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Call of Duty: Modern Warfare multiplayer review - a shooter struggling to define what it wants to be

Modern Warfare is the first Call of Duty in years that I wanted to like, but it's impossible to.

I'll admit right off the bat - Call of Duty isn't usually among my most anticipated games each year, but things were looking different this time around. Modern Warfare’s pre-launch marketing and beta positioned it as a break from the series’ tired formula. A return to classic rules in one and an introduction of some fresh ideas in another.

Though my time with the beta was largely positive, I came across a number of problems that I hoped would be addressed by launch, or altered entirely in order for the game to fit the image it had created for itself. Now that I've played the launch version, I can safely say that very little has changed.

Modern Warfare's presentation is muddled, its gameplay torn between two opposing design mantras and its commitment to bigger stakes in multiplayer is all a show. In every mode, every sub-section and at every opportunity, Modern Warfare makes me feel absurd for having expected meaningful change in the latest entry of the best-selling franchise every year.

Looming over my entire time with multiplayer has been this constant feeling that I am playing the product of one big compromise after another, a game whose makers couldn't agree - at a fundamental level - on what their game can or should be. So little of what Modern Warfare attempts to do is given room to breathe - and dare I say it, disappoint on its own terms. Almost as if no one really wanted to rock the boat.

The slower movement speed is evident, and together with the incredibly short time to kill forces everyone to play at a much reserved pace. That's about the only consistent element I could point to in multiplayer. Infinity Ward also felt the need to drill that new pace into players' heads by over-emphasising these mechanics with the return of killstreaks and some of the most cluttered maps I have ever played in a shooter.

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From their inception, I was never down with the concept of killstreaks, even when I played the original Modern Warfare every day for what seemed like years. But I learned to put up with them, until I didn't have to. Since Call of Duty 4, the concept of killstreaks has evolved so many times, from pointstreaks and strike packages to the more recent scorestreaks.

Call of Duty developers seemingly all quietly reached the conclusion that the game needed the spectacle of killstreaks but not the gameplay they promoted. Namely, hiding somewhere and worrying about padding the only thing that matters: your kill count. Modern Warfare brings back killstreaks, the old style where kills are the only way to earn them.

But it never justified this decision in its mechanics; gunplay is already very lethal, its maps aren't symmetrical arenas where you can guarantee a balanced experienced for all, and its movement mechanics are comparable to Rainbow Six: Siege than they are other CODs. All of this encourages and rewards playing it safe, which leads to stagnation, and a boring game as a result.

I don't want to gloss over Modern Warfare's incredibly complex maps because it's the other major reason why multiplayer is what it is. Maps seem to only reward securing power positions and holding angles. If you're not doing this yourself, your objective should be to remove whoever is currently doing that and replace them. I imagine this dance was intended to give multiplayer matches some meaning, but all it ends up doing is frustrate players who don't want to participate in the only gameplay opportunity these maps offer.

In my time across all the main modes, players either held these spots for the entire game, or tried abusing game mechanics in other ways such as jump and drop-shotting. On some level, I don’t really blame players with chronic drop-shooting tendencies because it can be their only way to play aggressively and stand a chance against the headglitching gods ruling every match.

We have now arrived at a spot where favouring non-gamey map layouts and photo-realistic visuals end up hampering gameplay, and I imagine developers will soon have to push back on some of these graphical complexities for more fun multiplayer games.

Part of the problem with maps in Modern Warfare is the game's spawn system. I don’t know if Infinity Ward decided for spawns not to flip this time around or what’s actually going on, but I have been spawn-trapped in every single map I have played.

The team that controls certain positions, such as the bridge in Euphrates, or the busses area in Piccadilly, almost always ends up trapping the other team in their spawn. Usually, Call of Duty gets around this by flipping the spawns to give the down team a chance to fight, but Modern Warfare bizarrely doesn't do it on any of the modes or maps I played.

This is all the more frustrating in Ground War where certain objectives have a clear view of the enemy's spawn. These spots were even called out in the beta, and they’re still there at launch.

As a long-time Battlefield fan, Ground War was, unsurprisingly, the mode I was excited to play the most. It felt refreshing to finally have a developer other than DICE attempt to replicate the Battlefield formula, even if Ground War was never meant to be the main event. I voiced my own concerns about the mode’s lack of identity in the beta, and I was saddened to see little change at launch.

As in the game’s other modes, killstreaks are back to ruin another objective-oriented affair, only in Ground War their potential for madness is exponentially increased. I have said before that killstreaks have no business being in objective modes, and I stand by that. Ground War plays like a 64-player TDM with flags no one really cares about. The players who figured it out are either camping with their tank on a hill overlooking half of the map, or camping at the top of a giant building sniping like it’s going out of fashion.

Despite sharing a few design elements with Battlefield’s Conquest, Ground War has nothing new to bring to the table. There aren’t any hot takes on Battlefield’s formula here, all Infinity Ward was seemingly trying to do is bring Call of Duty’s brand of chaos to a big map, likely for players who might not find it in the now slower 6v6 modes. I doubt many Battlefield players would find this fun, but I am happy Call of Duty players might.

Ground War really is the epitome of Modern Warfare’s design flaws, a confused mess that simultaneously wants to be one thing while catering to players that demand something else entirely.

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Spec Flops

Spec Ops was the other major mode in Modern Warfare that I was really looking forward to. Having loved the previous iterations in MW2 and MW3, and never really enjoying Zombies, the third pillar of a Call of Duty game was finally something I could play for more than an hour. Whatever potential Spec Ops once had, whatever grand designs Infinity Ward had envisioned, all of it broke down in my first few minutes with it.

The Spec Ops menu is split into two sections. Missions are the classic short affairs that you’re meant to replay for a better score. There’s only a single mission in at launch, and it doesn’t star-rate your performance as you might expect. Instead, when you’re done, you’re presented with the time it took you to clear it, and a reward box that says "coming in November".

Operations, on the other hand, are multi-objective missions that take place in different parts of a massive map that will likely be repurposed for the game’s rumoured battle royale mode. The design of each operation is interesting enough. One has you locating, protecting and extracting a hostage. Another sends you after an airplane to board it, detonate a device and jump out.

They can be exciting, but end up entirely ruined by the logic behind AI behaviour. In operations, enemies never stop spawning. It doesn’t matter what the objective is, so long as you can be shot, enemies will spawn around you in groups of 20 and go after you. When one group is down, another will be ready to flank. It’s exhausting, and saps any meaning or context out of these encounters. My first thought was that it was simply a bug, but so much of my frustrations with the game have been the result of intentional design decisions that I can't honestly say for certain.

If it wasn’t for unlocking characters to use in multiplayer, I doubt anyone would willingly play Spec Ops for fun. The framework is there, and I hope Infinity Ward figures it out eventually, but what’s there at launch is pitiful.

Much of my time with Modern Warfare’s multiplayer flip-flopped between frustration and disappointment. The act of interacting with your character, the weapon feel, the overall sound design and visuals are all among the best in the business, up there with the best shooters I have ever played.

But the minute a match gets going it’s either spawn traps, headglitch warfare, or killstreak abuse. Perhaps Modern Warfare was always going to be a polarising Call of Duty, but it could have been that while creating a different style, or serving an entirely different player base in the process. Right now, it's polarising for all the wrong reasons.

Which brings us back right where we started; another Call of Duty that doesn't really change anyone’s mind about Call of Duty. Whatever’s there that I thought might actually be making a leap was seemingly just good marketing. In that sense, I suppose, it’s been pretty successful.

We'll have a review of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare's campaign live tomorrow.

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