Call of Duty: Warzone review – all of the polish and all of the genre fatigue

By Jim Rossignol, Thursday, 12 March 2020 16:06 GMT

Dean Hall has a lot to answer for. Who’s that? You know: the cheery Kiwi developer-modder behind DayZ, that’s who. His ambitious over-tinkering has resulted in the emergence of two entire genres, both of which seem to have changed first-person shootering forever.

The first, the Survival genre (not to be confused with Survival Horror), could be seen as almost intentional, or perhaps just in step with the times, via the creation of DayZ from the bones of Arma. The second, however – the unexpected and haphazard birth of battle royale – was an essentially unforeseen consequence: it was the result of a game of a mod of Dean’s mod of a game; a series of developmental dominoes which gave us PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, and therefore Fortnite, and therefore Apex Legends, and therefore, Call of Duty’s own battle royale modes. Firstly with Blackout, and now this.

Warzone (pronounced WARZONE – you must pronounce it in all caps to avoid offending the Activision marketing department) is a free (FREE) update to Call Of Duty: Modern Warfare (the 2019 one, obviously), or an also-free standalone beast which is – holy cow – 100GB of heft in data-mass. It is also completely, unrepentantly embedded within the now-familiar template of battle royale. There’s an aircraft to leap out of, a vast map, an alphabet of guns (with the mandatory rarity spectrum of grey to purple) left for some reason on the floor in the rooms you will dash into, ahead of trying to murder the people you can hear running about in the building next door.

What I am trying to say is this: if you have played the others in the leaping-out-of-a-plane genre then, even without casting an eye over Modern Warfare, you know what to expect from Warzone.

Sorry, WARZONE.

(And that’s fine, I suppose, but – permit me this other little digression, sorry – I feel like of all the games that shouldn’t have to answer to the trends in the rest of gaming, it is certainly Call Of Duty. The military fun times behemoth should surely be defining the fashionable state of play, not following, but no: battle royale is simply so big that it has once again dragged the flagship of multiplayer FPS into the last-man-standing vortex, complete with loot crates, battle passes, and crawling about on the floor screaming for a rez. All that good stuff.)

And it’s strong.

Of course it is: the game is using almost the exact same combat model as Modern Warfare itself, which is as profoundly slick as any hundred-million-dollar shooter would be expected to be. Movement is pitch perfect, with door-kicking, floor-sliding, wall-leaping precision, and every weapon feels like a gift from some unholy gunsmith. That base pistol could have an entire game to itself, so right is the gunfeel. I can’t really stress this enough: Warzone will compare favourably to anything else, because it is wielding the honed edge of an over-engineered FPS giant of nearly two decades of veterancy.

So Warzone is currently a 150-person battle royale of up-to-three-person teams on a huge and heavily detailed map. I say ‘currently’ because it is, apparently, intended to get to 200 people, which I have no idea of the ramifications of in terms of map-population (or lobby fill-up times) but it certainly feels like it could support it: landing in an unpopulated area has left me feeling fairly lonely in quite a few games, with the play area circle (of poison gas) shrinking sometimes a little slower than the desired intensity might imply.

Having played PUBG recently it’s hard not to directly compare the two, and while many of the broad strokes remain the same, and while PUBG’s longevity is impressive, Warzone’s fidelity and density is impressiver – use that word in your marketing, Activision! It stakes out its claim with a map that has had considerably more resources poured into it than, say, Blackout. It is a vast slab of a game which will doubtless get rapidly built upon as the seasons arrive.

It also has a castle, which seems important if you are making a battle royale map.

The back-end stuff and UI are all as you’d expect: there are in-game missions, daily challenges, perks to choose, cosmetics to pick through, and all that fluff which will keep you busy if you take the time to focus on it. But there is also one significant surprise within the actual gameplay (assuming you haven’t already heard about this), which is The Gulag. Despite permadeath rather being the point of this genre, when you initially die in Warzone, you do not actually die, but instead you are captured and imprisoned. From there you leg it around a prison balcony overlooking a pit fight, along with the other captured soldiers. From this grim vantage point you watch two soldiers fight to the death. Then you are then paired up for a 1v1 of your own, with random weapons, to do the same. Win, and you get to redeploy. Die and your team (if you have one left on the map) has to buy you back from the in-game loadout terminals. It’s a neat, if slightly disturbing, system, which changes up the rhythm of the battle royale in a welcome way. Perhaps it is extraneous, but so are most things, and I like it.

Hey, there’s even a self-rez kit in Warzone, so that’s new, too.

There’s more! Of course there is! There’s whole other game mode: Plunder. This has a vastly different feel and pace and, as the large BETA tag emblazoned on your HUD suggests, it’s a bit of a work in progress. The goal in this mode is to collect cash, and then extract that cash via helicopter or MGS 5-style fulton balloon. You can respawn for the half-hour games, but the other battle royale stuff (loot crates, etc) remain in place. Over-performing cash grabbers get highlighted on the map, so that if you haven’t hoovered up enough from the world yourself, you can attack them, or ambush them at the chopper sites. It’s a fun loop, and the idea for Plunder is sensible and comprehensible, as well as making fine use of the game’s many, many assets, but I am not sure it’s quite there yet. Doubtless a few updates will see to that.

Anyway, it’s the details which will decide whether Warzone will sink or swim, and these are clear and many. Most of Modern Warfare’s multiplayer stuff gets lifted, but there’s also a regenerating health system, and a desperate, shrew-like need to gobble up armour plates and stuff them down your vest for additional durability. This means you are a bit less insta-dead than in, say MW multiplayer, but it’s a fractional thing, and the result is that it gives desperate intensity to firefights, to which you can return after briefly hiding in a corner.

The map is welcomingly strewn with different environments, and the vehicles are all eminently driveable. (I have got most of my kills so far by running people over with an armoured truck, but I can’t really say if that’s going to be a universal experience.)

Perhaps, given that this is a free game based on an already proven pair of templates, the real value judgement that we need to supply here is how much you get from Battle Passes and all that malarkey. And, well, compared to other similar offerings it seems… similar. If you get into a game then the upgrades and cosmetics you get from such stuff becomes important. Given how huge this game will inevitably be, the stuff you gather will no doubt have a momentum of its own. Your mileage will vary. I am not sure it’s a place I would sink hard cash, but that’s a personal call, isn’t it?

Listen: Warzone is, like its skull-masked, kevlar-tucking “operators”, entirely solid. It bloody well should be, given its pedigree. But there is remarkably little interesting here – aside from flourishes like the sinister gulag section – to command our attention. It’s not particularly beautiful, and makes up for that with enormity. Sure, this is a CoD game we’re talking about, so fantastical theme park aesthetics were never an option, but nevertheless there’s a lack of character here that is in no short supply in other games of this genre. That’s not to say that it is likely to splutter out like Blackout did, no – I think Warzone has the presence required to stay the course, and will not be surprised if this is one of the major contenders for the foreseeable future. It’s just that… hmm. I don’t want to sound downbeat here. Just don’t expect… well, you know what to expect now, don’t you? That might be the problem. The sad truth is that we’ll continue to know what to expect from games like this until someone lights the next touchpaper which sets off a genre-bending black hole like battle royale.

Until then, please dive headfirst out of the plane, and we’ll see you on the ground.

This was tested on PC, which meant playing it through Battlenet. That was fine, but there were some issues: weird crackly audio and some lag and minor graphical glitches, but then it’s just starting out, so perhaps such gripes can probably be forgiven. As major online launches go, this was surprisingly smooth. It also looked pretty impressive at 4k, so there’s that.

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