Modern Combat 5 review - raising the bar for mobile action

Modern Combat 5 is the latest in a long series of high-quality first person shooter games from Gameloft. The whole Modern Combat series shamelessly riffs on popular shooter franchises like Call of Duty, and has been doing so well before official mobile counterparts for those games were made. Even now that Call of Duty has come to mobile, Modern Combat 5 still manages to give it a run for its money.

By and large, Modern Combat 5 is lock in step with Modern Combat 4. It boasts bar-setting graphics, rich multiplayer, familiar experience and achievement progression, a dazzling array of weapon customization, and top-notch voice acting. That's great and all, but there is one distinct difference in Modern Combat 5 which could easily stand as the sole selling point: there are zero in-app purchases.


The line between single- and multi-player in Modern Combat 5 has been made sufficiently fuzzy, though the overall formula really hasn't changed much. Your progress in terms of leveling up and unlocking weapons carries over between the single- and multi-player missions. There are six chapters all told, and each has story missions, spec ops single-player challenges, and online multiplayer matches. All of those missions are scored on a familiar three-star system; you earn one star for getting to the final objective, and earning the other two for completing secondary challenges. You can always go back and have another go at stages you haven't been able to complete yet. Unlocking new chapters requires you to finish the story missions and either the multiplayer or the spec ops missions.

The storyline of the single-player campaign is about as hoaky as you'd expect from a modern military shooter, but that certainly doesn't cramp the production values. There are massive explosions, strong voice acting with excellent lip syncing, and lots of varied scenarios to work your way through. The odd quick-time event will have players make precise swipes as quickly as possible in order to make their way through some of the more cinematic sections of the single-player campaign. I've found the campaign plenty challenging, especially if you're a stickler for getting all three stars.

The spec ops missions are one-off and bite-sized. Often they'll simply be about clearing a room of bad guys, or you'll have to breach and clear rooms in tense hostage situations, assassinate a particular target, and lots more. In the single player missions, you'll also have access to a cool bullet-time ability that switches your view to behind the projectile, and allows you to steer it to its target in slow-mo. Thanks to the quick turnaround time on these missions, I've found myself trying more to get three stars in these than the story missions. There's one caveat for both types of single-player missions: you still need to be online. That's bad news for a lot of folks that play on the go, but this is likely an effort to maintain constant authentication of someone's purchase in order to cut down on piracy. A bit more on that later.

For most folks multiplayer will be the meat and potatoes of the game. In addition to the handful of multiplayer missions in each chapter, there are all of the traditional game modes you'd expect, like capture the flag, free-for-all, VIP, and team battle. There are also familiar killstreak rewards, such as spy drones, sentry turrets, and air strikes. The most welcome addition on the multiplayer front is squads. These are as close as you're going to get to clans.

A special Squad Battle mode issues a call to arms for any of your fellow squadmates that happen to be online to take on rival squads that are also in-game. Taking on these match types during limited-time events offers up a ton of rewards. There's also voice chat enabled, for those that really want to get coordinated. Keep in mind that your notification tray may get full up with a ping every time one of your squadmates is ready to play a group match. Though the pool of players online at any given time for multiplayer was small (since we were in pre-launch), the competition was very stiff. This is pretty standard for most first-person shooters; if you're going to go online, you better have thick skin and expect to lose often.

Modern Combat 5 skills

In addition to earning experience points and levelling up as a whole character, every weapon and weapon class has its own progression. As you play more with a particular gun, you unlock new attachments for it. The attachments don't cost anything, you just swap them in and out when you get access. Most attachments, particularly extended magazines and foregrips, are straight upgrades with little incentive to pick anything other than the most recently unlocked one. That's too bad, because it's fun figuring out which tradeoffs to make.

There's no currency of any kind, and that means no early access to unlockables, but it does mean that those that simply pour time into the game will naturally have a leg up on you since they'll be better geared (as opposed to simply having more tactical options). Playing with a gun will also make progress towards unlocking new weapons of its type, like assault rifles, submachineguns, pistols, sniper rifles, grenade launchers, and shotguns.

There are four character classes all told, which are unlocked in your first 10 experience levels. Every level you gain affords you with skill points that you can put into a linear progression of talents in any given class. Many of those skills can be upgraded to a second rank for added specialization, and most of them are available in multiplayer only. The recon class uses SMGs and focuses on speed, visibility, and surprise. Their top tier skill shows all enemies within 15 meters on radar in multiplayer, regardless of whether or not they're shooting.

The sniper has a long-range rifle and some pistols skills as backup. Their top tier skill upgrades their holographic decoy so an enemy that shoots at it is highlighted. The assault class has a solid medium-range rifle and a penchant for explosives. His top-tier talent upgrades his 10-second berserk state to deal 30% extra damage instead of 20%. Finally, the heavy rocks a shotgun, RPG launcher, and is really hard to kill. His final skill upgrades his medkit so it heals 50 HP instead of 25. The video above flips through the whole set of weapons and skills, and checks out a few of the early attachments.


The controls in Modern Combat 5 have changed very little, and this is somewhat to its detriment. Games like Deus Ex: The Fall and Call of Duty: Strike Team have made progress towards finger-friendly FPS gameplay by way of smart auto-targeting. Modern Combat 5 has automatic aim helping in single player and continues to support motion-based gyro controls, but there's no hardware controller support for now. The developers say they're looking into getting it available for the next update. To be fair, when dealing with a highly competitive environment, maintaining a balanced playing field can force certain restrictions.

Modern Combat 5 controls

I've tried switching to gyro aiming full-time, but if you have aim assist also engaged, you can sometimes find yourself battling the automated adjustment. For example, you could be trying to tilt towards a headshot, but the auto-aim will bring you back to the body. Similarly, if you're trying to set off an explosive canister next to a bad guy, the reticle may just snap right to him. That said, you'll probably want to turn off auto-aim if you're using the gyro, or, like most sane people, play with a standard dual-joystick setup. Advanced manoevers, such as ducking while running to groundslide into cover, engaging a melee kill before your target moves out of range, or moving while aiming down iron sights and firing can be hard to pull off without some practice and control customization.

The issue of controls brings up the larger issue of whether or not first-person shooters have a real home on mobile. The graphics are great, but ultimately on-screen buttons are always going to be a compromise to traditional physical controllers. Even once they're supported on mobile, if you're going through the trouble of buying a controller and setting it up, you may be just as well off playing Xbox or PlayStation (likely fixtures in a household that has a powerful smartphone or tablet and a dedicated controller for it).

Graphics and audio

Though Modern Combat 5 is very clearly using a familiar game engine, the amount of polish on every effect is absolutely great. The reflective and distorting water effects, bloom, depth of field, and smoke effects are matched wonderfully with powerful, bassy explosions, strong voice acting, and visceral, realistic weapon sounds. In short: the graphical and audio fidelity of Modern Combat 5 are unmatched in the world of mobile games.


  • Amazing graphics
  • No in-app purchases


  • Always-on internet connection required
  • Obscenely difficult online multiplayer

Bottom Line

Though reverting to a classic premium model and scrapping in-app purchases may seem like the sensible thing to do for anyone steeped in console or PC gaming, it's actually a huge gamble for Gameloft. In-app purchases account for the vast majority of revenue generated in the mobile game marketplace. If you feel strongly that freemium mechanics are ruining mobile games, you should fork out the $6.99 for Modern Combat 5 on principle alone.

Big-name developers won't be willing to drop the freemium model until the economics make sense, and that will only happen if there's a successful precedent for premium games. Of course, this is The Internet, and we can't have nice things. The game was already pirated in the pre-launch period. Though Gameloft will be banning anybody caught thanks in no small part to the always-on connectivity requirement, this is still a huge disincentive for them or any other developers watching to adopt premium pricing. Be sure to check out our piece from GDC for more discussion on freemium in the grand scheme of mobile gaming.

Ideologies aside, Modern Combat 5 delivers great gameplay using a formula that has been polished over years, inspired as it may be from elsewhere. The consistency with which Gameloft has been able to up their game after each successive Modern Combat must be applauded. Yet again they've managed to cram a full-blown interactive action movie into your pocket. Without a doubt, Modern Combat 5 is the best first-person shooter you will find on any mobile platform.

Modern Combat 5 is now available on iOS, Android, Windows, and Windows Phone for $6.99.

Simon Sage

Editor-at-very-large at Mobile Nations, gamer, giant.