Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3’s campaign is a queasy anachronism

Last year, Nintendo cancelled the rerelease of its war-themed strategy game Advance Wars. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine several weeks earlier had made the timing feel tactless to the publisher, despite the game’s sweetly cartoonish aesthetic. No such qualms for Activision, publisher of Modern Warfare 3, the latest entry to the 20-year-old Call of Duty series, which is released on 10 November. Less than a month after the beginning of the Israel-Hamas war, and with Russian troops still lodged in Ukrainian territory, the annual blockbuster arrives on shareholder-pleasing schedule, despite featuring several scenes of cinematically framed atrocity, such as the gory ransacking of a crowded football stadium by terrorists disguised as paramedics, and the hijacking and downing of a passenger jet bound for Sochi.

While the series has often flitted between historical settings, including 1940s Europe and the buzzing, bloodied jungles of Vietnam, it is increasingly focused on contemporary battlefields, as the game’s title suggests. As we switch perspectives between the captivating ensemble cast of international supersoldiers who comprise Task Force 141, we’re treated to the latest technologies of elite soldiership. We hear a rodent squeal as a pair of night vision goggles spring to life, feel the kinetic tug of the “ascender” tool as it bites a cable and hoists our character up a lift shaft, and marvel at the murderous silhouette of a hyper-evolved rifle, laden with a camera crew’s worth of arcane attachments.

But while this might be the gadgetry of modern warfare, it doesn’t feel much like the battlefields we currently see on the news each day: the crumbling masonry and sad rags in the aftermath of an artillery attack; the wet, littered grass and splayed bodies of a group of recently overwhelmed soldiers. Call of Duty, with its make-believe nations and locations, was always war through a Hollywood lens, the technological endpoint of tin-soldier battles played on childhood carpets. And yet.

James Bond is, in fact, the closest adjacent star to Modern Warfare 3’s 13-stage campaign in the entertainment firmament. The storyline, which begins with a prison break, is constructed not so much around logical plot beats as distinctly themed set-pieces: a battle with snipers across a frozen landscape; penetrating a missile base lodged in a remote range of hills; a race up a dilapidated multi-story building reminiscent of Gareth Evans’ The Raid. These are familiar thrills, the main difference to Modern Warfare games past being the disconcertingly high fidelity of each blade of grass and mo-capped lift of an eyebrow. It’s an accusation often similarly levelled against the Bond films, where the appeal also rests in the vibe and texture of the recurrent myth, rather than the specifics of the storyline. (In one later mission, you infiltrate an oligarch’s island compound with a silenced pistol, a mission that feels especially Fleming-esque.)

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There is some range here, and not everything is a variation on Space Invaders’ age-old blueprint of shoot them before they shoot you. In one memorable mission, you hunt for smartphones among the wreckage of a downed plane in the hope of locating footage captured in the moments before the explosion that caused the crash. In another, you steal into a military base while playing as a middle-aged female CIA operative. Your pistol stowed, you must maintain a steady walking pace and avoid eye contact with passing soldiers. These moments interrupt the gung-ho rhythms of the campaign, but beneath the slick presentation, this is rather old, conservative game design. There is no sign, for example, of the ingenious, difficulty-scaling objectives seen in 1997’s Nintendo 64 game GoldenEye 007.

Some variety is provided with a new kind of mission, which takes place in a squared-off environment into which you parachute empty handed and scavenge for weapons and equipment before fulfilling some basic objectives. Inspired by battle royale shooters, these moments feel somewhat half-hearted and lack the sophistication of, say, Metal Gear Solid 5’s similarly open-plan design.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3.
Gung-ho … Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3. Photograph: Activision

It’s pointless, perhaps, to argue that Call of Duty’s campaign mode should evolve in broader ways. In truth, the single-player is an expensive fairground ride style anachronism, designed to justify the marketing boost of an annual release. The series still arrives in yearly instalments, but this is a legacy habit; several years ago, Modern Warfare shifted to a Fortnite-esque live service game that offers a range of different play modes tailored to players of different tastes. There are quickfire multiplayer deathmatch modes, the exemplary Warzone for those who prefer the battle royale style of ratcheting competitive drama, and the still evolving zombie-resistance mode, which offers a superior vision of the open-area player v computer missions hinted at in Modern Warfare 3’s campaign.

By contrast, the campaign is something most players will play in a weekend, before they settle into the persistent online modes for another year. The fact it is brief, archaic and somewhat uninventive will have little effect on the game’s success, and the audience’s reaction. Still, spare a thought for those designers who must somehow pull all of this together into a cohesive whole, while working to a relentless, inflexible and scope-stifling annual deadline. Perhaps it was always an impossible mission.