and jerkiness to the firing models, with multiplayer lacking the level of polish and attention to detail that I've come to expect from an Activision-developed shooter.  

Modern Warfare 3 multiplayer

(Image credit: Activision)

"The dearth of creative consistency between Modern Warfare 2 and its successor is stark"

There is space for Call of Duty to engage more thoughtfully with snappier movement and momentum, just as Treyarch has in the past with Black Ops and Sledgehammer with its Advanced and Infinite Warfare titles. I'd be curious to see the end result, so long as the individual components were designed to support that mission objective. Instead, weapons, attachments, operators, and maps have been dragged forward from two iterations of Modern Warfare 2. It's an interesting concept, particularly as the series moves towards a more connected ecosystem via COD HQ, but the execution is lacking. 

The dearth of creative consistency between Modern Warfare 2 and its successor is stark. The drastic alterations to core play means that many of the returning weapons handle weirdly due to the revised ballistic models and quicker animations, while the vast majority of the 37 new Modern Warfare 3 guns are greatly over-torqued to help them stand above the mess of options available from the outset. The amount of attachments is dizzying, with the outlay dissolving any true sense of progression. And the decision to not immediately carry maps forward is strange, leaving us to trudge across exceptionally old arenas that survive on sheer nostalgia alone. There's little new to learn in Modern Warfare 3, which contributes to this pervasive sense that you've done and seen all it has to offer before. 

Reexamining the past

Modern Warfare 3 multiplayer

(Image credit: Activision)

There are some nice ideas scattered throughout Modern Warfare 3, even if the implementation is a little heavy-handed. Perk Packages have thankfully been removed, with key modifiers now split between equippable Vests, Gloves, Boots, and Gear. It's a forward-thinking gesture, undermined by how unsatisfying the overall feel and pace of play is. The decision to map weapon, attachment, and equipment unlocks across three tracks (player ranks, a premium battle pass, and a new armory system) is greatly misaligned, but would have potential in a less congested ecosystem. 

The rising prominence of daily challenges (the backbone to Modern Warfare 3 Armory unlocks, which gates access to key Perks, Killstreaks, and more) has also had positive and negative effects on player behavior. When they reward for properly playing objectives, modes like Hardpoint and Domination become more enjoyable; when they encourage a global playerbase to get kills with nothing but Launchers and Lethals, Modern Warfare 3 effectively becomes unplayable for large stretches of time. Sadly, that isn't an uncommon feeling.

Skill-based matchmaking continues to be a divisive part of the Call of Duty multiplayer experience. Admittedly, I'm typically a fan of it, but it feels misaligned this year. I routinely find myself whiplashed between lobbies where I'm notching 60 kills on the leaderboard and then unable to get one on deck in the next, stuck in a cycle of death as a legion of CDL-skinned players wield quickscoping Sniper Rifles with comical precision. It doesn't feel as if I'm gradually raising my skill ceiling and being rewarded with incrementally more challenging encounters, and in an environment where there's already so little to see or do that's genuinely new this quickly creates an attention deficit. 

Modern Warfare 3 multiplayer

(Image credit: Activision)
Progression and customization

I have to believe that with a little time, enough for Infinity Ward to get some perspective on MW2, the divisive Gunsmith featureset would have been greatly simplified in an eventual sequel. Tweaking weapon functionality and customization is overwhelming in this iteration of Modern Warfare 3, particularly with some of the guns having hundreds of modifiers to choose between – the alterations between each so granular that it's almost begging you to turn away from the game and towards the advice of your favorite site or streamer. The sector-based Battle Pass, running across two separate Call of Duty games, remains as unsatisfying to progress through as ever. 

The lack of consistency in Modern Warfare 3 extends to the core 6v6 map selection – 16 from 2009's MW2. I was 19 years-old when I first fell in love with maps like Skidrow, Terminal and Wasteland; and I was 20 by the time I hoped to never set foot on the likes of Highrise, Rust, and Scrapyard again. I'm 33 now, and time has confirmed my teenage suspicions: there are a few classics in the selection, but it's a real mixed bag. Work has been done to remaster the maps within the new IW9 engine, but the development teams stopped short of making any alterations to better support the style play that's being pursued, or to ease any long-standing friction that exists at a foundational level.

Sniper Rifles are easy to wield and one-shot to a torso, making the uninterrupted sightlines of Afghan, Derail, and Estate a camper's paradise. The messy, interweaving lanes of Invasion, Karachi, and Quarry feel unsuited to a meta built around rapid-fire Assault Rifles. And, you know what, the less said about Underpass and Sub Base the better. The return of map voting means you'll typically find yourself cycling through the same few locations anyway, with players either getting their way or quitting out en masse – 2009 all over again. 

Compounding the sense of malaise, very real problems with player visibility and spawn rotation. It isn't uncommon to find yourself cycling onto a battlefield either in the midst of an engagement or miles from the action, often leaving you at the mercy of players sitting prone in a premium skin that is near-imperceptible across environments that were never designed to carry them.

The future is uncertain

Modern Warfare 3 multiplayer

(Image credit: Activision)

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 is good for a few hours of fun with friends, but it has very little to offer over time. Performance is solid across campaign, multiplayer, and zombies, and the entire package is appealing enough from a visual perspective. The problem is that the core play is uninspired – MW3 has no big creative concept, outside of pursuing some vague attempt to recapture disparate elements of a past which our collective-nostalgia insists definitely existed. 

Last year, Infinity Ward was charged with laying the foundation for the future of Call of Duty with MW2. A platform which would allow for better cohesion between mainline installments, the expansion of Warzone, and an advanced technology framework to empower the series' shepherds to innovate and iterate with greater consistency. 12 months later, in the midst of a 20th anniversary celebration, Modern Warfare 3 is more of a death rattle than a sign of what's to come. 


Modern Warfare 3 was reviewed on Xbox Series X, with code provided by the publisher.

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Josh West
Editor-in-Chief, GamesRadar+

Josh West is the Editor-in-Chief of GamesRadar+. He has over 15 years experience in online and print journalism, and holds a BA (Hons) in Journalism and Feature Writing. Prior to starting his current position, Josh has served as GR+'s Features Editor and Deputy Editor of games™ magazine, and has freelanced for numerous publications including 3D Artist, Edge magazine, iCreate, Metal Hammer, Play, Retro Gamer, and SFX. Additionally, he has appeared on the BBC and ITV to provide expert comment, written for Scholastic books, edited a book for Hachette, and worked as the Assistant Producer of the Future Games Show. In his spare time, Josh likes to play bass guitar and video games. Years ago, he was in a few movies and TV shows that you've definitely seen but will never be able to spot him in.