Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 runs well on PS5 and Series X – but Series S has issues

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 runs well on PS5 and Series X - but Series S has issues

As the 20th mainline instalment in the Call of Duty series, Modern Warfare 3 defies the odds this year in the wake of rumours suggesting its accelerated development. Despite reports suggesting Modern Warfare 3 was originally meant as an expansion to 2022’s Modern Warfare 2 and despite reports that the game’s been in development for less than 18 months, it has in fact materialised as a fully-fledged release. In terms of what you’d expect from Call of Duty, the core components are all there, albeit with a diminished campaign and a lack of brand-new 6v6 multiplayer levels – but our focus here is more on the technical aspects of the game. The IW9 engine continues to impress, but there are signs that the signature polish on the experience isn’t quite up to snuff for all users. PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X fare well, but Series S seems to take a hit compared to previous franchise entries.

MW3 doesn’t skimp on the options, though it does use the same front-end menu as last year’s game – now called the COD HQ. Here everything Modern Warfare 3 is laid out on its own row: multiplayer, ground war, and the zombies mode. We get a new campaign mode too of course – 14 story missions, many of which boast the linear, often bombastic, set-piece heavy design we expect of the series. Except, these are now mixed in with new, open world style missions letting us loose on large sandbox areas. Between planting GPS trackers across a fortified dock, or blowing up helicopters around a military compound, these open areas are the biggest departure from the Call of Duty formula.

Even on first glance though Modern Warfare 3 is clearly more of an iterative release. It’s hard to ignore that shortcuts – at times, smart shortcuts – are taken to hit its November release. Firstly, the campaign is short. Also, too many levels use the open-world mission type to pad out the adventure. Often in these you’ll spend time navigating the map, ticking check-boxes before going to a final marker. There’s potential in the idea of more open-ended Call of Duty missions – but the goals here often feel detached from the main, often well-choreographed missions.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 – the Digital Foundry video tech review.

On top of that, there’s the online multiplayer, with 16 team deathmatch maps at launch. It’s not a bad number, except all of them are remakes from the 2009 Modern Warfare 2. There are no original maps for 6v6 games, in other words, though new maps are reportedly due post-launch. In fairness, tapping into the nostalgia for a 14 year old game pays off well at first. It’s a crowd-pleasing move, and each presents as a 1:1 scale match for each original map: Terminal, Highrise – they’re all here, with visuals updated on the latest IW engine. But again, the impression is there wasn’t time to make new 6v6 maps for launch.

To give Modern Warfare 3 its dues, the big Ground War games do at least take place on three new battlefields. Plus, the Zombies mode is set across a giant map, Urzikstan. In fact, this Urzikstan map gives us an early look at the setting for Warzone’s big refresh in December. Also, many of the high points of the IW Engine tech return. Character model and motion capture quality are exceptional, even during in-engine rendered scenes. There’s a near photo-realistic look to the way character eyes move, to material lighting, to the way cloth physics – even beard physics as Captain Price air-drops into action.

Lighting and volumetric effects are standout across the opening prison break sequence, too. The rising dust, the smoke, inside each warehouse adds an extra sense of depth to the scene. And again, for PS5 and Series X at least, it all runs at 60 frames per second and even up to 120fps at points, if your display supports the 120Hz output option. The game’s bigger issues though show up on the Xbox Series S release. It has feature parity with PS5 and Series X – broadly speaking – but the frame-rate, notably in campaign mode, shows signs Series S is now struggling to keep 60fps locked down.

To see this content please enable targeting cookies.

Manage cookie settings

In terms of platform comparisons, the IW9 Engine scales its visuals impeccably to all systems as ever. For competitive fairness online, it’s essential that fundamental scene detail – even to the very far horizon – remains exactly in place. And so it goes for PS5, Series X and S, where the technical make-up is the same as last year’s Modern Warfare 2. Pitting PS5 against Series X, each pushes an identical 4K image. Temporal anti-aliasing is in effect, alongside a form of reconstruction to create a final 3840×2160 result. That is, even if the true pixel count adjusts dynamically behind the scenes, based on GPU load and seems to reach a minimum of 1080p.

Visually speaking the turnout is excellent on Series S, and it sticks to 1440p as its target resolution, though much like PS5 and Series X, certain frames appear to scale down to 50 per cent per axis of that target, which in Series S’ case means parts of the image render at 1280×720. All of this is again reconstructed to 1440p – and again there are numbers in between. Compared to Series X directly there’s no question, image quality suffers as a result: on fine grass detail, or meshwork on fences.

Visibility is a competitive advantage on PS5 and Series X, when it comes to bigger Ground War games – and that’s still true here, but for team deathmatch games on smaller maps, it’s really less of an issue. The only other big downgrade to Series S is in screen-space reflection quality – SSR. Notably on water-slicked roads, the coverage is less exact on Series S by comparison. The settings in every other regard are the same though: textures, shadows, and even draw distances are a match to maintain parity online. That said, geometry quality is slightly improved on Series X and PS5. It’s a nitpick, but less far-off detail is dialed back on Series S in some missions.

The IW9 Engine continues to scale its visuals effectively to Series S with a dynamic 1440p image – while PS5 and Series X gun for 4K. All targets are achieved via a mixture of reconstruction and a dynamic resolution setup.

Pure performance is what separates Series X and PS5 from Microsoft’s junior Xbox, especially in 120Hz gameplay. Starting at 60Hz to begin with though, the good news is PS5 and Series X are typically rock solid in their delivery of each mission. There are exceptions as always and certain points in the level do drop into the high 50s, if briefly, while Series X also stutters during autosave checkpointing, which PS5 does not. Overall, PS5 is a touch more consistent than its Xbox counterpart, but not to any kind of game-changing degree.

Playing at 120Hz, preferably with VRR active, increases fluidity and lowers input lag. Looking at the campaign mode, all the stress points are essentially laid bare within a 120Hz container. It’s worth saying, the resolution bounds stay in place from the default 60Hz mode: at 1080p to 4K. And in truth, the range of performance is between 60-120fps during the most taxing missions. So the first mission’s explosive climax has a huge drop, to near 60fps on both machines. Each also deploys adaptive v-sync – with tearing kicking in right at the top third of the display. Still this is the lowest point on record, and generally speaking missions unfold at between 80-100fps, sometimes even higher for interior areas, which is absolutely fine. And even with those drops, armed with a VRR-supporting display you’ll get an overall benefit in controller response, plus smoother on-screen motion.

All round, it’s more illuminating to have PS5 and Series X run at 120Hz. The campaign is a good repeatable test, but really, multiplayer is where the competitive advantage shows most. Now, in using remade 2009 Modern Warfare 2 maps, the scale is somewhat contained for the cflassic team deathmatch games. The net positive is both Series X and PS5 get to 120fps very consistently in this mode. Entire stretches unfold at that top line, with occasional drops plus tearing. There’s nothing to really test either machine: between maps like Terminal, Wasteland, Underpass, Afghan – it flows beautifully. The bigger maps in the Ground War mode tend to be more taxing, inevitably, but still, it’s a convincing 120fps experience overall. The worst drops tend to be in big overviews of the map from inside a chopper, though on the ground level it sticks closer to 120fps. As for the zombies mode on the full-scale Urzikstan map, we’re off to a great start on landing – but it does start dipping below once too many enemies congest in one spot. One to watch out for again – especially if you manage to get further into the centre of the map.

A comparison between the old, classic 2009 team deathmatch maps in Modern Warfare 2, and the remade versions in this year’s Modern Warfare 3. The leap in technology is well reflected in the push for more photo-realistic materials – plus the current engine’s volumetric effects.

Series S has problems that need addressing, by comparison. Sadly, even play at the regular 60fps is troubled, the campaign itself often running between 40-60fps. Set piece after set-piece, the opening mission puts the machine through its paces. The prison yard battles, the escape route – it’s the least stable 60fps experience I’ve seen from Call of Duty on Series S to date. Even the open sandbox missions later on are struggling. You get constant tearing at the top of the display, and drops well into the 40s during any battle around the choppers. The climax at a reactor core is a particular low point: the volumetric effects and enemies all contained in this small area drag Series S to visible dips into the 30s. In fairness, later missions – like Payload with its broad, open areas – do stick closer to 60fps, especially once we get into the interiors. But the priority is clearly not to optimise around Series S this time around. The focus from developer Sledgehammer, it seems, is clearly to get the PS5 and Series X running well, above all else.

If there is an upside to Series S, it’s that team deathmatch games run mostly fine. It’s certainly palatable if all you want is 6v6 matchups at 60fps, where most maps only suffer from drops to 50fps with tearing. The real stress point, surprisingly, is the Estate level. Combine an overview from the lodge with an explosive kill streak and you have all the ingredients for some sizeable, sustained drops to the 40s. This isn’t an outlier either – even the Sub Base map has entire passages of play right at the 50fps line. It’s really, again, well below where Call of Duty needs to be as an experience, though at least a majority of the sixteen maps do tend to hold closer to 60fps as an average. Also, surprisingly, Ground War and even Zombies mode hold up well on Series S. Perhaps it’s the sparseness of the level design, but you get fewer drops than you might expect. Still, all of this underlines the fact that Series S is challenged in locking to 60fps as a target, let alone 120fps – which is an option, just like the other current-gen consoles.

The 120Hz mode on Series S is a curious extra. In the campaign, running through all the paces of the first mission, it’s barely able to stretch up past 80fps and typically nestles at the 60fps line. And none of the later sandbox-style missions fare much better honestly. It’s often hovering at just above 60fps, with some brief flashes up. In short, Series S falls very short at 120Hz and that extends to multiplayer, of course. Team deathmatch games, the ground war games, the zombies mode, all struggle – though simpler maps like Terminal do at least run between 80-100fps. And likewise, less gruelling, player-congested parts of Ground War maps also get close to 100fps for a spell. So, this mode does have some use. Better that we have the option at least on Series S, and there’s no question that uncapping it to 120fps, on a VRR supporting display will reap some benefits in input response.

In terms of performance, this image spells out the gap between Series S, PS5 and Series X. The 4TF machine struggles to hold a locked 60fps even in the team deathmatch games – while campaign levels often run between 40-60fps. The premium machines on the other hand are closely matched – and are able to stretch upwards, making better use of the game’s 120Hz mode.

It’s just that the reality is that PS5, Series X – and PC of course – enjoy a big advantage: not just in visibility, but also in the smoothness of motion with 120fps enabled. I think the Zombies mode reveals the limits of Series S’ resolution most obviously. Just running around the Urzikstan map – much like in Warzone modes in previous years – shows visibility suffering at range. And right now, it’s hard to ignore some rough points – glaringly low resolution textures – still in this version of the map.

In many ways Modern Warfare 3 – the 2023 reboot – still ends up feeling like an expansion to last year’s game. More so than any Call of Duty release in a long time. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have a good time with it, though. The IW rendering tech, the online infrastructure, the gameplay loop of team deathmatch are all in place. The content added to this COD HQ front-end is enjoyable. It’s just whether this is enough to justify the full price-tag. Technically, PS5 and Series X run the campaign well, with a very slight advantage to PS5 for minimising the checkpoint hitches. Series S, on the other hand, is really meant as a 60fps experience at best – and it’s there that standards appear to be slipping in locking to a frame-rate, something we’d hope to see addressed if not now then in future titles, bearing in mind who Call of Duty’s new owners are.

In general, the game’s most obvious fault falls on the point of longevity of appeal. The campaign length is short and padded with open-ended levels. Plus we need some actual new team deathmatch maps. The 16 remade MW2 maps are fun for a while, but many of us will have had our fill of these 14 years ago. We need more, new maps mixed in to make the package worthwhile. The next big milestone for Call of Duty is, of course, the big Warzone refresh and its new Urzikstan map in December – and we’ll be taking a look at that in isolation across all systems in due course.

Article source


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here