Arguing about who makes the best Calls of Duty is a time-honored tradition, but in 20 years of studio baton-passing, Modern Warfare 3 presents a unique opportunity for persnickety CoD enjoyers like myself: Sledgehammer has been entrusted with the direct sequel to Infinity Ward's Modern Warfare 2 reboot just a year after its release, with the same engine, the same content pipeline, and full backwards compatibility with MW2's guns and attachments.
I imagine this is a pretty big deal for Sledgehammer. The Bay Area studio has spent a decade playing third fiddle to its more-senior Infinity Ward and Treyarch collaborators, serving as a support studio when necessary and garnering a reputation as the "offbeat" CoD studio with Advanced Warfare (2014), WW2 (2017), and Vanguard (2021)—all entries that tried to reach beyond where CoD was, and either fell flat or didn't make a significant mark in series canon. Simply by being a Modern Warfare game, MW3 is the studio's highest-profile project ever.
After a few days playing Modern Warfare 3's multiplayer beta, it might also prove to be the strangest CoD package in years. The beta is essentially a tasting menu of MW3's full-course nostalgia for the original 2009 Modern Warfare 2.
Yes, it's a confusing pretzel of sequels and recursive reboots, but the takeaway is that Activision is betting big on players wanting to relive a well-remembered CoD from 14 years ago, so much so that it's willing to forgo MW3 having any real identity of its own. Instead of having original multiplayer maps, MW3 will only feature remakes of MW2 (2009) maps at launch. Between both weekends of the beta, I've played five: Favela, Skidrow, Rust, Highrise, and Estate.
It's a little embarrassing to admit, but yeah, the nostalgia is working. I played a whole lot of MW2 in 2009, as you do when you're 13 and most of your friends are online too, so it's not surprising that these maps are still branded into my brain. Sprinting down the center lane of Highrise gave me the same sentimental rush I get when I drive by my old middle school. Sledgehammer clearly understands the assignment—modernize, but preserve the map's visual identity—and I think they've so far nailed it, with the exception of Favela. MW3 Favela doesn't quite replicate 2009's dingy art style: the new one is cleaner, brighter, and more saturated. That's an entirely valid interpretation of Favela that I like just fine, but it does stand out next to Estate and Rust, which are so faithful to their originals that they stop feeling like remakes and just become those maps.
And hey…some of those maps kinda sucked, huh? It was bold of Sledgehammer to toss Estate into the mix so early on, because 10 minutes on that map reminded me why I voted against it every time it came up in 2009. Why is it three-quarters featureless hill, and why do I always seem to spawn at the bottom of it? Every CoD has some stinkers in the map pool, but it's a slightly harder pill to swallow when we're talking about an old nemesis I thought I'd never have to see again.
I'm not thrilled that map voting is back either—sure, it can mean that a united lobby of 12 can give bad maps like Estate the collective middle finger, but it also means maps that are bad for other reasons, like Rust, win out every single time. At least it's easy to duck out and try again before the match starts.
The little things
While MW3 maps are meant to imitate Infinity Ward circa 2009, Sledgehammer has charted its own path with major adjustments to movement and recoil. Players can once again slide cancel, everyone has 50% more health, and red pings are back on the minimap, undoing key changes Infinity Ward made in 2022 to deliberately slow down the action and reward patience.
It's too early to measure the effect these changes will have, but after a couple of days, I suspect they don't make a huge difference for the average player. As much as CoD content creators love their bunny hopping and jittery slide cancelling, most players don't actually do that stuff, which is nice. My matches have all been very familiar to the game I've been playing for the past year—unsurprising considering this year's multiplayer is essentially an expansion.
It's fascinating to watch two artists work from the exact same prompt. So much of MW3 has been lifted from MW2 unchanged, yet Sledgehammer's fingerprints are all over this thing.
Two decades of yearly CoDs have trained us to notice and care about really small stuff that I don't think twice about in other games. The way guns look, how they sound, kick, reload—this is where Sledgehammer leaves its clearest mark, and where MW3 might be taking a few steps back from last year. Sledgehammer has definitely upped its craft since Vanguard's wimpy rifles almost completely put me off that game. The new MW3 guns are decently punchy and I really like holding a classic UMP again, but they don't compare favorably to MW2 (2022).
Infinity Ward guns are so loud and concussive that I have to turn the game down to hear friends on Discord. Sledgehammer gun sounds are noticeably weaker, rattly hums. Honestly, it's hardly a fair fight. Modern Warfare 2 has some of the sharpest, ear-ringing gunfeel in any FPS I've played and ludicrously detailed animations. These beta guns don't have as much flair, but depending on who you are, that could be a good thing. One reason MW3 guns seem weaker is because the time-to-kill has gone up dramatically. I miss the lower TTK, but the extra HP does give me wiggle room to escape gunfights I'm losing. I've also noticed less recoil across the board and almost no visual recoil (the kind where your reticle bounces around off-center while firing), which has made every gun I've tried so far feel like an absolute laserbeam.
Maybe the guns that aren't in the beta will have steeper recoil curves, but that last note isn't encouraging as someone who enjoys tuning weapons in Gunsmith. I outfitted my MCW (a reimagining of the popular ACR from 2009) with two attachments and already feel like anything more would be redundant. Unless I want to slap a silencer on it or extend the magazine, it's pretty much a solved gun.
That probably says more about a general Gunsmith bloat problem that's been around for a few CoDs now: there are tragically few attachments that meaningfully affect how a gun behaves, and piles of grips, stocks, and muzzles that do basically the same thing. There are 18 different options to get slightly less weapon kick or higher bullet velocity, and yet the most interesting attachment I've unlocked so far is the same pistol quickdraw grip I loved in MW2 mostly because it looks cool to draw your gun like John Wick. I'm also thoroughly unimpressed by the choice of optics so far. A lot of the simple red dots are kinda ugly (I recognize several from Vanguard) and I'm not seeing as many "medium" laser sight options with more zoom, though the final game will probably have more.
Sledgehammer said some guns will have "conversion kits" that hugely transform a gun's behavior. The first one they showed is a kit that adds an SMG framework to the Renetti pistol to make it fully automatic. That sounds very cool, but unfortunately, Sledgehammer plans to tie conversion kits to time-limited challenge windows. You can't get the carrot without the stick in CoD these days.
I often wonder if holding all of these hyper-specific preferences about TTK, optic aesthetics, and gunfeel is a sign I've gone off the deep end with CoD or I'm resistant to change, but I think it's more about acknowledging that, despite reasonable criticisms that this series is the same every year, who makes your Call of Duty really matters. I think Infinity Ward puts a little extra love in that I don't tend to see in Sledgehammer or Treyarch games, and that's fine. For the same reason I'm bummed when my favorite burrito place is closed and I have to settle for a near-identical one down the street, the MW3 beta is bittersweet. I'm having fun, but it's not quite the same.
The second weekend of Modern Warfare 3's beta began today for those who preordered the game and runs until Sunday, October 15. The beta opens up to everybody else starting October 14.