The latest attempt from Call of Duty maker Activision to capitalize on the battle royale (BR) trend arrived on Tuesday, in the form of a new free-to-play mode called Warzone. Available inside the latest Call of Duty: Modern Warfare or as a standalone download, Warzone contains everything we’ve come to expect from a BR game: one gigantic map, large player pools (up to 150 in this one), and a last-person-standing contest to see who can survive the competition.
But its most surprising element is not just that it’s a bold free-to-play gamble for publisher Activision, but that game developer Infinity Ward has remarkably found ways to make the BR genre even better. Warzone is great because, like Respawn’s Apex Legends, its creators recognize that these games can be playgrounds for experimental design ideas and boundary-pushing takes on competitive online multiplayer games. And unlike the uninspired Blackout, the initial Call of Duty BR that was bundled with 2018’s Black Ops 4, Warzone displays a number of unique ideas that could very well inspire the rest of the field.
The most prominent of the changes present in Warzone is how it lets you reenter the game once you’ve died. In many BR games, once you go down, you’re out. This was true of the earliest takes on the genre, and permadeath became a pillar of these experiences once Playerunknown’s Battlegrounds (PUBG) first introduced the 100-person lobbies and shrinking storm circles that have become hallmarks of the genre. But it’s also unpleasant for most players. Nobody likes sitting idle for many minutes at a time while their friends carry on. Apex Legends introduced reviving and Fortnite later adopted Respawn’s approach, and it’s made BR games more accessible and less of a slog to play.
But Warzone goes a step further. Once you die in Warzone, your character is sent to a gulag where you enter a queue to fight one other human player in an adapted version of Call of Duty’s Gunfight game mode. You enter with a limited loadout, and you have only one life. If you succeed, you’re spawned back into Warzone with your teammates. But there are a couple other ways you can keep yourself from exiting the game for good.
You can purchase an in-game self-revive kit from one of the many scattered buy stations around the map using currency you earn only during the match. Those kits will let you heal yourself to full once you’re downed by an enemy but not fully out of the game. Those same stations will also sell redeployments, meaning you can revive a teammate even if they’ve lost their gulag fight already.
The end result of all of these small touches is an excess of second chances, which is rare for the BR genre. Yes, it means the team you thought you were going to wipe out can get back on its feet very quickly and potentially turn the tables. But it creates a level of controlled chaos that is perfectly fitting for Call of Duty and exhilarating to see in action.
A typical match will involve you and your teammates getting knocked down, inevitably being finished off, fighting through the gulag, reviving yourself and one another, and redeploying any stragglers from the buy station. At any given moment, you might be on your own and stealthily trying to sneak to safety, or traveling by helicopter or ATV to escape a fight that didn’t go your way so you can regroup and revive. The fast-changing rhythm of Warzone turns even the simplest five- or 10-minute stretches of the mode into an odyssey of memorable moments, as there are just so many options to tilt the scales in your favor or to suddenly find yourself surrounded on all sides.
Helping facilitate this rollercoaster structure of Warzone are its health and armor systems. Much like how Apex Legends introduced fast healing to make its gunfights more hectic, longer-lasting, and ultimately more rewarding, Warzone ditches the armor and health system of pretty much every other BR game. Instead, you have a regenerating health bar and a standard armor bar that can be refilled up to a max of three plates.
This is somewhat similar to how it worked in Blackout, but it functions especially well in Warzone given how often you’re reviving your teammates and bringing yourself back from the brink. Not having armor or running low on health is basically a death sentence in Apex, Fortnite, and PUBG. But in Warzone, you don’t have to worry about that — health regenerates quickly and armor is easy to find and share with teammates.
This makes the playing field much more level, and it lets you play smarter than your opponents through a mix of better positioning, teamwork, and use of in-game items. You won’t lose because someone had purple or gold armor and you had just a blue or gray vest, or because you ran out of bandages and Fortnite’s med kit takes a whole 10 seconds to activate.
Looting is also much improved in Warzone. There are no backpacks or convoluted inventory systems. You can hold two firearms at a time, and there are clear and visible caps on the amount of armor, ammo, and grenades you can hold that fill automatically without having you manage a grid of items. Attachments are determined by weapon rarity, so you don’t have to worry about finding that one scope you need or making sure you can actually use that sniper rifle you found from a distance. If you want to drop something for your teammates, it’s a quick press of the down button on the D-pad to pull a single row overlay for ammo, armor, and cash.
There are in-game perks you can find that give you a combat edge, like Dead Silence and Recon Drone from the main Call of Duty games. There are also kill streaks like UAV radar and missile strikes you can purchase from the buy stations that can make you much more deadly. Those perks and streaks fill up two slots next to your grenades and can be used only once before you have to find or buy them again. And in an amazing twist, Warzone also includes random supply drops that, instead of revealing rare items like in other BR games, let you choose from an existing loadout you’ve created for the main Modern Warfare game. That gives lucky players the opportunity to sport their favorite guns (with their favorite camo skins) and even character perks, which can’t be acquired any other way.
But that’s pretty much it. It takes just one game to get the hang of how the whole system works, and you’ll find that you spend a lot less time poring over an inventory screen in Warzone than in any other BR.
My only concern with my early time playing Warzone is that, like Blackout before it and to a lesser extent Apex Legends, it’s too straightforward to avoid growing stale after just a few months. Part of what makes a great BR game so gripping is that it has a core loop that is satisfying to run over and over again, and that the difficulty level means you’ll only win a tiny percentage of your games. But once you’ve claimed your first win, the rewards from doing so start to diminish.
That’s why Fortnite has transformed into a giant virtual amusement park of sorts. That game is more about keeping its players busy with new activities to try, challenges to complete, and cosmetics to unlock than it is about incentivizing players to win. And victory only becomes more elusive the longer a BR game exists and the more skilled the player base becomes.
Warzone could fall into the same trap as Apex, where it just can’t keep up the pace of development that Epic has set with Fortnite and it falls to the wayside as just another shooter with a niche community. But Activision deciding to make the game free to play shows a significant amount of confidence in the mode and its ability to become a new foundation for Call of Duty multiplayer going forward. There will surely be new titles every year in the franchise, but it sounds like Warzone will be the one version of Call of Duty that sticks around and continuously evolves.
That’s promising for longtime and even lapsed fans of the long-running shooter. Warzone is Call of Duty at its most creative, and it will be fascinating to see how it grows, especially if Activison does indeed try to position it as a viable alternative to Fortnite in the growing BR pantheon.