Shades of green and white illuminate my vision as I skulk through a cave system next to a village in Uzbekistan as I search for enemy combatants.
It’s night, and I have no map or icons to guide me, apart from the occasional marker that indicates a teammates location before a burst of gunfire causes it to disappear. Turning a corner, I spot movement behind a small barricade, which I abruptly shoot at with a shotgun that has been tuned to increase its bullet velocity as much as possible. There’s no confirmation that I killed someone, apart from an assault rifle that briefly flies through the air before clattering down on the other side of the barricade. Seconds later, I step on a claymore, sending me back to the respawn screen as I prepare to dive into the chaos once again.
Infinity Ward showcased Call of Duty: Modern Warfare‘s multiplayer suite earlier this week in Los Angeles. During the course of the event, I had the chance to play multiple game modes, from the time-honoured Domination and Team Deathmatch to newer fare like Gunfight and Cyber Attack. Through it all, I walked away with the distinct feeling that as much as Modern Warfare is a reboot of what is arguably the best-known setting for the Call of Duty series, it’s also noticeably changed – just not in the way you’d assume.
Let me explain.
At a base level, Modern Warfare feels like Call of Duty multiplayer. It’s hard to muck up something that’s worked as well as this has for as long as this has after all. Yes, its undergone plenty of changes in its mechanics over the years, such as the movement systems in the Black Ops series or the destructible environments in Call of Duty: WWII, but that has always been foregrounded by Call of Duty-ness of it all. At its heart, Modern Warfare retains that legacy and history.
Yet you can’t go into Modern Warfare expecting a one-to-one recreation of its predecessors. Infinity Ward Multiplayer Design Director Geoffrey Smith emphasized that he wanted to stay away from the maps and designs of the original series, at least until future DLC maps get released. Instead, the maps I played felt like they consciously were moving away from standard first-person shooter multiplayer map design where there were two to three lanes that directed players towards certain objectives or locations. There were plenty of places to climb up that unveiled new positions and paths, along with crawlspaces that were difficult to spot that provided alternative flanking routes. And with the minimap only being active during certain moments, the maps themselves remained remarkably easy to navigate without getting lost.
“We were very aware of trying to not make a lot of rehashes to past games because we didn’t want this to feel like a remaster,” Smith explained. “We wanted to keep it new. Aesthetically, I was always really into climbing on previous maps like Favela and Highrise, and you can see a lot of that on the new maps. We wanted it to feel like earlier games without directly calling back to them.”
The biggest difference for me, however, lies in the small changes that Infinity Ward made to the movement and animations in conjunction with the environment. Infinity Ward stressed that Modern Warfare was ‘Authentic and Gritty’, mostly in the context of how Tier One soldiers actually work and fight in the context of the campaign. But the statement rings true in multiplayer as well. The way that your character sways their gun while silently stalking through a tunnel, versus sprinting across open ground towards the cover of the mansion, provides a sense of weight to Call of Duty multiplayer that I didn’t notice before. Or, at least one that hasn’t noticed in many years. The act of shooting is still the same, but everything surrounding that feels heavier. And it works, more so than I would have thought going in.
Contrasting the ‘realism’ was the little touches of comedy that appeared to fly in the face of authenticity. As mentioned previously, when you kill an enemy, their gun flies up through the air for a scant few seconds to signify a kill. Furthermore, things like the Juggernaut, where a player turns into a heavy armour gatling gunner that is nigh unstoppable, are contrasted by the realistic use of night vision.
“At the end of the day, we wanted to make an authentic military shooter,” Smith said. “But we’re not trying to make a mil-sim. We definitely didn’t want to not have the arcadey layer that we’ve always had in these games. I think that’s what keeps it approachable. So there’s a certain artistic license that we’ve kept. Recent games in the franchise have offered a lot of very different styles on Call of Duty with different militaristic but still fantastical things. We wanted to bring it back to the roots since this franchise started off with historic World War Two stuff. We want to add that authenticity back, but we still want to try to make it fun, not have it be too serious.”
It’s a mix that weirdly works, primarily because that authenticity, so to speak, is at the forefront. The most interesting example of this was the Realism mode. It’s not a great name for the mode, but it sums up what to expect: the map I played was set in the dead of night, with no HUD to speak of at all. Laser-targeting devices from both allies and enemies could be seen flickering through the dark, and trigger control needed to practiced if you wanted to not get spotted very quickly. It’s tense, but in a way that is more approachable and interesting than in previous Hardcore modes. It’s something that I would very much like to see get a dedicated playlist for, and hopefully, more game types will be available to play outside of the traditional Team Deathmatch.
Less exciting is the return of killstreaks. Last featured in the original Black Ops, killstreaks replace the long-used scorestreaks, where players earned rewards through the amount of score they earned as opposed to the number of kills they achieved in one life. They run the gamut of rewards that you’ve long come to see in Call of Duty, such as UAV’s and different forms of airstrikes, along with new rewards, including a dumb little controllable drone that is very difficult to move around as well as co-op killstreak rewards like a light tank. Say what you will about the killstreaks themselves, but I’m not certain that bringing them back is the correct move. Scorestreaks were implemented to reward play that wasn’t just focused on killing the enemy. For example, on objective-based Domination maps, you could earn scorestreak rewards by capturing points, or by destroying opposing UAV’s and equipment. Killstreaks seem designed with Team Deathmatch in mind, and I think it inadvertently limits the number of options you have in multiplayer because of it disincentives making strategic decisions in favour of hunting down people to blast away.
Not that there’s anything wrong with a little run and gun, as the new Gunfight mode aptly demonstrated. Revealed earlier in July, Gunfight pits two teams of two against each other with ever-rotating layouts. The first team to win six rounds wins the match. Across three different maps, it was the most entertaining mode I was able to play. The maps feature simple layouts and lanes that are easy to understand within a round of hopping in, and it rewards cooperation with your partner in a way none of the other modes quite matched. Not only is quick to pick up, but it also does a great job in highlighting the different weapons and attachments that you wouldn’t normally use. I stuck with a shotgun for most of the event, but Gunfight introduced me to the bevy of customization options available for the Desert Eagle.
And if you were curious as to how much customization there is in Modern Warfare, the short answer is there’s plenty. When choosing a loadout, you can customize your weapon via the Gunsmith feature. Here, you can equip up to five different attachments to a gun, ranging from the type of sight you use to lasers that mark targets, to the type of barrel equipped. What’s more, each gun has anywhere between thirty to sixty attachments, though many of the attachments are common across all weapons. The pistols trend towards the lower end of that estimate, with assault rifles orbiting the higher side. In a smart move, Infinity Ward is also ensuring that operators, who are the collection of avatars that you can choose from that have their own voice lines and animations, will only be cosmetic. Unlike Black Ops 4, you won’t miss out on abilities or gear simply because you chose one operator over another.
The crescendo of my time with Modern Warfare was a full 20 vs. 20 match that featured both PC and console players. It’s a messy time, where the tactics and strategies that are emphasized in other modes give way to utter chaos when 40 players are running around a decently sized yet still cramped map. Under the controlled conditions that was the demo, crossplay functioned as intended. Of course, as one of the old loading screens for Modern Warfare 2 would tell you, “No plan survives first contact with the enemy.” It would be impressive if there wasn’t any problems with crossplay when Modern Warfare launches, and the fact that Infinity Ward has been playing with crossplay for over a year should translate into a somewhat smooth launch.
The biggest test in that regard will lie in Modern Warfare‘s open betas. The first of which, exclusively for PS4 owners, will run from September 12th to the 13th for early access players and September 14th to the 16th for everyone else. Following this, crossplay will be tested on a large scale in the second beta, which, again, will have an early access period from September 19th to the 20th before allowing everyone else in from September 21st to the 23rd.
There’s a lot to take in with Modern Warfare, and there were systems, mechanics, and modes that were teased and shown that I didn’t get a chance to fully explore. There are small adjustments to breaching doors and mounting weapons, a completely unified progression system across single-player and multiplayer, and a 100+ player multiplayer mode that might be far too chaotic considering how the 20 vs. 20 match went. But as much as it changes, Call of Duty stays the same. We’ll see if Call of Duty: Modern Warfare holds up when it launches on PC, PS4, and Xbox One on October 25th.