When Call of Duty: Modern Warfare III was officially announced back in August, some people expressed concerns and fears of a "cash grab" given that the game would be released just a year after the, quite good, all things considered, Modern Warfare II. A MWII which, after all, was released a full three years after the first member of the rebooted Modern Warfare series, enough time to develop something even remotely decent. These concerns were further exacerbated by the fact that, according to reports, the original intention for the title was to release it as an expansion for MWII, before Activision made the decision to release it instead as a full sequel called MWIII.
Having been fully immersed in the title for the past 2 and a half weeks, and with my MP profile at Level 55, I can safely say that the above concerns are, more or less, confirmed. Modern Warfare III is an obvious step backwards from last year's Infinity Ward/Treyarch effort, with an asterisk that I'll delve into along the way.
The Single-Player Campaign part of the title, created by Sledgehammer, takes place right after the events of MWII, so it was a given that all the familiar Task Force 141 members and their allies in the Middle East and the Caucasus would return. In this we also have the grand return of Vladimir Makarov as the arch-villain of the series, a return that had been teased at the ending of MWII. The thing about the Campaign is that... it manages to disappoint even by CoD series standards.
If we've come to expect one thing from the series so far, it's the trifecta of "cinematic set pieces, fast-paced action, short duration". Indeed, despite the fact that the Campaign duration in all titles (already from 2007's epic CoD 4: Modern Warfare to last year's rebooted MWII) barely reached 6 hours, the set pieces we experienced in those hours were so intense and memorable that in the end we didn't really pay that much attention to the duration itself. In MWIII, the vast majority of Campaign missions completely abandons that familiar CoD cinematic atmosphere, and instead takes place in a... sandbox environment reminiscent of a multiplayer map in a Battlefield game. Dropping into each mission, we clearly know the boundaries of the map within which we can move, our objectives are marked, and then we can move completely freely across the map, changing weapons and loadouts at will, and dealing with enemies and their unstoppable reinforcements until our objectives are met.
In principle, the freedom this design philosophy offers could bring at least something new to the series. The problem is, on one hand, that the objectives of these "Open Missions" are mostly repetitive (explore 3 locations, find 3 thingies, blow up 3 thingamabobs, while avoiding constant enemy reinforcements), on the other hand, the in-game juxtaposition and progression of the plot events themselves seems to be done in an overly rushed, poorly (even lazily) written and not very realistic and/or convincing manner, with the result that the switching from location to location is so fast that the missions themselves end up completely disconnected from each other. I won't go into specific examples to avoid spoilers (ask me on the forum) but, even by the standards of an action series like CoD MW, I found myself thinking inordinately often about how sloppy and rushed what I was seeing happening in front of me was, as if the writers wanted to get from point A to point D in a hurry so they put in points B and C something that felt forced, regardless of whether or not it made much sense in the context of the world and what had happened before.
There's one single mission which tries to do something memorable, placing us in disguise inside a Russian base where we must find a CIA informant, avoiding anyone who might identify us - but this mission is completed in literally 3 minutes, before we're whisked off to another location for an open-world shootout for some forced and half-thought reason. The fact, also, that Open Missions can be completed in minutes by a rudimentarily skilled player who just run around chasing objectives, means that the "traditional" Campaign length of 6+ hours on Regular difficulty level can drop down to as little as 3 hours (with speedrunners recently completing it in just 1 hour)! As if that wasn't enough, the end of the Campaign doesn't even complete the story, leaving wide open (a given, actually) the possibility of another CoD MW game in the coming years!
Moving on to the Multiplayer part, things are pretty much as expected and as they were established in the previous two MW games. Aside from the familiar MW modes - TDM, Domination, Headquarters, Ground War, etc.) there are some additions, such as War, which, although it was also featured in 2017's CoD: WWII, is a new addition by Modern Warfare series standards. Also notable is the return of Modern Warfare 2's "legacy" 6v6 maps from 2009 - Terminal, Rust, Favela, and all the other familiar maps - which provide a pretty good dose of nostalgia. Beyond that, several aspects of Multiplayer I'd say are "love or hate" features, such as the attempt to increase the speed of matches through more extensive Slide and Slide Cancelling (there are even dedicated perks and equipment for our Loadout that affect Sliding), and several players have even raised suspicions that Spawning on the maps is slightly "tweaked" to place players closer together and increase the frequency of shooting.
Taking into account all of the above, I don't think I would have been particularly engaged with the game apart from the obligatory completion of the Campaign and the equally obligatory few hours of slogging through the Multiplayer (especially in my favourite Domination and War modes). But at this point comes the factor that managed to partially redeem MWIII as far as I'm concerned: ZOMBIES.
MWIII's Zombies mode, created and maintained by the developers at Treyarch, is now a PVE extraction-style mode with survival elements, based on the DMZ mode formula for Warzone. Within this, we spawn at some random point of a huge, almost post-apocalyptic map (solo or as members of a team of up to three) which is divided into 3 zones of increased danger and difficulty, and within this map we have to kill Zombies ("plain" or Bosses), loot containers, complete various types of missions, upgrade our weapons, and exfiltrate through one of the evacuation locations marked on the map before the 45 minute timer runs out (plus another 15 minutes of "overtime", during which a zombie storm slowly drowns the entire world until all players leave or die).
In Zombies there's also a rudimentary plot, which is progressed through the completion of various tiered Challenges that are separated into three different Acts. Beyond that, by completing missions in the world we can acquire and exfiltrate items that will make future outings a bit easier, such as weapons, power ups, or crafting schematics that allow us to grab boosters with which we can then start the next match of Zombies without having to collect them somewhere on the map and/or buy them at a Buy station.
I wasn't really expecting it, but I LOVED this game mode. To the point that I've completely abandoned the rest of MWIII multiplayer now and just load the game solely to play Zombies (fortunately, there's shared progression, so leveling up your character profile in Zombies unlocks benefits that apply to regular multiplayer as well). It certainly has its flaws, both in terms of the currently finite content and, more importantly, of a technical nature - for example, more than a few times my game has crashed (either due to server lag or because various losers implement duplication glitches resulting in a universal crash) before I could exfiltrate, and thus I lost through no fault of my own rare schematics or power-ups that I had collected in the world (I send online apologies to any employee who reads my angry crash reports, but I was furious in those moments). But despite the rage whenever such a crash happens, sooner or later I always feel like going back in. In the way it's implemented, I'd say Zombies mode reminds me of The Division's beloved Survival mode, and the fact that I even managed to scratch that Division itch was an unexpected but entirely welcome development.
But the zombies alone probably don't manage to completely reverse the mood in a mostly disappointing release. Had the original plan been followed and we received this content as an expansion to MWII for 20-30 euros (or had Zombies mode been released as a standalone product), the final judgements might have been more forgiving. At this state though, for the 70 euros its publishers are asking, Modern Warfare III gives off a sense of a cash grab that was created and sent out the door hastily in the shadow of Activision's acquisition by Microsoft. The sloppy and disjointed Campaign "manages" to seem lackluster even by the standards of a CoD game, while the addition of nostalgic MW2 maps in Multiplayer plus 1-2 new modes probably isn't enough in itself as an incentive for someone who's already been playing through MWII since last year to invest the money in MWIII. I hope, at the very least, Activision and its subsidiaries (and the new masters at Microsoft) will invest further in the game to enrich it over the years and make it worth its price, instead of deciding that the appropriate solution is to release Modern Warfare IV this time next year. "Dream on" you might say, but... as long as I live I have hope. And I kill Zombies. When the servers aren't crashing.