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‘Stellaris’ — A Strategic Space Opera



Stellaris is a game, or at least the concept for one, that I’ve been wanting for a very long time. Marrying the grand strategy of Paradox Interactive and classic 4X space strategy games (read: explore, expand, exploit, exterminate) like Galactic Civilizations, Stellaris is poised to be one of the most robust games of its kind. The only question is, can this ambitious hybrid live up to the vastness of its potential?

The short answer is yes. Mostly.

Stellaris Combat

Fleet combat doesn’t have a tactical focus, but ship design options deepen it considerably.

The legacy of Paradox’s rich development history is evident right from the start. Players can create their own alien races before they even begin the game proper, assigning an assortment of different variables in addition to choosing their preferred habitat and phenotype. Once in the game, they’ll then find that political influence is a resource needed to recruit and maintain leadership in various aspects of their society, including the three branches of science research, stellar science exploration done via civilian ships that travel from planet to planet, the governorship of planets and sectors, and the military. War is more complex than most 4X games, requiring that both sides declare goals, meet those specific goals in their war efforts—rather than just rolling over their opponent’s entire empire—and generally deal with the end of the conflict in more diplomatic fashion than galactic genocide.

Alliances with fellow empires are an option, but so are federations of four or more empires, which feature a rotating presidential seat, a position allowing one to make use of the federation fleets and declare war for the group. There is also a huge array of empire government types, migration and slavery options for different species within an empire, vassal and protectorate empires that exist under the sway of a larger group, and the ability to “uplift” and “enlighten” primitive races at various stages of early development. Even a fleet’s basic FTL travel has options. Each empire can choose one of three starting methods: warp technology sets a direct course to a star and travels to it slowly, hyperspace lanes allow for faster travel between systems but are more restrictive and can be subject to bottlenecks, and wormhole technology is even faster, allowing an empire to essentially slingshot its fleets anywhere within range of wormhole generators which need to built, and thus also defended. These are smart additions to the formula that go a long way toward deepening and extending the baseline 4X gameplay, making Stellaris something truly unique compared to its peers.

Galaxy size and empire density can be set manually, and the possibilities are huge.

Thankfully, that base offering itself is solid. The general concepts will be familiar to anyone who has played these kinds of games in the past, and they work as expected. Planets can be colonized, outposts and fortresses built, and neighboring empires negotiated with. Resources must be managed on an empire level, with energy credits (money) and minerals (materials for construction) joining the accruing influence used for political movements and sustaining empire edicts. Research happens along tech trees of the usual type, but the selection of available technologies is semi-random, reflecting that not all empires will develop in the same way. It adds a small but interesting element of surprise that makes every game fresh.

Planet management falls to a Civilization-style grid, with various “pops” or population groups inhabiting different tiles that will in turn provide different benefits to economic or research production. These tiles also support a variety of structures, as do orbital spaceports which allow for further customization. To make the greatest use of these spaces, players must fight the natural obstacles of each world, which can be cleared via researching specific technologies and spending some extra time and resources. In addition, habitable planets—a statistical rarity compared to barren worlds and gas giants—come in several forms, such as continental, desert, ocean, tropical, and arctic worlds. Every species will have its own preferences, meaning that the habitability of any given planet inherently varies by race, making the rush for expansion into the cosmos all the more contentious.

Sectors also help with planet management, allowing one to automate large sections of an empire, which then act as mini-economies that feed back to the player, at least when given enough resources to maintain their infrastructure. This cuts down on a ton of micromanagement given how much territory a player can have at any given time, though it can be slightly frustrating for those who don’t want to give up absolute control. It isn’t optional: only 5 core systems can be maintained without an economic penalty by default, and while this can be increased through research, total control just isn’t an option. That said, even though I personally micromanage city and planetary development in games like this with something approaching glee, I found that my core systems were always enough to keep me busy in Stellaris. As I expanded, bringing new worlds into the fold, I’d only turn them over to a sectorial governor after years of basic infrastructure-building, usually as I was about to make a further push for expansion with more colony ships. The system works as designed if handled correctly, but it does require the player to understand some of its nuances.

Empire complexity ramps up considerably in the mid-game, making sectorial governorship a welcome reprieve.

If it sounds like a lot to consider, it is. Stellaris doesn’t shy away from complexity. Yet it’s considerably more accessible than most past Paradox titles, with fairly decent tutorial options helping acclimate players to the universe. A friendly robot gives a walkthrough of some of the basics, explaining the various screens and their functions as the game progresses, and it’s a decent way to convey information gradually, without being overwhelming. It can’t answer every question or convey the nuances of every system, which players must discover for themselves, but the barrier to entry isn’t unreasonable.

Some of these systems are explored in part through what can best be described as “quests” that appear in a running log. They provide objectives for players to chase after in the early game, and are generally well-written, with interesting flavor text to accompany their progression. These aren’t limited to just tutorializing, however, and various objectives open up as science vessels discover anomalies and research the myriad things hidden about the galaxy. These ongoing concerns are compelling enough that it actually becomes something of a bummer when they largely dry up in the game’s middle portions, after empires have expanded to swallow up most star systems within their ever-increasing borders, and the game does slow down considerably as those options decrease. Players will have to get creative with war and diplomacy to keep things interesting in the mid-game.

And war can certainly take up a lot of one’s attention, given how differently Stellaris does things from your average 4X title. Units come in a several flavors, with civilian construction and research ships flying alongside attack vessels of various sizes and loadouts. The latter represent everything from small corvettes to hulking battleships and carriers, and a robust ship design screen allows players to fine-tune their construction. If that’s too much micromanagement, the computer can auto-update designs as new technology becomes available. The ship design tools are handled expertly, being complex enough to allow for players to meet specific needs in hull, armor, and shield values, while mixing and matching weapons and power sources via a simple system of placing components onto ship hardpoints.

Low-level aggressive and neutral factions exist, bringing the galaxy to life even before other empires are discovered.

This level of customization is necessary because Stellaris doesn’t feature any tactical combat. War more or less boils down to assembling fleets of different ship compositions and throwing them at each other; but this is an overly reductive way of looking at it. While the individual movements and attack patterns of ships can’t be micromanaged, some of their internal logic can be altered by swapping out the “combat computer” of a given design. The changes are extremely basic, but can be used with complimentary sibling ship designs to create useful dynamics within a fleet. While this means there are no micro-level tactical decisions to make during combat, modifying weapon loadouts and defensive measures adds a tactical element to warfare as players change builds to deal with new threats. In addition, the simplicity of any particular combat encounter becomes welcome as campaigns progress in length, since huge empires with multiple ongoing conflicts would have a hard time managing the details of every battle given the game’s real-time nature.

Yes: eschewing the classic turn-based approach, Stellaris is a real-time strategy game, but don’t let this cause you undue alarm. The pace is slow, the game is pausable, and the speed is adjustable on the fly. There is no need for manic rushing, and given the largely fire-and-forget methodology of the combat, players will have plenty of time to attend to the needs of their empire. This feels even less like an RTS than the well-liked hybrid Sins of a Solar Empire, and shouldn’t overly frustrate turn-based gameplay purists. The overall flow lends itself to a real-time nature, also allowing for the varying FTL methods that empires can choose, and a real-time clock keeps the longer mid-game stretches of production from devolving into clicking the “end turn” button over and over again. The game is technically even pausable in multiplayer games, but only by the host, which is handy if everyone needs to stretch and grab a snack.

Planet management is straightforward, but must be managed carefully to best maintain your empire.

These multiplayer options aren’t neglected, either, with online matches supporting up to 32 players. Good luck finding that many friends, of course, but it’s nice to have the option for huge community-driven games if those opportunities presents themselves. You can also throw AI empires into the mix, or set yourself as an observer and watch AI empires duke it out over the course of centuries all by themselves.

Unfortunately, not everything is quite so rosy. There are problems with the current state of the game, most notably a selection of bugs that affect wars undertaken alongside AI alliance partners, empires generally being a bit too passive about declaring war on players (or helping out allies in wars they might have a vested interest in seeing won), and a few other bugs associated with endgame events that keep them from working as intended.

This last is truly unfortunate, as the galaxy-wide crises that develop as campaigns go toward the final stretches are an incredible addition to the standard formula. Instead of getting so huge and powerful that you can simply steamroll the universe, a number of late-game disasters can occur which are capable of affecting multiple empires or even the entire galaxy, sometimes forcing unlikely alliances. Combined with the overly-passive AI, however, it doesn’t always quite work as effectively as it could, leaving the responsibility largely with the player, which is a problem if they can’t get to the affected areas of space quickly enough to deal with the issues at hand. One of the events is also bugged to the point where players can’t successfully rid themselves of the problem, which can in some cases render a savegame nearly unplayable. The specifics of these events are too much fun to spoil in a review, but suffice it to say that if the issues can be patched, these events represent a wealth of harrowing excitement to shake up what in other titles can sometimes be a dull slog toward the finish line.

It's easy to design a custom empire to fit almost any taste, and the art designs are wonderful.

It’s easy to design a custom empire to fit almost any taste, and the art designs are wonderful.

Stellaris is a lovingly crafted product that, imperfections aside, captures many aspects of what makes so-called “grand strategy” so grand, and presents them in a more accessible package with a ton of personality. It looks the part, with decent ship designs, a nice-looking galaxy filled with beautiful stars and planets, and a huge number of alien species with tons of unique portrait art to go with them—arthropoid, avian, reptilian, molluscoid, mammalian, fungoid, you name it. The music and sound are pleasing, and the interface is robust and functional. While there are some problems, Paradox has a history of long-term support for their games in the form of both extensive patches and (mostly) worthwhile DLC options, which means that the existing wealth of content is hopefully only the beginning. There are some bugs to fix and some areas which need fleshing out, diplomacy in particular, but even as it stands, Stellaris is an accomplished game that no fan of strategy or space exploration should miss.

Michael J. Riser writes weird fiction and articles about videogames. He occasionally posts stuff at, and (more frequently) @Quemaqua on Twitter.

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Game Reviews

‘Destiny 2: Shadowkeep’ Review: Moon’s Haunted but Still Shines

‘Destiny 2: Shadowkeep’ returns to a familiar destination but Bungie is reworking Destiny with each expansion and Shadowkeep is no exception.



Destiny 2 Shadowkeep Review

Destiny 2: Shadowkeep may be a return to a familiar destination, the Moon, but Bungie continues the trend of reworking Destiny with each new expansion, and Shadowkeep is no exception. Replete with a reworked season pass system, progression systems, customization options, sandbox re-tuning and quest interface, Shadowkeep is both a welcome iteration and extension of the existing Destiny 2 experience offering more RPG-esque player agency than Destiny has ever seen before. While the game is still haunted by some overly familiar issues, Shadowkeep is a welcome expansion and a promising start to the third year of Destiny 2.

Old Haunting Grounds

The Moon isn’t the only familiar face in Shadowkeep. Keeping with tradition, Eris Morn has returned from a long absence for another dark, lunar expansion (the first being D1′s The Dark Below when the character was first introduced) as she investigates a disturbance deep within the Moon. Quite literally haunted by the past, Eris has called upon the Guardians to assist her in finding the source of the phantoms plaguing the Moon and vanquishing “Nightmare” versions of familiar visages from the past.

All is not entirely as old players might remember. An immense hive structure, the Scarlet Keep, now overshadows previously unexplored territory on the Lunar surface. New Lost Sectors hide in the depths of the Moon, and new secrets a la the Dreadnaught or the Dreaming City lie waiting to be discovered by inquisitive players. And at the very center of the expansion an ancient, unknown threat lies in wait, an ominous foreshadowing of the trials ahead.

While the expansion does a decent job ensuring the familiar haunts don’t feel overly recycled, it’s hard to say Shadowkeep makes the most of the Moon. The campaign opens on such a high note as players storm the moon in an unexpectedly matchmade sequence before individual Fireteams independently uncover an unanticipated twist that absolutely shatters expectation. Unfortunately, the narrative quickly devolves into uninteresting fetch quests that fail to live up to the intrigue of the initial mission nor live up to the narrative heights of some of the most memorable missions the Moon previously housed including fan favorites The Sword of Crota and Lost to Light to name a few. That’s tough company to keep, and Shadowkeep fails to measure up.

Similarly, a bit of that intrigue is reintroduced in Shadowkeep‘s final mission, but, like the campaign as a whole, it’s over before the player knows it and fails to live up to the precedent set by previous, lengthier campaign conclusions. More mileage is gotten out of the narrative and destination in the post-game in the way of a new weapon farming system, a new activity known as Nightmare hunts that play like mini Strikes, and a Strike proper, but that does little to alleviate the disappointment of an overly terse campaign that reads like a teaser for what’s to come over a distinct, fleshed-out story.

A New Era, a New Season

Part of that is presumably courtesy of a shift in Bungie’s approach to content releases. While the previous expansion, Forsaken, similarly opted for procedurally released content over the course of the season, Bungie has doubled down on that strategy with Shadowkeep ensuring there’s something new to be experienced each week that players sign in. While certain activities have alway arrived post-launch including raids, dungeons, and exotic weapon pursuits, Shadowkeep and its “Season of the Undying” has seen new PvE and PvP activities launched after the expansion’s initial drop, adding to an already lengthy list of Destiny to-dos.

Central to the season is the new PvE, matchmade activity, the Vex Offensive, which pits six players against waves of Vex combatants paired and features some minor puzzle elements, all for the sake of earning a series of weapons exclusive to the mode. While the Black Garden locale of the mode is certainly eye-catching, the Offensive, with its recycled mechanics and familiar enemies, doesn’t leave much of an impression beyond that. It might pale in comparison to activities introduced in past seasons (like Warmind‘s Escalation Protocol, or last season’s Menagerie), but is intentionally terse, intended to match this new seasonal philosophy, and will be removed from the game after Season of the Undying (though the exclusive arsenal will still be available in the loot pool obtainable through undisclosed means). Like the Vex themselves, the Vex Offensive might not seem like much independently, but collectively is a piece of a greater whole challenging and rewarding players for participating within the specific season.

Bungie is further defining each season with the inclusion of a seasonal artifact and a season pass system. The artifact, again only available for the season, offers players an avenue for additional, limitless Power gains while also offering unlockable gameplay mods encouraging players to utilize specific classes and builds. The Oppressive Darkness mod, for example, debuffs enemies hit by void grenades, encouraging players to construct discipline-oriented, void builds. Another mod, Thunder Coil, increases the power of arc melee attacks by fifty percent, giving all new life to the Hunter’s Arcstrider subclass. Meanwhile, the season pass operates similar to that of Fortnite or any number of games and replaces the previous cosmetic only level up system of Destiny 2‘s past. From the season’s outset, any and all experience goes toward unlocking rewards from the pass including new armor, armor ornaments, exclusive weapons and exotics, and engrams. The experience requirement for each level is static, meaning progress is fair and steady throughout and never feels throttled. Both seasonal systems are fantastic new additions that reward players for playing the game while making experience gains more purposeful than any other time in Destiny‘s endgame.

New Duds to Boot

Shadowkeep also marks the debut of Armor 2.0, a new system that allows players more agency in character customization than ever before. Whereas armor previously rolled with random perks and a roll of only three stats (Mobility, Recovery, and Resilience), Armor 2.0 comes with no perks and six stats as Destiny 1‘s Intellect, Discipline, and Strength (determining the charge rates of player’s super, grenade, and melee abilities) make their triumphant return. Instead, Armor 2.0 has slots for modifiers so players can pick and choose whatever perks they want just as long as they’ve unlocked those mods. Mods are acquired from most activities, while enhanced mods (better versions of certain traditional mods) are exclusive to some of the game’s more challenging content. While the grind for mods seems excessive in the face of the rest of the game’s grind, it’s a one-time affair, some of the best mods are unlocked via the seasonal artifact, and the payoff is astounding, providing customization like never before.

Convoluting the process, unfortunately, is a messy elemental affinity system where certain mods can only be slotted into armor of a matching elemental type. Mods relating to pulse rifles, for example, are exclusive to Arc armor, so a piece perfectly rolled to a pulse-rifle-inclined player’s preference with a solar affinity won’t do them any good if they were hoping for pulse rifle perks. It was undoubtedly an intentional design decision to generate an arbitrary grind since players won’t need to chase armor with perfect perks any longer but is ultimately a mar on the face of an otherwise pretty great new system.

Convoluting the process, unfortunately, is a messy elemental affinity system where certain mods can only be slotted into armor of a matching elemental type. Mods relating to pulse rifles, for example, are exclusive to Arc armor, so a piece perfectly rolled to a pulse-rifle-inclined player’s preference with a solar affinity won’t do them any good if they were hoping for pulse rifle perks. It was undoubtedly an intentional design decision to generate an arbitrary grind since players won’t need to chase armor with perfect perks any longer but is ultimately a mar on the face of an otherwise pretty great new system.

Axe to Grind

Speaking to the grind, Destiny has often struggled and failed to find the perfect balance of meaningful power climb and tedious grinds recycling the same old activities. Luckily, at the outset of the climb towards max power, Shadowkeep strikes a much better balance centered on beloved ritual and new and or seasonal activities. Power drops now operate on a clearly labeled, tiered system, incentivizing players to prioritize new or challenging activities for maximum gains. Ritual activities (Strikes, Crucible, and Gambit), though tier one, retain their relevance by offering multiple weekly powerful drops for match completions, vendor bounties completed, and rank progression. Previous, otherwise irrelevant avenues towards power have been retired, but this is a welcome reduction and there is no shortage of powerful drops in the climb to max power. That isn’t to say that the grind couldn’t be shorter ensuring more players can participate in endgame activities when they first arrive, but progression generally feels smoother than any time in Destiny‘s past.

Conversely, content flow might overwhelm casual and even dedicated players as there’s simply too much to do and grind for players tight on time. Bungie now considers Destiny and MMO with proper RPG mechanics, and, in terms of time commitment, that really shows with Shadowkeep. On a certain week, a player might have an accomplished week in-game after sinking only three to five hours into the game. Other weeks the game seems to demand closer to the ten to twenty-hour range. One week, for example, saw the release of the new dungeon, a new Crucible game mode, an exotic quest, a new public event, and the start of the Festival of the Lost, a limited time, Halloween event. That’s simply too much, feels like poor pacing, and favors streamers, Destiny content creators, and hardcore players for whom Destiny is their exclusive hobby, a burgeoning theme with Season of the Undying. While it’s certainly exciting that there’s always something to do in D2, it doesn’t seem true to the game’s roots as a hybrid, a shooter with MMO elements, that could be taken at a more casual pace but still offered an engaging endgame for the dedicated audience. Now, there’s only an endgame with no end in sight.

A Better Destiny Awaits

That’s not necessarily a bad thing for players who want to pay a minimal price for seemingly unending content, and in that regard, Shadowkeep is a steal. A sensational new raid (minus some finicky new mechanics), a foreboding dungeon, an immense new arsenal to grind for, and a better tuned PvP and PvE sandbox in which to enjoy them mean Shadowkeep will keep Guardians’ attention the whole season long and is an excellent proof of concept for the seasonal structure going forward. If Bungie can keep this pace up, year three of Destiny 2 could easily be the best year in franchise history. As a general caution though, Destiny 2 now clearly caters to the hardcore, requires MMO levels of commitment, and is best enjoyed with a regular group; casual, time-restricted, and solo players beware. It might not be the best single expansion release in franchise history (that’s still a toss-up between The Taken King and Forsaken), but, beginning with Destiny 2: Shadowkeep, the third year of D2 is the closest the tumultuous title has ever come to Bungie’s ambitious vision for the shared-world shooter and the game fans have been waiting for these past five years.

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Game Reviews

‘Call of Duty: Modern Warfare’ Multiplayer Offers Classic Gameplay with a Couple of Twists

Love it or hate it, ‘Modern Warfare’ multiplayer is back and as nostalgic as ever, with a few twists.



Call of Duty Multiplayer

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare often gets a bad rap as a formulaic franchise, especially when it comes to multiplayer. From the original Modern Warfare to more recent titles like WW2, the experience has often felt like a fresh coat of paint on an old, yet addicting, model.

This approach is not always a bad thing though. For fans of the series, the nostalgia and consistency is often the main selling point, and they are always ready to bring the same skills back into a new title’s running and gunning action.

So when Infinity Ward announced that the campaign of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare would focus on revolutionizing the franchise with realistic gameplay, no one was really sure what to expect. Naturally, fans were eager to see how this new combat and action would translate to a multiplayer experience but also wary of whether a radical change would ruin the experience they craved.

Well—love it or hate it—Call of Duty: Modern Warfare multiplayer is back and just as nostalgic and familiar as ever, although the update brings a couple of new twists. While it’s light years away from perfect, this newest installment in the franchise still offers up classic gameplay with a couple of interesting alterations. For longtime fans, these changes might be positive or negative, but Infinity Ward at least deserves some credit for trying.

Getting tactical

To put it simply, the Call of Duty: Modern Warfare multiplayer gameplay leans more towards what some would call a tactical, cover-based style of combat. In theory, this sounds like a fairly fresh approach to the run and gun style of the past. This new style forces teams to work together to slowly climb up the map, holding various chokeholds while pushing up on enemy positions.

With Call of Duty: Modern Warfare taking a more realistic approach to combat, it’s natural the multiplayer strategies will change as well. Like the campaign, guns feel more realistic and powerful, resulting in quicker kills and more damage taken. Combined with the new “mount” cover system, this often means that players get mowed down pretty quickly.

But—full disclosure—this new multiplayer gameplay generally means that the game rewards staying in one place for a majority of a match. For lack of a better word, camping. While past COD games placed a heavy emphasis on speed and movement, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare wants players to find a strong, defensible position and hold it.

Modern Warfare Multiplayer

Sure, running and gunning still have a place in Modern Warfare, but it’s definitely not as functional as it has been in the past. Often times, it means just blindly stumbling into the same quick death and missing out on those killstreaks. While not perfect—and a little unbalanced—switching the style up is an interesting move that could be successful with future updates, although no promises.

There’s no list like the quick playlist

It should come as no surprise that Call of Duty: Modern Warfare multiplayer’s best quality is its Quick Play maps. While the gameplay has shifted to a certain extent, this mode still is a grab-bag of the old nostalgic favorites that pretty much sum up the past decade or more of Call of Duty online. This option has all the old favorites—the traditional Team Deathmatch, Control, and Kill Confirmed—plus a few new additions.

For most COD veterans, these modes are the bread-and-butter of the franchise, and Infinity Ward has really boiled FPS fun down to a science. It’s that perfect video game balance of being both incredibly frustrating and insanely addicting at the same time, sucking players into a cycle of “yeah, okay, one more game.” The lobby keeps the matches coming, the ranks keep the unlocks rolling, and the stats make it all feel worthwhile.

No trouble with doubles

The newest Call of Duty: Modern Warfare multiplayer element, Gunfight, is absolutely a highlight of the experience. In this new mode, two teams of two duke it out in a close arena-style, last-team-standing match. Every player starts with the same gun and class and spawns in identical positions, and the first team to six wins takes the match. It’s a great example of leveling the playing field and letting the most skilled team win, and it is absolutely intense.

Like the rest of the gameplay, this mode seems to reward patience and teamwork. While running headfirst into danger is always an option, staying back and letting the enemy make the first move seems to be the best tactic and leads to the highest success rate.

While playing with a friend is always the best way to go, Gunfight is still an intense and fast-paced mode with a random partner. Yeah, it can be frustrating at times if players are paired with inexperienced or uncooperative teammates, but Infinity Ward seems to understand matchmaking fairly well.

Not all is perfect

Trying to keep up with other franchises, one of the major selling points for the Call of Duty: Modern Warfare multiplayer was the introduction of the new modes Special Ops and Ground War. While these ideas work on paper, they don’t exactly play out in practice.

Special Ops, the newest coop mode, feels a lot like Infinity Ward’s answer to the social shooter “Strikes” of games like Destiny 2. In teams of 4, players must work together to battle through waves of enemy bots and bosses to achieve different mission objectives and unlock more of the “story” (sort-of). In theory, it sounds awesome, but it’s mind-numbingly awful in execution.

In Special Ops, every objective is incredibly far apart, enemy bots feel both endless and worthless, and the incentive to keep continuing is nonexistent. Unlike Destiny 2 “Strikes,” there is no real coherent narrative that moves players from one objective to the next. Instead, it’s just cookie-cutter “shoot this character” or “stand by this area” quests that feel like huge wastes of time. Combine that with a large empty map and boring enemies, and it’s a recipe for disaster.

Modern Warfare Multiplayer

Similarly, Ground War—while a little more interesting—is just as much of a swing-and-a-miss. Taking a few pages out of the Battlefield franchise’s playbook, this mode has 32-man teams and vehicles fighting for control of strategic positions. Again, great in theory, but terrible in execution.

With this Call of Duty: Modern Warfare multiplayer game type, it isn’t that everything works poorly. It just doesn’t really sync up into a coherent experience. Ground War plays out exactly as one would expect with vehicles and a larger map, but it still somehow devolves into a convoluted mess of hallways shooting and rapid, almost random deaths. Simply put, its biggest issue is just an incompatibility between the Call of Duty and Battlefield models. The combat just does not feel well-suited to the style of gameplay and the mode just lacks the polish and balance of the Battlefield games.

Where’s the royale?

While many may still disagree, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare multiplayer feels like it needs a Battle Royal mode to round the whole experience out. As always, multiplayer quickplay is fun for a time, but having something else to break up the repetitive team deathmatch routine would be a welcome addition.

Infinity Ward could even try to mix their experience up a little bit by making a duos Gunfight-style mode the highlight of their BR offering. While single-player is probably the simplest way to play, adding an element of cooperation might make for an interesting and fresh experience.

Rumor has it that this multiplayer mode is in the works and coming in a later update, and it feels like a natural fit. The way that guns are upgraded in the class menu makes finding weapon parts a logical next step. Hopefully, this mode can revitalize the player base of Call of Duty once the holidays roll around.

More of the same

Overall, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare multiplayer is a slight variation of the traditional Quick Play-style gameplay that the franchise is known for, and that’s not always a bad thing. For diehard fans of the franchise, it’s the same old Modern Warfare package with a fresh coat of paint. Sure, the gunplay and combat changes do take a while to get used to, but after a few hours of mindlessly running through maps, players should be well on their way to 20 kill games.  

For those looking for a fairly basic Call of Duty multiplayer experience with some slight gameplay tweaks, this one is for you. But if you want something new and revolutionary, take a different route.

Check out our review of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare’s campaign mode.

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Game Reviews

‘Call of Duty: Modern Warfare’ Campaign: Finally Shooting in the Right Direction



Modern Warfare campaign

Let’s face it, not many people buy Call of Duty: Modern Warfare titles for the story anymore. With the dominance of the multiplayer modes, it’s almost like the campaign has become a tacked-on bonus to play if there is ever a problem with the WiFi connection.

A lot of that has to do with the narrative direction of the franchise—it has felt downright cookie-cutter in the past. Every year, COD offers the same old thing. Some generic serviceman is sent to a war-torn 3rd world country to save the free world from a random insurgent leader, military dictator, or rebel group. Sprinkle in some nuclear launch codes, chemical weapons, and futuristic military technology, and there’s the go-to formula for the series.  

With that said, imagine everyone’s surprise when Infinity Ward announced that they were reimagining the Modern Warfare franchise by rebooting its defining title. To establish this entry as a turning point, their new vision for the game would be bold, unapologetic, gritty, and realistic. By moving in this new and unexplored direction, the veteran developer believed that this was THE opportunity to create a new title that could change the landscape of AAA narratives forever.

So how did they do with this fresh direction for the Modern Warfare campaign? Actually, surprisingly well given the franchise’s history of forgettable stories and lackluster single-player experiences. The new 2019 Call of Duty: Modern Warfare campaign is actually an interesting and inventive take on the series and sets the table for some killer opportunities for future success if handled correctly. While it’s not without a few missteps along the way, overall Infinity Ward delivers on their promise and serves up a unique war experience unlike any in recent memory.

Finally, a story worth playing

Taking place in fictional Urzikstan, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare’s campaign puts players in the tough moral situations of war, asking them to consider what makes a “righteous” cause, an enemy combatant, or a war crime. Initially, the story seemed to follow the traditional COD trajectory, as players start as a CIA ghost tasked with finding a stolen shipment of chemical gas, but the story takes a quick turn into uncharted territory. This usually translates to showing gamers a glimpse of the much darker world of the present day, having players respond to a major terror attack, protect a stormed embassy, or stalk terrorist ringleaders through tunnel mazes.

Sure, these plot devices may feel a bit similar to past campaigns, but it’s Modern Warfare’s murkier presentation that elevates these elements to new heights. Instead of having the feeling of mowing down hundreds of faceless, generic computer bots to advance to the next mission, there is a weight to the combat and atmosphere that adds a certain gravity to the narrative. It could be because of the new focus on characters or just the general atmosphere, but this new aesthetic goes a long way in creating a more immersive Modern Warfare campaign experience.

That being said, while the campaign is solid, it’s no Black Hawk Down or Homeland. The story arc of the main characters, Alex and Kyle, play out far too abruptly and lack the nuance of deep development. It almost feels like a few things were cut for time from the original script or just got lost in translation to favor gameplay. As a result, some of the larger “critical” points about terrorism and morality fall a little flat as the story progresses. Sure, Infinity Ward deserves some credit for ambitiously trying to make some deep statements in video game form, no small feat for a AAA dev, but these complex issues require complex stories to flesh them out and do them justice.

Mostly killer, a little filler

What really sets this title apart from past entries is its willingness to experiment with level design, making for some really unique gameplay moments. Of course, the campaign has all the COD staples—the generic sniper mission, the protect the base objectives, etc, etc. But it’s the new stuff that creates some excitement for the future of the franchise.

Most memorable of these Modern Warfare campaign levels were the missions involving nighttime raids on suspected terrorist cells. As players slowly move from floor to floor with their tactical squad, they are forced to quickly assess whether characters are enemies or civilians. When corners are quickly turned, some of the people react in fear, some pull weapons, and others make a long con to distract while danger lurks nearby. To make things even better, these whole missions take place in dead silence and through night vision, giving it a vaguely Outlast-ey feel. Hopefully, Infinity Ward will be brave enough to bring more of these types of levels into the future of the series.

Modern Warfare campaign

Also, the Modern Warfare campaign seems to be less afraid of letting players choose their own path through the mission. Varying weapon types are available from the get-go and objectives can often be addressed in multiple ways, giving players more freedom. While the narrative doesn’t exactly feel non-linear (although that would have been even more interesting), it certainly opens up possibilities for a little more replayability than previous campaigns.

The devil is in the details

There was a healthy skepticism when Infinity Ward first promised that the Call of Duty: Modern Warfare campaign would be gritty and realistic, but they truly lived up to their word. Civilians and enemies both drop at a similar rate, takedowns are visceral and brutal, and the subject matter of the game can be downright sickening. There are times that will actually have players think, “I’m too soft for war,” which is absolutely the feeling that Infinity Ward is going for.

To achieve this depth, all the assets and cinematics work well in tandem. The gunplay is visceral and realistic, giving some of the best FPS feelings in the current-gen. The cinematics is also awe-inspiring, literally light years away from the Uncanny Valley. To be quite honest, it actually makes one wish that there were more cinematics in the game. 

Finally shooting in the right direction

Although not a perfect game, the Call of Duty: Modern Warfare campaign might be one of the bigger surprises of the year in terms of expectations. With a franchise that has been running this long on such half-hearted narrative experiences, the stakes for the title were incredibly low. But Infinity Ward has delivered something worth playing that truly feels like the vision that they promised. Sure, the campaign is not without flaws, as it would be great to see a tighter story and even more diverse gameplay elements, but it is absolutely worth a play just to experience its better moments.

Even though the Modern Warfare campaign is no Game of the Year contender, it’s nice to know that the franchise is finally headed back in the right direction. Who knows? Maybe one day people will pick the game up for the campaign over the multiplayer, instead of vice-versa.

Speaking of multiplayer, check out our review of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare’s multiplayer mode.

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