It's a weird year for Call of Duty, as Modern Warfare 3 arrives with mostly recycled content in a game that is looking to sell you on nostalgia. However, despite being a hodgepodge of old ideas and content from previously launched games, this continuation of the rebooted Modern Warfare series still manages to deliver lots of exciting multiplayer with fast-paced movement and an extraction-style Zombies mode that keeps you hooked on the gameplay.
On paper, Modern Warfare 3 sounds like it should be suffering from a chaotic identity crisis, as it's cobbled together with many parts of previous Call of Duty games. It's a direct sequel to 2022's Modern Warfare 2, but the standard map pool at launch exclusively consists of the full map set from 2009's original Modern Warfare 2. Additionally, the game's third game mode is a Treyarch-developed Zombies experience, which plays on Warzone's upcoming battle royale map with tons of features pulled from Black Ops Cold War.
New Call of Duty games typically launch with multiplayer maps inspired by the game's campaign locations, but other than the airport map "Terminal," most of the other multiplayer maps don't tie into the campaign settings in any way. Releasing solely with old maps doesn't really do the multiplayer any favors, as longtime players like myself don't have new areas to explore and it creates a very noticeable disconnect that reminds you what a patchwork job Modern Warfare 3 really is.
However, despite those disjointed moments the nostalgia for sale here, admittedly, sometimes works, too. Modern Warfare 3 aims to appease the longtime fans by bringing back classic Call of Duty features that weren't in last year's Modern Warfare 2. This includes a traditional minimap that shows red dots for unsuppressed gunfire, a more traditional perk system, and the ability to cancel your reload animation. There are even classic, yellow XP indicators that pop up when you're getting kills and scoring objective points. Newer players might find the XP pop-ups too arcadey and dated, but as someone who started playing and loving Call of Duty with the original Modern Warfare series, I find the return of the yellow pop-ups satisfying. There's nothing like playing an objective mode like Domination and watching all the XP indicators acknowledge that you're racking up points and kills. These pop-ups won't fit every year of Call of Duty, but it certainly works to have this nice throwback with the classic maps.
Modern Warfare 3 also restores some of the movement mechanics so they're on par with the twitchy feel of the more recent games that preceded 2022's slower MW2. While last year's game dialed back the movement, Modern Warfare 3 brings back the snappy aim and swift movement of its predecessors. The sprinting and sliding are so much faster and more fluid here, and the sweaty slide-canceling mechanic is back. Maps like Rust and Scrapyard already played fast back in 2009, and now they feel even faster and more chaotic in 2023 with quicker mantling, sliding, and all the bunny hopping of these updated movement mechanics.
Now the pace of Modern Warfare 3 is more in line with Call of Duty: Vanguard's chaotic and speedy movement than last year's more classic feel. I love the fast-paced action, but sometimes I struggle to keep up with the evolution of Call of Duty's movement mechanics, and I can't be the only longtime player who feels this way. Everyone moves around the map much faster and my enemies are slide-canceling everywhere, leaving me struggling to track them sometimes. However, I do feel a bit more capable this year, especially with Modern Warfare 3's new Tactical Pads perk that lets me slide further and makes the motion feel even more fluid. I'm not doing any fancy slide-canceling like the top-tier players, but it does help to bridge that gap and provide a really satisfying movement buff.
All the typical game modes are packaged with Modern Warfare 3, such as Team Deathmatch, Domination, Kill Confirmed, Hardpoint, Search and Destroy, and even the large-scale Ground War returns. Some of these popular modes, like Kill Confirmed and Hardpoint, didn't exist when the game's returning maps first appeared in 2009, but overall I think all the modes play well here, even if the maps weren't originally designed for them. One of the best additions to MW3's multiplayer is War, which is a mode originally introduced in Call of Duty: WWII. This is an attack and defend-style mode where one team plays offense and the other plays defense. If the attacking team breaks through the defense of the first objective, they'll move on to the second, and so on. These are usually longer matches than standard core modes and are exciting to play thanks to offering more objective play than just capturing and holding objective points in Domination or Hardpoint. There's an adrenaline rush that comes from the push and pull with each set of different objectives, such as trying to escort or block the progression of a tank. War matches get really intense near the end, with some attack or defend wins coming down to the wire, and you can rack up a satisfying amount of kills and XP during these games, which often push kill counts and earned experience much higher than in modes like Team Deathmatch or Kill Confirmed. Currently, War is only played on one large map pieced together using parts from other maps from Call of Duty's past, so I do hope we get a bit more variety. I would love to have more maps and objective types added to prevent the mode from getting stale.
Outside of the gameplay, one of the best changes is the more simplified Gunsmith. Modern Warfare 3 not only keeps it simple with just five attachment slots available, but it also removes Modern Warfare 2's tedious weapon-tuning feature. One of my biggest concerns about this year's game was that it might not be very casual-friendly. The movement system already caters to the very competitive players, and weapon tuning could've further driven a wedge between the casual player base and the more advanced players. Thankfully, everyone can just throw on some attachments and jump into a match.
While Gunsmith customization has gotten easier, the grind to unlock all your weapons and essentials has become more of a hassle with the introduction of Modern Warfare 3's Armory Unlocks. In the old days of Call of Duty, you'd have all the tools of the game at your fingertips by the time you hit the max player level, but Modern Warfare 3 slows down player progression by blocking many staple unlocks behind the new system. This includes popular items like the VTOL jet and Gunship killstreaks, helpful equipment like the trophy system and C4, and even several weapons and perks. This feels like the wrong approach to player progression changes. The armory system doesn't reward players with new cosmetics, and Instead feels like it is trying to find ways of trapping players in a grind to unlock their favorite loadout items. I'm just as likely to grind daily challenges for camos and weapon charms, so if they were presented as rewards it would have felt less punishing than having to work harder to unlock a normally staple feature like the trophy system. Additionally, this system looks to hinder the players who can't get on to grind the game for hours every night, as I'm nearly at the max player level and there are still many core perks and equipment I haven't been able to unlock yet.
Modern Warfare 3 also boasts a larger arsenal of weapons and attachments than ever before. Call of Duty's new "Carry Forward" program transfers your unlocked operators, weapons, camos, and other cosmetics. This sounds great for those who bought some pricey operator bundles or are otherwise invested in cosmetics they've paid for or earned. However, by also transferring unlocked weapons and attachments, it creates a very frustrating imbalance and unequal playing field at launch.
A new Call of Duty launch has always meant a clean slate, but Modern Warfare 3's release has players getting gunned down by fully-kitted MW2 weapons while trying to use and level the new guns. Of course, this is just an unfortunate part of Call of Duty's player progression system. These early launch day woes are the same struggle new players will have when joining the game much later in the year, but it definitely takes away one of the perks of being early to the game's grind. This is usually the only small window of time that allows Call of Duty players to be on an equal playing field, but that's not available this year thanks to MW2 guns.
Overall, the multiplayer is still the fun arcade-style experience you'd expect, which is a pretty big success for a Call of Duty game stitched together using pre-existing content that is desperate to sell longtime fans on nostalgia. Reliving the old maps and guns of one of my favorite Call of Duty games is quite the gamer high, and I'm once again suckered into a chaotic grind to unlock a bunch of really pretty camos, for better and for worse. Of course, with all of this recycled content, there's more pressure than normal on the quality of the post-launch content to help keep players satisfied long after all the sentimental feelings have worn off. There are moments where playing Highrise and Scrapyard with my trusted ACR (now called the MCW) assault rifle feels like old times, but in other instances I'm reminded that I'm running around Karachi as Nicki Minaj, and I'm almost too washed up to fully keep up with the game's cracked movement. I'm not earning a bunch of nukes on these OG maps anymore, but regardless, I'm still having a blast for now.
For the first time ever, zombies are also invading the Modern Warfare series, but this isn't the traditional round-based mode. This year weaves elements of Black Ops Cold War's large-scale Outbreak into a DMZ-style extraction mode, which delivers Treyarch's best attempt yet at large-scale objective-style gameplay.
Zombies takes place on Warzone's upcoming Urzikstan map, and the mode is designed for trios in a PvE environment, though you can choose to play solo or even team up with others in your match to form a "super squad" of up to six players.
Instead of the normal rounds which increase in difficulty, the Urzikstan map features three threat areas, which function as difficulties. You start your match in the outer portion of the map with the slow-moving, low-threat Zombies, but you can choose to venture inward to the medium- and high-threat zones. There is a noticeable difference when you migrate out of the low-threat portion of the map, as enemies become more challenging to take down, and upgraded weapons become a necessity. This design of various threat levels plays well into the theme of "high risk, high reward" extraction-style gameplay.
Capturing the feel of a Zombies game is a huge task in an open-world environment, but this zombified version of Urzikstan feels atmospheric and has all the core features you'd expect, so it feels like you're still playing Zombies mode. These core features include traditional-looking Perk-a-Cola machines, Wall Buys, and the iconic Pack-a-Punch machine for weapon upgrades. If you want to find a Mystery Box location, you can just look up in the sky to find that iconic beam of light. You also have plenty of zombies and hellhounds spawning all around you, and several buildings are full of toxic gas and spores.
This mode will feel very familiar if you played MW2's DMZ, as Zombies keeps a lot of the core features of last year's extraction mode. This includes the risk-and-reward element of DMZ, where you can gear up with exciting loot, such as iconic Wonder Weapons like the ray gun, but you have to ensure that you have a successful exfil from the match if you want to keep your haul.
Where Zombies improves upon DMZ is in its shift from PvP to PvE. Nothing soured the experience quite like working through a particularly difficult DMZ faction mission only to get gunned down by a six-person super squad. Now, six-player teams are a welcome sight because they can assist with taking down a difficult boss, or at the very least, they just leave you the hell alone.
For the narrative, the Operation Deadbolt story is played out in three story acts. This borrows another page from DMZ, where you must complete a series of increasingly difficult objectives in order to unlock a story mission. Completing these story missions is how you unlock cinematic cutscenes to further progress the narrative. The cinematics feel like the same quality you'd get for completing complex Easter egg quests on traditional maps. Even better, you don't have to commit to playing several consecutive hours to work through Easter egg steps with fear of failure just to attempt to unlock the cutscenes. Modern Warfare 3's Zombies story missions do take a while to unlock, but you can do as many or as few missions as you'd like in a day, and the rest will be ready to finish when you log back on.
There are enough missions and contracts to keep the gameplay enticing, providing a lot of replayability in Zombies. I really enjoyed Black Ops Cold War's large-scale Outbreak mode, but there always seemed to be too much open space that felt empty and underutilized. Modern Warfare 3's take on objective-style gameplay offers far more replayability and makes better use of an open-world environment, as the entire map is densely filled with frequently spawning enemies, contract and mission areas, and secrets to explore.
As a longtime Zombies fan, I can get the frustration of not having a more traditional round-based experience this year. It's especially easy to be wary of a non-traditional take on the mode after Call of Duty: Vanguard's lackluster Zombies left much to be desired. But MW3 offers a welcome mix of DMZ and Zombies. This year's Zombies is a solid mode for those who wanted more from Outbreak, and it's worth a try for DMZ extraction fans, especially those like me who hated the PvP element.
The release of Zombies offers a solid building block for an even better post-launch experience, especially if it follows a similar path to DMZ. Warzone's DMZ improved greatly with seasonal updates that expanded the replayability with new bartering recipes, a wallet to store funds, more story missions, and bosses. The launch of Zombies leaves me intrigued to see how seasonal updates will further progress the narrative and gameplay.
Modern Warfare 3's campaign was a disappointing mix of poor gameplay choices and a fumbled narrative, and this multiplayer sounds like it should be a disaster by being such a hodgepodge of Call of Duty's past, but I'm completely hooked on the Zombies mode and having a blast in multiplayer, too. This is the most disconnected Call of Duty has ever felt, but the online gameplay does enough to save the game. However, nostalgia is only going to get it so far, and I hope whatever post-launch content arrives is strong enough to keep me coming back after all the sentiment has faded.