Which is why people rolled their eyes so hard at the announcement of Call of Duty: Warzone, a free-to-play battle royale game released in March. Never mind the fact that Call of Duty had already tried a battle royale mode in Black Ops IIII, it was still a little embarrassing to see such a dominating force in the industry desperately follow the lead established by PUBG and Fortnite. Call of Duty had been treading water for years, so how could you expect it to bring anything fresh to the relatively new battle royale genre?
Not having played a Call of Duty game since 2012’s Black Ops II, I was immediately surprised at how familiar everything felt. The visual style was exactly how I remembered it, the way the guns handled, the sounds—I felt like I was back in 2012. It’s worth acknowledging that Warzone is a part of Modern Warfare, 2019’s confusingly-titled Call of Duty entry, meant to be a revival of the Modern Warfare sub-series that first launched Call of Duty into the stratosphere. Described to me by people more knowledgeable of the series as a back-to-basics game after the last few titles pushed things to the extreme with overpowered, sci-fi-themed powerups, it’s not entirely surprising that everything here would be so familiar. But I really can’t emphasize enough just how familiar it was. Every perk, the guns, even minor attachments like the laser sights were all the same. These details aren’t as important as the game around it, so it’s not too big of an issue. Honestly, I even took some comfort in how much I was reminded of the series at its peak. If you’re a lapsed Call of Duty fan like me, Warzone is a great opportunity to revisit the series’ glory days without having to invest in the remasters of Modern Warfare 1 or 2.
While it’s full of familiar Call of Duty elements, it actually makes a few interesting, unique tweaks to the battle royale formula, which is perhaps the most un-Call of Duty thing it could have done. The basic setup here is the same as other battle royale games. You’ve got a large group of people on an island (150 here as opposed to the standard 100) and as the numbers dwindle people are herded together into one area by a storm that kills anyone left in it for more than a few seconds. Whereas in most battle royale games your objective is simply to last until the end, Warzone uses little sub-missions called Contracts to give some direction. Most battle royale games feature some kind of daily or weekly challenge that tie in to your overall level progression (Warzone features these as well), but Contracts directly impact your standing in the game. There’s three types of contract you can accept: Recon, which lets you see how the map will shrink moving forward; Scavenger, which directs you to three crates in your area to help you get loot; and Bounty, which reveals an enemy’s location on your map, but also gives that enemy an idea of how close you are to them. Each Contract also gives you cash upon completion, which you can spend at various Buy Stations scattered around the map. Buy Stations let you purchase armour, ammo, some tactical support items, and they even let you bring teammates back from the dead.
Warzone’s attitude towards permadeath is one of its more interesting aspects. When battle royale games first hit it big, permadeath was, as you’d expect, an accepted part of the game, but that stance has softened over time. Reviving downed teammates became a staple—as it is in most team shooters—and most have a way to bring back dead teammates, like Fortnite’s Reboot Van. Warzone’s tactic is a little different though. The first time you die, you are sent to the Gulag, where you must face an opponent in a short one-on-one fight. If you win, you’re immediately returned to the battle; if you lose, or die again, you’ve got to wait for your team to scrounge together the cash to buy you back. It’s a great little mechanic that’s especially helpful in those early moments, when everyone first lands in a huddle and is scrambling to find a weapon. You’re a lot more likely to take the risk and try to kill someone with your starting pistol knowing you’ve potentially got a second life right around the corner, which can lead to some wonderfully triumphant feelings when it pays off. If it doesn’t, the blow is softened knowing your moment of glory might be waiting for you in the Gulag. Even the cash transactions that can bring you back carry some strategic weight to them, as the basics available at the Buy Station become nearly essential for the endgame. I’ve never prioritized securing equipment for myself over getting a friend back in the game, but I won’t pretend the thought hasn’t occurred to me when they’re having an off night.
Another interesting use for your cash is the Loadout Drop Marker. Like standard Call of Duty online, you can customize a loadout in the pre-game lobby, selecting your favourite weapons, equipment and perks to go in to battle with. You won’t spawn with it though; you’ll have to collect your loadout out of a crate that falls from the sky. You can either spend an obscene amount of money at a Buy Station to get a marker to call one right to you, or wait for it to happen naturally. These will typically fall in clusters of two or three, however, drawing other nearby teams to them as well, so the safer option is to buy one yourself. While you can unlock new weapons or add-ons for your loadout as you complete challenges, no one gun is objectively better than another, so it avoids the pitfall of the highest-ranked players decimating lower-ranked players with superior firepower. Plus, since you’re not guaranteed to get one every match, it maintains the luck-based looting spirit of battle royale games, while still rewarding you with guns and abilities you like if you’re able to make it far enough into the game.
For most people, their biggest concern going into a free-to-play game is how it monetizes itself, and with Activision’s track record, it’s reasonable to be worried about how Warzone does it. Thankfully, it keeps things pretty respectful and within the realm of how most battle royales monetize, employing a cosmetics store and a battle pass. Contrasting with Fortnite again, I never felt nearly as much pressure to pay in here as I did there. Fortnite’s third-person camera angle and cartoony art style makes you want to personalize your character, and also means you can’t help but notice the cool stuff your enemies are wearing, turning every player into a walking billboard for the cosmetics store. Warzone employs the same brown-and-grey aesthetic Call of Duty has always had, so it’s hard to be able to distinguish any one player from another, let alone being able to tell if they purchased something from the store. The biggest cosmetic options come in the form of emotes and sprays, which I’ve hardly ever seen employed due to the grounded tone, and gun customizations, which aren’t too enticing since it only applies to your loadout weapons and aren’t that noticeable to begin with. This is a bit of a double-edged sword, as I do miss the sense of progression that came from Fortnite’s Battle Pass, but it’s a trade I’m willing to make as Warzone also doesn’t shove its storefront in your face nearly as often, or try to dazzle you with its flashy colours and presentation.
Perhaps the most obnoxious form its monetization takes is the way it tries to Trojan horse Call of Duty: Modern Warfare onto your system, and then act as an advertisement for it. Despite Warzone being available as a free download to everybody, you’re forced to download the entirety of Modern Warfare, which, as of writing, takes up a little over a hundred gigabytes. Given that recent updates have been upwards of twenty gigabytes themselves, this is an absolute space hog on a console’s stock storage. Its integration with Modern Warfare also means that the menu is littered with options that don’t apply to Warzone, which can be overwhelming and off-putting to newcomers. The main menu also has an option tucked away to bring you to a storefront to purchase the full game. It’s annoying, but for a free game it’s reasonable, and doesn’t feel predatory as it won’t remind you of its presence more than once beyond startup.
Call of Duty: Warzone doesn’t innovate the battle royale genre, but it iterates on the formula enough to be worth playing, and uses enough familiar Call of Duty elements to recognizably feel like a part of the series. It’s basically exactly what you want out of a spinoff. Despite seeming on the surface like a cynical move to chase a popular trend, there appears to be some real thought put into this title, and shows that perhaps the Call of Duty name could revitalize itself as a critical darling were its developers allowed to play outside the box like this more often.
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