We've reached a point in time where one can be nostalgic for the PS3 generation, and Activision is banking on that with all its might to sell Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3. Rather than a new line-up of multiplayer maps, this year's entry is a strange amalgamation of the past, as all of the weapons and playable characters from 2022's Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 have been ported over for play on classic locations from, well, 2009's Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. The usual single player campaign and an open-world spin on Zombies are what Modern Warfare 3 can call its own, but when remastered maps from a 14-year-old game is the best you've got to offer, maybe it really is best to just take a year off.
Heavily speculated to have started life as a DLC pack for last year's instalment, never has a standalone Call of Duty game felt more like a contractual agreement all parties regret signing. The campaign stitches together Open Combat Missions that feel like adverts for Warzone, the multiplayer is bloated beyond belief with little in the way of original content, and Zombies comes across as a tired trick failing to justify its existence.
While it's difficult to brand it the worst Call of Duty game ever, Modern Warfare 3 is certainly in the running. The disappointing campaign does much of the heavy lifting to earning that unwanted accolade, with levels mostly devoid of the bombastic set-pieces you expect from the series. In their place are Open Combat Missions: scenarios that play out more like a typical Warzone match where you procure much of your equipment on site. You'll need to source better gear, weapons, and routes through the level, and try over again if you fail — and that's a likely possibility since checkpoints are at a frustrating premium.
These missions work fairly well when they're clearly geared towards a specific playstyle (such as stealth), allowing you to fine-tune your approach and find better guns for your next attempt. However, they largely feel like inferior stand-ins for the sort of levels you'd expect out of a Call of Duty campaign. There are no dramatic set-pieces or hand-crafted shoot-outs, just docile encounters and objectives that feel like Contracts from the franchise's Battle Royale offering.
At least when the campaign does flash the absurd budget backing it in-between those Open Combat Missions, it starts to feel like the single player levels of old. The trademark sniper and AC-130 encounters return, and they're set between other somewhat decent scenarios that spell out Makarov's return in the story. It all amounts to a campaign that's maybe not quite as bad as what you've been hearing, but it's still the worst it's been for some time.
On some level, you could say the same about the multiplayer. Almost completely devoid of new content, Modern Warfare 3 is made up of 16 remastered maps from Modern Warfare 2 of the PS3 era and all of the weapons and skins from last year's game. Besides some new weapons and community-pleasing gameplay updates, the title's online battles are all made up of recycled content. On the gunplay side, this has led to a preposterous amount of bloat.
When it comes to preparing a loadout, you have an utterly ridiculous 114 weapons to choose from — 77 guns brought over from Modern Warfare 2 (2022) and 35 new ones along with a bonus two melee options. Then, when you finally find a weapon you might like, you must scroll through huge lists of attachments to kit it out with the most minuscule benefits and negatives. This process is common in all Call of Duty games nowadays, but when you've effectively got two games' worth of content bundled together along with a full year of post-launch support, it's so overwhelming that you'd need an online guide to know where to even begin.
The same goes for the amount of characters (known in-game as Operators) you can play as, though many of them require purchasing with real money. Again, everything has been brought forward from last year's instalment, so we've already got Lilith from Diablo 4 and real-life rapper 21 Savage gunning down troops from the campaign. Instead of introducing the more unrealistic skins a few months down the line, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 already feels like a pantomime on day one.
Actually engaging in multiplayer matches plays out exactly as you'd expect, with the usual modes to choose from and various ranks to progress through into the Prestige options. The iconic maps of Modern Warfare 2 (2009) are the main selling point, and they at least hold up nearly 15 years later.
Revisiting the likes of Terminal, Highrise, and Afghan is still a pleasure two generations of systems on, especially when you've so much nostalgia for one of the titles that defined online gaming as it became part and parcel of the console experience. Some of the maps aren't quite as familiar — particularly those that were added later on in map packs — but you'll quickly ground yourself as their general layouts come flooding back after rounding a specific corner or stumbling upon a certain part of the map.
However, what is the game's highlight can also be seen as its biggest weakness: there's not a shred of new content. While entirely new maps will arrive as part of seasonal updates post-launch, it's glaringly obvious how Modern Warfare 3 was originally pitched as DLC in this regard. A full suite of remastered maps would have worked well as an expansion, but as a standalone release, it fails to provide the breadth of new content you'd expect out of a Call of Duty experience.
Zombies hardly fares much better, this time set in an open world that lacks the intensity of the cramped, smaller-scale scenarios seen in years past. Multiple teams of three work to complete objectives, accrue currency, and eventually extract from the gigantic map. Essentially an undead twist on modes from previous instalments, it feels tacked on and undercooked. And if the campaign felt like an advert for Warzone, the Zombies mode quite literally is one: the map is the basis for the next Battle Royale setting launching next month. A truly cynical admission that demonstrates just how cobbled together Modern Warfare 3 really is.
"We need a new Call of Duty game every single year," the Activision executives bellowed, and out popped Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 after the development times caught up with them. A truly anaemic release, there's never been a surer sign to press pause on the series. 14-year-old content is the best thing about this year's entry and if that's not enough of an indictment of where Call of Duty is at in 2023, we don't know what is. A franchise in serious need of a complete reboot, Modern Warfare 3 has to be the straw that breaks the camel's back.