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Call of Duty: Modern Warfare review: "Clearer in its vision and execution than its spiritual predecessor"

(Image: © Activision)

Our Verdict

Modern Warfare is fast and frenetic, setting a new benchmark for fidelity and high-pressure FPS action

Pros

  • Stunning visual and audio fidelity
  • Input is tight and measured
  • Combat is relentlessly aggressive

Cons

  • A handful of missions are tasteless
  • Doesn't earn all of its big payoffs
  • Exploding cars are still a pain

Call of Duty has never been afraid of courting controversy. In many ways, it has been an integral component of the series' design since its very inception, as developer Infinity Ward lead the charge in showcasing a cinematic – and often unflinching – trench-level view of the geopolitical warfare that has shaped the world. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare takes this narrative framing to the next level. 

Modern Warfare asks us to engage with the experience of war through the Reflex Sight of an M4A1 assault rifle. It does this even as it gives us the rare opportunity to peer behind the veil of smoke and shrapnel that Call of Duty typically throws up to mask its moral ambiguity, daring us to consider the ethical complexities of the contemporary conflicts it so liberally draws inspiration from. This is made clear from the outset of Modern Warfare's campaign – vocalised openly by characters stood on the teetering edge of the uncanny valley – and these intentions are almost immediately at odds with one another. 

This has forced Infinity Ward down a perilous path. When its good intentions coalesce, Modern Warfare feels as if it is offering a tantalising glimpse into the future of the industry's biggest shooter. You'll feel this in your fingers as the game breathlessly propels you between its checkpoints under a hail of deafening gunfire until you're left gasping for air. When they clash, it's a stark reminder of just how easy it is for an action game to turn tasteless – that's a direct result of Infinity Ward attempting to tactlessly gamify a variety of war crimes in the service of fashioning a bombastic entertainment experience. 

Infinity Ward set out to create a campaign that could "reflect the world that we live in". The studio has stumbled in its desire to hold a mirror up to the modern military machine or engage with the messy politics that fuel its characters and the broader strokes of the story. And ultimately, that's OK, just so long as we are all being honest with what's being portrayed here. Infinity Ward has undoubtedly succeeded in assembling a blockbuster action game quite unlike any other. On the whole, it's a tightly scripted and excellently executed experience. It's an all-encompassing audio and visual assault on the senses, one that somehow finds just enough room to let you breathe between each of its awe-inspiring set pieces – letting the enormity of it all sink in – before it kicks back into gear and drags you to the edge of your seat. 

What was old is new again

It's worth remembering that the Infinity Ward of 2007 is not the Infinity Ward of 2019. In deciding to revive the Modern Warfare moniker, the team currently occupying the studio space has locked itself into a war of attrition versus nostalgia itself – a foe few have ever comfortably beaten, let alone conquered. 

So to be clear, Modern Warfare doesn't have an All Ghillied Up moment to call its own; truth be told, it doesn't even attempt to mimic it, which is more than can be said for nearly every other Call of Duty game released in the years since Call of Duty 4 changed the state of play for the FPS. Modern Warfare never quite captures the quiet unease that Death From Above so effortlessly cultivated, nor does it manage to replicate the chaos born out of the One Shot, One Kill carousel shootout. It also doesn't rely so heavily on the visual language that dominated cinema at the turn of the century – the likes of Black Hawk Down and its kin – and instead attempts to carve its own path. That, I think, actually works in Modern Warfare's favour. It's less Shock and Awe, and more contemplative overall; more precise and more consistent in its creative vision, direction, and execution than its spiritual predecessor. Modern Warfare doesn't feel like a collection of missions stitched together, but a desperate race against time. 

Over its eight hour runtime, Modern Warfare's campaign puts you at the centre of a civil war in a fictitious Middle Eastern country named Urzikstan, only occasionally reconnecting with a bullet-ridden reality to pit you against terrorist cells in London's bustling West End, the quiet streets of Saint Petersburg, and the outskirts of Verdansk. It's an effective demonstration of what Call of Duty is capable of when it truly grounds its action and invests in the power of the solitary soldier. You spend surprisingly little time 'following the man' as you would have in previous Modern Warfare titles. Instead, this new iteration sees much of the action triggered by your ability to lead firing lines and change the composition of a battlefield.   

(Image credit: Activision)

To do so, you'll find that you have to fight tooth and nail to claim even an inch of territory as enemies swarm rooftops and ruined streets. Modern Warfare pushes you to continually scramble for cover and a fresh clip of ammunition, death coming for those that hesitate for even a second, especially as you begin to cycle up through the difficulty modes. If Call of Duty is the purest form of military fetishism that we have in this industry, then Modern Warfare is easily the best celebration of it to date. It offers a power fantasy that is difficult to turn away from, even on the rare occasions that it misfires or embraces controversial design decisions for easy shock value. 

Weapons are weighty and powerful, and you'll really feel it as bullets exit the chamber and begin to puncture enemies and the environment with little discrimination. Visually, it's a true achievement too; audibly, there's nothing else out there like it; these elements combine in spectacular fashion as Modern Warfare presents its stages Clean House, Wolf's Den, and Going Dark. Tense standoffs in tight corridors cast in thick shadow, each of them experienced through the lens of night vision equipment and executed in a cold green hue. These missions are quiet and claustrophobic, with the silence only occasionally shattered by controlled gunshots and breathless whispers. Modern Warfare excels in these areas, and it's difficult not to feel an overwhelming sense of tension wash over you in these missions thanks to the near-photorealistic presentation and the high-stakes framing of the objective at hand.

The game also fares excellently in its wider spaces, where Infinity Ward's propensity for daring level design, tightly scripted action, and relentless pursuit of forward momentum is on full display. This Modern Warfare might not have its own Pripyat-set double-bill like its namesake, but a daring defence of an under-siege US Embassy will no doubt be held up as a modern classic. It's an excellently executed multi-stage mission that hits all of the highs of Call of Duty with none of the lows, an excellent example of what this series is capable of when it is firing on all cylinders. 

Refreshed for a new generation of players

(Image credit: Activision)

Much of Modern Warfare could be described as just that, firing on all cylinders. It's a fun and frenetic shooter that delivers in all of the ways that you'd hope and expect it too. The truth is, Infinity Ward unwittingly shouldered the responsibility of proving that there's still a place for storytelling in Call of Duty following Treyarch's decision to pursue battle royale in Black Ops 4. And for the most part, it has succeeded. There's an argument to be made that Modern Warfare is one of the finest Call of Duty packages of the generation, but that doesn't excuse some of the egregious decisions that were made in the campaign, leading to a handful of uncomfortable – if I'm being kind – scenes that pulled on the brakes, broke the suspension of disbelief, and threw an otherwise captivating campaign into momentary disrepute. 

Modern Warfare wants you to believe that it's an unflinchingly authentic and realistic portrayal of contemporary conflicts, a reflection of the world as it is today. The truth is, it is an overly serious, utterly ridiculous, globe-trotting adventure. When words like 'realistic' and 'authentic' are thrown around, it's Infinity Ward suggesting that Modern Warfare is a reflection of the time we are in. The reality is that it's more of an impressionist painting than a snapshot. Instead of 'authentic', it should be discussed as 'accurate' – in that the names of the weapons are correct, as is much of the battle chatter. Rather than talking about its 'realism', we should be talking about its fidelity – which is crisp and commanding, effectively unparalleled. 

Infinity Ward was always going to have to simplify the complexities of modern warfare to make this game work. What's important is what it chose to emphasise in service of that. For the most part, the studio has decided to pull focus onto the chaos born out of proxy wars and the debilitating pressure of being under fire from a seemingly unstoppable force, and it works when it does so. When it works to emphasise some perceived darker reflection of the world, it comes across as callous and a little cynical. That isn't enough to detract from what this Modern Warfare revival is ultimately able to achieve, but there's still work for Infinity Ward to do as it works to re-establish this series for a new generation. 

As we have yet to experience the Modern Warfare multiplayer on live servers, will are holding back our thoughts to the online side of the game until  we are able to see how it handles when out in the wild. 

The Verdict

4

4 out of 5

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare (2019)

Modern Warfare is fast and frenetic, setting a new benchmark for fidelity and high-pressure FPS action

More Info

Available platformsPC, PS4, Xbox One