Call of Duty: Warzone Pushes Battle Royale to Its Limits
Call of Duty set the world on fire two weeks ago when Warzone, Activision's latest iteration of the best-selling franchise, released for free on PS4, Xbox One, and PC with full, seamless crossplay. It's not only the first free-to-play Call of Duty game, but it's also the first standalone title focused specifically on large-scale multiplayer like battle royale — and the new game mode, Plunder.
After spending a couple of weeks with the new game, trying out both modes extensively, digging into the Season Pass, and tweaking my loadouts obsessively, I've got a good handle on what I think of this new look Call of Duty. To be clear though: it is still in beta (although all of the microtransactions are live, mostly making that designation a cop-out to excuse bugs).
Call of Duty Battle Royale
Battle royale in Warzone is insane. There are 150 total players all dropping down onto the same map at the same time. They're all battling over the same loot to be the last team (or player) standing. It's extremely epic to behold.
Much of the moment-to-moment gameplay is comparable to other battle royale games like Apex Legends, PUBG, and Fortnite, but Warzone has a few unique features that set it apart. Perhaps the most important is The Gulag system.
Death in Warzone's battle royale mode is not the end. Instead, upon your first death (as long as it doesn't happen during the last third or so of the match), you're captured as a prisoner of war and sent to The Gulag prison camp. Once at The Gulag, you'll fight another prisoner (aka person that died) for a chance to revive and drop back into the match.
Getting a second chance like that is exhilarating, but it does make games last an incredibly long time since 50% of all first deaths are brought back into the game.
If you lose in the 1v1 Gulag match, then your teammates can still buy you back into the game at a buy station, so there are multiple chances to get back in the action here.
Armor is equipped with pieces that contribute to an overall armor level like in Fortnite and Apex Legends rather than individual armor slots like in PUBG. Everyone also starts with a pistol, so you're not completely unprepared when first landing. All guns have tiers and pre-installed attachments as well, so you won't actually loot those things one by one like in PUBG and Apex.
One of the big new features I like best is the new contracts system. Spread around the map, you can find three different types of contracts to complete: recon missions (capture a waypoint on the map), bounty missions (go kill a specific player), and loot box missions (go collect these three loot boxes). For each contract you complete, you'll earn a big influx of cash.
Generally, the looting phase feels shorter in Warzone than in other battle royale games in regards to gear. Eventually, you'll start trying to amass cash instead.
Cash can be used to not only buy back fallen allies but also to purchase upgrades, such as airstrikes, and even call down loadout boxes that contain your custom-crafted top-tier guns and attachments. That same loadout you've been rolling with in multiplayer if you have the Modern Warfare base game? You can use it here. Or maybe you have a loadout that you specifically made just for battle royale.
The main draw of Call of Duty: Warzone is definitely the battle royale mode. This is Activision's follow-up to Call of Duty: Black Ops 4's Blackout battle royale and is the direct answer to Apex Legends, Fortnite, and PUBG. It's what everyone asked for and talked about leading up to Warzone's release. Yet despite it all, it's my second favorite mode out of the two.
I avoided trying Plunder for several hours the first night I tried Warzone. "I love battle royale games," I thought. "Why would I bother with something that has respawns?" And oh, boy was I wrong.
Plunder uses the exact same map (Verdansk) and employs the same number of players as battle royale, but it completely changes the flow and strategy of matches. Instead of duking it out to be the last team standing, your objective is to amass the most money before time runs out. You do this by looting small caches around the map, killing players and taking their money, collecting massive loot boxes that drop from planes, or completing contract missions.
What makes Plunder so different is that there is no circle at all. Ever. The full map is always in play. Every time you die, you drop about half of your personal cash on your corpse and you get redeployed on the map.
In order to lock in money for your team that can't be lost, you have to call in a cash balloon (which costs $30,000 to buy or can be found randomly in loot boxes with a max deposit limit of $150,000) or call in a chopper. The chopper can hold an unlimited amount of money, but it alerts everyone on the map when it's called, and it takes time to arrive. Every chopper pad is exposed as well, making it extremely risky to run up and deposit cash.
This creates an amazing sense of risk versus reward that continually ebbs and flows over the entire game, but it also establishes flashpoints on the map. Everyone is drawn to those areas, and you'll always end up in a big firefight.
Strategies shift often, though: Once you have deposited your cash, there is no downside to death other than having to wait for your respawn. The final wrinkle introduced is that all three of the top teams are always marked on the map as red moneybag icons, making them constant targets. Getting into first place is usually temporary since hiding isn't a viable strategy at that point.
I ended up loving Plunder because it's so dynamic. Battle royale tends to devolve into the same rhythm every time you play, but Plunder is constantly ebbing and flowing throughout the game. Matches are also extremely long, emulating a large-scale battle more with all of the respawns, and taking a player's money (and then shooting them out of the sky when they try to respawn on top of you) is endlessly satisfying.
Other than Call of Duty Mobile, Warzone is the first time that Call of Duty has gone free-to-play. Fortunately, it's a great model. The entire game, all guns, all modes, and all actual core gameplay is entirely free to everyone. There is nothing you can buy with real money that gives you an actual edge in the game. At all.
Instead, everything is all cosmetics, like character skins, weapon skins, and so on, as well as XP bonus badges. For the purpose of covering the game, Activision provided me with enough COD points to buy the season pass, and I plan on renewing it myself once the next season starts. Unlocking new weapon skins is exciting and it actually entices me to try out guns I haven't used before since I have cool new skins.
Technically, I haven't had a flawless experience. Sometimes the game suddenly suffers from crippling lag in the middle of a match with no explanation. Other times, I get disconnected and kicked back to the lobby for no reason. One time after dying in The Gulag, my teammates couldn't revive me until, inexplicably, it decided to let them 15 minutes later. When I came back, I moved at double speed everywhere I went. I've also seen people fall through the map a few times.
However, this is technically beta still, so some bugs here and there aren't too surprising and the game, as a whole, runs very well. It's certainly polished and features some of the slickest shooting you'll find in any battle royale game.
I'm still not sold on the player size and lack of team setups, but I think over time, things will even out a bit. I look forward to seeing new maps or, at the very least, how this map changes over time to keep things fresh. Since all of the cosmetics are actually really nice and fun to use, it's the first battle pass I have really enjoyed unlocking in quite some time.
Call of Duty: Warzone is out now, for free, on PS4, Xbox One, and PC with full cross-platform multiplayer, crossplay parties, voice chat, and friends list working great. Look out for me on the battlefield!