Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3's campaign picks up where last year's Modern Warfare 2 left off. Captain Price's iconic Task Force 141 is back in action and, as teased in the final cutscenes of Modern Warfare 2, the new threat is Vladimir Makarov, a major antagonist of the original Modern Warfare franchise. Modern Warfare 3 sparks a hot opening with an early reveal of Makarov, but the introduction of the new Open Combat missions disrupts the story's pace for a fizzled-out ending.
Modern Warfare 3 reunites Price's team with several familiar faces from the rebooted series, including Kate Laswell, Farah Karim, and Alex Keller. General Shepherd and Commander Phillip Graves of Shadow Company also return, despite their treacherous actions against Soap, Ghost, and Los Vaqueros in Modern Warfare 2. It's an all-hands-on-deck situation with Makarov in the picture.
The campaign opens with Operation 627, a mission in which you stealthily break into a gulag. This linear level sees you rappelling down into the Gulag with night vision goggles on, clearing guards level by level as you descend. Visually, this level looks cool and the gameplay is one of the more enjoyable and traditional missions you'll play in Modern Warfare 3. The gameplay and cinematics are of the bombastic quality you'd expect from Call of Duty, and right away the threat of Makarov is apparent. He gets an exciting jailbreak moment and emerges from confinement ready to cause some chaos. However, after this hyped opening mission, Modern Warfare 3 immediately stumbles as you're forced to play two of the game's new Open Combat missions back-to-back.
Open Combat missions are meant to provide more player freedom by expanding the playable area, offering you more choice in how you complete your goal. These missions still give you a fixed objective, but you have tons of supply crates filled with various killstreaks, equipment, weapon types, and armor to choose from. I was optimistic about these new mission types, as I'm a player who lacks patience and likes to go in guns blazing, and I was excited about having that choice as opposed to always following the prescribed, more linear path of a standard Call of Duty campaign level. I thought I wouldn't miss Call of Duty's forced stealth objectives, but I have a greater respect for those moments now that they're missing in Modern Warfare 3. Unfortunately, the freedom these open missions present come at the cost of the atmosphere and cinematic tension that would be present during a more traditional mission.
The detrimental impact of these new mission types is first noticeable after the opening of the second mission, Precious Cargo. The cinematic introduction is an emotionally charged scene with Farah and a close companion that is followed by an Open Combat mission in which you run around and loot gear as Farah, a process which felt like a very casual match of DMZ or Spec Ops. Farah just witnessed the death of someone important to her, and in the framework of a classic, scripted Call of Duty mission, the impact of that scene could've been better expressed. Sure, someone was still harping in my ear to remind me of my objective, but any real emotion or urgency about the task at hand is still completely lost within the format of an Open Combat mission.
While it's nice to see an attempt to innovate within the well-established CoD campaign formula, Open Combat missions offer too much freedom, tanking all the momentum these military storylines typically would build with cinematics and traditional gameplay. Modern Warfare 2 did a much better job of balancing choice while holding on to the action of the story, with missions that let you have more mobility options but never let you lose sight of a mission's urgency. A good example of this is MW2's vehicle chase-style mission called Violence and Timing, which I praised for altering the usual linear feel of missions to offer variety and player choice. It let me have more options for mobility and felt less restricted than Call of Duty's previous chase sequences. I had the freedom choosing to hop and mantle from vehicle to vehicle throughout the chase, but it never let me slow down or forget what was at stake.
Whereas that MW2 mission still stands out as memorable a year later, Modern Warfare 3 lacks many of these unforgettable set pieces we've come to expect from the franchise. Call of Duty campaigns usually follow a familiar formula, containing missions like a high-speed vehicle chase, a stealthy sniper session, and a slow-mo breach-and-clear hostage rescue. None of that is present in Modern Warfare 3's campaign--a shift in gameplay that disrupts Call of Duty's repetitive nature but fails to then deliver a fresh and exciting moment-to-moment experience. You can choose to approach missions differently on their own, even choosing to take a stealthy approach, but the level design is curated toward engaging in open firefights meaning other playstyles aren't fulfilling. You can take a stealth approach in pretty much all of the Open Combat missions, for example, but none offer the feel of Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare's iconic All Ghillied Up mission or even last year's sniper operation in Recon By Fire. There is a player-controlled AC-130 gunship sequence near the end of the campaign to shake up the gameplay a little bit, but this one classic moment isn't enough to save Modern Warfare 3's stale gameplay.
The strongest part of the campaign is the narrative, but it never gets to truly shine due to the Open Combat missions, which make it feel disjointed. The first half of the story does a solid job of showing how Makarov is a deadly extremist, and there is a new No Russian-style mission that is impactful and shocking in equal measure. This reboot puts you on an airplane and doesn't feel quite as over-the-line and nauseating as the controversial airport massacre, but it still gives you a very uncomfortable perspective, where you're forced to be front and center of a terrorist attack resulting in major casualties. This mission doesn't offer up any actual gameplay. You're mostly watching the horror unfold, yet, oddly, the game doesn't give you the option to skip this mission. You only get a content warning that you can accept or choose to go back to the menus. I hope an option is added for skipping this, as it seems unnecessary to force you to take part in an act of terrorism.
Modern Warfare 3 doesn't shy away from showing another massacre on an even larger scale, forcing you to fight through Makarov's thugs during an ongoing shooting at Verdansk's stadium. This mission is filled with chaos and panic as civilians flood out from the stands of the arena, running for their lives and crossing your path as you work to eliminate the terrorists. You fail the mission if you accidentally kill an innocent person, so accuracy and trigger discipline are important here. This mission serves to further reinforce what Makarov is capable of, but resorting to this kind of shock value should be in service of a greater story instead for what is essentially cheap, questionable, thrills. And when it all comes to a head, Modern Warfare 3's ending leaves much to be desired.
Task Force 141's race to stop Makarov ends with an unsatisfying story resolution. All of the early build-up to show the ruthless terror of Makarov fizzles as Open Combat missions derail any narrative momentum until you eventually hit an abrupt semi-cliffhanger. This campaign sets up a narrative to go beyond the original series, teasing a fourth Modern Warfare game will likely follow, but the path there is largely forgettable.
My favorite moments in the campaign tended to rely on nostalgia, taking advantage of the return to Warzone's Verdansk map. However, these campaign highlights--such as a stealthy incursion through a military base as Kate Laswell or a bomb defusing mission on a bridge as Ghost--lean too heavily on the novelty of allowing fans to get lost in reminiscing on the golden days of Call of Duty's battle royale, as the missions themselves are otherwise not particularly enjoyable.
When you tear away all the dreadful free-roam moments of the campaign, the traditional parts still showcase Modern Warfare 3's impressive graphics, over-the-top action, and the guns still have the snappy aim and punchy feel you'd expect in your gunfights. There's just not enough of these moments to make the game feel whole.
On top of the disappointing missions, MW3's campaign fails to serve as the usual introduction to the multiplayer mode. Many of the available weapons come from MW2, despite MW3's multiplayer supposedly including a number of new weapons. And with MW3's core multiplayer mode launching with nothing but remastered maps, you won't be revisiting locations from the campaign as you normally would. While it remains to be seen how the multiplayer component shakes out, it seems as though there will be a greater disconnect between the campaign and multiplayer than ever. It's an odd feeling to have the most direct narrative sequel we've ever gotten in Call of Duty, yet have the game still feel so otherwise disconnected from the other entries of the series in terms of execution.
The number of campaign missions--14--in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 exaggerates its scope, as it should take only 4-5 hours to complete, which is shorter than the norm. Unless you really take your time exploring the wide areas of the Open Combat missions, this story shouldn't take up a lot of your time. The intention of Open Combat to offer freedom ends up feeling like filler used to introduce Makarov's arrival, leaving little motivation to stick around more than needed--and doing so would only serve to further interrupt the narrative. Modern Warfare 3 runs smoothly on PlayStation 5 and has impressive-looking cutscenes, but these two elements further highlight how vapid the gameplay is.
Although its narrative setup is enjoyable, Modern Warfare 3 can't get out of its own way, with nearly half of the missions being the underwhelming Open Combat style. The bumpy pacing and abrupt ending make Makarov's big return a disappointment, dragging Modern Warfare 3 down as the weakest entry of an otherwise strong reboot series.