Warzone represents a lot of firsts for Call of Duty and Activision’s approach to releasing content. Activision has been battling the tide of free-to-play for years, opting to only attach its biggest brands to the model in mobile spin-offs and China-only off-shoots.
This reluctance was in no way more evident than Call of Duty. The company, after all, needs to justify selling a new
$60$70 release every year, and offering Call of Duty for free risks driving away regular buyers who may, over time, no longer see value in spending that much money on a new game every November.
But the publisher could only swim upstream for so long, so Activision’s answer to Fortnite and Apex Legends was a compromise. Something that doesn’t take away from its yearly business, while opening up the franchise to new players who rarely, if ever, play Call of Duty.
The answer was Warzone, a BR mode you can download and play for free, but crucially, one whose relevance is tied to the yearly Call of Duty releases, whether in terms of content or promotion. Put simply: Warzone cannot stand on its own against other free-to-play BR games because it was not made to.
All of Warzone’s building blocks, from how the in-game economy works, to its reliance on Call of Duty loadouts, attachments, perks etc. necessitate the need for a companion game. Last year that was Modern Warfare, this year it's Black Ops Cold War. Warzone doesn’t just repurpose Call of Duty weapons in the same way Apex borrows from Titanfall, it relies on every player’s unlocks and progression. Your own history with each game is the trump card.
Sure, a free-to-play player could spend days grinding out for attachments in Warzone, but sooner or later, they’re going to budge and buy whatever Call of Duty is new that year so they can speed that up to a few hours in 6v6 to get the overpowered weapon of the month.
The recent Black Ops Cold War merge with Warzone is another demonstration of that philosophy. Not much of it was well thought out, and the execution was undoubtedly rushed. But the plan has always been to bring the new game’s weapons into Warzone and so they were.
Never mind that Black Ops is a game with different priorities, mechanics, feel and weapon balance. The first few days of the merge brought us attachments that have no effect, because what they offer in Black Ops Cold War is supported natively by the Modern Warfare engine, on which Warzone is based. Black Ops Cold War’s suppressors, for instance, all had negative range effects. There was no Monolithic Suppressor, which immediately put all BOCW guns at a disadvantage, until Raven decided to turn the last suppressor unlock for BOCW weapons into a Monolithic Suppressor - but only in Warzone.
Weapon balance is a different problem, and we’ve seen the disasters of the DMR 14 and other broken weapons, which were all intended for 6v6 multiplayer in another game with an entirely different pace. And let’s not bring up the subject of perk balance or the absurdity of having multiple versions of the same weapons from two different games that are nothing alike.
I don’t doubt that all of these issues were considered, but Activision went ahead with the plan anyway and we ended up with a game suffering from an identity crisis. This may look like a problem born out of the novelty of what Activision is trying to do with Warzone, but it’s only really a different side effect of the same approach. Like non-Modern Warfare owners witnessed at the launch of Warzone, non-Black Ops Cold War owners today also start out at a disadvantage, competing against fully levelled weapons and having to spend significantly longer to grind just to be on an equal footing. This has been a problem for Warzone since its inception - it’s part of the philosophy that drives it. The grind wearing you down? Why not commit and buy this year’s game? There’s even a playlist with two small maps this week that’ll make that a breeze!
The longer Warzone continues to run, the bigger and more catastrophic these problems will manifest. What’s going to happen when 2021’s and 2022’s Call of Duty games drop? Are we going to juggle weapons from three or four different games, or is there a cut-off somewhere?
This really is Activision wanting to have its cake and eat it, and it’s not entirely without merit. The company’s console business relies on yearly releases. Activision doesn’t know any different path. This is part of why it doesn’t publish Destiny anymore, because Bungie didn’t want yearly sequels to be Destiny’s, well, destiny.
But it didn’t have to be this way. Perhaps a better solution is to introduce yearly wipes that refresh Warzone’s weapons and perks with those of the new game. It won’t solve all of its problems, but at least then you’d have some consistency. There’s also the matter of ownership. Who, exactly, controls Warzone’s balance and makes its day-to-day decisions? Is it the core studio who shipped Call of Duty that year? Is it Raven’s sole authority, or a mix of the two?
The deeper you look, the more of these oddities you’re bound to uncover. Warzone needs to have a dedicated team whose sole purpose is to create content and balance the mode. That team needs to be the one to decide which elements from the yearly games to bring into it. There’s so much Warzone could do if it was allowed to exist as a standalone game. It’s already one of the most popular, but could become something else if it could only dance to its own tune.