A little under a decade ago I was visiting a family friend in Turkey. His 10-year-old brother was constantly yapping on and on about all the cool things he liked. Of course, being a polite house guest, I indulged the little guy, leading me down a rabbit hole of ARMA II screenshots and how unquestionably dope it is.
I kind of laughed this kid off: Why don’t you just play BLACK OPS like all the other kids do? Little did I, or he for that matter, know that this obsession with a massive all-terrain shooter was just the tip of an iceberg that would eventually become the new normal. Today, the term “Battle Royale” is as pervasive and exhausting to hear as strong opinions on THE LAST JEDI, and ARMA II is but a distant relic of what eventually became PUBG, FORTNITE, and APEX LEGENDS.
But what most surprised me about my eventual discovery of the Battle Royale was just how precisely they matched up every component of what I yearned for in an online shooter as a kid: vast and creative level design, a commitment to teamwork, and an endless combination of possible enemy encounters. In a way, the Battle Royale became the first online shooter that genuinely felt endless: no gunfight is like the last, and the stakes are sky high (die once, and you’re out). For once, I felt like I was truly carving out my own narrative in competitive maps, not just living by the ethos of “Live. Die. Repeat.” in a frenzied arena shooter.
No discrimination: enemies shoot at Ghost-Mask-Guy and Lady-Soldier!
With the massive popularity of this subgenre, it should come as no surprise that in the midst of a global pandemic, Twitch streamers and casual gamers would flock to the servers of these types of games, but perhaps no publisher was better poised to profit off of COVID-19 than Activision, who half a year after the initial release of CALL OF DUTY: MODERN WARFARE decided to launch their very own Battle Royale mode (titled CALL OF DUTY: WARZONE), completely free of charge the week a global quarantine went into full effect (and as of today, a full remaster of MODERN WARFARE 2’s campaign as well!).
With over six million players logging in on its launch week, COD: WARZONE hit the scene as the monolithic competitor to the likes of FORTNITE. 150 players per match! Gulag gunfights for a chance to redeploy! A cash system ripped straight out of COUNTER STRIKE! Land and air vehicles! COD: WARZONE is capital-B Big. So huge that it puts MODERN WARFARE’s own Ground War maps to shame. But none of that actually answers the most pressing question of all: is it better than any of the preceding flagship Battle Royales?
Arm scabs indicate that the man under this mask is likely Erik Killmonger
Honestly: It’s tough to answer. Like with every multiplayer game of this scale, COD: WARZONE is sure to undergo a bevvy of patches and updates over the next year, even between the writing and publishing of this review. Its map will surely receive a facelift (some areas are too sparse on loot and cover), and I wouldn’t be surprised if Infinity Ward might even consider giving the world a little more color in due time—compared to FORTNITE or APEX LEGENDS, WARZONE feels like you’re battling under a barren, nuclear winter. But what the game lacks it lacks in conventional beauty, it makes up for in tactical gameplay.
WARZONE might not exactly be a full-on war simulator, but it does come pretty damn close. It’s a strategic game that rewards stealth and precise communication. The intensity of each battle hits you like a thud. Sniping never felt this good in a Battle Royale. Calling in airstrikes is a hoot and a half. Objectives and legendary weapons prevent squads from camping for an entire round. Hell, even basic recon is a delight! It is, without a doubt, a riveting game, full of absolutely stunning locations, wonderful attention to detail, and an incredibly diverse arena that allows for an unprecedented level of verticality. It’s a game full of AAA polish, and one whose charms are only elevated through headset party-chat with close friends.
Pictured: headset party-chat with close friends
But there are also clear reasons why I’ve already begun to return to my trusted favorite, APEX LEGENDS. First and foremost, WARZONE still lives and dies by the old COD adage of “having the drop” on the enemy team. Turning the tide of a losing battle is quite difficult, since everyone is playing the same character class: an anonymous grunt. It’s an extremely loud game mode, one where bullets that are miles away sound like they could be coming from right beside you. Sure, it’s great for warlike immersion, but it’s not conducive to gameplay. As such, the base game’s stellar sound design is rendered nearly irrelevant on the larger stage.
The same can’t be said for APEX, where everything from the whirring of Octane’s robotic feet to the explosive crackle of a supercharged Sentinel shot inform the player on what enemy type they might soon encounter and what weapon they are carrying. Unique character classes make for unique squads. A team heavy on defenders is sure to bunker down inside a building. A team loaded with attackers is likely to rush and third-team enemy squads. By comparison, every WARZONE squad operates roughly the same way, and that has a lot to do with the fact that every encounter is the same: you are fighting three dudes: Faceless. Nameless. Each wielding a gun, but impossible to deduce what type until you’ve been hit.
“Buy me back, bro” remains the most common utterance
Which brings me to one simple question: What can COD: WARZONE do to stand out from the pack? What can it do to be it more than yet another Battle Royale? WARZONE’s immediate response to this is their Plunder game mode, which is charming enough, but a little too messy and convoluted to make for compelling, competitive gameplay—it feels more like the zany fun of a GTA V heist than a competitive online shooter. For the sake of chiming in, my suggestion would be to see a six-person squad mode emerge (or 10, if you’re feeling frisky). If your game can already handle 150 players per map, then make the squads themselves larger, allowing for teams to exist on the same scale as OVERWATCH. It would certainly add a new wrinkle to the mode, and result in a more exciting esports scene. Switch it up, Infinity Ward! Be different!
I’d also like to see WARZONE try and separate its custom loadouts from the base game’s multiplayer mode entirely. I appreciate that I can have a total of 10 custom loadouts, but I’d like to have separate folders for the Battle Royale and the Standard Multiplayer mode. After all, some items are clearly useless in each mode (the heartbeat sensor is a lifesaver in Battle Royale, but worthless on the competitive mode’s smaller maps). The same can be said for perks, which I’d like to see redesigned for WARZONE specifically. Currently, perks aren’t gamechangers in shifting the tide of a battle, and that’s clearly an indication that they don’t have enough value in-game. I’d also like to see WARZONE distinguish itself with more than just perks, but real character classes; some spin on APEX’s system of defenders, scouts, attackers, and medics. This approach would certainly encourage more creative teamwork and liven up the gameplay significantly.
ARMY OF TWO: Teamwork!
With all that said, there is a blunt, inescapable charm to COD: WARZONE. Upon my first impression, it does not seem quite as balanced as the competition, and would surely provoke the ire of professional, competitive gamers (any PC player who has put in the hours to unlock a thermal scope sniper has a demonstrable upper hand in this game), but it’s also just really damn fun to play the most polished, consumer-friendly version of a military simulator that currently exists on the market. When all is said and done, my friend’s little brother was right: there is a visceral thrill to living out your fictional Seal Team Six, and COD: WARZONE delivers that in spades, turning your four walls of self-isolation into an arcade-friendly, yet hyper-strategic, war simulator.